An Improbable Lifelong Alliance
By Doug Russell
It can be said without serious argument that Bud Selig and Herb Kohl are the two most powerful people in
Wisconsin sports history. Improbably, they’ve also been the closest of friends their entire lives. How is it possible that two kids from ’s west side could grow so powerful without growing apart? Milwaukee
When you consider all of the individuals involved in the history of
Wisconsin sports, no two individuals have had more power than Bud Selig and Herb Kohl. Both saved their respective sports from professional extinction in . Selig nearly single-handedly brought baseball back to town in 1970, five years after the Braves had left for Atlanta; Kohl’s purchase of the Bucks in 1985 prevented an almost certain move because of the financial woes of playing at the tiny Milwaukee Arena. Milwaukee
Selig moved on to become Baseball Commissioner in 1992; Kohl was first elected to the United States Senate in 1988. But what is most improbable is that the two have been the closest of friends for nearly their entire lives.
It all began on
’s west side in 1940. Milwaukee
“We were brought up on the same block,” Kohl recalls. “I was on 51st and he was on
52nd Street, just north of Burleigh. We were just a few houses away from each other. ‘Through the alley’ as they say. We became friends when we were maybe 6 years old.”
Selig agrees. “Our parents were friendly,” he says. “We were raised about 100 feet from one another, and I think that from the fourth grade on, we went to school together.”
“Bud’s father and my father did some business together,” Kohl continued. “We took over a car dealership site at 76th and
Greenfield in when they abandoned it for a newer site for their showroom. We opened up a food store in their storefront. So there was that relationship between our folks, and Bud and I just would hang out all the time and mostly talk about sports.” West Allis
The two started out talking baseball at Sherman Elementary School, then on to Steuben Junior High School, Washington High School, and then finally to the University of Wisconsin, where they roomed together for their final three semesters at the Jewish fraternity Pi Lambda Phi.
It was quite a fraternity house, considering other members at the time included Steve Marcus, current Chairman of the Marcus Corporation; Franklyn Gimbel, Chairman of the Wisconsin Center District; and Lew Wolff, current owner of the Oakland Athletics.
Among them all, however, Selig and Kohl stood out as the closest of friends.
“I knew they would always be great and close friends of each other,” Wolff says today. “And they were two of the most dedicated to getting their education of anyone I ever knew. Both were high achievers and had and have high standards in anything they did at
. Thus, we all knew they were headed for success in anything they decided to do.” Madison
A Bond formed by Baseball
In the 1940’s, baseball truly was the National Pastime. The NBA didn’t even exist until 1949, and professional football hadn’t yet capitalized on television to increase its popularity to the masses. With no major league team to root for yet, the American Association’s Milwaukee Brewers were the hometown team.
“Oh, we went to Borchert Field together a lot,” Selig says. “We would take the bus down to Borchert Field a lot back in those days. We also went down to
a lot. We would take the train, the old Chicago line because in those days you could do that. Herb and I used to go to a lot of Cubs games down at Wrigley Field.” North Shore
Kohl, despite owning an NBA franchise for the last quarter-century, readily admits that baseball, shaped by those countless afternoons at Borchert field, was his first love. “We were just kids growing up and we enjoyed doing that sort of thing,” Kohl says. “Somehow we managed to become very good friends in the process, and it’s been a friendship that has held itself strong throughout a lifetime.”
It is a friendship, however, that had to withstand an early controversy.
The Curious Case of Jack Halser
Who is Jack Halser, and why is a sixth-grader from 1942 still the most hotly debated topic between the Commissioner of Baseball and a United States Senator? It all goes back to the playground at Sherman School.
“I was the captain of my team and Selig was the captain of his team,” Kohl recalls. “So there came the day in April or May where we faced off in the championship game, his team against mine. It was on a Saturday morning. We all got there for the warm-ups, and I noticed there was this huge, huge fellow who was getting ready to pitch for them. I had never seen this kid before. He must have been about 6 feet tall, and when you’re in the 6th grade, that’s really big.”
“He’s accused me to this day of using a ringer,” Selig counters.
“So I said to Selig,” Kohl retorts. “‘Who’s that kid warming up?’ He says ‘Oh, that’s Jack Halser. He’s just some kid I found on the street because our regular pitcher isn’t going to be here this morning.
“So we argued about that for a while, and finally Selig says ‘Quit your moaning, let’s play ball.’ On a spring morning, when someone says ‘let’s play ball’ it’s an intoxicant. So I finally agreed to play and this guy Halser strikes out every one of our guys!”
“Jack Halser was a kid in the sixth grade with us and he was on my team,” Selig fired back. “Herb seems to think he was some sort of ringer because he came in and dominated. He must have been the Sandy Koufax of our time, I guess. He came in and Herb lost. So, for the last 65 years he’s been trying to figure out why!”
Tongue somewhat in cheek, Kohl came right back at his lifelong friend. “Selig cheated me out of that game. I never forgot the kid, and I’ve held it against him all these years.”
While Selig and Kohl won’t ever see eye-to-eye on the Jack Halser incident from all those years ago, the fact that their Abbot and Costello routine is so finely honed after so long speaks to how close the two continue to be.
“We’re always kidding one another,” Selig concluded with a chuckle. “Why am I not surprised he brought up Jack Halser?”
After the 1965 baseball season, the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta. The NBA hadn’t had a team in Milwaukee since the Hawks short stay from 1951-1955. Professional sports in Wisconsin consisted solely of the Lombardi-era Packers. However, Bud Selig still longed for baseball. After his beloved Braves left town, he set out in a relentless pursuit to return his hometown to being a major league city.
“He worked at it all the time,” Kohl says. “Even while working at his car dealership, he worked at it all the time. Baseball was always his passion. He traveled around, got to know the Major League Baseball family. There were about 10 of us; I was one that was a part of his group that was gong to finance a deal, if it ever happened.”
It was about that same time that Kohl approached the NBA about an expansion team, meeting with then-Commissioner Walter Kennedy. While Kohl helped lay the groundwork for the Bucks, he was happy to step aside and let Wesley Pavalon and Marvin Fishman become the co-founders of the franchise. As it turned out, it wasn’t necessary for Kohl to step up and own the team for another 17 years.
Rise to Power
Bud Selig was a mere 35 years old when he was able to acquire the Seattle Pilots in April of 1970. While the re-named Brewers struggled throughout most of their first decade of existence, Selig had achieved his singular goal at the time; Milwaukee was major league once again.
Conversely, the Milwaukee Bucks were an almost instant success. Aided by the most important coin-flip in Wisconsin sports history, which gave them the right to draft UCLA’s Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), the Bucks were a 13-time playoff participant with one World Championship under their belts by 1985. Despite their success on the court, the Bucks financially were struggling and in danger of leaving. One persistent rumor at the time was relocation to Minneapolis, who boasted the mammoth Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome as a potential home arena. By contrast, the Milwaukee Arena was the smallest in the NBA and lacked any modern-day amenities.
Committed to keeping Milwaukee as an NBA city, Herb Kohl bought the Bucks for $20 million, joining his lifelong friend, Bud Selig, as the two owners of Milwaukee’s major professional sports franchises.
The rest, as they say, is history. Using his public good will from saving the Bucks as collateral, as well as millions of his own dollars spent on the campaign trail, Herb Kohl first won election to the United States Senate in 1988. In each of his subsequent three re-elections, Kohl has easily cruised to victory, the gap between him and his opponent widening with each run.
In 1992, Bud Selig became acting commissioner of baseball after the forced resignation of Fay Vincent. In 1998, he took the job on a permanent basis. Despite not always being popular with baseball players or fans, Selig enjoys unprecedented support amongst the 30 Major League owners, having won unanimous re-election every time his contract has come due.
Through it all, in good times and in bad; from their days on the Sherman School playground hustling ringers to their trips as teenagers to Borchert Field; from their days as college roommates in Madison to running their respective family businesses in Milwaukee; from owning both of the city’s major professional sports teams to their rise to national prominence; the one constant in the lives of Bud Selig and Herb Kohl have been each other.
“It really is a wonderful story,” Selig says. “It’s a friendship that is now 70 years old. That’s pretty good.”