My friend Howie Magner from Milwaukee Magazine described the Ryan Braun positive banned substance test result, if it holds, as “one of history’s most disappointing Wisconsin-centric sports stories”. That got me thinking about where it would rank in a list of Wisconsin’s most disappointing sports stories of the last 50 years.
Time has a way of easing disappointment, so this list is certainly biased in favor of recent sports bummers. My list only has one story from the 1960s, and two each from the 1970s and 1980s. After much searching, I narrowed the choices to a list of the top 11 disappointments in Wisconsin sports over the last 50 years. I’m a soccer guy and we try to make our lists 11 to match number of players on the field…and also Nigel says it’s better to go to 11. I also listed a number of honorable mentions and historic (pre-1961) Wisconsin disappointing sports stories below the Top 11.
In any regard, here’s what I came up with in chronological order:
1) Milwaukee Braves leave town, March 5, 1964.
The fact that baseball came back four years later didn’t soften the blow for Milwaukeeans when the Braves migrated south to Atlanta in 1966. At the time, it was a bitter pill to swallow for what had been the game’s most loyal and largest fan base just a decade earlier. Milwaukee was the recipient of franchise migration in 1953 when the Boston Braves became the first team to leave the east coast for rosier environs. The A’s, Dodgers and Giants followed suit later in the decade.
Braves owner Lou Perini was a hero in Milwaukee for his migration and Bill Bartholomay, the Chicago business man he sold the team to was a villain for the same act, but to another locale. The Braves captured Milwaukee’s heart and soul from the beginning attracting record attendances through their World Series years of 1957 and 1958. After beating the Yankees in the 57 series, the Braves lost the 58 Series (also to the Yanks and began a precipitous drop of 200,000 to 400,000 in attendance annually for five straight seasons. The team’s struggles on the field contributed, but a change of policy in the early 1960s banning fans from carrying in their own beer to games also contributed to the attendance free fall. If attendance ever dips at Miller Park in the future, I think we all know a reversion to this policy could provide a tidy boost in attendance if not in concession sales!
The disappointment of the Braves move was slow and painful. It began on March 5, 1964 when the Braves told Atlanta they would move if the city built them a stadium by 1966. It wasn’t until October 21, 1964, however, that the Braves directors voted 12-6 to confirm their decision to move to Atlanta. And then legal maneuvers coordinated by Braves minority investor Bud Selig staved off the move one more agonizing season. Only 555,584 fans watched the lame duck Braves that year before they fled to Atlanta.
This gives me the chance to ask two of my favorite baseball trivia questions:
Q. Who is the only player to play for the Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves?
Q. Who are the only three Milwaukee Braves to also play for the Milwaukee Brewers?
If you think you know, answer in the comments below. First correct answer to both questions receives a Mike Hegan baseball card (no, Mike Hegan is not one of the answers).
2) Kareem says he wants out, October 3, 1974.
Though not as unexpected as the Braun news, Kareem’s request to be traded to New York or Los Angeles at the start of the 1974 season felt like a rejection to the city and placed a dent in local civic pride. He said Milwaukee did not fit his cultural needs:
"Live in Milwaukee? No, I guess you could say I exist in Milwaukee," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I am a soldier hired for service and I will perform that service well. Basketball has given me a good life, but this town has nothing to do with my roots. There's no common ground."
The actual trade didn’t occur until June 16, 1975. The Bucks included Walt Wesley and received considerable value in return from the Los Angeles Lakers - Junior Bridgeman, David Meyers, Elmore Smith and Brian Winters. Winters and Bridgeman eventually had their jerseys retired and Smith and Meyers were solid players as well. But even four very good players combined couldn’t make up for the loss on the court of Kareem or make up for the disappointment felt when he told the world that Milwaukee wasn’t good enough for him.
3) Al McGuire retires, December 17, 1976.
He was only 48 years old and at the top of his game. He was still three months from his crowning achievement. Few sportsmen are able to announce their retirement when they reach the top. Fewer are able to announce their retirement three months BEFORE they reach the summit.
Al’s decision was more shocking than disappointing, though it was certainly that as well. Former Marquette guard Lloyd Walton, then with the Bucks said:
“I’m surprised Coach McGuire didn’t wait until the end of the year. I’ve talked with Butch (Lee) and Ulice (Payne) and it’s not that they don’t want to win already, but now they’ve got to, because the man has been so good for all of us.”
And of course, three months later, they did.
4) Brewers lose game 7 in St. Louis, October 12, 1982
When the Brewers took a 3-1 6th inning lead, I slipped out to Marquette Liquors on Wells Street to buy a bottle of champagne. By the time I returned to the student viewing party at Brooks Memorial Union the Cardinals had rendered the champagne useless in this state, but was flowing in the home locker room.
5) Joe Wolf bolts state for North Carolina, April 17, 1983
In February, 2005 Kohler, Wisconsin’s Joe Wolf was voted the greatest high school basketball player in Wisconsin history. In November, 1982 he was one of the nation’s most sought after hoopsters and eliminated power house programs Virginia, Notre Dame and Indiana to narrow his choices to North Carolina and Marquette. Marquette’s biggest recruit, a target of assistant coach Rick Majerus who had developed a good relationship with him and hoped he would stay in state. On April 16, 1983, the Milwaukee Sentinel’s Ken Bunch reported on the front page of the morning paper’s sports section that Wolf was going to choose Marquette that night. 24 hours later “while listening to some tunes” half an hour before making the public announcement at a jam packed Kohler Library, the 6’10” power forward chose to follow his brother Jeff to the Tar Heels. He said he decided on North Carolina, because:
“The main thing was the distance from home. If I want to see the real world, I have to go out on my own. I’ve always had my parents saying ‘Rah, rah Joe’ and now I’m not going to have that – and that’s part of life, too.”
Last March North Carolina beat out Wisconsin (and Marquette again) for another highly prized in state forward, JP Tokoto. While disappointing and reminiscent of Wolf’s similar decision, the pain was less this time around.
As a post script, Tokoto’s grandfather Jean-Pierre Tokoto played for Cameroon in the 1982 World Cup and I later interviewed him before hiring Bob Bradley to be the Chicago Fire’s first head coach.
6) Packers lose Super Bowl XXXII, 1998
While Denver Broncos fans believe this was “The Best One Ever”, Packers fans were left disappointed. Having won the Super Bowl the previous season eased the disappointment in this loss to John Elway and the Broncos, but the Packers were heavily favored and the state of Wisconsin had elevated expectations for a repeat. Sadly, the Packers became only the second team to lose a Super Bowl to a wild card team and the first favored by double digits to lose since Super Bowl III. And of course they were the first team to lose to Denver in five Super Bowls.
Brett Favre and the packers scored first, but then found themselves counter punching Terrell Davis’ three rushing touchdowns including the game winner with 1:45 remaining. Mike Holmgren told the Packers to let Denver score on the 2nd and goal from the 1 yard line to conserve time for a comeback. Holmgren later admitted he thought it was 1st goal. \ If he knew it was actually second down he may have made a different decision – oops.
7) Bucks lose to Sixers, Referees and NBA in Eastern Conference Finals four games to three, June 3, 2001.
I had a hard time choosing between the Bucks Eastern Conference losses in 1986 and 2001. In both cases they won the regular season division title. 1986 was the last of seven consecutive division titles for Head Coach Don Nelson and the Bucks. It was also the last time the Bucks won at least 57 games.
But in 2001, the Bucks had momentum and after eliminating Orlando and Charlotte had battled Philadelphia to a decisive seventh game and were likely taken down by a force greater than just another NBA team. There is considerable speculation that the NBA wanted the Sixers to advance and conspired with the referees to give the larger market 76ers the best chance to win. Among the conspiracy theorists is Bucks guard Ray Allen and ESPN Columnist Bill Simmons.
The evidence includes the lopsided foul (PHI/MKE: 122-165) and free throw (PHI/MKE: 186-120) advantage enjoyed by Philadelphia. Bucks fans point to two key flagrant fouls and a technical foul assessed against the Bucks in game five, which were as decisive to the one point loss as Glenn Robinson’s last second miss. The NBA’s suspension of Scott Williams for an elbow in game six contributed to the game seven blow out.
8) Kansas pulls out can of whoop ass on Marquette in Final Four, April 5, 2003
Ouch. Disappointments are inextricably linked to great expectations. Marquette, led by Travis Diener, Steve Novak and Dwyane Wade led its fan base to great expectations and the Final Four with increasingly impressive wins in the winter of 2003. A small group of my Marquette buddies and I considered road tripping to New Orleans, but instead opted to watch the semi-final against Kansas in a bar across the street from the Bradley Center.
Kansas crushed Marquette 94-61, but don’t be fooled by the score line…it wasn’t really that close. Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich, Aaron Miles and Keith Langford led Roy Williams’ team on a 22-4 run midway through the first half and never looked back. The Jayhawks led 59-30 at the half. It was the biggest Final Four blowout in 24 years. Not sure if was happy that I didn’t waste a trip to New Orleans or disappointed that I couldn’t drown my sorrows on Bourbon Street afterwards.
9) Brett Favre signs with Vikings, August 18, 2009
Most Packers fans had moved on emotionally from the Favre/Thompson debacle of 2008. But his signing with rival Minnesota raised the ire of many and changed his place in Packer lore from bitter former legend to traitorous selfish bum. Disappointing probably isn’t the best adjective for most people here.
10) Brewers lose NLCS to St. Louis, October 16, 2011
It was another happy flight for St. Louis, but the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel used the term “bitter” to describe this one. I think “disappointing” also fits. Throughout 2011, it seemed to be a season of destiny for Milwaukee, until September when the Cardinals picked up the Cinderella story and had the proper shoe size, talisman and clutch hitting to fit into the winning slipper.
11) Badgers football loses in last minute – again, October 22 and 29, 2011
Russell Wilson’s transfer and his brilliant command of the Badgers offense, along with Montee Ball’s remarkable rushing elevated Badger fans’ hopes for a BCS title early this fall. As noted earlier, however, great expectations are a key ingredient to a great fall.
I thought about only listing the 37-31 loss to Michigan State on the last second, Hail Mary, caromed and official reviewed touchdown pass. But alone, that game didn’t eliminate the previously undefeated and #6 Badgers out of national championship contention. The similar loss seven days later to Ohio State, sealed Wisconsin’s BCS Title fate on a 40 yard touchdown pass with only 20 seconds remaining. An amazing four touchdowns were scored in the final 4:39. The Badgers rallied from a 26-14 deficit to take a 29-26 lead with only 1:18 remaining, but the Buckeyes scored last and late to seal the Badgers BCS fate 33-29.
By lumping Wisconsin’s back-to-back losses this season into one disappointment, the band aid is being pulled off slowly. To Wisconsin’s credit, after receiving a left, then a right to the jaw, the Badgers mitigated the disappointment by running the table with five straight victories to capture the Big Ten championship and secure a place in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.
Badgers rally falls short vs. USC in Rose Bowl, 1963
Packers lose NFL Western Conference Championship to Bears by ½ game, 1963
Admirals lose in Turner Cup Finals and executive Mike Wojciechowski punched out by Toledo owner, 1983
Bucks swept in Eastern Conference Finals by Celtics, 1986
Rick Manning walk off hit prevents Paul Molitor from attempt to extend 39 game hitting streak, 1987
Dan Jansen Falls, 1988
Favre retires (1st time), 2008
Favre traded to Jets, 2008
Wave loses MISL Final at home, 2010
Beyond the 50 year time frame
Marquette loses first Cotton Bowl to Slingin’ Sammy Baugh and TCU, 1937
Braves lose World Series to the Yankees, 1958
Badgers blown out by Washington in Rose Bowl, 1960
Did I miss any obvious disappointing sports stories? Brett Favre made my Top 11 list twice including Super Bowl XXXII plus the honorable mention list twice. I think it's safe to place him at the top of any list of Wisconsin's most disappointing sports personalities - but that's a different list for a different day. What stories would you add to this list?