Steven D. Schmitt, author of A History of Badger Baseball: The Rise and Fall of America’s Pastime at the University of Wisconsin, tells us why we should remember Harvey Keunn and Red Wilson as Wisconsin baseball heroes. His book is published today by University of Wisconsin Press.
Some people remember Harvey Kuenn because they are Milwaukee Brewers fans. Harvey took over as Brewers manager in 1982 and led an underachieving team to a pennant with the philosophy, “Play ball and have fun.” The televised image of Kuenn smiling, tobacco chew in cheek, brings back memories for baseball fans.
Robert (Red) Wilson is not as well known. He led the Wisconsin Badgers to their only College World Series berth in 1950 and then played professionally for the Chicago White Sox. In 1954, a trade brought Wilson to Detroit where Harvey Kuenn was playing shortstop.
Wilson and Kuenn were teammates with the Detroit Tigers club until Kuenn was sent to Cleveland in the infamous Rocky Colavito trade on April 17, 1960. Shortly thereafter, Wilson joined Kuenn in Cleveland where “the Redhead” finished a ten-year major league career. Both Wilson and Kuenn hailed from Milwaukee, the former graduating from Washington High School and the latter from Lutheran High School.
In A History of Badger Baseball: The Rise and Fall of America’s Pastime at the University of Wisconsin, readers learn how Kuenn came to UW on a basketball scholarship but rewrote the baseball record book in numerous batting categories, striking out just once in the entire 1952 season. Kuenn and Co. dedicated brand-new Guy Lowman Field with an 11-0 victory over arch-rival Michigan and made the NCAA District playoffs, only to lose to the Western Michigan Broncos. Kuenn became the first Badger to receive a large bonus to sign with a big-league club—$55,000—and won the 1953 American League Rookie of the Year award as a preamble to a 15-year career.
Red Wilson did not make that kind of money, but he played in the majors for a decade. In 1958, he caught Detroit pitcher Jim Bunning’s no-hitter and stole 10 bases without being caught once. He helped the Badgers in preseason practice during his major league days and never forgot his Badger roots. He was a marvelous football player as well: a three-time UW Most Valuable Player and the Big Ten’s MVP in 1949, moving from center to end and winning the prestigious honor in his senior season.
Kuenn passed away from cancer at age 57 in 1988 while working with the Brewers in Arizona. After a long and successful banking career, Wilson remained in Madison and passed away on August 8, 2014, at age 85. His son, Jim, played baseball for Wisconsin from 1986 to 1989.
To some, Kuenn and Wilson may be just faces on old baseball cards or names in a baseball encyclopedia. But among Badger fans, they should forever be remembered as champions.
Society for American Baseball Research, the Old-Time Ballplayers Association of Wisconsin, and the Milwaukee Braves Historical Association.is a former news and sports reporter for several Wisconsin newspapers and radio stations. He writes the blog Home Run Historical Research and is a member of the