Brewers' Top 5 managers: McCalvy's take

June 16th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five managers in the history of their franchise. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, feel free to let the reporter know on Twitter.

Here is Adam McCalvy’s ranking of the top 5 managers in Brewers history.

Brewers' All-Time Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH | RH SP | LH SP | RP

1. Craig Counsell, 2015-present
Key fact: Only manager to lead the Brewers in multiple postseasons.

Perhaps charges of recency bias or just plain old bias are fair, considering Counsell currently holds the job. But there is an impartial case to be made here, too. Counsell is the only manager in Brewers history to lead the team to multiple postseason appearances, and among those who have managed at least three full seasons, Counsell’s .515 winning percentage in the regular season is second -- and only by a hair -- to George Bamberger’s .518.

Then there is the nature of the job in the 21st century. It’s probably safe to say that the consensus top three among Brewers fans consists of Bamberger, Harvey Kuenn and Counsell. Bamberger and Kuenn were famously hands-off, which largely reflected the veteran-laden clubs they led (especially Kuenn). But because of the way general manager David Stearns utilizes the entire 40-man roster and then some, Counsell has had to really manage. Five times in franchise history, at least 50 different players wore the uniform in a season. The first instance was 1969, when the franchise was the Seattle Pilots. The other four instances were the past four years. And if we look just at the arms, the club record for pitchers used in a season is 30. That mark was set in 2017, when Counsell kept a rebuilding club in contention until the final weekend of the regular season. Then it was matched in '18 and '19, when the Brewers rode sensational Septembers to back-to-back playoff berths.

It was in those months -- September/October 2018 and September '19 -- that Counsell’s fingerprints (and those of his coaches and those in the background) were most evident. Both years, the Brewers went 20-7 from Sept. 1 through the end of the regular season with the best ERA in the game over the final month. In '18, the Brewers beat the Cubs in a Game 163 to win the third division crown in franchise history. In ’19, they surged to the NL’s second Wild Card spot despite losing MVP candidate Christian Yelich to a season-ending knee injury with 18 games to go. In an emotional speech following the clincher, Counsell told players, “Look around, because this is what a team looks like.”

“We listen to him on the radio and it's like, man, he's got it together,” said Brewers legend Robin Yount. “That's that kid that we knew. We knew his dad -- his dad worked for us here in the Brewers -- and this kid has really turned out to be something special. I love the guy. I think he's a great manager, he's a great human being.”

2. George Bamberger, 1978-80, '85-86
Key fact: .518 winning percentage is best among Brewers managers (min. 300 regular-season games).

Staten Island-born, Bamberger knew how to use a four-letter word. Bud Selig knew that already. But when Selig, new GM Harry Dalton and Bamberger met for Bamberger’s job interview during the 1977-78 offseason, the candidate snapped off a line so blunt that Selig never forgot it.

“Why am I here?” Bamberger said. “You guys are a bunch of losers.”

Selig laughs at the memory.

“It’s true,” Selig said. “The color drained from Harry’s face.”

Selig responded calmly.

“That’s why you’re here, George. That’s why Harry’s here. We’re going to change all that.”

And that’s just what Dalton and Bamberger did. With some good pieces already in place, including the homegrown trio of Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Jim Gantner, plus a slew of veteran acquisitions including Sal Bando and Larry Hisle, the Brewers went 93-69 in 1978 in their first season under Bamberger for a 26-win gain over the year before. It would have been good enough to win the AL West, but the Brewers were in the East, with the 100-win Yankees and 99-win Red Sox. It started a five-year stretch in which only the Orioles won more regular-season games than the Brewers, though health issues prevented Bamberger from managing the entirety of the stretch. He missed the start of the '80 season following a heart attack and retired at year’s end, only to return to managing with the Mets in '82 and '83. The Brewers hired Bamberger again to manage in '85-86, ultimately replacing him near the end of the '86 season with Tom Trebelhorn.

“He was a wonderful man, never threw anybody under the bus,” said outfielder Gorman Thomas. “He gave a lot of people their chance to play. Myself, Jimmy Gantner, Mike Caldwell, Ben Oglivie, Charlie Moore.”

“He was the main reason why my career took off like it did,” said three-time All-Star closer Dan Plesac. “George was good to his young players.”

3. Harvey Kuenn, 1975, 1982-83
Key fact: .576 winning percentage in 279 regular-season games as manager.

Counsell wasn’t the Brewers’ first hometown manager. Kuenn grew up just west of County Stadium in West Allis, Wis., before a 15-year career that included 10 All-Star Games and an AL batting title with the Tigers in 1959. He battled a series of health issues during a long tenure as the Brewers’ hitting coach, including a blood clot in '80 that forced the amputation of his right leg just below the knee, and was named manager in early May '82 when many of the Brewers’ veterans were chafing under Buck Rodgers. When Kuenn took over, the Brewers were 23-24. He instituted a more hands-off approach, and they went 72-43 the rest of the way to win the division crown for the first time in club history, then beat the Angels in the ALCS to advance to the only World Series in franchise history to date.

“Harvey was the right guy at the right time,” said Bando, the veteran captain.

After a disappointing 1983 season, Kuenn was relieved of managerial duties but remained with the organization as a scout and Minor League instructor, remaining close with his players. In '83 Spring Training when he was manager, Kuenn and his second wife, Audrey, had players over for dinner. During the season, they often gathered a few blocks away at Cesar's Inn on 56th St. and National Ave., a tavern in the shadow of County Stadium run by Audrey and Harvey. If he was dad to the players, Audrey was mom.

"We were like a family," Audrey said. "It was just the neatest group of people you ever wanted to meet. I don't think we'll ever see it again, not like it was then. Where can you find a one-legged manager that has a tavern across the street from the ballpark?"

Harvey Kuenn embraces winning pitcher Don Sutton after the Brewers captured the AL East title over the Orioles in Game 163 on Oct. 3, 1982.

4. Phil Garner, 1992-99
Key fact: His 1,180 games as manager are most in Brewers history.

Garner’s .477 winning percentage as Brewers skipper doesn’t tell the whole story. He managed through an often painful period of economic change in baseball, beginning with an eventful debut season in 1992 in which ... the Brewers chased the eventual World Series champion Blue Jays to the finish line while leading the AL in ERA and stolen bases; Yount collected his 3,000th hit; Pat Listach won AL Rookie of the Year honors; and another rookie, Cal Eldred, went 11-2 with 1.79 ERA. That team was promptly broken apart; Molitor, Chris Bosio, Plesac and Kevin Seitzer all left as free agents, and Dante Bichette was traded as the Brewers entered a series of tough years that overlapped with the fight for public funding to build Miller Park.

“The effect it had,” Bando, then the GM, said, “was this: We couldn’t retool the team because we had to be as competitive as we could while he was trying to fight to get a stadium. When you recognize you have to retool, you go with young guys and take your lumps. Well, we couldn’t afford to do that, so consequently we lost time to develop players. We had to kind of put a patchwork team together to be competitive, and that hurt the long term of the organization.”

Garner was let go in 1999, but he went on to manage in Detroit and in Houston, where he took the Astros to a pair of NLCS and one World Series.

Bob Uecker and Phil Garner chat before a game against the Rangers on April 1, 1997.

5. Tom Trebelhorn, 1986-91
Key fact: Third in club history with 819 games managed.

Trebelhorn managed five full seasons for the Brewers and the team was .500 or better in four of them. But he’s probably best remembered for 1987's “Team Streak,” as it was dubbed by Milwaukee Sentinel beat writer Tom Haudricourt. In that one crazy year, the Brewers set an AL record (and tied the Major League record) by starting the season 13-0 only to endure a 12-game losing streak in May, then saw Molitor cobble together a club-record 39-game hitting streak that ended the same night Teddy Higuera began a club-record 32-innings scoreless streak. Milwaukee’s 91-71 record would have won the AL West by six games, but in the East they finished in third place.

Honorable mentions
Dave Bristol
was the first Brewers manager, making the move to Milwaukee in 1970 with the franchise heretofore known as the Seattle Pilots. … Ned Yost managed at the beginning of the social media age and was known to bristle when his moves came under scrutiny. But he played a significant role in the Brewers’ return to prominence during the late 2000s, and he was fiercely protective of the young hitters who led that charge, like Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy and Corey Hart. “I thought it was one of the great quotes of my entire career coming from a manager: ‘I’ll take losses on my back for wins in the future for those kids,’” said former GM Doug Melvin. “And Ned was sincere about it.” Yost managed 959 games, second in club history to Garner. … Ron Roenicke took over a team ready to win in '11, and win they did, going 96-66 during the regular season to set a franchise record for victories. But Roenicke’s decision to start Shaun Marcum in Game 6 of that year’s NLCS is still parsed to this day, and when the Brewers followed a brutal finish to the '14 season with a slow start in '15, he was replaced by Counsell.