Once a Brewer, Still a Brewer Jimmy Gantner

81gantnerBY Michael Casper

Jimmy Gantner grew up in Eden, Wisconsin, one of nine kids that Elmer and Edna raised. Elmer worked for Mammoth Springs Canning Company.

“I grew up with a love of baseball,” Jim said “my dad and mom would always play catch with us, throw us grounders. And all of us in the neighborhood would play every day in the summer. Go home for lunch, and then play the rest of the afternoon, then supper, and back again into the night.”

Back then Eden had two Little League teams, the Yankees and the White Sox.

“And Campbellsport had two teams, the Braves and Giants,” Gantner said “and we played each other all the time. We had complete uniforms like the big leaguers with button-down jerseys, pants with a belt. Hank Pieper and Bert Braun were our coaches.”

Jim was one of the youngest kids on the team.

“I couldn’t hit the ball very far,” he said “so I bunted a lot. It was pretty intimidating with the pitchers who were three and four years older than me.”

His abilities were recognized early on, and as a freshman at Campbellsport High he made the varsity squad.

“I wanted to be the catcher, but one of our pitchers was John Stoffel, and he threw pretty hard, I think like 90 miles an hour. I tried to catch him, but I was pretty small and Coach Hubie Diekvoss instead put me at shortstop. Stoffel was eventually drafted by the Angels.”

Summers were spent playing in the Rock River League.

“I played for Long Lake,” he said “because Eden didn’t have a team at the time, and I also played for Oakfield in the Tri-County League, and Legion ball. I was a catcher.”

By his junior year in high school Gantner caught, and was also was called upon to pitch.

“I could throw pretty hard,” he said “and the coach said if you can throw hard, you’re going to pitch, so I did the end of my junior year, and the whole season as a senior. But what I really wanted to do was catch.”

Some may remember that Gantner had a tryout with the Brewers when he was a senior in high school.

“The scout told me I wasn’t big enough to be a catcher,” Gantner said “but he took me down to Firemen’s Park here in Eden, put me in the outfield and had me throw to check out my arm strength, and told me he’d be following me through college.”

Because John Stoffel had put a bug in the ear of UW-Oshkosh’s baseball Coach Tiedemann, he began recruiting Gantner. Tiedemann told him he’d be competing for a shortstop position.

“I told him I wanted to catch,”Gantner said “but Coach said they already had an all-conference catcher coming back, Pete Koupal…and they wanted me to play short. So it was me and another kid from Chicago competing for the shortstop position our freshman year. I beat him out.”

Gantner then played for the Titans for two seasons before being drafted in the 12th round by Milwaukee.

“But before that I’d gotten calls from scouts from both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. They asked me if I’d sign, and I said, ‘Sure, I’ll sign.’ I was more of a National League fan, growing up with the Braves, and I just wanted to play. I figured I’d get drafted by one or the other, but the Brewers got there first.”

Emil Belich was the Brewer scout at the time.

“He had also drafted Jerry Augustine, and Willie Miller,” Gantner said “Belich was big in Wisconsin. They drafted me as a shortstop, and Belich said, ‘You throw like a catcher.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to be! (laugh) I’m a short-armer!’”
In 1974 Milwaukee made Gantner an offer, he took it, and they sent him to Single-A ball in Newark.

“It was A-ball, but actually ‘rookie-ball’ with a short season, June, July and August,” Gantner said. “They’d only had 15 wins all of the season before. So, we worked out a few days and started playing. I didn’t even start. They had a Dominican kid playing short who must’ve been a higher draft pick, so he was ahead of me until a game in Niagara Falls. John Felske was my manager, he was a catcher for Milwaukee before that. Anyway, you always remember your first game, and believe it or not, there was a kid from Eden there watching the game! Jimmy Smith who grew up just outside of Eden, we knew one another, so he saw my first game.”

It was against a team from Pittsburgh’s farm system.

“They had a big left-hander on the mound,” Gantner said. “I got three hits, with a home run. From there on, I was in the line-up every day.”

Gantner lived in the same house in Newark that Robin Yount had lived in the year prior. With Yount in the organization playing shortstop, Gantner saw the writing on the wall.

“I told Coach Felske with Robin being as good as he was, there’s no future for me at short. He understood, so the next year they put me at third, which I didn’t want to do. I wanted to play second base. Or catch. But they kept me at third. I never played second until the big league’s.”

Travel from town to town wasn’t exactly first-class.

“The first year it wasn’t so bad, but the second year, in Double-A…that was terrible. I played for Thetford Mines in Canada. All the miners were on strike, so nobody came to the games, and the ball field was in rough shape. Our clubhouse was a construction site trailer (laugh), they were nice enough to put a shower in for all of us to use. And the bus rides between cities were 10 to 12-hours drives. You get done with a game at night, get on the bus, and on to the next town. You appreciate the big league’s when you get there.”

1976 Gantner got the call.

“Actually I had John Felske as coach every year I was in the minors,” Gantner said “when he moved up, I moved up, right through Triple-A. Felske called me into the office and said he had good news, that I got called up. Don Money had gotten hurt, and they needed a third baseman. I had to drive from Pittsfield, Massachusetts to Detroit in the big ol’ Pontiac I’d bought from my father-in-law, and got a speeding ticket along the way. I said to the officer, ‘Hey, I was right in line with four other cars.’ He said, ‘Do you hunt?’ And I said I did, and thought maybe he was a hunter, and he’d let me go. Instead he said, ‘Well, when a flock of ducks goes over, you can’t shoot’em all can ya?’ And he gave me the ticket (laugh).”

In Gantner’s first game he faced Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.

“The stadium was sold out, and I went two for four. Should’ve been three for four. I hit one in the hole between third and short, and beat it out, but the ump didn’t see it that way. And you always remember your first play. I was playing in because they always kept the grass long in Detroit, and Ron LeFlore laid down a bunt, and I threw him out. That was the same night Mike Hegan hit for the cycle, and we killed’em.”

The first few years with the Brewers, Gantner wanted to be traded.

“We had Don Money or Sal Bando at third,” he said “Robin at short, Molitor at second, and Cecil Cooper at first. Every year I go see Harry Dalton, and ask to be traded. I loved playing with Milwaukee, but with all those great players ahead of me…I wanted to play.”

During spring training in 1978 manager George Bamberger said Gantner had to prove he could play second base.

“All spring training I played third, short and second,” Gantner said “that’s how I made the team. I beat out Timmy Johnson, and Jamie Quirk. All three of us were trying to become the utility player.”

Paul Molitor couldn’t play second in 1980.

“They put him in the outfield, and I played second most of the year. In 1981 I started from day one. We were in Cleveland, opening day, maybe 79 or 80,000 in the stands. Ted Simmons was our catcher, and in spring training that year he said, ‘I have one question…can you turn the double-play?’ and I said ‘Yes.’ He just turned and walked away. First day in Cleveland we’re up by a run, Rollie Fingers, whom we had gotten that winter to be our closer…he’s on the mound, bases loaded, left hand hitting Ron Hassey is up, grounds to Robin, threw to me and I turned the double-play. Simmons came up to me and said, ‘Yup, you can turn the double-play (laugh).’”

Gantner has no idea how many double plays he turned in the majors, but he always credits the pitchers for them.

“You have to,” he said “they got the batters to hit ground balls. And Rollie Fingers was one of the best at it, in fact he was the best reliever I ever saw. Back then you’d pitch maybe two innings, sometimes two and a third. Guys now get 45 to 50 saves, when Rollie pitched if you got 30 save, that was huge because he pitched so many more innings. Rollie would have had 50 every year if you let him go just one inning. He was special.”

And it was Fingers who hung the nickname “Klinger” on Gantner.

“One night, I got a single and rounded first, was gonna’ go for two and tripped,” Gantner said. “I did about three rolls in the dirt. Fingers was in the bullpen watching, and called into the dugout and said, ‘Tell Klinger to take his high heels off!’ (laugh) To this day Rollie calls me Klinger.”

Klinger isn’t his only nickname.

“When I was a kid, they call me Elmer…like my dad. And then there’s Gumby. Gorman Thomas gave me that one,” Gantner said. “Remember Gumby and Pokey, the rubber characters from when we were kids? Gorman always said because I was good around second base, turning two…I could get into whatever position, and was flexible enough to make the throw to first. Actually, my first nickname was ‘the dog.’ Bob Uecker still calls me that (laugh) because I told him I sleep with one eye open.”

Gorman Thomas and Pete Vuckovich were hunting buddies.

“Back then we had a close team,” Gantner said. “After a game we’d hang out in the club house, play cards or whatever. Nobody had any place to go. Nobody was in a hurry. We’d talk baseball and play cards, then we’d get a couple cabs, go out to eat together, have a few beverages and talk ‘the game.’”

Gantner still sees a lot of his old teammates.

“Molitor was just in town,” Gantner said, “Bob McClure, he’s the pitching coach for the Phillies. I see Vukovich and Teddy Simmons during spring training. Robin I see several times through the summer. Gorman comes in on weekends, he has Gorman’s Grill at the ballpark, and he’s selling his own line of barbeque sauce now.”

Even though he lives back home, just outside of Eden, as a part time coach for the Brewers, Gantner maintains close ties.

“I’m down there every home game,” he said “I hit ground balls, and help out with the infielders. And we still do some clinics, some one-day fantasy camps that Miller sponsors, usually me and Jerry Augustine, Gorman, and Davey Nelson.”

Among Gantner’s has a list of “firsts” that he always remembers are his first baseball card, and his first home run.

“The home run was in Minnesota,” he said “off Ron Schueler. Down the right field line at the old Metropolitan Stadium. I don’t remember if anybody was on base, I just remember hitting it. Maybe somebody was on, I think it might have been a two-pointer, I was just kind of floating around the bases (laugh).”

His first baseball card was shared with three other players.

“My rookie card, there are four of us on the card,” he said “I was on there with Bump Wills, Mike Champion, and Juan Bernhardt. It was pretty unbelievable, my first one. As a kid you collect’em, and all of a sudden you’re on one of ‘em. Sort of surreal.”

We Brewer fans of a certain age will always remember the 1982 season, and because we remember, we will always has a certain degree of disdain for the St. Louis Cardinals.

“We had a great team,” Gantner said “all around. We hit everything. Starting the year, Buck Rogers was our manager, and he was very controlling…he even admitted it in later years. Very good baseball guy, Buck Rogers, but he messed with the veterans like Rollie, and Mike Caldwell…none of those guys liked him. He tried to over-manage. We got off to a slow start to the season. I remember, we were in Seattle when he called me in the office to tell me I wasn’t going to play the next night. He said, ‘There’s a lefty pitching for Seattle, Cooper’s struggling at the plate, you’re both left hand batters but I can’t take you both out.’ I told him that I felt great, that I didn’t want to sit, but he took me out anyway. When we were in Seattle we always walked ‘home’ after the game, but on the way we’d stop into this little bar for a hamburger and a couple beverages, and Buck was in there with the other coaches. Next morning I got up and heard they fired him.”

That was the morning Harvey Kuenn became the Brewer manager.

“The next night, I was in the lineup, and Cecil was in the lineup,” Gantner said. “Coop was scheduled not to play the day before, when Buck was still there. Cecil hit a three-run home run that night off another left-handed pitcher.”

Kuenn had a different style of managing.

“We had a meeting that first day and Harvey said, ‘I hate meetings, and this will be the only one we have.’ He told us, ‘This is what I expect out of you guys, I played the game, I know how hard it is, so don’t worry about striking out and making errors, just play hard and have fun.’ One night in Milwaukee, Gorman struck out, came back to the dugout hanging his head, and Harvey limped down to him, you know he had that one wooden leg, he always had that big chew in his mouth…he stood in front of Gorman and said real loud, ‘Gorman I don’t care if you strike out ten out of twelve times, if you ever hang your head again, I will take you out of the line up.’ He said it to Gorman, but the whole team got the message.”

Molitor led off the batting order, followed by Yount and Cooper.

rollie21912a“I batted ninth,” Gantner said “which I didn’t mind. The only time I’d hit lead off was when Paulie didn’t play. I liked batting second because if Molitor was on base you’d get a lot of fastballs. With Cooper behind you, you’d get a lot of good pitches to hit.”
The road to the World Series first went through Baltimore. They lost the first three of a four game series and had to win Sunday in order to clinch a trip to the playoffs.

“That was Earl Weaver’s final season,” Gantner said “when we got to the ballpark for batting practice, the stands were already full, it was incredible. They booed us while we were taking infield (laugh).”

They won that fourth game, earning a trip to the American League Championship series against the Angels.

“And before we knew it, we were down two games to none,” Gantner said “and had to win all three back home to get to the World Series.”

Which they did.

“We should’ve won the series, we had the better team, they just outplayed us. We didn’t have Rollie Fingers because he was hurt, and that made a big difference. In the last game we were up 3-1, if we could’ve brought Rollie in in the 7th inning, let him pitch three innings, could’ve been the difference. We had Vuke, who won the Cy Young that year, pitching with a torn up shoulder, he was taking pain pills just to get through the game, he was pitching on a half arm, I don’t know how he did it.”

The Cardinals won the series.

“Getting to the World Series was one of my greatest moments, and yet one of my saddest,” Gantner said. “From high to low real quick.”

The Brewers thought they’d be back the next year.

“I believe that if we had a closer, if we had Rollie in 78, 79, and 80,” Gantner said “we’d have won all those years. We didn’t have a stopper, an ace to go to like the Yankees had Goose Gossage.”

Gantner hurt his arm in the 92 season. Diving for a ball, he heard a pop. The result was a labrum tear, and torn rotator cuff. The rest of the year he couldn’t raise his arm above his shoulder, and had to throw three-quarter side arm. After surgery his intent was come back and maybe be a utility player in the National League. Tom Trebelhorn managed the Cubs and wanted Gantner to try out, and the year after Cleveland called wanting to bring him into spring training, but his arm wouldn’t let him.

Jim Gantner officially retired in 1994.

I couldn’t let an interview with Gumby end without asking about the time he took the mound for the Brewers.

“Oh! In Kansas City,” Gantner laughed. “We were getting’ smoked. They didn’t want to burn out the bullpen, so they started putting position players in. You knew things were out of hand when they put Sal Bando in to pitch. I told Bambie, ‘If Bando can pitch, I know I can pitch.’ George said, ‘You’re pitching the next inning.’ Jamie Quirk is catching, I’m pitching, and Hal McRae was up. I had a good change-up, believe it or not, and I had two strikes on McRae. Quirk put the fastball sign down, I thought, ‘Okay, this will be my set-up pitch.’ I threw it up and in, backed him up. I heard McRae say to the ump, ‘He better know where he’s throwing.’ And I said to him, ‘Hey, I know where it’s going.’ (laugh) The next pitch I threw a frickin’ waist high change. The umpire called it a ball, I said ‘Come’on!’ He didn’t want to ring him up. So I threw another change, he got jammed and hit a three hopper back to me. McRae was barely out of the box, and I just held the ball thinking, ‘Try to show me up, will ya?’ So I waited until he was three quarters of the way to first before I threw him out. (laugh)”

These days, on any given day, you might run into Jimmy Gantner at Scud’s Buds, a tavern he co-owns in Eden. And maybe he’ll tell you one of a myriad of his baseball stories, or maybe he’ll take your money in a game of euchre…or maybe he’ll do both.

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