Red Thisted never saw a professional baseball game until he was 20 years old. He made up for lost time, though. Over the course of four decades, he attended every home game played my Milwaukee’s ballclub, plus all of the away games when not prevented by wartime travel restrictions. From the start of the 1926 season until the end of the 1965 campaign—a streak of 3,282 games—if professionals were playing baseball in Milwaukee, Red was there. He was not only in attendance but also writing about the game for the Milwaukee Sentinel.
Why the late start? When he was a teenager, Red was too busy chasing Mexican bandits and getting shot at by German soldiers.
Red was born on April 8, 1899, in the rural Nebraska village of Lindsay. Red was not his given name, of course. His parents named him Amos, with a middle name of Theodore. The name Amos fit in well with his five siblings: Aaron, Phoebe, Lydia, Moses, and Mary. The Thisted children all bore biblical names because their father, Peter Thisted, was a Lutheran pastor. Both Peter and his wife, Kate, were natives of Denmark. Peter had worked as a coachman, among other menial jobs, while living in Europe. At the urging of a visiting clergyman from California, Peter immigrated to Chicago in 1886 and entered a Lutheran seminary. He became a circuit rider, providing religious services to small Danish congregations scattered around Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, and Wisconsin. In the Badger state he served three communities: New Lisbon, Camp Douglas, and Big Flats, near the geographic center of the state.
Peter Thisted did not use his actual name. He had been born in the county of Thisted, Denmark, on September 22, 1859, and raised in the town of Lemvig. For whatever reason, when he came to the United States he dropped his last name, Petersen, and adopted his home region as his name. In Chicago he met Katherine Mortensen. They were married there on April 26, 1890. Their first child, Aaron, was born in 1891. Five more children followed, all at two-year intervals. Katherine died in 1907, just 45 years old. Peter remarried in 1912, but on May 19, 1915, he also passed away, in Tomah, Wisconsin.
On March 9, 1916, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, with 40 officers on horseback and an army of a thousand men, carried out a pre-dawn raid on the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. They stole horses and guns and killed 15 Americans. President Woodrow Wilson was furious.
The Commander in Chief ordered General John J. Pershing to lead troops into Mexico and put an end to Villa. The President mobilized the entire Wisconsin National Guard on June 18 at Camp Douglas. Seventeen-year-old Red Thisted lied about his age and joined his older brothers Aaron and Moses and enlisted in Troop “B” of the First Wisconsin Infantry. On July 8 the three Thisteds accepted their first military pay, $22, and boarded a train for Camp Wilson, Texas.
History records that Pershing and two columns of troops crossed the border but failed to apprehend Villa. They did, however, drive him into seclusion. Most of the U.S. soldiers never saw action. The greatest danger they faced was surviving a gulf hurricane on August 18 that wrecked three-quarters of the camp. About all they did accomplish was to prepare for active duty as the first American combat troops in Europe.
The First Wisconsin Regiment entrained two days after Christmas and arrived at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, on December 30, 1916. They were not home for long. In late June, as part of the American Expeditionary Forces under General Pershing, the Thisted brothers arrived in France. Before he shipped out for Europe, Red had written a letter home in which he said he “couldn’t wait to shoot some Boche,”1 derogatory slang for Germans. In the bloody battle near Chateau-Thierry during the summer of 1918, Red suffered a serious head wound. Reportedly he would have bled to death, but by a stroke of fortune, his brother Aaron found him and helped get him the necessary medical attention to save his life.
Details of Red’s recuperation are not available. What is known, however, is that he returned to the United States on a troop transport vessel in mid-1919. His brothers returned safely as well. Red’s ship landed at Boston harbor. In recognition of the soldiers’ service to their country, they were invited to Fenway Park as guests of the Red Sox.
“I saw my first professional game at Boston in June, 1919,” Red wrote in the Milwaukee Sentinel many years later, “on the way back to Milwaukee after the World War I unpleasantness in France.”2 The Red Sox hosted the Washington Senators that afternoon. The names meant nothing to Red at the time, but among the men on the field were the Senators’ lanky, hard-throwing right-hander Walter Johnson and the powerfully built Boston left fielder, George Ruth.
“The import of what I saw that day did not reach full significance until many years later,” Red confessed.3 One thing was certain, though. “Professional baseball had made me a convert then and there.”4
Back in civilian life in Wisconsin, Red enrolled in the Marquette University School of Journalism. Living in Milwaukee allowed Red to attend Brewers baseball games. Right after finishing at Marquette in 1924 he was hired to be part of the sports staff of the Milwaukee Sentinel. The baseball beat was filled, of course. Red was assigned to cover golf. His column bore the name “Fore! And After.”
Not long after signing on with the Sentinel, Red made another long-term commitment. He married Alice Bahr in September 1925. According to their son Joe, Red and Alice were married in one of the newspaper’s offices by the religion writer for the paper, who must have been a recognized member of the clergy. Alice was the daughter of a veterinarian in Wausau and a graduate of the state university in Stevens Point. She taught home economics at Waterford High School. Her domestic training undoubtedly came in handy. She and Red raised—correction, Alice raised five children: Dennis, Patricia, George, Joseph, and James. Son Dennis followed his father’s example and worked for some years at the Sentinel, part-time while he was attending Marquette University, eventually becoming state editor.
Around the time Red got married, the Sentinel baseball writer, Bryn Griffiths, filled in for the sports editor a few times. On those days Red rode a streetcar to Athletic Park (he never owned a car or had a driver’s license) and wrote the game story about the Brewers. In the process he also received his first baseball bylines, the first of thousands. Beginning the following April the Sentinel baseball beat was his permanently.
Red understood the importance of “breaks” and was always thankful that in his first season covering baseball, as he wrote years later, “I got a big one.”5 Beginning in St. Paul on May 26, the Brewers put together a winning streak. As the wins added up, Red’s game account became the featured story on the front page of the local section. On June 8 the Brewers extended their victory list to 15 to establish a new American Association record. When the count reached 16, the editors placed the victory number in a rectangular box and displayed it prominently on the page. On page one, above the banner headline, readers were advised to “Turn to Red Thisted’s story” for the full game report.6 This kind of attention given to a writer from the sports department was uncommon, much less one in his first season at his craft. Red was able to ride the wave until June 16. Casey Stengel’s Toledo Mud Hens finally defeated the Brewers, ending the streak at 21. Red’s story that afternoon began with an allusion to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.7
The following year Red’s baseball beat put him on the front page. Otto Borchert, the millionaire owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, had been speaking at the annual baseball banquet at the Elks’ Club the night before the home opener. In the middle of an anecdote Borchert suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He had just finished saying “I always made it a point to be loyal to my employers.”8 The words were the last ones he ever spoke. He lurched forward, gasping for breath. After the owner was carried from the podium to an anteroom, the exalted ruler of the Elks’ lodge addressed the audience, calling on them to join in singing a verse of “Auld Lang Syne,” apparently a significant Elks’ ritual. Red was in the audience and was able to provide readers with an eyewitness account of the strange and terrible scene.9
Red prided himself on being accurate in his writing. Even the most careful writer can make a mistake, though. In the mid-30’s the Brewers had a popular fireplug of an infielder named George Detore. He was a key contributor to the Brewers’ 1936 championship. Like a lot of scribes, Red liked to pin colorful nicknames on ballplayers. After Detore had a particularly good day at the plate, Red created an appropriate moniker for him: “The Portuguese Pounder.” It may not have rivaled “The Sultan of Swat,” but it had a certain ring to it. The only problem was that Detore was a proud Italian.
Besides baseball, Red also wrote about Marquette University football and basketball. On New Year’s Day 1937 he traveled to Dallas to cover the inaugural Cotton Bowl game between his alma mater and Texas Christian University. He was disappointed that Slingin’ Sammy Baugh had the better of the battle with Marquette’s hard-running halfback Ray “Buzz” Buivid, a particular favorite of Red’s.
During the last baseball off-season before the United States entered World War II, Red added another dimension to his reporting. Every Monday night at 10:00 he appeared on a radio program called “Hot Stove League.” Joining him to chat informally about important topics from the national pastime were fellow journalists Lloyd Larson and Stoney McGlynn and Brewers radio voice Alan Hale. They also featured a weekly guest. Among the visitors were Cleveland third baseman Ken Keltner, Cubs GM Jimmy Gallagher, and Brewers manager "Reindeer Bill" Killefer. The show lasted for only one season, perhaps a victim of the war.
On Red’s 54th birthday the Milwaukee Braves arrived by train in their new hometown. After 27 years of covering the Brewers, Red suddenly was in the big leagues, writing game stories about the National League’s freshest franchise. He already knew many of the Braves ballplayers. The Brewers had been the Braves’ top farm club for six years. Now, though, the likes of Jack Dittmer and Ernie Johnson were playing against Stan Musial and Jackie Robinson. Red covered the Braves for their entire 13-season tenure in Milwaukee.
On August 6, 1955, Sam Levy died of a heart attack. He had been a longtime Milwaukee Journal baseball writer as well as the official scorer at County Stadium. Red was called upon to replace him in the scorer’s job, which he did until 1962. Following a labor dispute, the Sentinel was bought out by their rival publication, the Journal. The new owner had an ethics code that precluded Red from being the official scorer lest there be a conflict of interests or a loss of objectivity. Thus ended Red’s official scoring career.
While he held the job, however, he became entangled in one of the strangest conclusions a ballgame ever had. On May 26, 1959, Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitched 12 perfect innings against the Braves. In the bottom of the 13th, an error, a sacrifice, and an intentional walk put runners on first and second. Joe Adcock blasted a long fly that cleared the center field fence for an apparent home run and a 3-0 Milwaukee victory. Adcock passed Henry Aaron on the base path, though. One runner was ruled out, so the game ended, according to Thisted and the umpires, at 2-0. In an unprecedented decision, league president Warren Giles said the next morning that because of a “secret rule,” Aaron was given third base and Adcock second. Adcock’s hit over the fence became a double, and the final score (you could look it up) was 1-0.
With the Braves gone to Atlanta in 1966, Red penned a series of articles in the Sentinel entitled “Baseball My Beat: 40 Years with Red.” In 14 installments he relived the highlights of his baseball-reporting career. He identified his all-time favorite player—Denny Gearin, a little left-hander that he knew well. He said the toughest competitor he saw was Eddie Mathews, and the finest gentleman was Whitlow Wyatt.10
On the night of January 9, 1968, while punching out at the time clock after working late as usual, Red suffered a severe stroke. He was never the same. Six months later he announced his retirement. Red died on June 2, 1977. He was buried near County Stadium in Wood National Cemetery, a graveyard established and reserved for military veterans and their families. His wife Alice rests beside him.
Bud Lea, a colleague at the Sentinel, summed up Red’s career in eight words: “He had an everlasting love affair with baseball.”11
This biography is included in the book "Thar's Joy in Braveland! The 1957 Milwaukee Braves" (SABR, 2014), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To download the free e-book or purchase the paperback edition, click here.
Thisted, Moses N., With the Wisconsin National Guard on the Mexican Border in 1916-1917, self-published, 1981.
Chapman, Lou, “Career Comes to End for Thisted,” Milwaukee Sentinel, July 6, 1968.
Lea, Bud, “Baseball Was Red’s Life,” Milwaukee Sentinel, June 3, 1977.
Thisted, Red, “Baseball My Beat: 40 Years with Red” (series of 14 articles), March 28-April 10, 1966.
“Borchert Tragedy Suspends Opening,” Milwaukee Sentinel, April 28, 1927.
“Hens Halt Brewer Streak at 21,” Milwaukee Sentinel, June 17, 1926.
Wells, Robert W., “Wells on Books: When Wisconsin’s Troops Protected US Border,” Milwaukee Journal, February 5, 1981.
“Durable Red’s Seen ‘Em All Since 1926,” Milwaukee Sentinel, April 11, 1955.
“Otto Borchert Dies Speaking at Banquet,” Milwaukee Sentinel, April 28, 1927.
Telephone interviews with Bud Lea and Joe Thisted.
1 Joe Thisted, telephone interview, November 28, 2012
2 Red Thisted, “Baseball My Beat: 40 Years with Red (2nd of series),” Milwaukee Sentinel, March 29, 1966
6 “Turn to…Red Thisted’s Story of the Game” (page one, above banner headline), Milwaukee Sentinel, June 16, 1926
7 Red Thisted, “Hens Halt Brewer Win Streak at 21,” Milwaukee Sentinel, June 17, 1926
8 “Otto Borchert Dies Speaking at Banquet,” Milwaukee Sentinel, April 28, 1927
10 Red Thisted, “Baseball My Beat: 40 Years with Red (1st of series),” Milwaukee Sentinel, March 28, 1966
11 Bud Lea, “Baseball Was Red’s Life,” Milwaukee Sentinel, June 3, 1977