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Selig, Kohl, Marcus and others bonded at UW fraternity before going on to greatness

SOME 60 YEARS LATER, MANY OF HIS UW FRATERNITY BROTHERS WILL ATTEND BUD SELIG'S INDUCTION INTO THE HALL OF FAME IN COOPERSTOWN.

Story by Tom Haudricourt, courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Photo: UW Digital Collections

Photo: UW Digital Collections

When Bud Selig steps to the podium next Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y., to deliver his acceptance speech during induction ceremonies for the Baseball Hall of Fame, there will be many familiar faces in what is expected to be an enormous crowd.

One group of men will be viewed with particular fondness by Selig, linked by a unique bond that has endured for more than a half century. Herb Kohl, Steve Marcus and Lewis Wolff will be joined by others who first met as members of Pi Lambda Phi fraternity at the University of Wisconsin in the mid to late 1950s.

“All of his associates and fraternity brothers, we feel we’re getting in (the Hall of Fame), too,” Wolff said. “We identify with Bud so much.”

By any measure of future success, the group of young men who gathered daily at the Pilam fraternity house was an extraordinary bunch. There were those who went on to become prominent attorneys, businessmen, physicians and leaders of men in their communities but it went far beyond that with some. And it all started with childhood friends Selig and Kohl, who grew up on the West side of Milwaukee and stayed together through every level of education.

“We grew up a half block from each other,” said Kohl, whose family lived on 51st Boulevard. “We went to Sherman School together, then Steuben Junior High and Washington High School. Then it was on to UW. We were very close, so it was no surprise we ended up in the same fraternity.”

It’s difficult to imagine a pair of college roommates going on to greater things than Selig and Kohl, each destined for individual greatness.

Kohl would serve in the Army Reserve before getting his professional career started in financial investing, then the family grocery and department store businesses before buying the Milwaukee Bucks and going on to serve 24 years as U.S. senator from Wisconsin. Not a bad life path.

Selig would return to Milwaukee to work in the family car business but had little interest in making that his livelihood. An avid baseball fan, he made it his mission to return Major League Baseball to his hometown after the Braves bolted for Atlanta in 1965. Selig led the group that founded the Milwaukee Brewers five years later and went on to become commissioner of baseball, serving a 22-year term that morphed from turbulent to transformational.

As if that weren’t enough, Selig was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in December and will be inducted with four others on his 83rd birthday, gaining immortality in the sport he loves so dearly.

Marcus arrived in Madison from Milwaukee a year after Selig and Kohl, and was new to both cities. Marcus was born in Minneapolis but spent parts of his childhood in Ripon and Oshkosh, where he went to high school before his family moved to Milwaukee. He, too, pledged Pi Lambda Phi, where he quickly noticed Selig’s affinity for baseball.

“That’s about all he thought about,” Marcus recalled. “We’d come back to the fraternity house, especially in the spring, and he always had a baseball game on. In those days, it was just radio. He knew what games were being played and how to find them.”

Like Selig and Kohl, Marcus would return to Milwaukee and become a huge success, joining the entertainment and hotel corporation founded by his father, Ben (Selig’s father also was named Ben). He is chairman of the board of the Marcus Corporation, which owns or manages 895 movie screens in eight states as well as 17 hotels, resorts and other properties in nine states, including the venerable Pfister Hotel downtown.

Wolff, who arrived at UW that same year from St. Louis, said Selig and Kohl were more focused as students than he was initially.

“We were in the fraternity together but they were in the library most of the time,” Wolff said. “I didn’t know where the library was until I was a junior.

“From the day I met Bud, I told him he was the 15th man picked on a nine-man team, but he never missed a fraternity or college game in any sport. He was always there rooting. He had an unbelievable passion, especially for baseball, for somebody who wasn’t that active physically in it.”

Wolff, 81, was destined to make his mark as a baseball owner as well. He first launched a career as a real estate mogul in the Bay Area of northern California and was credited with the redevelopment and revitalization of downtown San Jose. He joined an ownership group that purchased the Oakland Athletics in 2005 and remained a managing partner until selling his share of the club last November.

The fraternity success stories from those years went on and on. Frank Gimbel would become a dogged legal prosecutor before switching sides to criminal defense attorney in Milwaukee. Known in town as “Mr. Clout, he also served many years as chairman of the Wisconsin Center District.

Bill Grinker went to Harvard Law and landed in New York City, where he became a successful director and consultant to the small business community. Mel Pearl returned home to Chicago and became senior partner of a huge law firm.

Not exactly the bunch of losers that partied all day and night at Delta Tau Chi fraternity in the movie “Animal House.”

“It is unique,” said Kohl, 82, whose younger brother, Allen, also was a fraternity member. “A lot of the guys have gone on to have very successful lives. We’ve stayed in touch with each other. We’ve had several reunions of that fraternity over the years. A bunch of them have been in Milwaukee. It’s always good to see everyone.”

There will be another reunion of sorts in a week at Cooperstown. Wolff is making the 3,000-mile journey from California on his private jet, stopping in Phoenix to pick up fraternity brothers Don Sandler and Jim Metz.

“It will be a long jaunt but it will be worth it,” Wolff said. “I would not miss this, period.

“He still stays in touch with so many of us. People are just drawn to Bud. He really was a born leader. If you stamped out a list of leadership, Bud’s name would be at the top.”

Wolff watched Selig exercise his leadership skills in getting UW football player Charlie Thomas, an African-American running back who played behind Heisman Trophy winner Alan Ameche, in their mostly Jewish fraternity. This was years before the Civil Rights movement reached its peak, and Wolff said Thomas’ proposed membership “was a big deal in those days.”

“Bud and a few of us thought he’d be great for the fraternity but he had to be voted in,” Wolff recalled. “Some of the guys were not excited about it. I remember Bud saying, ‘We’re going to stay here in this meeting as long as it takes, even if it goes into the next day, to settle this in a fair way.’ And, so, Charlie eventually was voted in, and we loved him.”

Selig called that night “an interesting experience” but never considered it controversial to bring Thomas into the all-white fraternity. He and Thomas had become good friends, spending nights together in the library and stopping on the way back to their rooms to eat burgers at a joint they called “Greasy George’s.”

“He was a wonderful human being; I loved Charlie,” said Selig, who long has considered the seminal moment in major-league history to be Branch Rickey integrating the game with Jackie Robinson.

“The guys really liked him. It wasn’t because he was a football player. He later became superintendent of all the suburban Chicago schools. He was a remarkable guy.”

Many years later, when Wolff owned the Oakland A’s, he often watched Selig work a room in similar fashion as commissioner. Selig became the consummate consensus builder, cajoling, pleading and often pestering owners until they saw things his way and voted as he desired.

“He could be very persuasive,” Wolff said. “That’s what made him a successful commissioner.”

Selig’s fraternity brothers watched him use those same skills to lead the charge to get Miller Park built when the future of the Brewers in Milwaukee was at stake in the late ‘90s. Kohl said Selig had become accustomed to getting his way as far back as the sixth grade, when the two friends were captains of peewee baseball teams that advanced to the league championship game.

“We were both undefeated and playing for the championship on a Saturday morning,” Kohl said. “We get to the field and we start warming up, and we see this big, tall guy, well over 6 feet tall, come in and start warming up.

“I said, ‘Selig, who is this guy?’ He says, ‘Well, my regular pitcher, Freddie, couldn’t make it, so we got this guy.’ I said, ‘Why isn’t Freddie here?’ He said, ‘Freddie wouldn’t drink his orange juice so his mother wouldn’t let him come.’ We had a big fight about it and Selig said, ‘Quit your whining and let’s play ball.’

“So, I relented and we did and, sure enough, this guy pitches a no-hitter against us and we lost, 9-0. Selig wanted to win so badly, he puts this ringer out there. I never saw the kid again. He disappeared after the game.

“So, fast-forward all those years later and I turn on the television, and Bud Selig has just become the commissioner. He’s holding a big press conference and he says, “My No. 1 responsibility is to protect the integrity of the game.” I looked at the TV and said, ‘This is the guy who brought the ringer to win the game in the sixth grade.’”

Asked about Kohl's account of that day, Selig smiled broadly and said, "Herbie loves telling that story. The only problem is it's not true."

Kohl, of course, was speaking with mock contempt about Selig's integrity. As longtime owner of the Bucks before selling the club three years ago, he knew the importance of a commissioner who looks out for the sport, not his own reputation and popularity. Selig took an early hit over the labor war that led to the cancellation of the ’94 World Series and caught flak about overseeing the game during the so-called “Steroid Era” but Kohl said his childhood friend kept his eye on the ball.

“He devoted his life to baseball in various ways,” said Kohl, who also hopes to attend Selig’s induction ceremony. “First of all, getting the team back to Milwaukee. He was a great owner. Then he became commissioner and did a wonderful job.

“He saw the sport through some of the darkest days that weren’t his fault. He grew the game in every way and left it in outstanding shape. He has done great things in the game of baseball and wonderful things for Milwaukee. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame and I’m very happy for him, and very proud of him.”

Kohl and Selig remained loyal not only to their fraternity buddies but also their alma mater through philanthropy. Kohl provided the lead gift for the Kohl Center athletic facility and founded the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation, which provides grants to students and teachers. Selig established the Allan H. Selig Chair in History in 2010, has helped create scholarships for students and serves as a guest lecturer in the history department.

More than 60 years after an extraordinary group of young men bonded at Pi Lambda Phi, inspired each other and set their course for future success, many will unite in Cooperstown in support of Selig. According to Marcus, 82, it is the least they can do to celebrate the ultimate achievement of one of their own.

“That says more about Buddy than it does about the rest of us,” said Marcus, who will make his first trip to Cooperstown. “When he became the commissioner, he could have put all of us in his rear-view mirror. And he never did that. He could have put Milwaukee in his rear-view mirror. He didn’t do that, either.

“He insisted on staying here and has been a major contributor to the community in many ways. It was amazing that he laid down that marker and it actually happened, and that we would be the home base of Major League Baseball. When you think about how difficult the beginning days of his commissionership were, it’s really amazing. But all he went through in getting problems straightened out, and how much patience and determination that took, it helps you understand why this is so well deserved.

“He’s very excited about it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him quite as excited about anything, except maybe becoming a great grandfather.”

Selig is beyond thrilled that so many of his fraternity brothers will be on hand to witness his induction into the Hall of Fame. But, looking back at those years when a group of young men united before going on to great success, he said there was no way to forecast what lied ahead.

“We were just kids,” he said. “I can’t give you any logic for it. Herb and I were big sports fans. We talked about things that everybody talked about.

“Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine this would happen. It turned out to be an amazing group.”

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Peter Jackel: My Mount Rushmores of Wisconsin sports

Since 1941, the majestic sculpture of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt in the Black Hills of Keystone, S.D., have represented one of the most iconic and enduring images of the United States.

I am thus inspired to present my “Mount Rushmore” of sports in Wisconsin, both at the local and state levels. For better or worse, here’s what I offer for your consumption:

PACKERS: Bart Starr, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, Don Hutson

Comment: The first three are obvious. The fourth was a real challenge considering Reggie White, James Lofton and Forrest Gregg are among the other greats who played for the Packers. The choice falls to Hutson, a receiver who revolutionized his position during his Packers career from 1935-45.

BREWERS: Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Prince Fielder, Rollie Fingers

Comment: As great as Yount was, Molitor is my choice for the greatest Brewer. He is 10th all-time in major league history with 3,319 hits. Had he not missed most of the 1984 season with an injury, Molitor easily could be in the top five.

BRAVES: Henry Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette

Comment: What’s remarkable to me is Aaron won only one National League MVP award during his 23-year-career. No player has ever intrigued me more than Spahn, who didn’t win his first major league game until the age of 25 and finished with 363 victories. At the age of 44 in 1965, he finished his career with the Giants by compiling a 3.39 earned run average in 71⅔ innings. And then he was released. How many millions would such a performance be worth these days?

BUCKS: Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Sidney Moncrief, Giannis Antetokounmpo

Comment: The Bucks have abused the ridiculous practice of retiring numbers as much as any sports organization, with eight numbers hanging in the rafters to show for their one NBA championship. But Abdul-Jabbar is one of the five greatest players of all time. Robertson is still in the top 20 in NBA history. And it’s remarkable to think Antetokounmpo is still only 22.

UW FOOTBALL: Russell Wilson, Ron Dayne, J.J. Watt, Joe Thomas

Comment: I was so tempted to put Brent Moss on this list and it doesn’t have anything to do with being a homer. Let us not forget that the former Park High School All-State running back was the focal point on the first Badgers team to win a Rose Bowl in January 1994. And that team laid the foundation for the football excellence that has been on display in Madison ever since. And I do realize Alan Ameche won the Heisman Trophy in 1954, but I just cannot omit any of the four names listed above.

RACINE COUNTY HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: Tony Romo, Burlington; Brent Moss, Park; Kevin Barry, Park; Johnny Clay, Park

Comment: It hurts not to include Chris Maragos, the only player from Racine County to earn a Super Bowl championship ring and who might end up with the longest NFL career of any Racine County player. But Barry and Clay are the only two county Players to ever be named the AP Player of the Year in Wisconsin. Moss was the Rose Bowl and Big Ten MVP during the 1993 season. And the recently retired Romo is, statistically, one of the five greatest passers in NFL history.

RACINE COUNTY BOYS BASKETBALL: Jim Chones, St. Catherine’s; Robert Berryhill, Horlick; Caron Butler, Park; Jim McIlvaine, St. Catherine’s

Comment: I will always remember Berryhill as the Michael Jordan of county basketball during his time at Horlick from 1983-86. He was really someone to see. As for McIlvaine, let’s not forget that he was the AP Player of the Year in Wisconsin as a senior at St. Catherine’s in 1990 and was a legitimate defensive game-changer who was given a seven-year $33.6 million contract by the Seattle SuperSonics in 1996.

RACINE COUNTY GIRLS BASKETBALL: Sonja Henning, Horlick; LaTonya Sims, Park; Samantha Logic, Case; Keisha Anderson, Park

Comment: A strong argument could be made that Henning is the greatest athlete to come out of the county. She was the AP Player of the Year in basketball in Wisconsin as a senior at Horlick in 1987, is the all-time leading scorer among boys or girls in county history and was a first-team All-America for Stanford in 1991 (a year after she started on its national championship team).

STATE COACHES: Vince Lombardi, Al McGuire, Dick Bennett, Bo Ryan

Comment: The legend of Lombardi burns as brightly as ever going on 50 years after he coached his last game for the Packers. Ryan never won a national championship, but he might have done more with less – relatively speaking – than any coach in college basketball history. He wasn’t getting elite one-and-done players. He made a career of masterfully molding role players into dominating teams that exponentially raised the profile of UW basketball.

Story by Peter Jackel, Courtesy of The Journal Times.

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“Immortalized in Bronze:” Man writes book about WI sports legends inducted into Athletic Hall of Fame

MILWAUKEE -- Some of the greatest athletes in American history have connections to Wisconsin. Now, those standouts are being recognized -- for being recognized.

The physical future of sports in downtown Milwaukee is growing brighter by the day, but that doesn't completely overshadow the past. Just down 4th Street from the new Milwaukee Bucks arena sits the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame, with plaques honoring the inductees.

"This whole group of plaques were part of a 14-person induction class in 1951. This was a brand new place, the Milwaukee Arena, in 1951. In fact, some of my research says the state-of-the-art Milwaukee Arena," Gregg Hoffmann, author said.

Gregg Hoffmann

Gregg Hoffmann

State-of-the-art is indeed a relative term. The members of the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame were the best of the best, and their contributions stand the test of time. Donald Driver is a recent inductee, and Paul Molitor an earlier inductee. Those players excelled while playing in Wisconsin. Ginger Beaumont, a much earlier inductee, was a state native.

"He was the first batter in World Series history. He made an out, but by doing so, created history. The family that I can speak closest to from these old-timers, because even I'm not old enough to have seen them play, is Ginger's family and I can tell you that it meant a great deal to them," Hoffmann said.

Hoffmann is a champion of inductees like Beaumont, and he is telling their stories in a new book "Immortalized in Bronze."

"In the book, I do have the greats in there. You have to have that, but I tried to concentrate on people that I thought if I don't get the stories down, this might very well be all that people know about them. Luckily, on many of these folks, I had more information and was able to get that into the book," Hoffmann said.

The subtitle of the book is "Stories about Wisconsin's Sports Legends," and this state really does have quite a few of those.

"I started as a fan, as a kid, and then have written about Wisconsin sports for over 40 years. You know, it's a small state, so I think they have a closer pact -- a closer bond with their teams. It means a lot," Hoffmann said.

It will continue to mean a lot when the latest state-of-the-art facility is finished. Those who are immortalized in bronze have laid quite a foundation.

Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame

Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame

Hoffmann's book is generating positive early reviews. It's available at select local bookstores and online through the Wisconsin Athletics Hall of Fame.

Story by Tim Van Vooren, courtesy of Fox 6 News.

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