Today we continue our annual tradition of taking a moment before turning the calendar to a new year to remember figures from the Brewers’ and Wisconsin’s baseball history that we’ve lost over the last twelve months.
This year has been difficult for so many and for so many reasons, of course, and that’s reflected here: Seventeen former Brewers, Milwaukee Braves, Wisconsin natives and others with ties to baseball in Wisconsin passed away this year, as compared to 12 last year.
Thanks as always to Stathead and David Schultz for their help compiling this list. While the list is comprehensive to the best of our knowledge, please let us know in the comments if we missed anyone.
Ed Sprague, age 74, passed away on January 10
A native of Boston, Sprague had pitched parts of five seasons in the majors as a member of three organizations when the Brewers purchased him from the Cardinals in September of 1973. In Milwaukee he found an opportunity to do something he’d rarely done before: Emerge from the bullpen and start games.
Sprague was very good in a swingman role for the 1974 team, making 10 starts and ten relief appearances and posting a 2.39 ERA while working a career-high 94 innings. He returned to the Brewers for the 1975 and 1976 seasons but was unable to match that success, was released in 1976 and never played pro ball again.
Sprague’s son, also named Ed Sprague, played in the majors from 1991-2001, was an All Star third baseman as a Pirate in 1999 and won World Series with the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993.
Narciso Elvira, age 52, passed away on January 29
A native of Tlaxlixcoyan, Mexico, Elvira signed with the Brewers in December of 1986 and went on to become one of the organization’s top pitching prospects. After a successful season with low-A Beloit and two with High-A Stockton, Baseball America rated Elvira as the #23 prospect in all of baseball before the 1990 season. He had pitched above A-ball just four times when the Brewers called him up to the majors that September and used him four times in relief.
Those four relief appearances, unfortunately, are the full extent of Elvira’s MLB ledger. He returned to the minors in 1991 (where Baseball America again listed him as a Top 100 prospect) but was unable to repeat his success. He eventually pitched in Japan, Korea and back in his native Mexico before calling it a career in 2009.
Elvira had previously been targeted by Mexican gangs, including a 2015 kidnapping. In January he and his 20-year-old son were ambushed in their car and shot.
Angel Echevarria, age 48, passed away on February 7
A Rutgers University alum, Echevarria had played parts of five seasons in the majors with the Rockies when the Brewers claimed him off waivers during the 2000 season. Over portions of the next two years he would play in 106 games for Milwaukee as a pinch hitter, first baseman and corner outfielder.
After his brief Brewers tenure was over Echevarria spent a season with the Cubs, then two in Japan as a member of the Nippon Ham Fighters. He was running a baseball instruction business in his hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut and passed suddenly after falling and hitting his head. Jack Etkin of Forbes has much more on his life.
Tony Fernandez, age 57, passed away on February 16
A five-time All Star, four-time Gold Glove winner at shortstop and the owner of a World Series ring from the 1993 Blue Jays, it looked like Fernandez’s baseball career was all but over when he joined the Brewers for spring training in 2001, attempting a comeback after sitting out the entire 2000 season. Fernandez, however, cracked the Brewers’ Opening Day roster and played in 28 of their first 40 games, capped by a performance on May 16 where he homered for just the 93rd time in his 17 MLB seasons. The Brewers released him two weeks later and he returned to Toronto for a fourth and final stint with the Blue Jays.
Fernandez logged 2,276 hits and over 1,000 runs in his 2,158 MLB games, making him one of just 158 players in MLB history to do both. In 2007 he appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot but did not receive enough votes to be considered a second time. Steve Gardner of USA Today wrote an obituary for him.
Johnny Antonelli, age 89, passed away on February 28
Antonelli’s 12-year MLB career started with some notoriety: In 1948 he received an amateur signing bonus in excess of $50,000, the largest in MLB history, and joined the Boston Braves as an 18-year-old. Without ever having played a game in the majors Antonelli was earning more than twice as much as Braves ace Johnny Sain. He pitched rarely, did not appear in the postseason and despite the fact that he was on the roster all year his teammates voted not to award him a World Series share.
Five years later Antonelli had pitched parts of three seasons in the majors and served in the military for two years in Korea when he returned to the big leagues and followed the Braves to Milwaukee for the 1953 season. He pitched in 31 games for the inaugural club, posting a 3.18 ERA across 175 1/3 innings. Following that season the Braves traded him to the Giants in a six-player deal and he went on to win both the ERA title and a World Series in New York in 1954. Antonelli eventually returned to Milwaukee for the final nine games of his MLB career in 1961. He was a six-time All Star.
Antonelli’s passing leaves just three surviving members of the 1953 Braves: Del Crandall, Joey Jay and Mel Roach. Alexander Edelman wrote Antonelli’s SABR Bio.
Don Pavletich, age 81, passed away on March 5
A Milwaukee native and West Allis Nathan Hale High School alum, Pavletich signed with the Reds in 1957 and made his MLB debut later that same season, facing his hometown Milwaukee Braves. After brief stints with the Reds in 1957 and 1959 he stuck with the team in 1962 and went on to play 12 MLB seasons as a catcher and first baseman, appearing in 536 games.
Pavletich’s playing career ended just down the road from where it started: In 1971 the Red Sox sent him to the Brewers in the ten-player deal that brought George Scott to Milwaukee and sent Tommy Harper to Boston. The Brewers, however, released Pavletich near the end of spring training and he never played in the majors again. He remained in the area, however, where he worked in real estate for many years. He was still living in Brookfield when he passed away. Bill Nowlin wrote his SABR Bio.
Bill Bartholomay, age 91, passed away on March 25
After working in the insurance industry for several years, in November of 1962 Bartholomay was just 34 years old when he was part of a group that purchased the Milwaukee Braves from then-owner Lou Perini, who had moved the team from Boston about a decade earlier.
Bartholomay, who lived in Chicago, would soon start the process of moving the team to Atlanta to become MLB’s first outpost in the deep south. The move was controversial and drawn out and made Bartholomay an extremely unpopular figure during the franchise’s final three years in Milwaukee and beyond. In 1976 he sold the Braves to Ted Turner, but remained with the team as chairman.
Jim Wynn, age 78, passed away on March 26
Nicknamed “The Toy Cannon,” Wynn played 15 MLB seasons, including eleven in Houston, before passing through Milwaukee on the final tour of his career. The Brewers were the second of two teams for Wynn in 1977 and he played 36 games with them, struggling to recapture the skills that had made him one of baseball’s most patient power hitters.
Despite a .175 batting average, .289 on-base and .237 slugging in his disastrous final season, Wynn finished his career with a .366 on-base percentage and drew 1,224 walks, walking nearly as often as he got a hit (1,665 times). Mark Armour wrote his SABR Bio.
Ed Farmer, age 70, passed away on April 1
Better known for his work elsewhere, Farmer pitched three games with the 1978 Brewers as part of his return from a three-year stint largely out of baseball. He worked eleven innings for the Crew in relief that September and allowed just one run, and the Brewers traded him to the Rangers that winter. Even with that long gap in his career Farmer pitched 11 MLB seasons and was an All-Star with the 1980 White Sox.
Farmer is likely best remembered for his other career in Chicago: He was a radio broadcaster for the White Sox for 30 years, even calling one game this spring just weeks before his passing. He had been the team’s play-by-play man on broadcasts since 2006. RIPBaseball.com has much more on his life.
Arnold Umbach, age 77, passed away on May 30
A veteran of the Little League World Series, Umbach was a wild but effective minor leaguer in the Milwaukee Braves’ organization in the early 1960’s before eventually getting the call to make a spot start in the majors on the season’s second-to-last day in 1964. In his big league debut he pitched 8 1/3 innings and worked around eleven hits, allowing five runs in a game the Braves won 11-5.
Umbach returned to the minors for the 1965 season and by the time he resurfaced in the big leagues in 1966 the Braves had moved on to Atlanta. He pitched 22 times (three starts) for the Braves in their first season in the south, then was never called upon to perform in the majors again. David E. Skelton wrote his SABR Bio.
Frank Bolling, age 88, passed away on July 11
The younger brother of seven-year MLB infielder Milt Bolling, Frank played 12 years in the big leagues as a second baseman and was something of a star on the Milwaukee Braves’ final teams in Milwaukee. After joining the team in a six-player trade in December of 1960 Bolling proceeded to play in the next four All-Star Games, two each in 1961 and 1962 (the final years where two games were played).
Bolling played 680 games for the Braves during their final five seasons in Milwaukee, then retired after one partial season in Atlanta. RIP Baseball has his obituary.
Bob Sebra, age 58, passed away on July 22
A fifth round pick in the 1983 draft, Sebra had pitched parts of five seasons in the majors as a Ranger, Expo, Phillie and Red when the Brewers acquired him in a four-player trade that sent Glenn Braggs to Cincinnati in June of 1990. He immediately joined the bullpen in Milwaukee and was heavily used there, pitching in ten of the Brewers’ next 17 games.
Sebra’s MLB career ended in ugly fashion later that same month, when he triggered a brawl by hitting Tracy Jones of the Mariners with a pitch. He was one of eight players suspended for the incident but the Brewers opted to send him to AAA instead of waiting for his return, and he never pitched in the majors again. RIP Baseball has more on that incident specifically and Sebra’s baseball life in general.
Bert Thiel, age 94, passed away on July 31
A native of Marion, Wisconsin, Thiel was a longtime minor leaguer whose lone opportunity in the majors came early in the Boston Braves’ final season. He pitched four games for the Braves that April before returning to the minors.
Thiel was one of two surviving players who appeared in a game for the Boston Braves. The other is the aforementioned Del Crandall. Dennis Degenhardt and Thomas Van Hyning wrote his SABR Bio.
Hal Raether, age 87, passed away on September 26
A Lake Mills, Wisconsin native and UW-Madison alum, Raether was signed out of college by the Philadelphia A’s in 1954 and immediately added to their big league roster and debuted on July 4 of that year, the only MLB game he would pitch that season. Raether returned to the minors in 1955 but was drafted and served in the Army, causing him to miss most of the 1955 and 1956 seasons. He eventually returned to baseball and pitched one more game in the majors in 1957, the second and final of his MLB career.
Per his obituary, Raether was a teacher and coach in the Milwaukee area following his playing career, then became the athletic director for the Minneapolis Athletic Club.
Lou Johnson, age 86, passed away on October 1
Credited as being the first black major leaguer from Lexington, Kentucky, Johnson’s first three stints in the big leagues were brief: He was a Cub for 34 games in 1960, made just one appearance and never batted for the 1961 Angels, then played in 61 games for the 1962 Milwaukee Braves. He performed well that season, batting .282 with a .349 on-base and .453 slugging, but had to wait a while for another opportunity: The Braves traded him the following May and he didn’t appear in the majors again until 1965.
Johnson is likely best remembered for what happened next: He homered twice for the Dodgers in the 1965 World Series, including the long ball that plated the first run in a 2-0 Game Seven victory. In 2004 the City of Lexington renamed a street “Lou Johnson Way” in his honor. The Lexington Herald Leader has much more on his life.
Denis Menke, age 80, passed away on December 1
A utility infielder, Menke made his major league debut with the 1962 Milwaukee Braves and stuck with the team for their final four seasons in the city before following them to Atlanta in 1966. His Baseball Reference page says his nicknames were “Menk,” which makes some sense, and “Tomato Face,” although neither his SABR Bio nor his obituary explain that one.
All told, Menke played 13 seasons in the majors and was an All Star for the Astros in 1969 and 1970. He played in the postseason twice, including for the Reds in the 1972 World Series.
Phil Niekro, age 81, passed away on December 26
A 24-year MLB pitcher, five-time All Star and Gold Glove winner and a Hall of Famer, “Knucksie” started his unique major league career in Milwaukee; He pitched 51 games (one start) for the Braves in their last two seasons in County Stadium in 1964 and 1965.
Niekro is well known, of course, for being one of the most prolific knuckleballers in MLB history. He’s the subject of one of Bob Uecker’s most famous anecdotes, where he said the best way to catch a knuckleball was to “wait for it to stop rolling and pick it up.” Niekro, for his part, credited Uecker with encouraging him to throw his knuckleball more often and in all counts.
Despite not playing in his first All-Star game until age 30, Niekro eventually was selected to five of them. The last came in 1984, when he was already 45 years old. Niekro pitched over 5,400 innings in the majors across 24 seasons, recording 318 wins and a 3.35 career ERA. When he retired in 1987 he was the last active former Milwaukee Brave, 22 years after the franchise had relocated. He was selected to the Hall of Fame in 1997, his fifth season of eligibility. Tom Hufford wrote his SABR Bio.