Before Miller Park opened, the Milwaukee Brewers went to the post-season playoffs twice.
After playing in Miller Park since it opened in 2001, the Brewers have been in the post-season four times, including today’s wild card game against the Nationals in D.C.
That was one of the benefits then-club President Bud Selig pitched in trying to convince state lawmakers and taxpayers that a new stadium was needed.
In the following excerpt from his memoir, “For the Good of the Game,” the ex-MLB commissioner recounts the political struggles to get financial help to build a new Brewers ballpark in the mid-1990s.
The Legislature in 1995 approved a .01 percent sales tax in southeast Wisconsin to help pay for the stadium. This led to a successful recall of Sen. George Petak, R-Racine, who voted to approve the deal despite earlier telling constituents he’d vote against it.
The Miller Park sales tax is on pace to expire in March, roughly 25 years since its inception.
The following excerpt is provided by William Morrow publishers. “For the Good of the Game,” by Bud Selig, can be purchased where books are sold and at Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Good-Game-Surprising-Dramatic-Transformation/dp/0062905953
Wendy, my daughter, was in charge of the Brewers while I tackled baseball’s biggest challenges, but I had a deeply personal investment in the stadium situation. I knew replacing County Stadium was necessary for the survival of the franchise that had given Milwaukee a second chance at being a baseball town. Because we were the smallest market in the major leagues, we needed to maximize revenues if the Brewers were going to be competitive enough to reward fans for the passion they invested in the team.
We didn’t just reach that conclusion in the 1990s, when so many other teams were opening stadiums. I had seen this coming for a long time. I loved County Stadium more than anyone in Milwaukee, but for me the need for a new stadium was like a toothache that starts long before you find yourself at the dentist. I could feel it for years before I allowed the issue to become a public matter. I knew I couldn’t let an antiquated stadium become the reason that the Brewers failed, not after the heartache I experienced when the Braves moved to Atlanta. I knew I couldn’t allow that to happen again. It was unthinkable.
At my urging, the Greater Milwaukee Committee—the same organization that was responsible for County Stadium forty years earlier—appointed a task force to study the issue in 1987. That was the start of an agonizingly painful process that often crawled or seemed stalled until Miller Park became a reality in 1995 and finally was ready for baseball in 2001.
I remember being in Toronto when the SkyDome opened. It had a roof to keep fans warm and dry, a hotel in left field, and the Hard Rock Cafe in right field. McDonald’s ran the concessions. As much as I marveled about what the Blue Jays had accomplished with the help of financing from Toronto and the province of Ontario, I must admit I was feeling a little bit heartsick about our franchise. How could we compete with this?
It was clear we needed not only a new stadium but one with a roof, which would increase the cost of the project significantly. The journey to get our new ballpark built would be torturous and require patience over many years. The plus for me was that I was traveling it with my daughter, as Wendy was by my side every step of the way. She would step out on her own in these negotiations because I was preoccupied with the bigger issues in baseball.
When I look back on it, I still shake my head over how painful the process became. It really didn’t have to be so contentious. We experienced some political defeats along the way that were crushing, especially when I compared them to the vision of the civic leaders who had built County Stadium before Milwaukee even had a team to play there. Those guys had the vision and the will to see how a stadium could draw a team in to make the whole city better. What had happened to that spirit?
We were desperately trying to stay here, to make baseball work in Milwaukee for decades to come. There was no other agenda. That’s what made the opposition we faced so stunning to me. The way we were treated along the way made this the most disap pointing time of my career.
We had a lot of really strong people on our side, including Mike Grebe, an influential lawyer and civic leader who was close to Tommy Thompson, who was then the Wisconsin governor. We had Thompson’s support, and I thought we would be able to count on it throughout the process, in part because of the connection with Grebe. But somewhere along the way we lost Thompson. I believe others had convinced him that supporting the stadium measure wasn’t a popular position for him to take.
He made a political judgment, and he was wrong. That’s what I never understood. We weren’t threatening to move. I never listened to overtures from other cities. Charlotte was interested, but I never talked to them.
As the person primarily responsible for bringing baseball to Milwaukee all those years earlier, it was hard not to take all this personally. Considering the unlikely way I had landed the Brewers in 1970, and again the pain I’d experienced when the Braves packed up and left Milwaukee, I simply couldn’t consider abandoning my hometown. It just wasn’t in my DNA, and I knew it. Everyone knew it, I think. I couldn’t let the legacy of all my efforts be that the team’s financial situation prevented it from staying where it belonged. Nothing over the previous three decades would have been possible if we hadn’t fought so hard to make Milwaukee a baseball town. But suddenly we were faced with the prospect that it could end. If the Brewers couldn’t upgrade their stadium situation, at some point the team would have to leave. What was in these rejections for Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin? They were never going to get another team.
I’ll never forget the drive home from Madison after one setback. It felt like a nail in our coffin, and the mood on the way back to Milwaukee was gloomy. This was probably the lowest point for me. Wendy and the other people in the car asked what we were going to do. I said we would keep trying. I think they thought I was crazy. They certainly couldn’t believe I was going to go on.
What else was I going to do? Of course I was going to go on. We were going to get this done. I would have liked to have told those people to go take a hike, believe me. I’d like to have done that, but that wouldn’t help me get a new stadium. We couldn’t survive without the stadium and I wasn’t going to let Milwaukee lose its baseball team, the team I’d worked so hard to bring to the city all those years ago. Not on my watch.
We regrouped and, in the end, we won. That’s we as in all of us in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. I am so proud of how Wendy problem-solved and persevered through some angry and ugly confrontations with politicians and produced a state-of-the-art ballpark that has allowed the franchise to draw more than three million fans in three different seasons.
The Brewers have played there for eighteen seasons now, with the annual average attendance about 2.7 million. Milwaukee is the smallest market in the majors but finished tenth in attendance in 2018 and is likely to do even better in ’19. That’s pretty spectacular, if you ask me. Thank goodness Wendy persevered.
She had a lot of help along the way. From the start, Wendy put together a group of community leaders who were dedicated to the cause. We were so thankful for the work of Jim Keyes of Johnson Controls; Jack McDonough, the chairman and CEO of Miller Brewing; Jack McKeithan, a former chairman of Schlitz Brewing; Jim Ericson of Northwestern Mutual; Bob Kahlor, chairman and CEO of Journal Communications; Roger Fitzsimonds of First Wisconsin; Frank Busalacchi of the Teamsters; and Tim Sheehy of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. State assemblyman David Prosser and Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament were helpful from the start.
Wendy was a warrior in the fights at city hall and at the statehouse. She was involved not only in the grueling political aspects but also in the design and construction that have made Miller Park a prototype for other new ballparks, especially those with retractable roofs.
I witnessed some of the worst, most Machiavellian behavior you can imagine. I had politicians—including our governor at the time, Thompson, and our mayor, John Norquist—routinely say one thing to my face and do the opposite behind my back.
We eventually got it done with a public-private partnership, with dozens of people working tirelessly behind the scenes—even Henry Aaron stepped up to help—and with committed people who believed that, in the end, Miller Park would be good for the city. They believed, correctly, that it would not only be good from a financial standpoint—studies show it adds $330 million a year to the Wisconsin economy—but have a sociological benefit.
I’ll never forget the sacrifice made by George Petak, a state legislator from Racine. He helped us get across the finish line because he knew it was good for his home state even if public funding was a divisive issue. George was convinced Milwaukee would lose the Brewers without a new stadium. He was subsequently voted out of office by residents of his county but went out as one of my heroes for how he helped make Miller Park a reality. He was like me. He understood the impact baseball can have on
When the project was in trouble, we received a huge late lift from Michael Joyce, president of the Bradley Foundation, one of the biggest and most respected foundations in the country. His support, along with Tim Sheehy’s, rallied other local business leaders who were supportive of the stadium effort.
We got Miller Park built because, truly, our fans wanted it, and ultimately, our fans demanded it. I knew what we needed was a midwestern version of SkyDome, but that didn’t exactly fit in the Brewers’ budget. The challenge was how to build a partnership with local governments to help finance it. We had many tough days, many painful days, many days when there just didn’t seem to be a way out. Yet we pressed on. That’s the way I had achieved every victory in my career—with perseverance in the face of skepticism.
Miller Park opened on April 6, 2001, with the Reds back in town. Wendy and her husband, Laurel Prieb, had added so many wonderful touches to the ballpark, from an innovative kids’ zone to décor that only people who really loved the game could have imagined. But Bernie Brewer still had his slide.
My friend George W. Bush came through for me. He told me he’d be honored to throw out a ceremonial first pitch for our first game, and I was honored to have him in town. I was going to throw out a first pitch, too. Yount warmed me up in our new batting cages beforehand. President Bush warmed up, too, but not quite enough, as it turned out. He bounced a ball to the plate, perhaps because he was wearing a bulletproof vest underneath his shirt.
I thought of a million different things that night, including Wendy’s tenacity and the sacrifice of George Petak. I thought a lot about three construction workers who were killed in a horrible crane accident during construction and the thousands of other workers who could point with pride to the bricks they laid, the grass they planted, the signs they hung. I was so very grateful to so many people.
Without new ballparks, along with changes in baseball’s anti quated economic systems, a lot of teams would have been out of business. Maybe ten teams, maybe twelve teams. All the small markets. I know critics dismiss this reality, but that’s how truly desperate these times were.
Bringing stadiums into the modern era was a huge step forward for baseball.