Hisle still making a difference
Former slugger active serving youth in Wisconsin
MILWAUKEE -- Larry Hisle is hurting.
On this cold Wisconsin afternoon, his surgically repaired shoulder is giving the former Brewers and Twins slugger some serious trouble. But on many other afternoons in recent years, Hisle's heart has been hurting.
Like the day a Milwaukee judge called and asked Hisle to speak with a group of 45 youngsters. They all had been convicted of a crime involving a firearm.
"I'm looking through that crowd, and I've never been around a group that demonstrated so much hopelessness and helplessness," Hisle said. "I know that if you put those kids in a good home, so many of our problems in society would be eliminated."
But Hisle cannot adopt every troubled kid in Wisconsin, even if that is what his heart tells him to do. Instead, wearing the loose title of "Brewers director of youth baseball," he does what he can to make Milwaukee a better place, visiting schools and hospitals and working as often as possible one-on-one with kids in need of a mentor. He spends the weekend crossing southeast Wisconsin, attending as many athletic events as he can.
Trouble is, there are not enough hours in the day for Hisle to do what he wishes he could do. It's a responsibility that would weigh on anybody, and it weighs heavy on Hisle.
"I don't like doing anything halfway," he said. "I tell these kids that I'm going to be in their lives the whole way. They had better get ready, because I'm going to be there."
He approached his playing career with the same passion. Before his mother passed away when Hisle was 10 years old, she imparted a lesson that stuck: you might not be the smartest, or the most naturally gifted, but you can be the best if you are willing to pay the price.
"She said you have to be willing to give it all you've got in everything you do," Hisle said. "You prepare yourself mentally, you prepare yourself physically and you prepare yourself mechanically. When that umpire says, 'Play Ball!' you play with everything you've got."
Hisle played all the way to the Major Leagues. A second-round draft pick of Philadelphia in 1965, he established himself as a power threat in nine seasons with the Phillies and Twins from 1968-1977. Hisle batted .302 with 28 home runs and 119 RBIs in 1977, then signed as a free agent with Milwaukee for the 1978 season.
The Brewers were coming off a 65-97 finish in 1977, but they were about to turn it around.
Known as "Bambi's Bombers," the George Bamberger-managed Brewers led the Major Leagues in 1978 with a .276 team batting average, 173 home runs and 804 runs scored. The designated hitter Hisle led the way, batting .290 with a career-high 34 home runs and 96 RBIs, finishing third in American League MVP balloting. Gorman Thomas slugged 32 homers, making Milwaukee the only team in the Majors with two 30-plus home run men. Mike Caldwell won 22 games and posted a 2.32 ERA, franchise records that still stand. Paul Molitor won the AL Rookie of the Year Award and Don Money became the first Brewer ever voted to the starting lineup of the All-Star team. Bamberger was named manager of the year, Bud Selig was named executive of the year and Harry Dalton was named general manager of the year.
Most important, the Brewers went 93-69 for the first winning season in franchise history. Three years later, the team was playoff-bound for the first time and the year after that it made it to the World Series.
"The type of players [Dalton] got were important," Hisle said. "They weren't players that had good statistics; when you took the field you knew our sole purpose was to win. He assembled a wonderful, wonderful team.
"It's still difficult for me to believe that we went from 95 losses to 93 wins, especially in [the American League East] with the Yankees and Baltimore and Boston. Those teams were as good as any in baseball."The joy would be short-lived for Hisle. After playing 142 games in 1978, injuries began to take their toll. Over the next four seasons with the Brewers, Hisle never played in more than 27 games.
But his presence is still felt in Milwaukee, now more than ever. After years of mentoring kids and bringing them by the ballpark to meet with Brewers players and coaches, the club formally hired Hisle as director of youth baseball programs in 2002.
The surgeries have slowed him a bit but Hisle is still an imposing figure, thanks in part to the fact that he takes his "all or nothing" approach into the weight room. At the same time, he is a shy, quiet and gentle man. Visitors often have to lean in to hear his voice over the dugout din, and Hisle shies away from any publicity. He hesitated before participating for this story.
"The joy I get from those kids is all I need," he said. "It's a joy and it's a challenge every day."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.