MILWAUKEE -- It was 45 years ago Wednesday that Brewers manager Del Crandall announced a decision that would launch a Hall of Fame career.
“It was his talent that really impressed me at first, then his makeup,” Crandall told the newspapers on March 27, 1974. “When we didn’t find any flaws, we made up our minds that he’d be the one to open at shortstop.”
Crandall was talking about a then-18-year-old Robin Yount, who would go on to play 20 seasons in a Brewers uniform, amass 3,142 hits, win a pair of American League Most Valuable Player Awards and be inducted into Cooperstown.
When Yount arrived in Sun City, Ariz., for his first Spring Training a month earlier, less than a year had transpired since the Brewers had drafted him third overall. Yount could have no idea any of that was in store.
In fact, he had a more immediate concern. He had shown up with no baseball equipment.
“I forgot it,” said Yount, letting out a big laugh. “All of it.”
Yount realized his error when his father dropped him off at Los Angeles International Airport. They were a solid hour from the family’s home in the San Fernando Valley.
“We pull up to the curb,” he said. “I grab my suitcase and then go, ‘Oh, [shoot].’ No baseball bag. And you’ve got to remember, FedEx did not exist in those days. So, the first three days of Spring Training, somebody loaned me a glove, shoes. I don’t remember. That’s a pretty good question, actually.”
The Brewers’ plan for shortstop was Tim Johnson, a 24-year-old who had batted .213 the year before. But already, there was a sense that Johnson was standing on shaky ground. Rookie Steve McCartney was well regarded, and if he could handle third base, legendary Milwaukee Sentinel beat reporter Lou Chapman postulated, perhaps Don Money would shift over to man shortstop.
It was the morning of March 2 when readers in Milwaukee read Crandall’s first rave of Yount.
“Maybe he won’t make it this year,” Crandall said, as quoted by the Sentinel, “but I saw him field ground balls today and he is really something to watch. He is going to be a big league ballplayer before too long. He hits with power and showed some of the veterans something today. The field is a little rough and some of them were a little hesitant about working hard out there. But the kid went out there and made the field look like glass.”
Did you catch it?
On March 6, the headline on the front page of the sports section read: “Shortstop? It’s Johnson.” But a few paragraphs below, Crandall said, “There’s an outside possibility that Yount might make it, but he’s only 18-years-old and the question is if he’s ready for this kind of competition.”
Days later in the Brewers’ exhibition opener against the Cubs, Yount drew more praise when he followed a base hit by making a fielding gem to start a double play. And the day after that against the A’s, Yount committed a run-scoring error in the eighth inning but made a slick play in the ninth on a hard-hit grounder to the hole for the game-ending out.
“The kid redeemed himself,” said Sal Bando, the Oakland star who would become Yount’s teammate four years later, and after that, his general manager.
“It looks like the kid has better actions than Johnson,” said another Oakland player, Ted Kubiak, who had been an original Brewer when the team moved from Seattle in 1970. “The way the Brewers have been playing the young guys, they should give Yount a chance.”
Crandall was thinking the same thing, because in a March 12 exhibition against Arizona State, he played Johnson at third base and said the former starting shortstop would serve as a utility man. But Crandall wasn’t yet ready to name The Kid his starting shortstop.
Eventually, he became convinced.
“In ’74, I went down to Spring Training. We didn’t do that all the time then,” said then-Brewers owner Bud Selig in an interview last fall. “Del Crandall was the manager at the time and he said, ‘Buddy, we’re going to start the kid at shortstop.’ I thought he was talking about Tim Johnson.
“I’ll never forget it. About 20 minutes later, he says, ‘I mean Yount.’”
“He’s only 18 years old!”
“He’s going to be a great player someday,” Crandall said.
Yount said he remembers getting the news while boarding a bus for a road game.
“I’ll never forget this,” Yount said. “He says, ‘I don’t care what you hit. Don’t worry about it. You’ll hit what you hit. What I want you to do is play great defense.’”
“Great!” thought Yount.
“Except for one thing,” he said. “I must have made some good plays in Spring Training, because they saw me as this defensive wizard. In my mind, it’s like, ‘Oh, no! I know I can hit, but I don’t know if I can play Major League shortstop.’ That was the most pressure I ever felt about what they wanted from me. Because in my mind, I thought I was just the opposite.
“And I struggled defensively as a young player. I was horrible. I had to learn how to be consistent and play every day at that level. I had horrible years defensively early on. I was erratic. I could make the great play, but I always had an erratic throwing arm. I was real long. I almost pitched over there. I had to learn to shorten up. That was all part of learning to play the Major League game day in and day out.”
He did learn those lessons. And a Hall of Fame career followed.
“There was just something about the way he carried himself,” Selig said. “Did I think he would end up in the Hall of Fame? No, I wouldn’t tell you that. But I could have told you he was going to be a very good player.”