The city of Milwaukee is not shy about its German heritage. From the abundance of breweries and biergartens in the city to the playing of Beer Barrel Polka during the 7th inning stretch at Brewers games, it’s easy to see that this heritage has manifested itself through the celebration of beer.
German immigrants who settled in Milwaukee throughout the 1800s built dozens of breweries, including some of the largest in the nation, and quickly put Milwaukee on the map as a notorious beer town. Right around this time, Milwaukeeans of all cultural backgrounds developed another passion: professional baseball.
Why are the Milwaukee Brewers called the Brewers? Here’s a history of how the Brewers got their team name.
Milwaukee’s Early Teams
Milwaukee’s first professional baseball team formed in 1877 as the West End Club. Thanks in part to its dedicated fan base, the team was promoted to the National League in 1878 and was named the “Milwaukee Grays”. However, the team failed to impress in the big league and disbanded after the end of the season.
This seemed to be the main theme for major league baseball in Milwaukee. Throughout the following seasons, a few short-lived major league teams entertained Milwaukee’s baseball fans in addition to several more-successful minor league teams.
Much like European soccer teams today, professional baseball teams did not always have official nicknames in those early days. Rather, fans and reporters coined nicknames in a more colloquial manner. For example, before they became the Cubs, Chicago’s North Side team was once nicknamed the Orphans after they lost the leadership of their beloved manager.
“Brewers” entered professional baseball lexicon in a similar way. As an homage to Milwaukee’s famous industry, fans referred to many local professional and amateur teams as the Brewers. The nickname was cemented in August 4, 1888 when the Milwaukee Sentinel used it to refer to the Brewers of the Western League.
In 1891, the team was promoted to the American Association to finish the season for the Cincinnati Kelly’s Killers. At the time, the American Association was considered a major league, making this team the first major league “Milwaukee Brewers” team in the eyes of local media. Despite their impressive 21-15 record, the team was demoted at the end of the season.
The Original American League Brewers
Another Milwaukee Brewers team played in the Western League after the promotion of the 1891 team. In 1900, Western League officials met in Milwaukee and decided to rebrand themselves as the American League—the same league that we know today—in order to compete with the dominant National League.
The American League became a major league in 1901, making the Brewers a major league team. Like last time, however, this moment in the big leagues was cut short as the team was sent off to St. Louis and renamed the Browns after one season where they went 48-89. Interestingly enough, the Baltimore Orioles can trace their organization’s history to Milwaukee through this lineage.
The American Association Brewers (1902-1952)
Other names such as “Cream’s”, “Cream City’s”, and even “Milwaukee’s” were also associated with Milwaukee baseball teams in the early days. But the team that made “Brewers” synonymous with Milwaukee baseball formed in 1902.
This iteration of the Brewers, who played in the minor league American Association, remained in Milwaukee until the end of the 1952 season. The team played at Borchert Field, a ballpark that fit into the city block between 7th and 8th streets and Burleigh and Chambers.
It was watching this team at this field that prompted many of today’s elder Brewers fans to fall in love with the game of baseball. As Adam McCalvy notes, today’s Brewers’ organizational legends Bob Uecker and Bud Selig were among the fans who had some of their earliest baseball experiences watching the Brewers at Borchert Field.
This team’s combination of success on the field and eccentric ownership helped these Brewers win over the hearts of Milwaukeeans and ensured their lengthy tenure in the city. In the 1940’s, the team and organization became known for their antics that included various theme nights and even a new pitcher jumping out of a cardboard cake at one point. This team was also responsible for the creation of Barrelman who returned to the current Brewers’ mascot roster in 2015. Throughout their 50 years, these Milwaukee Brewers won 8 American Association championships.
As time went on, Borchert Field fell into disrepair and Milwaukee desired a major league team. Thus, Milwaukee County Stadium was built in hopes a major league team would move in. In 1953, the Braves happily obliged. It was for the best, but this left no room for the Brewers in Milwaukee.
Today’s Milwaukee Brewers
However, after the Braves moved out following the 1965 season, former Brewers fan Bud Selig led a coalition to bring baseball back to Milwaukee. In 1970, the group bought the Seattle Pilots and Selig changed the name to match his favorite childhood team.
It was the perfect choice.
Despite everything that’s changed in Milwaukee, the name “Brewers” is just as fitting for the city now as it was in the 1800s.