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‘Borchert Field’ examines forerunner of Miller Park

By TOM JOZWIK - Special to TimeOut

August 24, 2017

 
Bob Buege

Before Miller Park, there was Milwaukee County Stadium. Before County Stadium, there was Borchert Field.

Sixty-five years after the final pitch was hurled in “the splintered old park that folks liked to call Borchert’s Orchard,” Bob Buege, source of the foregoing quote, has written “Borchert Field: Stories from Milwaukee’s Legendary Ballpark.” At 392 pages, Buege’s paperback, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, recalls famous and quirky individuals (sometimes one and the same) and noteworthy happenings connected with Borchert between its birth as a $42,000 building project in the late 19th century and its demise occasioned by County Stadium’s construction in the 1950s.

A retired educator who spent most of his career teaching English at Milwaukee’s Pulaski High School, Buege, of Greenfield, has written two previous baseball books. “The Milwaukee Braves: A Baseball Eulogy” deals with the Braves’ last season in Milwaukee, 1965; “Eddie Mathews and the National Pastime” pairs Buege and the Hall of Fame player who once lived in Brookfield as co-authors.

Asked which book is his favorite, Buege wryly pointed out during a telephone interview that the Borchert Field enterprise “is current, so for that reason it’s the current favorite.”

Buege’s current favorite is currently available at area bookstores and online.

Having invested nearly 10 years (most of it researching) on his Borchert project, Buege’s probably the unchallenged expert on the six-decade home of minor league Milwaukee Creams and Brewers teams. He never visited the ballpark at North 8th and West Burleigh Streets, however, explaining, “It was torn down when I was 6.” Buege first saw professional baseball at a County Stadium doubleheader in 1953; the Braves battled the St. Louis Cardinals, Warren Spahn pitched a shutout in one of the games and Mathews hit a tape-measure home run, the author readily recalled.

“I missed Borchert Field by about half a year,” Buege, who grew up in South Milwaukee, noted. But people “lucky enough to live on Milwaukee’s near north side between 1888 and 1952,” he writes in “Borchert Field’s” introduction, “could experience the world without ever leaving the neighborhood.” After all, President Harry Truman, campaigning in 1948, spoke on the field; the National Balloon Race of 1922 kicked off at the ballpark; and, for a fortnight in 1892, “Mount Vesuvius erupted behind second base” as the climax to “The Last Days of Pompeii,” a spectacle featuring hundreds of costumed actors, as well as dancers, animals and chariots.

“I was trying to find things other than just baseball” with which Borchert Field was affiliated, Buege said. He was hoping to find (but could not) confirmation of his hunch that mobster Al Capone and prototypical African-American heavyweight boxing champ Jack Johnson were among fans who went through the ballyard’s turnstiles. Capone “was a baseball fan,” Buege reasoned, “and he came to Milwaukee frequently,” sometimes on the way to his “hideout in northern Wisconsin.”

As for Johnson, his paramour’s mother resided just a loud foul or two from the ballpark. (A 1932-41 Brewer outfielder’s home was even closer, as popular Tedd Gullic lived just across Eighth Street from Borchert - and once slammed a homer through his own living room window. “‘Hit it where you live, Tedd,’” Buege quotes fans as urging the slugger thereafter.)

Borchert Field, named for Otto Borchert, a fellow who rose from Brewers batboy to team owner, was known as Athletic Park prior to 1927. The venue hosted high school and Green Bay Packers football games, and a Notre Dame-Marquette University gridiron contest in 1921 with Knute Rockne coaching the Fighting Irish and future actor Pat O’Brien, who would portray Rockne onscreen, in uniform for the Hilltoppers. (The Irish triumphed, 21-7, and the teams never again clashed on a football field.)

At various times Borchert Field was a venue for bicycling and boxing, rodeos and wrestling matches - and even a race between Olympian Jesse Owens and a horse (the equine won). Besides minor league baseball in the Western and American Association alignments, Negro League and All-American Girls Professional Baseball League games were played at Eighth and Burleigh.

Showman extraordinaire Bill Veeck owned the Brewers for a while. Comical Casey Stengel briefly managed the team. Hall of Famer Rube Waddell pitched at Borchert; Waddell was a kooky character, “known to leave the ballpark during a game to join a parade or follow a fire engine,” in Buege’s words. A teenaged Jimmy Foxx, the Philadelphia Athletics’ eventual answer to Babe Ruth (and the personality on which Tom Hanks’ “A League of Their Own” character is supposedly modeled), played for the first time as an Athletic during a Borchert exhibition game. The Babe himself made several exhibition game appearances on the Borchert diamond, remarking after his first on Oct. 28, 1928, “‘I don’t think I ever played on a colder day.’”

As for the local author whose book contains that Ruthian quote, Bob Buege may never have sat in the Borchert stands. But “Borchert Field,” packed with facts and laden with names, suggests Buege missed precious little when digging into the ballpark’s history.