Tom Miller: Eden's finest spreads the word
Jim Gantner is an ideal choice to speak to young people about realizing their dreams.
Here is a guy from Eden, Wisconsin--population 200 or so--who then played baseball a couple of years at UW-Oshkosh before going on to play 17 seasons for the Milwaukee Brewers from 1976 to 1992.
The kid from Eden who bounced baseballs endlessly off his parents' garage door as a youngster now is 64 years old.
But when he addressed a group of Clinton High School students at 7 a.m. Tuesday during a leadership council breakfast, his love of the game still was evident—even though these students never saw him play.
Only a few knew who Hank Aaron was.
But for this writer, his message brought back memories of No. 17 who didn't back down from anyone, whether is was Reggie Jackson running the base paths or someone like Nolan Ryan buzzing fastballs inside.
Gantner told his young audience to have a dream and to do everything to accomplish that.
“My dream was to be a baseball player,” Gantner said. “But I had a backup dream. I was going into forestry. I was going to be with the DNR. I wanted to be in the outdoors.”
That never came into play. Gantner's determination to make it to the big leagues overcame his limitations—at 6-foot and 180 pounds—he was never going to overpower any one.
In fact, he went 1,762 at-bats without a home run.
There were others on the team to hit homers—Gorman Thomas, Ben Oglivie, Cecil Cooper, Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, to name a few.
Gantner, who got his nickname of Gumby because of his ability to turn double plays at second base, did the little things that escape most fans but delights teammates.
He told the young group of how the Reds and Pirates contacted him before the 1974 amateur draft, telling him they would draft him out of UW-Oshkosh. But it was the Brewers—the team located an hour south of his small hometown—that took him in the 12th round.
One would think he would have rushed out to Kelly's Bar on the UW-Oshkosh campus to celebrate. There was one hitch. He wasn't a Brewers fan.
Growing up, Gantner was a Braves fans. National League. When the Braves ditched Milwaukee for Atlanta in 1966, Gantner was 13. He remained loyal to the National League, even when the Seattle Pilots moved to Milwaukee in 1970.
When the Pilots became the Brewers, they played in the American League.
“To tell the truth, I was a Cubs fan. They were in the National League,” Gantner said.
This writer almost spit out the water he was drinking.
But the Brewers drafted him. He spent just two seasons in the minor leagues before he made the big leagues in 1976.
On that team was Henry Aaron, who Gantner had imagined being as he tossed ball after ball off the garage door as a youngster.
“Pretty lucky, wasn't it?” he asked the group.
And in Aaron's final game on Oct. 3, 1976, guess who manager Alex Grammas tapped on the shoulder to pinch run for Aaron after “Hammerin' Hank” reached on an infield single?
The kid from Eden.
“He got a standing ovation,” Gantner said of Aaron's departure to the dugout at Milwaukee County Stadium. “I tell all my friends, when I got to first, I tipped my hat.”
Gantner can joke about that. But he was serious about baseball throughout his 17-year career.
It was difficult to tell how much of an impact Gantner had on this group. They didn't see the 1982 Brewers with Pete Vukovich, Mike Caldwell, Thomas, Yount, Cooper, Molitor thrill the state by getting to the World Series.
The Brewers haven't been back since.
They weren't around when Gantner was on first when Dale Sveum hit the Easter Sunday home run to cap a five-run rally in the bottom of the ninth at County Stadium to give the Brewers a 12-0 start to the 1987 season.
Or when Gantner charged after the Yankees' Lou Piniella after the New York outfielder barreled into him on a play at third base in 1979.
“It was a good play for him,” Gantner said at the time. “It's part of the game, the same thing I would do. He said he wasn't trying to hurt me. Well, it put little excitement in the game.”
That is what the averaged-sized kid from Eden often did. He finished with 1,801 games played, 1,691 hits and a .274 batting average.
His message? If he could do that, kids from Clinton can do the same to achieve whatever goal they choose to chase.
But they better have the same dogged persistence that this 64-year-old man had back in the day.
“I got to the top, but it wasn't easy,” he said. “You have to sacrifice. Chase your dreams.”
Tom Miller is a sports writer/page designer for The Gazette.