Bernie Brewer: Origin ... and espionage?

February 12th, 2021

MILWAUKEE -- Few fans in all the years at County Stadium and Miller Park were more devoted than 69-year-old retired aviation engineer Milt Mason. He was the original Bernie Brewer.

Mason was an acquaintance of Brewers general manager Marvin Milkes, and in June 1970, mere months after the team moved from Seattle, he vowed to live in a trailer atop the County Stadium scoreboard until the fledgling Brewers drew a sellout crowd.

It wasn’t all bad. Mason’s trailer was outfitted with a color television, a gas stove -- which he used to cook his signature leg of lamb -- a refrigerator, an exercise bike and a bathtub. There were two telephones -- one to talk to fans, and another to answer questions from the media. Clad in lederhosen, he watched games from a balcony.

When a sellout seemed unlikely, the attendance goal was lowered to 40,000. A big crowd for bat day on Aug. 16, 1970, freed Mason from his 40-day perch, and he celebrated by sliding down a rope -- rather badly burning his hands in the process.

“It was a great experience,” Mason said, “but I wouldn’t do it again.”

Bernie Brewer was born.

Mason, who passed away in 1973 following a battle with cancer, inspired the mustachioed mascot who watched from a chalet constructed at County Stadium beginning that year, sliding into a beer stein after every Brewers home run. For the record, the first slide celebrated a homer by infielder Pedro Garcia.

In 1984, Bernie was evicted when the Brewers rebuilt the bleachers. But the chalet was placed in storage at the stadium and returned by popular demand in 1993 along with Bernie, and he’s been a fixture ever since. He even had a sidekick for the first six years; Bonnie Brewer would run onto the field in the middle of the game to sweep dirt off the bases, giving the opposing third-base coach a peck on the cheek and a swat on the backside after completing her task.

When the Brewers moved into Miller Park for the 2001 season, the chalet was replaced by “Bernie’s Dugout,” complete with an outdoor landing and a winding yellow slide to a landing below, which Bernie rides every time a Brewers player hits a home run. Many a Brewers player has taken a ride down the slide -- Brock Holt did so in style last season -- and some visitors have, too. In 2004, some St. Louis Cardinals celebrated a postseason clinch by sneaking up to Bernie’s perch, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which wrote in 2012, “Now there is a sign in the visitors' clubhouse reminding teams that's a no-no.”

Bernie Brewer was one of the additions to the gameday entertainment slate for the 1973 season after the Brewers finished last in attendance the year before. Mason never donned the costume, but according to one newspaper account in the Wausau Daily Herald, he did subsequently pick up some work from the Brewers -- as a night watchman at their Spring Training facility in Tempe, Ariz., in 1971.

It didn’t take long for Bernie Brewer to get into trouble. On July 8, 1973, a day after the Brewers had breezed to a 17-2 blowout of the Rangers at County Stadium, and while they were on the way to sweeping a Sunday doubleheader, Texas manager Whitey Herzog accused Bernie of participating in a spying scheme. Per Herzog, a man with binoculars -- ostensibly there to supply Bernie Brewer with balloons in the event of a home run -- would relay the Rangers catcher’s sign to Bernie, who passed it to the batter either by clapping or by the position of his arms; folded for a fastball, hanging at his side for a breaking ball. Different versions of the story have been told over the years.

After the Brewers jumped to a 4-0 lead in Game 2, Herzog shared his suspicion with umpire Bill Haller, who ordered the man with binoculars removed.

“Can you imagine a team that has to cheat to beat us?” Herzog said.

Problem was, the charge wasn’t true. According to a wire service report from the 1982 World Series, when Herzog returned to County Stadium as manager of the Cardinals, reporters on that day back in ‘73 tracked down Bernie Brewer and found he was a 17-year-old who played trumpet in his high school band, “and wouldn’t know fastball from a flute.” An AP report years later identified the kid as Dan McCarthy, who wasn’t in high school but rather a student at Marquette University. He had played some Little League baseball but professed to know nothing about stealing signs.

“I was never even caught stealing cookies from my mother’s cookie jar,” McCarthy said.

Herzog eventually admitted he was just trying to heal the bruised ego of rookie Rangers pitcher David Clyde, who’d just been drafted by Texas a month earlier and was knocked around by the Brewers in his third career game.

“I sure hope Bernie, wherever he is today, forgave me,” Herzog said. “Of course, that kid didn’t do anything wrong, but, you see, I had to think of something fast, and Bernie looked like a good one to pick on.”

Bernie has mostly behaved himself ever since.