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Conversations with Clayton: Chris Zantow

Author of Building the Brewers: Bud Selig and the Return of Major League Baseball to Milwaukee.

Milwaukee Brewers

In this week’s “Conversations with Clayton,” I had the pleasure of chatting with Chris Zantow, the author of Building the Brewers: Bud Selig and the Return of Major League Baseball to Milwaukee, which will be released by McFarland in 2019. Chris and I discuss what inspired him to write the book, his research process and playing baseball on the Wii, among other subjects.

Clayton Trutor (CT): What inspired you to write this book?

Chris Zantow (CZ): In early 2015 I was rewatching the excellent documentary The Seattle Pilots: Short Flight Into History, which led me down a rabbit hole of casually searching for information about the young Milwaukee Brewers franchise. It was easy to find articles about Bud Selig’s ownership group buying the Pilots and quickly moving the team to Milwaukee before the 1970 season. From there I moved backward to reading about the Braves moving to Atlanta – and there really is no shortage of books and articles on that subject.

The more I dug around, the more I came back to the fact that nothing long form existed about what I call the “in between” years when Milwaukee didn’t have a MLB team. I knew I had a potential book on my hands when I began to uncover all the twists and turns that played out in the late 1960’s for Milwaukee to again have a team.

CT: Can you describe your research process?

CZ: I started by reaching out to as many players as I could find from the 1970 Brewers team for interviews. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a great response but a few quotes survived into the final manuscript. After that I started searching through online newspapers, books, team programs, and the “Sporting News”. By the time all was said and done, I think I checked every issue of the SN between 1963-77 for any mention of Bud Selig.

I spent the first year on just research and very little writing, the second year on writing the book and the third year on revising the latter third where I made a futile attempt to write about the 1980’s-90’s. My editor thought it best if I narrowed the scope of the book to cover through the early years of the struggling franchise, and I completely agreed, so the book ends in 1978.

CT: Has any sense of animosity towards the Braves ownership lingered among Milwaukee baseball fans?

CZ: I follow a Braves historical group on Facebook and they are all very cordial fans who mostly post memories and photos of the players and Milwaukee County Stadium. I don’t think I’ve ever seen even a comment about ownership there. Occasionally someone will comment to me on social media that they wish the Braves were still around, but it’s with more of a sense of sadness than anger. I tend to see a bit more anger directed toward Seattle Pilots ownership (Dewey and Max Soriano and William Daley) and Bud Selig by Pilots fans.

CT: What’s the biggest misconception about Bud Selig?

CZ: I’m not sure it’s a misconception, but readers will see him in a different place than when he was commissioner and called the shots. He was about 30 years old when the Braves announced they were leaving town, so he was a pretty young guy surrounded by older executives who wouldn’t give him the time of day at first. Selig eventually had allies in Calvin Griffith of the Minnesota Twins and Arthur Allyn of the White Sox, but AL President Joe Cronin and NL President Warren Giles had little desire to entertain the notion of an expansion team coming to Milwaukee.

When Selig says baseball didn’t want to come back to Milwaukee under any circumstances, he isn’t kidding. Later on, when Selig gets a seat at the table as an owner, he goes on a committee to study topics such as expansion and interleague, but it turns out to be busy work as many of the other owners decide these aren’t topics for discussion. I never editorialize in the book, but my hope is readers will be able to temporarily suspend whatever they feel about Selig the commissioner and see he was a rabid fan who wanted to keep baseball in Milwaukee.

CT: Compare the experience of seeing a game at County Stadium to the experience at Miller Park?

CZ: I once saw someone compare it to wearing an old pair of beat up basketball sneakers versus a pair of Air Jordans, and I’d say that’s a pretty accurate assessment. I was very comfortable in County Stadium despite its age and issues, mainly because I grew up going to games there. Miller Park is well-maintained and has aged well, plus some of the ballpark experience has elements of the County Stadium days, such as Bernie Brewer. One thing I don’t take for granted with Miller Park is being guaranteed a game due to the retractable roof. I don’t miss being rained and snowed on in County Stadium!

CT: Describe your greatest sports video game victory.

CZ: I played a full season of 2011 Wii 2k as the Brewers and easily won the Central Division. I went on to win out through the playoffs against the Braves and Phillies and swept the World Series against the Seattle Mariners.

CT: Describe the worst seats you’ve ever had at a sporting event.

CZ: My first ever game at County Stadium was the worst seating experience of all my times there. My dad wanted to get the best tickets available, and never having been there before, he didn’t have a lot of information to draw from in deciding what seats to purchase. He wound up getting seats in the Mezzanine section, which was a set of metal wrap around boxes that separated the lower deck from the upper deck. The mezzanine was kind of like private opera box seats – only in a baseball stadium.

We were directly behind home plate and the view of the action was fantastic! Unfortunately, our great happiness and fun began and ended there because it was April, and those early season games in County Stadium could be brutal in terms of weather. So, we were stuck in a metal box with a howling wind off Lake Michigan in our faces. I don’t remember how many hot chocolates we drank in vain trying to warm up, or how many times Dad said, “Never again” to sitting in the Mezzanine. Thankfully he picked first base lower box seats after that!

CT: When you think of Cincinnati, you think of _____________.

CZ: The Big Red Machine and Sparky Anderson. I started paying attention to baseball in 1976 when I was about eight years old, so I caught the second of their two World Series titles. Of course, I got to see a lot of Sparky when he managed Detroit against the Brewers, but that always made me recall the Reds teams he managed earlier.

CT: What is the No. 1 thing you would like readers to take away from your book?

CZ: If they don’t already realize this, I hope the book will cement how incredibly fortunate Milwaukee is to have a MLB team at all. Period. In the book when I get to the point of Selig’s group getting passed over in expansion in 1969, there’s a sense of “we’ll keep going, but I think we’re out of options.” The handshake deal to buy the White Sox falls through and the Washington Senators might sell, but they don’t want to if the team is to be moved. It took the Seattle Pilots tanking financially without a new local ownership group to buy the team – a perfect storm of events – for Selig to land the team. If this didn’t happen, Milwaukee would have sat around waiting until the next expansion in 1977 and Selig’s group probably would have stopped trying for a franchise by then.

Follow Chris Zantow on Twitter: @zantow_chris

Buy Building the Brewers: Bud Selig and the Return of Major League Baseball to Milwaukee

For more of the same, follow me on Twitter: @ClaytonTrutor