Jim Gantner played 17 years in the big leagues, all with the Milwaukee Brewers.
In many ways, he was considered the “heart and soul” of the 1982 Brewers, bringing a competitive spirit and hard-nosed approach to the game.
The image of Gantner and Charlie Moore embracing each other at home plate in County Stadium after scoring the go-ahead runs in the fifth game of the 1982 American League Championship Series against the Angels will always be etched in the history of the Brewers.
Gantner’s ties to the Brewers, baseball, and the state of Wisconsin started very, very early. While living in tiny Eden, he was introduced to the game by his father, Elmer.
“I was very, very young. You know, five years old, six years-old,” recalled Gantner in a July 19, 2008, interview with the author.1 “First thing I ever remember doing was playing catch with my dad. We used one of his old gloves. He was a semipro player. He’d throw me the ball, throw me groundballs all the time.
“I remember always taking a rubber ball and throwing it off the garage and catching it. I pretended I was one of the Milwaukee Braves players.
“Nine kids in the family. I was the first son born. [My father] was at Cupie Canning Company. Mom worked too. She worked in Fond du Lac at different jobs. With nine kids, both had to work. Being poor, you don’t take anything for granted. Nothing will be given to you.”
Gantner was born James Elmer Gantner on January 5, 1953, in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, to Elmer and Erma Gantner, and was one of nine children. They are brothers Jerry, Mike and Tom and sisters. Linda (Mike) Meissner, Lisa (Bob) Schommer, Patty (Ken) Rickert and (deceased) Shirley Strom and Judy Lee. Both of Gantner’s parents are deceased.
The Milwaukee Braves seemed a million miles away for Gantner as a kid, but they were an influence on him. “I heard the Braves on the radio. They were never on TV then. I used to play with that rubber ball against the barn, and make it like groundballs, then throw it to first. I’d pretend to be Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Johnny Logan. Eddie was my number 1.”2
Gantner played Little League in Eden, amateur baseball in Campbellsport, and then high-school ball at Campbellsport High School. He played four years of baseball at the school and led the basketball team in scoring his senior season.3
“Hubie Diekfuss was my coach,” Gantner recalled. “He was there forever. He had to do everything. One coach. He had to take care of the field. He was a big influence on my life, very big influence.
“I still wasn’t very big, probably 5-10, 5-11. We had some good baseball players at Campbellsport. They didn’t have divisions then, so we had to play against everybody.”
Gantner knew he would likely play at UW-Oshkosh, then a small-college power in the NAIA. “I remember visiting Oshkosh and seeing all the plaques,” he said. “They were the elite team in the state school system. I remember seeing all the pictures and them guys going to the World Series.”
Oshkosh coach Russ Tiedemann saw the potential in Gantner. Tiedemann “was another big influence in my life,” Gantner said. “He was another father figure to me. He had to put me in my place at times. Sometimes, you’re not that responsible at that age. He had to set me down a few times and say, ‘Hey, be responsible, be on time.’”
While Gantner was at Oshkosh in 1973-74, the Titans made it to the NAIA tournament, finishing third in 1973 and fifth in 1974. Gantner accumulated enough hits to rank fourth on the school’s all-time list and fifth in runs.4
“In my freshman year, we got to the World Series in Phoenix, Arizona,” Gantner said. “Oh man, that was the first time I ever flew on an airplane. It was a 747, the big one. I had never been on one. It was an incredible experience. I think we finished third that year.
“That’s the first time I could compare. How good are we? How good am I? Can I play with these guys? Did I have a chance to play pro ball? Playing in that tournament gave me the confidence that I could play with these guys. A lot of our players, hey, we could play at this level.”
One of Gantner’s opponents in college would become a teammate with the Brewers. “I faced Jerry Augustine my freshman year,” Gantner said. “He was at La Crosse. He was very good. He was probably one of the best pitchers in the conference. Once we were teammates with the Brewers, we laughed and talked about those days.
“One episode, we were playing at Oshkosh. It was a cold day, and Augie was pitching outstanding. He had 2-and-2 on me and threw me a nasty curveball. It was strike 3. The umpire called it a ball. I remember I said, “Oh my gosh.” Some relation to Tiedemann was the home-plate umpire. Augie always kidded me about that. It was 3-and-2, and the next pitch I hit a home run, after he had me struck out. We kidded about that for years.”
The Brewers picked Gantner in the 1974 draft. “I got picked though in the 12th round of the draft after my sophomore season,” Gantner said. “I didn’t know the Brewers were going to draft me. I thought Pittsburgh or Cincinnati were going to draft me.”5
Gantner recalled some the early time in the minors. “I bought a bike to get around. It had a banana seat and high handlebars. That’s what I drove all summer. Couldn’t afford a car. I rode that bike back and forth to the ballpark. That was a lonely time. It was my first time away from home and you can’t hitchhike back. You get homesick. At least it was a short season — June, July, and August.
“John Felske was my manager. He was my manager at every level of the minor leagues. We got to know each other real well.”6
Gantner played shortstop originally, but knew Yount was going to hold down that position for quite some time. So he became as versatile as he could, playing second and third base too.
He moved to Double A in his second year and played at Thetford Mines (which he said was worse than Newark). The Brewers moved that franchise to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and Gantner enjoyed playing there much more. He was then called up from Double A after the Brewers’ Don Money was injured.
“I remember coming to the park and Felske called me into the office,” Gantner said. “He was kind of secretive. He kind of started slow, you know, and said, ‘I got a call today. You’re going to the big leagues.’” When he first shook my hand, I thought he was going to tell me I was going to Triple A, but it was the big leagues. That was even better.
“I was married to my first wife by then. I remember packing up the car. We had a big Pontiac. I had to drive to Detroit, to meet the team in Detroit. I got picked up for speeding on that trip
“I’m cruising along. I don’t even remember what state I was in. The State Patrol pulls me over. I’m going with the traffic, but I get pulled over. I’m not even leading the pack. So I said to the police officer, ‘Man, I was just going with the traffic.’
“He said, ‘I know. Are you a hunter? I said, ‘Yeah, I’m a hunter.’ He said, ‘When a flock of ducks go over, I can’t shoot them all. I can only shoot one. You happen to be that duck.’ I had Wisconsin plates on the car and I think he pulled me over because I was from out of state.”
Gantner started as soon as he reported to the Brewers. “I remember I was in the lineup that first night, playing third base because Money had been injured. Fidrych was pitching. My first big league at-bat was against Mark ‘The Bird’ Fidrych. That’s the year he won 19 games.
“Ron LeFlore was the leadoff hitter. Remember they got him out of prison. He could fly. My first play with the first batter was a bunt play. I was playing in. They said he’s probably going to bunt to test the new kid. I got him out.
“Jerry Augustine pitched that night. That was the night Hegan hit for the cycle. There was forty-some thousand people there. We beat Fidrych pretty bad that night. My first hit was off Fidrych.”
Hank Aaron was Gantner’s teammate in Milwaukee. “[He] was one of my childhood idols. As a kid, I pretended to be Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews when I was throwing the ball off the garage and catching it. Here I am on the same team with him.”
Gantner suffered through those early years with the Brewers, but in 1978 things began to change, and change rapidly.
Harry Dalton had been brought in as general manager, and he hired George Bamberger, who had been pitching coach with the Baltimore Orioles, as manager. Few knew who Bamberger was. Many joked about his name resembling hamburger.
But Bamberger set a different tone in the Brewers’ clubhouse immediately. He made some lineup changes, including giving Gantner more playing time, and suddenly “Bambi’s Bombers” were born.
Gantner and the other Brewers loved Bamberger’s folksy, almost grandfatherly way. The fans also loved him, especially when he would join them in the parking lot for tailgating after the game. The Brewers were on their way up. So was the young infielder from Eden.
“When they brought in Bamberger, I didn’t even know who he was. He was the pitching coach from Baltimore is all I knew. Harry Dalton hired him because of his Baltimore ties. But a lot of us were like the average fan and didn’t know who he was.
“Once I got to spring training, I remember he called me into the office. Like I said, Grammas never really communicated. But George told me, ‘You can’t make this team as a regular, but I’m going to give you a chance to make this team as a utility ballplayer.’ By that time, we had Molitor, Yount, Bando, Cooper, Money. I understood that. That’s fine. He played me almost every game.”
Gantner became a valuable player on the up-and-coming club, but wanted to play every day. “I was having a lot of fun, but still wanted to play every day. So I asked to be traded.
“I almost got traded, to Kansas City for Larry Gura. I remember Jim Colburn was at Kansas City and he told me I might be going there. But I would have been utility there too. It never happened.”
Gantner ended up being very happy about not going to KC. The Brewers just kept improving and got to the Series in 1982.
“We came so close in that split season of 1981,” Gantner said. “Then we started the ’82 season with Buck Rodgers as manager and a lot of optimism, but we just couldn’t get it going.
“I remember we were in Seattle, and Buck called me into the office and told me, ‘You’re not going to play tomorrow.’ We were struggling overall. I remember saying, ‘I don’t want to sit out.’ He told me he had to sit me out because he was going to sit Cecil [Cooper], who had been struggling, and I would have been the only left-hander in the lineup.
“He got fired that night, and Cecil and I were in the lineup the next day. We thought it might happen, but we didn’t expect it that night. I guess Harvey [Kuenn] was already at the hotel. Nobody knew it. He was our manager the next day. We won the game. That was the start of our good streak.”7
The Brewers went on under Kuenn to the Division title, but it had to go down to the last weekend of the regular season for them to clinch it. They went to Baltimore and lost the first three games of the series. That brought it down to the final game, pitting Don Sutton against the Orioles’ Jim Palmer.
“The final series in Baltimore was incredible,” Gantner recalled. “We wanted to go in there and take care of business early. We knew we had to win one out of four. We wanted to get it out of the way quick.
“We lost the first night, then had a doubleheader.8 We figured if we’d win one of those it would be over. I never (saw) such excitement as there was in Baltimore then. I remember going on the bus from the hotel to the ballpark, and the streets were already packed. We’d be going down the streets in the bus, and the people would be yelling at us — we’re going to beat you again today. The sidewalks were just full of people.
“I remember taking infield. The stands were already filled up. They were standing and yelling during infield. (I’ve) never seen anything like that. That was Earl Weaver’s last year, so everything was coming together. They were like World Series games.”9
The game is etched in Brewers lore. Robin Yount had key hits, Ben Oglivie made a clutch catch, Sutton was superb and the Brewers won.
“One of the biggest things I remember about that game was (Ben Oglivie’s) catch. He dove and made a great catch. There wasn’t much room there in left field, and he dove and caught it. They would have scored a couple runs right there. He made that catch and you could see it took something out of them. We scored a bunch of runs then. Robin [Yount] hit two home runs. But that catch kind of slammed the door on them. …”10
The Brewers flew to the West Coast to meet the Angels in the Championship Series. They lost the first two games, but came back to win the next three.
“I remember we thought after we lost the first two games, ‘Hey, we did it in Baltimore, we can to it again.’ We knew we had to get back here to County Stadium and get a win. Just that one win, and then we’d be ready to take off. We had to get that first win.”
The Brewers did get that first win, then another, and brought it to Game Five. “That fifth game was a great one. I was on base when Cecil got his famous big hit. I remember being on second base and seeing that little line shot Cecil hit to left. I can remember Cecil leaving the home-plate area and saying, ‘Get down, get down’ with his arms.
“It wasn’t that deep. I remember sliding across home plate, and Charlie (Moore), who had scored before me tackled me. Charlie was really excited. I remember saying, ‘Hey, let me up. We got two innings to go yet.’”11
The Brewers were in the World Series for the first time in their history. It would not come out well, with the Cardinals beating them in seven games. “The World Series was incredible, but the outcome was very disappointing. I still think we had a better team, but the difference was they had (Bruce) Sutter and we didn’t have Rollie (Fingers).12 (Fingers had torn a muscle in his forearm in early September and was lost for the season and the postseason.)
“I remember after we had lost, we came home. We had to wake up and have that parade. It was cold that day. Nobody really wanted to do. We thought for sure nobody was going to be there. We got in the cars and we saw the streets were just packed. I said, ‘Holy man. Just think if we had won what would have happened.’ It was incredible the response we got. It was fun riding in those cars through that crowd. You forgot about the fact you lost. The people were cheering for you and yelling your name.
“Then getting into the stadium. It was a very, very special day. Then Robin coming in on that motorcycle. That topped it off. It was an incredible homecoming for us. If we had won that last game, it might have lasted for a week.”
Gantner and the Brewers would never get to the Series again during his career, but he did play until 1992 for the club. A highlight came in 1987, when the team won 13 straight to start the season.
“That Easter Sunday game that kept the streak alive was incredible. It was 77 degrees; I remember that. I remember (Rob) Deer Hunter hitting that three-pointer to tie it up. I batted after him and walked. It was a 3-and-2 pitch when Dale (Sveum) hit that home run. Those were incredible games. They had to delay the start of games because traffic was on the highway yet.”13
Another highlight was Yount’s 3,000th hit in 1992. Gantner and Molitor, who with Yount had played together longer than any trio in history to that point, were the first to greet him at first base.
“It really became well known when Robin got his 3,000th hit. Paulie and I were the first ones out there. I respected our teammates for that. They told us, ‘We want you and Paulie out there first.’ It meant a lot.”12
Gantner had a torn rotator cuff in his latter years and retired in 1994. He continued to be linked with the Brewers, making personal appearances as sort an ambassador for the club, and coaching for manager Phil Garner in 1996-97. He later managed Wausau in the Northwoods League for a couple of seasons.
Gantner picked up the nickname Gumby, allegedly from Gorman Thomas, and became known for his Yogi Berra-type misuse of the language at times. These things, his unpretentious personality and friendliness, and the way he played baseball for the home state team endured him to fans. He has been inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame.
“I have always felt lucky and privileged to have been able to play in the state where I was born, and remain a Wisconsin guy,” Gantner said. “The people, the fans have been great to me.”14
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also accessed Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com, and SABR.org.
1 Interview with Gregg Hoffmann, June 19, 2008, La Crosse, Wisconsin.
2 Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Gantner are from interviews with Gregg Hoffmann (2008-9) for a project called “Gumby of Eden,” to be published as part of a series to be called “Immortalized in Bronze: An-Depth Story.”
3 University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Athletic Department Archives.
5 Wisconsin Athlete Magazine, May 1982: 19-20.
6 Wisconsin Athlete Magazine, May 1982: 21.
7 Interview with Gregg Hoffmann, July 30, 2008, Wausau, Wisconsin. Weaver came back to manage the Orioles in 1985 and 1986.
8 Gantner conflates the dates. The Brewers lost a doubleheader to the Orioles on Friday, October 1, then lost on Saturday. They won on Sunday to clinch the division.
9 Interview with Gregg Hoffmann, July 27, 2009, Wausau, Wisconsin.
10 Interview with Sean Callahan, Wisconsin Sportsvue, August 1984: 5
11 Ibid, 6-7.
12 Interview with Gregg Hoffmann, July 27, 2009, Wausau, Wisconsin.
14 Interview with Gregg Hoffmann, August 28, 2009, Milwaukee.