Posted on April 1, 2013
In honor of the baseball season, I am reposting of a past article I wrote for the Southern Food & Beverage’s blog, Okra, back in October 2011. Enjoy! (Unless you’re a Brewers fan.)
I’m in love with a St. Louis Cardinal’s fan. And though I have never been a baseball fan, by the transitive property of loving someone and wanting to share the things that make them happy, I have become a bit of a Cardinal’s fan myself. These past few weeks have been wonderful, as a season that was written off in August has blossomed into a possible World Series championship.
During most games, Lee (my beau) watches with intensity and I watch with curiosity. I’m still learning the game, and, in doing so, am also learning the teams, their players and personalities. The other night, we watched the Cardinals play the Brewers in Milwaukee. On a side note, I confess to affection for teams whose names show their blue-collar industry roots. The Steelers, the Packers, the Oilers (I know, I know, but they existed). One could even argue the Sonics and Astros are the industries of the future. Anyway, I like that Milwaukee honors its brewing heritage through its baseball team’s name. It’s a nice change from birds. There’s a lot of birds in baseball.
Anyway, halfway through the game, I spied the Brewers’ mascot. “Who’s that?” I asked Lee. “Bernie Brewer.” Unlike the Cardinals, who have a guy in a bird suit, the Brewers have a guy in a person suit. Bernie Brewer has shockingly yellow blonde hair and a handlebar mustache you could serve tea on. He appears cheerful enough and my interest would have stopped there had Lee not offered the following bit of info. “It used to be that every time the Brewers scored, Bernie would slide down a slide into a giant mug of beer. But he doesn’t do it anymore,” said Lee disgustedly. “Because of the kids.”
Well. My attention left the game and immediately focused on a Google search of “Bernie Brewer.” According to Wikipedia, source of all reliable information in the world, Bernie the Brewer has an admirable history. Forgive the direct quote, but Wikipedia is nothing if not thorough:
In late June 1970, when the Brewers were still a new team and having difficulty drawing spectators to their games at Milwaukee County Stadium, Milt Mason, a 69-year-old fan decided to camp out in a trailer atop the scoreboard until the team could draw a home crowd of 40,000. He was there for about 40 days. To the delight of a crowd of 44,387 on August 16, Mason descended from his trailer following the Brewers 4-3 win over the Indians. He slid down a rope from his perch sustaining burns to his hands and legs. Mason is recognized as the original Bernie Brewer.
The Bernie Brewer character became the team’s mascot in 1973, as a tribute to Mason, appearing as a cheerful man with a big mustache. … A beer-barreled chalet was built for him inside the stadium where he led the crowd in cheering. Following each home run and every victory by the Brewers, he slid down and plunged himself into a huge beer mug in celebration.
Bernie Brewer was a fixture at Brewers home games until 1984, when the Brewers re-built the bleachers, replacing the chalet with a sound tower and sending Bernie into retirement. By popular demand, Bernie Brewer came out of retirement in 1993, when the fans voted for his return. Bernie was brought back not as just a mustachioed man in lederhosen, but in a full-body costume of a man, including large foam head. The chalet was then rebuilt (it had been in storage on the third base side under the box seats) above the left-center field bleachers.
Ok, so the mascot is based on a real person who loved the team. Sliding down (something) comes from an historic Brewer’s event. A tradition is born. Of course, the Brewers’ organization ran with it. Our mascot needs somewhere to live. How about a chalet? Our mascot needs something to do. How about sliding into a giant mug of beer? Take a look at this set-up. It’s like the Swiss Family Robinson opened a micro-brewery and offered tours that ended with visitors plunging into a beer stein.
If I lived in Milwaukee and went to baseball games, I would have prayed for home runs, just to see anyone, much less a guy in a foam suit, slide into a mug of beer. What a joyous event. How could you not smile every time it happened?
Watching Bernie careen into the beer is not merely delightful. For many people, this would be a dream come true. Think about how much beer that act would require. Picture that kind of abundance. And it would all be yours. This is the kind of over-the-top gesture you might choose if you won the lottery. As soon as I learned Bernie’s story, I was reminded of a 17th century party I read about in Alicante, Spain. In 1694, Admiral Edward Russell, commander of the Mediterranean fleet, filled the fountain of the town square with several hundred gallons of punch and then hired a boy to paddle around the fountain in a small boat, ladling out the bounty to the 6000 guests. Bernie’s diving into a mug of beer echoes this notable punch bowl. It’s ridiculous and excessive, sure, but also wildly celebratory. Which is, of course, why Bernie doesn’t do it anymore. Celebrating alcohol is apparently the same thing as telling kids to drink too much of it while they are underage. So when the Brewers relocated from County Stadium to Miller Park, the beer dive got the ax. It was decided that instead of sliding into a vat of beer, Bernie would slide onto a platform in the shape of home plate. Yes, Bernie went from living out every one’s fantasy to doing something you see on any playground.
Leave it to America to be reliably hypocritical when it comes to vice. Because if you didn’t notice the name of the new stadium, I’ll italicize it for you. Miller. As in Miller Beer. Which they serve. And if you’ve forgotten what this team is called, I’ll remind you. The Brewers. Guess what brewers do? Make beer. The Brewer’s organization taking away Bernie’s stein of happiness is like Claude Rains in Casablanca, informing Humphrey Bogart that he is closing his cafe because he is “Shocked, shocked to find gambling in this establishment,” all the while, gathering his winnings.
Look Brewers, if you really wanted to make your park “family friendly,” if you really wanted to remove all the potentially nasty messages alcohol can convey to kids, then you’d cut the beer sales. But of course that’s not happening at MILLER PARK. And if making, selling and drinking beer were such dangers to the kiddies, then you’d change the name of your organization to something benign like the Accountants. But you didn’t, because that would be… ineffective.
Things didn’t improve much for Bernie when in 2009, Kalahari resorts bought the rights to the bottom platform, renamed it The Kalahari Splash Zone, and Bernie now slides into a pool of water. This change prompted the blog Chicago Tough to cheekily suggest that Bernie slide into a tub of antioxidant-rich cranberry juice. Because if the Brewers are going to send a message to the kids through Bernie, it may as well be a heart healthy one.
You would think that forced abstinence would be indignity enough for poor Bernie, but no. The move also brought Bernie some new digs. The chalet and stein were abandoned at County Stadium and now Bernie lives in a dugout. Bernie’s Dugout. Soooo not a chalet.
I watched the National League Championship Series with Lee, experiencing some sweet euphoria when they clinched the World Series berth. I can imagine how frustrated the Brewer’s fans felt about winning their division but not progressing to the Series. As a Saints fan, I have known lots of disappointment. When you go on a sustained losing streak, you start looking for answers. Many New Orleanians argued the Saints would never get to the Super Bowl because the Super Dome was built over a Native American grave site and the dead would not allow the Saints to win until their souls were at rest. During the Super Bowl run, I heard someone went out to the Dome and performed a ceremony to appease the spirits. Sports curse stories like this abound. The Chicago Cubs have The Curse of the Goat. The Boston Red Sox had the Curse of the Bambino.
I urge Brewers’ fans to explore the possibility that an unannounced, but still effective, curse has been placed on them from the grave by Milt Mason. Because I know that if I passed on, and a whole city decided to honor me by creating a mascot in my image and giving him a sweet looking home, equipped with its own beer pool, then took all of that away, I’d be really pissed off.
I looked up the Brewers’ record since the 1970s, and I think my theory is as supportable as any other Baseball Curse can be. When the Brewers temporarily banished Bernie from his chalet in the 1980s, they lost to the Cardinals in the World Series. (The Brewers were in the American League, for all those keeping track.). Folks dubbed it the Beer Series and you can’t expect a team short one Brewer (Bernie) to beat their Busch rivals. The fans insisted on bringing Bernie back in 1993, but even a ghost can feel snubbed, so their success stagnated. By 1996, things were turning around. Milt was doing his best to help from beyond the grave and probably got excited as he heard about moving to a new baseball park. Then Bam! No chalet, no more beer, just a dugout and a watery slide to nowhere. Those first four years after the move to Miller Stadium, the Brewers averaged losing 96 games a year. Clearly a sign. After that, I think Milt gave up paying attention to the season. He decided it was easier to get his revenge by allowing the Brewers to get close to the playoffs, but never see the big show.
By now, all you Brewers fans know what to do. Bernie must be returned to his chalet, not some hut, and allowed to once again, joyfully dive into his beer. Both are readily available. Russell Klisch, the owner of Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, bought the whole enchilada in 2000. Currently the chalet is on display at his brewery, where it has acted as the backdrop for parties and weddings. The slide is locked up, per legal counsel from his attorney who noted “unfettered public access to beer+ slide= hazard/lawsuit.” Klisch has offered to loan both chalet and slide to the team, stating “If the team contacts me and wants to borrow this stuff, I won’t stand in the way. These artifacts tie the old place into the new place, and would be a lot more fun than that wimpy thing they got going on with Bernie’s Dugout.”
By returning beer to its rightful place center stage/center field at the game, the Brewers organization would be doing more than just giving the fans something to smile about or even dream about. It would be a gesture of appreciation for an industry that is an integral part of Milwaukee’s history. It would show the kids that beer, which has brought delight, comfort, camaraderie and even employment to its city and citizens, is worth celebrating, ridiculously and effusively. And there’s absolutely no harm in that.