The Evolution of Sports Venues in Milwaukee
By Chris Barlow
A pair of major Milwaukee sports teams have seen a rebirth in the early part of the 21st Century, as the Brew City franchises both secured new locations for their long-term viability. The Brewers scored big with the opening of Miller Park and the Bucks have now completed the renowned Fiserv Forum to much commercial and critical acclaim.
Yet the Sports venues in Milwaukee didn’t always fare so well. Let’s look back at the iconic, and not so iconic, local sports venues in our city’s great history.
Milwaukee, or “The Cream City” as it was called, and professional baseball have a long, rich bond that reaches back into the 1800s. Some early venues for those teams went by the names “Milwaukee Base-Ball Grounds,” “Wright Street Grounds,” and “Lloyd Street Grounds.”
The 19th century venue with the most notoriety was Athletic Park or Brewer Field, later to be renamed as Borchert Field. This site hosted its first baseball game in May 1888 and was located between North Seventh and Eighth Streets and West Chambers and Burleigh. Borchert Field was Milwaukee’s major sports venue for 64 years.
When it opened, it was the home of the Milwaukee Creams, who were later renamed the Brewers. The Creams were members of the Western League and played at Borchert Field through the 1894 season. After the major league American Association merged into the National League in 1892, the Milwaukee franchise was discontinued.
In 1902, an independent minor league formed named the American Association, which included a new Milwaukee Brewers club as part of its line-up. The baseball park was officially renamed after the purchase of the Brewers by Milwaukee capitalist Otto Borchert in the 1920’s. Its original seating capacity was 4,800 but was later expanded to hold 10,000 patrons.
Borchert Field was also home to the Milwaukee Bears, an entry in the Negro Leagues, and the Milwaukee Chicks of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The Chicks won a pennant in their only year of operation.
Bob Buege, Milwaukee’s foremost historian on the venue, said baseball legends from Babe Ruth to Satchel Paige, Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson played there but baseball was not the exclusive tenant.
“Olympic heroes Jim Thorpe, Babe Didrikson, and Jesse Owens displayed their amazing talents in Borchert,” Buege said “Knute Rockne’s Fighting Irish competed there, and Curly Lambeau’s Green Bay Packers took the field 10 times.”
Buege said other important events at Borchert included a presidential visit, the 1922 national balloon race and an appearance by legendary blues singer Cab Calloway.
In 1953, Borchert was put to bed due to the opening of Milwaukee County Stadium. The new venue was constructed in the Menomonee Valley, at the current site of Miller Park, and hosted the Braves, Brewers and the White Sox during its existence.
The first professional football team to play home games in Milwaukee was the NFL franchise the Milwaukee Badgers. When the fledgling league granted the Badgers a franchise in 1922, they began to play at Borchert Field and continued until folding from financial difficulties in 1926.
The Green Bay Packers stepped in to fill the southern Wisconsin void left by the Badgers and sought to be the “State of Wisconsin” franchise. In 1934, they began to play in the infield of the State Fair Park track, a place that soon earned the nickname “the Dairy Bowl.” This spot was the site of an NFL Championship game in 1939 as the Green Bay Packers posted a 27–0 shutout of the New York Giants on Dec. 10. securing their fifth league title.
The Packers played there until 1951 before moving to Marquette Stadium in 1952, and then to County Stadium from 1953 to 1994. There has not been any professional football played in the Brew City since the Packers moved all their games to Lambeau Field after the 1994 season. Marquette University played on their home field in Merrill Park until they disbanded the program in 1960.
The only other pro football team to play in Milwaukee was the AFL Milwaukee Chiefs, who made the Dairy Bowl their home in 1940 and 1941.
Marquette University played at the Marquette Gymnasium, 1530 W Clybourn St. from 1922 until 1950, when the Milwaukee Arena opened. The arena was renamed the MECCA in 1974, is still in use by the Panthers and Milwaukee Admirals, and currently goes by the name UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.
This venue, with a capacity just short of 11,000, housed the NBA franchises the Hawks from 1951 to 1955 and the Bucks from 1968 to 1988, and even hosted the NBA All-Star game in 1977.
The Bucks and Marquette moved to the newly built Bradley Center in 1988, in an effort to lure an NHL Hockey team to Milwaukee. The venue served as a bridge that kept the Bucks in town until the new arena gave them long term viability. The Bradley Center has since been torn down, but interestingly, before it’s destruction, it became the site of some training by various military and police entities for terrorist response exercises.
The Milwaukee Theater has also been the site of hoops games, and all four of these Milwaukee basketball sites were still standing in 2018.
Milwaukee’s pugilistic venues included The Eagles Club/Rave on Wisconsin Avenue, the Marquette Gym, and the Milwaukee Arena. Boxing’s profile has waned since the 20th century and the large venues have given way to local gyms as the sites for their local matches.
The Arena and the Bradley Center have been the home to the Milwaukee Admirals and along with the Petit Ice arena (long track ice skating and Olympic training venue) are the only significant local venues where hockey has been played. Borchert Field was iced over in the winter some years, and hosted hockey and other skating events for fans brave enough to venture out into the cold Milwaukee winters.
Professional football in the city of Milwaukee had a short and tumultuous run. Scandal, a bad fiduciary plan, and little success on the field helped bring about the demise of Milwaukee’s only NFL franchise named the Badgers.
Founded in 1922 by a pair of Chicago Sports Promoters, Joe Plunkett and Ambrose McGuirk, the Badgers were one of four new teams who joined a nascent and newly renamed National Football League.
The ownership group was aggressive at the start and lured pro star Fritz Pollard away from the Akron Pros, but injuries derailed their season and they finished with a 2-4-3 record. In their second season they finished 7-2-3 which also included two losses to the Green Bay Packers.
Those losses, and two more in 1924, proved prophetic as Green Bay began to assert itself as the “State of Wisconsin’s team.” The downward slide of the Badgers continued in 1925, as they lost all six scheduled games and were outscored 132-7.
A 59-0 defeat at the hand of the Chicago Cardinals on December 10, 1925, was surrounded in controversy as both teams used high school players after the Cardinals scheduled the game in an effort to wrestle the NFL Championship away from the Pottsville Maroons. The Cardinals and Badgers were each fined, and the beginning of the end was in motion. McGuirk was ordered to sell the team, and in 1925, control of the Milwaukee franchise was placed into the hands Player-Coach Johnny Bryan.
The 1925 season included a pair of shutouts to the Green Bay Packers and a 2-7 record. The final game for the Badgers was a 10-7 loss on the road against the Chicago Bears on November 14th. Lack of funds due to the scandal and attendance woes forced the franchise’s demise.
The Badgers folded, having never beaten the Packers.