Bunny Brief: The Long Story
I figured of all the players in my Minor League Home Run Champions Series, Bunny Brief would be the easiest to research. Since the guy is co-owner of the record for most minor league home run crowns in a career (8), I had assumed that someone would have written a book, or a chapter in a book, or for God’s sake at least an extensive article on the guy – but sadly, no one has. Which happened to be fine with me because throughout January I had nothing but time on my hands with which to conduct an extensive research project on an obscure ballplayer. See, this past Christmas my wife and I got felled by that California killer flu which caused the pair of us to be bedridden for more than a week. Then, just after I recovered from that, I had a cut that developed a terrible infection, necessitating a hospital visit and another period of horizontal recuperation. So, because I am a strange fellow, I spent a large portion of the time immersing myself in researching the life, name and career of Bunny Brief.
You can’t talk about minor league home run hitters like Joe Bauman, Big Boy Kraft and Unser Choe Hauser without mentioning the Godfather of ‘em all: Bunny Brief. Today he’s not exactly a household name, but if you look through the record books you’ll see his distinctive name all over the single season and career leaders lists across several different minor leagues in the 1910’s and 1920’s. His career home run total and abbreviated (you thought I’d say “brief,” didn’t you?) stints in the majors gets him a call-out as the real life Crash Davis. Bunny was also a likeable character, which when combined with his memorable name and six decades spent in the game, earns him a mention or footnote in many baseball history books and articles. But before we get to Bunny’s impressive curriculum vitae, let’s get the questions about his name out of the way.
If you look up “Bunny Brief” in the Baseball Encyclopedia or one of the online references, you’ll see his given name as “Anthony John Grzeszkowski,“ or “Anthony Vincent Grzeszkowski” or even the more exotic “Antonio Bordetzki” (try saying it with an exaggerated Italian accent – it’s quite fun!). Looking through contemporary newspaper articles further stir up those murky waters, especially when the ballplayer himself adapted the name sportswriters mistakenly gave him early in his career: “John Anthony.” But, when the dust settles, it is “Anthony John Grzeszkowski” that is most often cited as his actual name. That the record is that much more clear is due to super-researcher Peter Morris, who was the first to substantiate that Bunny Brief’s actual family name was Grzeszkowski, not the more often cited Bordetzki.
TIME OUT. For extra credit, the Polish pronunciation of Grzeszkowski is:
“Anthony John” makes the most sense to me, and I’ll tell you why. In Poland, as well as many parts of Catholic and Orthodox Christian Europe, your first and middle names were preordained from two specific sources. First name is from the “name day” you were born on. See, in Old World Catholicism and Orthodox Christianianity, each day has a patron saint. Bunny Brief was born on July 13. The saint of the day on June 13 is: Antoni. Now when it came to middle names, Poles employed the Russian system of using a patronymic name – in other words, the first name of your father. A quick check of the census returns shows that Bunny’s dad’s name was indeed John. Put all that together and you have Anthony John Grzeszkowski. The rub is that later in life he used Vincent as a middle name on some documents like his 1940’s draft card. So what’s up with that? I venture to guess that Vincent was his communion name, which in some instances superseded a patronymic name. If you’re keeping score at home, I’m still going with Anthony John as his original birth name.
I know what you’re thinking: “fascinating – but where the heck did “Bunny Brief” come from?”
Years after he had become regionally famous as Bunny Brief, there would be a long trail of newspaper articles telling several different fanciful stories about how he got the odd name of “Brief.” The simplest story found in newspapers is that his original name was actually “Briefolowski,” to which he simply took an ax and chopped off the last three syllables when he started in organized baseball. Makes perfect sense, right? Another newspaper article told of how Bunny’s older brother Walter worked in a pharmacy, and when the owner heard the name “Grzeszkowski” said, “that’s too long. We’ll call you Brief.” To me personally, this story has legs because back in 1918 or so, my grandfather’s doctor in Passaic, New Jersey felt his last name was too long and chopped some of the “z’s” and “y’s” out of it. Doctors and pharmacists were seen as all-knowing authority figures back then, especially in recent immigrant circles. If a pharmacist prescribed something, you took it. If your doctor says you should take some letters out of your name, you take them out. There was no going down to the courthouse and filling out paperwork. You just started using your new name and that was that. So the story of Walter’s Polish pronunciation-challenged pharmacist boss had the ring of truth to it, at least to me. Except he didn’t have an older brother named Walter – Joe, Levi, Michael and Thomas – no Walter. But those weren’t the only stories. By far the most popular of the Grzeszkowski-to-Brief tales is that early in Bunny’s baseball career he had the following exchange with his manager:
Manager: “What’s your name?”
Manager: “Nix on a name like that! Make it brief.”
Bunny: “All right, Brief is good enough.”
So Bunny Grzeszkowski became Bunny Brief – but wait – that’s not the real story, either.
There’s a good chance that many of you reading this blog have a story in your family about a forbearer who came to this country with a much different name than the one currently printed on your drivers license. Contrary to a million closely held family stories and the movie Godfather II, it wasn’t standard policy of immigration agents on Ellis Island (or any other North American immigration way station) to change those phlegm-inducing surnames to ones more easily pronounceable to Anglo-American vocal chords. No, just like today, authorities back then thought it practical to have the new immigrant identifiable by the same name found on their Old World identity papers. So, when Polish immigrant Jan Grzeszkowski walked out of the immigration processing center and into Canada in the early 1870’s, he still possessed his tongue twister of a surname.
Once Jan Grzeszkowski had his bearings, he made his way to Berlin (later patriotically re-named Kitchener during World War I), Ontario, where he married fellow Polish immigrant Mary Sadowski. The couple had a son named Joseph and moved to Michigan in 1877. In America the couple had a second son named Levi, and by the time the census man knocked on their door in 1880 Jan and Mary Grzeszkowski had become John and Mary Brief.
The question still remains of how Bunny’s father came up with his American name. Well, I mean, changing Jan to John is a no-brainer: “Jan” is the Polish equivalent to the English “John.” The other part was again solved by the unstoppable Peter Morris, who discovered from Brief’s family historian that when Jan Grzeszkowski was filling out his American naturalization papers, a judge interrupted him in mid-Grzeszkowski and instructed him to “make it brief.” According to the Brief historian, that’s just what the elder Grzeszkowski did. So, when John and Mary had their ballplayer son in 1892, their surname was firmly established as “Brief.”
Ok, so now that the story of Bunny Brief’s odd name is taken care of – wait! You want to know how he got the name “Bunny”? Ok, good question. That, too, has a few iterations as well.
If you look back at newspaper articles from the very beginning of his baseball career in 1910 and then from the very end of his life in the 1960’s, Bunny is often referred to as “Bundy.” So, we can derive from this that the original name he was given was Bundy. Those same articles from the end of his life refer to him as “Bunions” or “Old Bunions” and you can easily see how “Bunions became Bundy became Bunny. But, that’s not right at all.
A little more digging gets you the story of how when Bunny was playing ball back in Traverse City, the Polish fans from Bunny’s part of town would turn out to watch their fellow Pole excel at the game of their adapted homeland. Whenever the kid would step up to the plate or turn a nice play, his cheering section would erupt with shouts of “Bunty! Bunty!”
All right, so what is a bunty? Well, “bunty” is an archaic Polish word that means “rebellious” or alternately, a nickname for someone who is cock-sure of himself. Put into an American’s perspective, that sounds like just the nickname you’d give to a young smart-ass jock. So what happened was that non-Polish fans adapted the chant of the Polish fans and began calling him Bunty, then somewhere the “t” got changed to a “d” and he was Bundy. Then local sportswriters began using it in print. And then, because Bundy didn’t really mean anything (reference to Bunny’s bunions wouldn’t be found until the mid-1920’s, when he was on the downside of his 19-year career), Bundy became Bunny.
There. Can we get back to baseball now?
Anthony John Brief was born in Remus, Michigan – no, wait – like so much other published info you find about Bunny, that’s not true either. For the true story, I’ll defer to famed researcher Peter Morris again. According to a note placed in Brief’s Hall of Fame file, Morris discovered that the boy who would be Bunny Brief was born in a cabin located in an unsettled patch of Michigan wilderness. Remus just happened to be the closest settlement, so when his Hall of Fame questionnaire asked for the nearest town if born in a rural area, Remus became his birthplace by default.
Now, with all that out of the way, let’s get into Bunny Brief’s life.
Anthony John Brief was born on July 13, 1892. He was the youngest of John and Mary’s children, preceded by three sons and a daughter. As recorded in the 1880 census, John was a farmer, but at some point after Anthony’s birth, he suffered a debilitating injury that made him an invalid for the rest of his life. With the head of the household no longer able to keep up a farm, the family moved to Traverse City, a town along the shore of Grand Traverse Bay in Northern Michigan. As it is today, Traverse City is best known for its National Cherry Festival, held each July. In this county seat, the older Brief children were able to work as day laborers to support the family. Little Anthony grew up playing sandlot sports, but in November of 1905, Brief’s budding athletic career almost ended before it began when the 12 year-old suffered a serious fracture of his left arm playing football. Fortunately, it wasn’t his pitching arm because the teen soon began making a mark for himself as a strikeout artist. The earliest mention of his prowess on the diamond is an April 28, 1906 game story about the Catholic Stars blowout of the Boardman Hustlers 33-6.
By 1908 he was already known as “Bundy Brief” and earning a reputation with his bat as well as his arm. In a June 7, 1909 game against Elk City, Brief took the mound in the third inning and proceeded to pitch 7 innings before the Hustlers were able to score a run to win the game in extra innings, 5-4. Brief, the Traverse City Record Eagle reported, had the Elk City team “pounding holes in the atmosphere” by striking out 11.
In 1910, Traverse City entered a team in the West Michigan State League. Dubbed the “Resorters” for the numerous vacation spots in the area, the team took an early lead in the four-team class D league. The 17 year-old Brief played right field for his hometown team, usually batting clean up. In a June 25, 1910 story about their league-leading Resorters, the Traverse City Record Eagle mentions “Anthony Brief – commonly and familiarly known as “Bundy” as one of the better players on the club. Perhaps the biggest proof we have of young Brief’s value to the Resorters is a poem written by two girls, Ethel Lawrence and Kathleen Sipples, who admired the big teenager’s work from the stands:
Bundy was mamma’s only boy,
And Papa’s only son,
He was their only joy,
in fact, was number one,
Every one had to do
As Bundy would tell them to;
He was the candy boy behind the bat,
All of the kids in town would have
to do as Bundy said.
If they were playing ball
Bundy would have to march ahead,
For Bundy would never play,
Unless he could have his way,
So everyone called him Captain Bundy Brief.
Red Band and Tierney and all the boys in town
Always had to fall in line for Captain Bundy Brief.
This epic piece has a chorus and a few other verses, but I think you get the point. By the way, the fella Ethel and Kathleen are writing about here sure sounds “bunty,” doesn’t he?
The season ended with Traverse City finishing 3 games behind the Cadillac Chiefs. Out of players with 300 or more at bats, Brief’s .282 was fifth best in the loop. He led the league with 10 doubles and his pair of home runs tied him for forth place in this low-power league. The next summer, Traverse City fans breathed a sigh of relief when their young star returned to the Resorters instead of moving on to greener pastures. In his second summer of pro ball, Brief stunned the Deadball Era fans by pounding out 10 round trippers to run away with the home run title and his .351 was good enough for third in the league. As early as August it was being reported that Brief was attracting scouts from bigger clubs. Because J.J. Corcoran, president of the Resorters, was an old friend of Cardinals manager Roger Bresnahan, it was claimed the young phenom would report to St. Louis after the Michigan State season wrapped. However, it was the Browns, the other St. Louis team, which handed over the $400 for Brief’s contract. Much was made of the fact that he was the only player in the entry-level league to be drafted by a big league club that season.
On Friday, March 22, Brief left Traverse City bound for St. Louis where he would join the Browns for the long trip to Montgomery, Alabama for spring training. By Saturday evening he was back home in Traverse City.
The reasons for his aborted trip are varied, though all agree that it terminated in Chicago. A St. Louis paper claimed he was over-stimulated by his first exposure to the city’s newfangled “L” trains. Other papers reported he was just plain scared. Another declared he was homesick for his girl friend, and wedding bells were sure to be ringing out soon. Before he reversed his journey, Brief wired Browns manager Bobby Wallace to tell him it was too far away from home and he would not be able to report. That brought on a flurry of threats from St. Louis demanding that their $400 purchase present himself immediately. Brief tried to sign with the Resorters again, but this was impossible because the Browns owned his contract. St. Louis thought this technicality would be the impetus that would force Brief’s hand, but the ballplayer stubbornly refused to leave Michigan. When it was clear Brief could not be coaxed out of state, the Browns allowed Traverse City to purchase his release from the big club, presumably with the caveat that should he work up the nerve to venture out of state, his destination would be St. Louis.
Throughout the summer of 1912, the St. Louis papers featured short but tantalizing updates on the elusive Brief, claiming he was batting close to .500 in faraway Traverse City, whetting the Brownie fans appetite for the arrival of this bashful country bumpkin. Though he didn’t quite hit .500, Brief did win the batting title with .353, and his 13 home runs led the league for the second year in a row. Remember, this is still the Deadball Era, so 13 home runs was something of a feat – Home Run Baker and Tris Speaker both tied for the American League home run crown with 10 apiece and Del Pratt led the Browns with just 5. No wonder St. Louis was anxious for the homesick slugger to make his debut.
Sorry to re-hash the Bunty-Bundy-Bunny stuff again, but it’s worth noting that sometime between March and July of 1912 the name “Bunny” begins to appear outside Michigan. I’m going to venture a guess that sportswriters and editors unfamiliar with Brief assumed the “d” was a mistake and corrected their copy to read “Bunny.”
Finally, on Saturday, September 21, Bunny Brief arrived in St. Louis. To counter the bashfulness that made headlines that spring, Brief was reportedly accompanied by an older brother. The Browns lost no time in seeing what the kid could do, sending him in to pinch-hit the next afternoon against future Hall of Famer Eddie Plank of the Philadelphia Athletics. Brief got a hold of one of Plank’s pitches for what appeared to be an infield hit. Unfortunately for Brief, his spikes caught in the base path and he stumbled out of the box, giving shortstop Jack Berry the extra time needed to throw him out at first base. George Stovall, who had replaced Bobby Wallace as skipper of the Browns, left Brief in for the second game of the double header, placing him in left field. Brief went 1 for 4 against Boardwalk Brown, and the three balls he hit for outs were all reported to have been very hard drives. The next game was a double header against Chicago. In the first game Brief went 1 for 2 with a walk against another future Hall of Famer, Ed Walsh, and 1 for 4 in the nightcap against Joe Benz. After 4 games, Bunny Brief was holding his own with a respectable .273, but he had also racked up four errors in the two games against the Sox.
What happened was with a runner on third, the rookie lost a fly ball to the sun, which was error number one. He quickly recovered and made a perfect throw to the plate to nail the runner which unfortunately pegged the runner himself. Error number two. Error number three was a misplay on a ball hit by speedy Morrie Rath, who took two bases on the miscue. Brief’s fourth error of the day occurred in the nightcap when he flawlessly fielded a ball, which he promptly returned to the infield. The problem was none of his teammates were in position to take his throw. The error was charged to Brief. Despite this alarming accumulation of errors, the press remained very sympathetic to the newcomer; one paper going so far as to blame Brief’s unfamiliarity with sunglasses as a partial cause of his 4-error day.
In the waning days of the season, the Browns management struggled to find a place for their new addition. Although he made no more errors, clearly Brief’s outfielding skills weren’t up to big league standards. Stovall tried him at first base for four games and though shaky, he performed without any mishap. Despite his ups and down, the Browns were committed to working with their elusive new charge. By the time the 1912 season drew to a close, Bunny Brief was credited with a healthy .310 average with 3 doubles in 15 games. There was no doubt in the minds of Brownie fans that they would see this kid back in ’13.
Brief went to spring training at Waco, Texas tabbed by experts as the player to watch in 1913. At bat he hit the ball harder and farther than anyone in camp. The only outstanding question was where would the Browns play him. Fortunately his manager had an idea. At 35, George Stovall was at the end of a credible big league career. He knew there was a good possibility he wouldn’t be able to withstand another long big league season and therefore needed a capable replacement. Looking over all the options, Stovall picked Bunny Brief to his first base understudy. Throughout the spring the aging vet worked with the raw bush leaguer, and by the time the Browns headed north to begin the season, the other fielders were confident the kid could handle their relays as easily as the veteran Stovall.
Bunny Brief’s second year in the majors exposed the weakness that would dog him whenever he made it to the majors: the curveball. Where as Brief’s .310 average at the end of 1912 looked like he had big league pitching solved, it became apparent the next year that all a pitcher had to do was curveball the young power hitter to death and problem solved. As the season progressed, Brief’s average dropped off faster than the curves he kept chasing.
The 1913 wasn’t going very smoothly for George Stovall, either. After Bobby Wallace got the team off to a slow start in 1912, their owner, Colonel Bob Hedges, replaced him with Stovall. Now midway through the 1913 season, Stovall was starting to feel the impending doom of Colonel Bob’s impatience. Stovall had been operating the team with the idea of building a winner from the ground up. Besides Bunny Brief, the Browns had a gaggle of promising youngsters like Sam Agnew, Del Pratt and Johnny Lavan, plus a bullpen stocked with encouraging fresh arms. If at first Hedges had been a willing participant in Stovall’s youth movement, by August he began to think he could buy an instant contender instead of waiting for one to mature. The writing was on the wall: anyone who couldn’t produce right now was expendable. With an average in the .200 range, Bunny Brief’s days with the Browns seemed numbered.
Midway through August, Stovall told reporters that due to his beat up hands, Brief would be the Brownies’ starting first baseman for the rest of the season. The reprieve lasted less than a week, for on August 25th the ax fell – Brief and two other players along with 15 grand were sent to the Kansas City Blues in exchange for outfielder Tillie Walker.
The demotion was a step backwards for Brief, though it could be argued that the Browns should have gradually moved him through the minors in order to get used to curve balls instead of throwing him head first into the American League. Nonetheless, the Blues played in the American Association, a Class AA league that was just one step below the majors, so he wasn’t being tossed too deep into the bushes.
Most likely due to his disappointment at being sent down, Brief hit a terrible .242 for the rest of the season. Fortunately for him, the Blues management believed he would come around and kept him on for 1914. Brief proved the team correct as he finished third in the league with 12 home runs, second in doubles and hit a redeemable .318. The Chicago White Sox were in the process of building what would become one of the most powerful lineups of the Deadball Era. Already stocked with top notch hit and run men, the team looked to the American Association for power. From Milwaukee they picked Happy Felsch, whose 19 home runs led the league, and from Kansas City they grabbed Bunny Brief.
In spring training with the White Sox, Brief faced a stiff battle with Jack Fournier for the first base spot. Fournier was in his third big league season and had begun to show a hint of the power that the Sox were looking for. However, Brief turned it into a real battle, especially when his own bat came alive, creating quite a stir amongst the sportswriters. By the time the Sox broke camp, Bunny Brief had unseated Fournier as Chicago’s starting first baseman.
Bunny started off the season going 6 for 10 in the first two games, but then the curveballs began. The Sox kept him as the starting first baseman through the beginning of May, but when his average dipped below .2oo Fournier got his old job back. Now playing a utility role, Brief tried to adjust to playing irregularly and pinch-hitting off the bench.
Every once in a while he showed a flash of the power the Sox had fallen in love with in the Spring. On May 24th, the White Sox were at home hosting the Yankees and Brief started the game at first base. In the home half of the seventh, Bunny cranked a Cy Pieh fastball into the left field bleachers, a 362-foot distance. In the time before the lively ball was introduced in 1920, a home run was a real novelty, and when one did occur it was often of the inside-the-ballpark variety when an outfielder fell down or the ball rolled into the far reaches of foul territory. Brief’s blast was remarked upon in every game summary and merited a comment from Sox owner Charles Comiskey. Talking to a writer for the Sporting Life, Comiskey stated that when he built his ballpark in 1910, he did not think anyone would ever hit a ball over the left field fence. The Sox owner went on to say that no one in the business hits the ball harder than Brief, and that he looks for him to prove one of the team’s most valuable batsmen. Unfortunately, Comiskey’s prophecy did not come true. Brief played just 12 more games with the Pale Hose, and in July he was released to the Salt Lake City Bees of the Pacific Coast League.
At first Brief refused to report, instead heading back to Traverse City where he married his high school sweetheart Rhea Martin on July 26. Vows exchanged, the newly minted Mr. and Mrs. Brief then departed for Salt Lake City on the evening train.
Unlike 1913 when he was demoted by the Browns, Brief used his time with Salt Lake City to show that he deserved another shot at the majors. Salt Lake played in the Pacific Coast League, which, like the American Association, was just one level below the majors. And because of the pleasant climate and easygoing atmosphere, many players who could have played in the majors instead chose to remain in the Coast League. So, it wasn’t the majors, but in 1915 it was pretty darn close. Joining the Bees for the last 82 games, Brief hit .363, finishing one point behind Harry Heilmann’s league leading .364. He also banged out 8 home runs – not that many on the surface, but when you consider the league leader that year hit 20 in 208 games, one can see that Brief’ was in a totally different class. His bat helped Salt Lake emerge from the basement of the PCL to finish second, 5 games behind pennant winning San Francisco. By the season’s end, it was speculated that Bunny Brief would be on some major league roster in the coming year.
After spending the winter keeping in shape playing basketball in Traverse City, Bunny began the first of his many holdouts for more money. After his hitting in 1915 helped lead the Bees out of the cellar, the team was most anxious to get him under contract for the 1916 campaign. Finally, at the end of February this brief telegram arrived at the Salt Lake City team offices:
Your terms accepted. -B.Brief
After a two-day delay caused by a train wreck in Colorado, Brief arrived in Modesto, California, followed a few days later by his new bride, Rhea. Her presence in camp created quite a stir. She became a fixture at the Bees practices and the press was completely won over by her charm and beauty. She and the wife of outfielder Jimmy Shinn were even asked to manage opposing teams for several inter-squad games.
By the time the Bees broke camp and started the 1921 season, Bunny Brief was in peak form.
All through the first half of the summer, you couldn’t open up a West Coast sports page without seeing a headline “Bunny Brief Home Run Wins Game” or “Brief Hits Another One.” Everything was coming up Bunny in 1916, and even when his fielding error cost the Bees the lead, as it did once when they were in San Francisco playing the league-leading Seals, he came through with another home run to win the game. By this time, Bunny’s home run hitting had made such an impression on Coast League fans that even the notoriously partisan San Francisco fans cheered him when his homer won the game for the visitors.
On September 4, Brief’s home run total had reached 25. To put this in perspective, the major league record at the time was 24, set by Gavvy Craveth in 1915. With almost two months left to play, it was assumed that he would easily surpass the PCL’s single season home run record of 30, set back in 1910 by Bing Bodie. After that September 4 blast, Brief fell prey to the late season slump common to Coast League players due to the long 200 game seasons. Brief didn’t hit another home run until the second week of October. Then, with a week and a half left to play, Bunny went on a tear.
On October 26 he hit his fourth homer in three days, the blast being his 31st that broke Ping Bodie’s 1910 record. The game had to be halted while Brief and the other players collected the coins the appreciative fans tossed on the field in tribute to the new home run king. Bunny ended the season with 33 home runs, winning his third league home run crown, and his .314 average was third best in the loop.
Bunny spent spring training holding out for more money from Salt Lake. He was coming off a record setting year and all indications pointed towards him getting another shot at the majors anytime soon. He sent his contract back unsigned and demanded what a newspaper called “a big league salary.” The Bees management countered with their belief that he was already receiving a big league paycheck. As Salt Lake’s spring training started without their marquee player, Brief threatened to quit the game all together and go into business with his father-in-law. Bees owner F.S. Murphy eventually grew frustrated with the negotiations and suspended his stubborn slugger. Then on March 12 he unexpectedly agreed to the club’s original offer of $2,500. The reason for his folding probably had to do with Rhea. Bunny’s wife had taken ill and doctors in Traverse City diagnosed her with a tumor that needed to be removed in a risky operation. On April 12 the couple traveled to Ann Arbor so a specialist could perform what newspapers described as “a very serious operation.” For the rest of the month Brief stayed in Michigan with Rhea, who had to undergo a second operation. By the beginning of May, Mrs. Brief was on the road to recovery. As her relieved husband was preparing to leave for Salt Lake, he received word his contract was purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates – Bunny Brief was going back to the majors.
The Pirates had purchased Bunny Brief on a 30-day trial basis, cash due if the Pitssburgh kept him. Bunny came out of the box with a bang, going 2 for 5 with a sacrifice in his first game on May 7. A week later he hit a home run off Pete Alexander and repeated the feat the next afternoon against Erskine Mayer. With his third try at the majors going well, the newspapers reopened the old “what is his real name” debate. Added to the old standbys Grzeszkowski and Bordetzki was the fresh “Antonia Brodjeski,” published in the Fort Wayne News.
As the first week of June came and went, Bunny’s average ebbed at .237. Though his bat hadn’t so far lived up to its reputation yet, he was a solid first baseman; a rare commodity at the time, for the National League was suffering a drought of capable first sackers at the time. So despite his pedestrian average, Brief was in a good spot – that is until Honus Wagner showed up.
The Pirates legend had retired at the end of the 1916 season, but had found staying away from the game wasn’t so easy for a 20-year vet like himself. Too slow to take up his old shortstop position, the logical place for him was first base. With Honus’ return, the curtain came down on Bunny Brief’s third shot at the majors.
The Pirates front office spread the word that Brief just wasn’t up to their standards, but Pittsburgh sportswriters opined that club owner Barney Dreyfuss couldn’t get Salt Lake to come down on their $4,000 price and therefore returned him before his 30 day option expired. Pirates fans and the men in the press box felt that Brief was coming along as a big leaguer, and should have been given a longer trial to prove himself.
Bunny took his third bounce from The Show hard. Since the Pirates technically only had him on a trial basis, Brief was slated to return to Salt Lake City, who still held his contract. A dejected Brief boarded the train back to Traverse City and vowed to remain out of baseball for good. Since it looked like they would never convince the slugger to return to their club, Salt Lake sold his contract to the Louisville Colonels of the American Association.
Brief finally made his way to Louisville on July 8. He may not have been happy to be in Louisville, but the fans lavishing him with waves of applause when they witnessed his big league quality play at first base. Brief sprained his ankle at the end of June and then disappeared for a few weeks, angering the Colonels management. He showed up the second week in August but he was kept on the bench for unexplained stretches, frustrating the fans that wanted his bat in the lineup. Brief finished the season with a .288 average and a bad attitude. When word came the Colonels unloaded him back to Kansas City, Bunny Brief knew his career was at a crossroads.
As 1917 came to an end, it wasn’t just Bunny Brief’s career that was in a flux. America had entered World War I in April, and all summer young men left civilian life and joined the army and navy. Those who did not enlist had to register for the draft and strongly encouraged to take up a job in the war industry. Rumors began swirling that baseball at all levels would be cancelled in 1918. With the government pushing the “work or fight” ultimatum to all able-bodied men, Brief filed for a draft deferment as a married man and waited to see what 1918 would bring.
In the spring of 1918, Bunny Brief returned to the Kansas City Blues. Bunny was not happy to be back in the minors, and his feelings of failure wasn’t helped by the newspaper features that drew attention to his three failed tries in the majors. With most of the country preoccupied by their first global war, the American Association abruptly suspended league play on July 21. The Blues were declared the pennant winners with a 44-30 record, three games in front of Louisville. Brief played in all 74 of Kansas City’s games, but hit a career-low .261 with just 4 home runs. When the league voted to call it quits, the owners made sure to void all player contracts, meaning no more paychecks or severance pay. The unemployed players were told to follow the Secretary of War’s “Work or Fight” declaration.
Under the “Work or Fight” mandate, employment in the war industry exempted workers from having to serve in the army. While some ball players, such as Ty Cobb, Hank Gowdy, Bill O’Hara and Eddie Grant signed up and served overseas, many like Bunny chose to seek work at a defense plant that allowed them to stay on this side of the Atlantic. The families of the men who had been drafted into the service looked upon athletes who chose the home front route as shirkers. The owner of the White Sox, Charles Comiskey, went so far as to publicly shame his own players Joe Jackson, Lefty Williams and Byrd Lynn, after they left the Sox to take up with an Eastern shipyard team that would keep them exempt from the draft.
There’s another side to what perceived by the public to be a shady way of avoiding the war. Many professional athletes who were perfectly capable of performing at a high level on the playing field were completely useless to the army. Years of injuries took unseen toll on a pro athlete’s body, and while they were perfectly capable of pitching nine innings or swinging a bat, the kind of exertion needed to serve in the army would have rendered many ballplayers useless overseas. Bad knees, early onset arthritis, fingers twisted and deformed from being broken many times and chronic back pain were conditions not visible to the casual fan as he watched a player flawlessly perform his job on the ball field. Some players had legitimate family responsibilities that earned them draft deferments. Joe Jackson, who bore the brunt of the shirking and cowardice accusations, was exempt because with his three brothers serving in the army, it fell upon Joe to support his family financially. There was also the thought that allowing well-known ball players to work a bit in a machine shop and play baseball for the company team on Sundays would do wonders for the moral of workers laboring at 10 hours shifts churning out much-needed war materiel.
With all the major war plants actively recruiting marquee players for their teams, Brief had the luxury of considering a few different options before accepting a position with the Alleghany Steel Corporation. Bunny and Rhea relocated to Tarentum, Pennsylvania, a bleak industrial center about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh on the banks of the Alleghany River. The team, called the Steelers, fielded a team of hard-hitting minor leaguers that battled it out every Sunday afternoon against clubs from other defense plants located up and down the Allegheny. Much was made of the American Association’s premier home run hitter coming to Tarentum, but Brief’s stay was, well, brief. A newspaper reported that Rhea “cried continuously after their arrival” and the first baseman decided to quit after just one game to keep his marriage from becoming a casualty of war.
Within a week the Brief’s were in Duluth, Minnesota where Bunny took a position with the Riverside Shipbuilding Company. The Riverside Cubs played in the four team Mesaba League where Bunny, along with Emilio Palmero from the Giants, Hooks Warner of the Pirates and Cozy Dolan and Hub Perdue of the Cardinals were a few of the players with big league experience.
By the early fall of 1918, news of heavy American casualties on the Western Front began to turn public opinion completely against the athletes who were allowed work deferments to stay home and play ball for industrial teams. Players who took positions with the Eastern shipyards drew particular animosity from the press and civilians. In October Bunny felt it necessary to make a statement to the press defending his job on the home front. He told a reporter that while he had no first hand knowledge about conditions at the Eastern plants, in Duluth he and his teammates put in 10-hour days swinging a hammer in the boiler shop at Riverside Shipbuilding. Bunny helped lead Riverside to the championship of the Mesaba League, his second pennant winner of 1918.
Despite his supposedly indispensable work swinging a hammer during the day at Riverside, Brief’s services weren’t so invaluable as to prevent him from leaving town immediately after the championship to move back to Kansas City to work in the stockyards. His desertion of the Riverside plant drew negative responses in the newspapers and helped fuel the growing criticism of the able-bodied athletes who took draft deferments.
As soon as the war ended on November 11, Brief quit the stockyards and got back to what he was good at. He formed a basketball team called the Bunny Brief Triangles and began barnstorming around the Kansas City area. He also sent out feelers about where he would play baseball in 1919. His first choice was Salt Lake City. Bunny’s refusal to play there at the beginning of the 1917 season had left the locals with a bad taste in their mouths, but now two years and a World War later, the fans were willing to welcome him back with open arms. However, it wasn’t up to Brief to decide where he would play; Kansas City retained the rights to him and they had no intention of letting their slugging first baseman go anywhere.
Already in top shape from shooting semi-pro hoops all winter, Bunny went into the 1919 season rarin’ to go. In May he made headlines when he hit a home run out of Eclipse Park in Louisville, a feat that had never been accomplished since it opened for business in 1902. By June he was leading the league in runs scored and home runs. Once back in the swing of things, Brief returned to his gregarious ways. When a rained out game forced the Blues to stick around their hotel all afternoon, Brief and a couple of bored teammates waylaid a Kansas City beat writer in the lobby. According to the scribe’s story, Brief, who was going through a bit of a slump at the time, wanted to know why the writer couldn’t commit a few misprints giving him few extra hits in the box scores. The writer replied that he had already committed a big enough misprint. When Brief asked what it was, the writer replied “when I spelled your last name with a “G” instead of “B”.
Fortunately, Brief snapped out of his slump without the help of any misprints. He finished 1919 with a .324 average, 13 home runs (two behind the leader) and was the only player in the entire league that appeared in all 154 games.
Brief opened the books on the 1920 season by hitting five home runs in the first eight games. The term “Ruthian” wasn’t coined yet, but if it had, it surely would have been applied to Brief’s feat. Critic’s noted that he was aided at home by the short left field porch in Kansas City’s Association Park, but so was any other right hander who came to town, yet it was Bunny who finished up with a league-leading 23 homers. The title was significant in that it was the third minor league he had won a home run title in, and was the first of three consecutive years he’d lead the American Association in that category.
In the Chinese zodiac cycle, 1921 was the Year of the Monkey, but in America it was the year of the rabbit, or Bunny, to be more precise. Throughout the summer Bunny Brief pounded out home run after home run. On July 13 he hit three in one game against Columbus, knocking in 5 runs and bringing his season total to 20. He also cranked out the hits, hovering at the top of the leader’s list for average and running up a 31-game hitting streak. On Sunday August 14, two sections of Association Park’s bleachers collapsed, injuring twenty fans. Rain damage and overcrowding was the official blame, but prominent Kansas City businessman told the Kansan newspaper that he believed the supports were weakened by the constant pounding of Bunny Brief’s homers that season.
On August 26, Brief hit his 30th of the year, breaking Gavvy Cravath’s 1911 American Association record. Now Bunny Brief held the home run record in two of the three top minor leagues: the Pacific Coast League and the American Association. The Kansas City Kansan noted that those 30 blasts accounted for 64 runs, demonstrating that the slugger suffered no performance anxiety when it came to delivering the goods when there were runners on base. Just six were solo shots while seventeen were with a runner on, four were with two on, and three were grand slams. In the second week of September Brief smashed five home runs in a week to bring his total up to 40. His 41st blast was a September 29 shot over the left field scoreboard in Louisville’s Eclipse Park. Not only did the ball clear the 50-foot scoreboard, but did so with more than 20 feet to spare. Brief ended the 1921 with 42 home runs and an astonishing 191 runs batted in, an American Association record that still stands today. He also led the league in doubles with 51, slugging with .685, and finished fourth for the batting crown with a .361 average.
After the season wrapped up, the Blues began an exhibition schedule that pitted them against a wide range of opposition from semi-pro teams to big league all-star aggregations. As expected, Brief acquitted himself well against the amateurs, and even worked out his failed major leaguer frustration by hitting an 11th inning game-winning home run against a National League All-Star team on October 14. However, it was the much-anticipated best of seven “City Series” against the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League that was the focus of the KC fans that fall.
The 1921 Monarchs finished second that season and boasted a lineup that included future Hall of Famers Bullet Joe Rogan and Jose Mendez as well as stars Frank Duncan, Dobie Moore, Hurley McNair and George “Tank” Carr. The Monarchs took the first game 7-5 with Brief going 1 for 4 against 14 game winner Rube Currie. Monarchs ace Bullet Rogan started Game 2 and kept the Blues to just 4 hits but lost after giving up two runs in the ninth to lose 3-2. Brief struck out three times against Rogan, the future Hall of Famer curve-balling the home run champ into submission each time he came to bat.
The Monarchs were winning Game 3 going into the top of the ninth by a score of 8-5 when the Blues got runners on first and third with one out. Bullet Rogan was rushed in from the bullpen and uncharacteristically hit the first batter he faced to load the bases. That brought up the Blues two heavy hitters, Will Good (23 homers) and Bunny Brief (42 homers). Brief was hitless in four at bats, but Good had gone 2 for 4 that afternoon. Whether by design to keep the ball in the park or through wildness, Rogan walked both sluggers to make the score 8-7. Still with one out and bases full, Bullet Joe then gave up a run-scoring sacrifice and a two-run single that made it 10-8 in the Blues favor. The Monarchs were unable to score in their half of the ninth and were now behind in the series 2 games to 1.
Game 4 featured a spectacular pitching performance by Bullet Rogan, holding the Blues to just 2 hits through seven innings. Bunny Brief hit a two run double in the 8th to make it 2-1 Blues, but the Monarchs came back in the top of the 9th to tie it. In the last of the 9th, a single and pair of bunts loaded the bases for the Blues and a long single to right won the game. Besides the double, Brief was again handcuffed by Rogan’s big league curve balls.
Game 5 saw the Monarchs leading 6-4 going into the 9th. With two men on and two out, Bunny Brief had the perfect opportunity to put the Blues ahead. Brief had gone 2 for 3 with a triple, but went down swinging to end the game. The City Series now stood at 3-2 in the favor of the Blues.
The Blues ended the series by beating the Monarchs 9-5 in Game 6. Bunny, who had gone been held to just 4 hits throughout the series, finally showed the power that won him the American Association home run crown by hitting a home run as well as a two-run triple. Brief had batted a mediocre .273 against the Monarchs, and just like in the majors, proved to be particularly helpless against a good curveball artist. Of his six hits, 5 were for extra bases: 2 doubles, 2 triples and the Game 6 home run.
In the spring of 1922, Bunny refused to report to Kansas City if his salary demand was not met. It was the smart move, since it was reported that the World Champion New York Giants were vying to get their hands on the “Babe Ruth of the American Association.” Unfortunately for Bunny, the Giants deal didn’t go through when Kansas City refused a straight cash deal for their slugger. At age 29, Bunny Brief’s door back to the majors was quickly closing, but he still had one foot planted on the threshold. In a pre-season game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Brief inflicted some payback on his former team by hitting the game-winning three-run homer.
By the middle of May, Brief already had ten home runs to his credit, and expectations were running high for another record-setting season when injuries struck. First, Brief missed a week with a bad cold followed by a total of five more weeks on the DL. Despite the time spent out of the lineup, Bunny made up for it by pounding the ball out of the park at a greater rate than 1921. Again, Brief showed his ability to hit ‘em when it counted by hitting half of his home runs with men on base. On September 8 it was reported that to date, his 33 home runs had driven in 33 of his teammates for a total of 66 runs batted in. A slump in mid-August slashed his chance at breaking his own record, ending the season with 40, good enough for his third consecutive home run crown. Bunny also finished first in slugging with .674 and hit for a .324 average.
The newest Bunny Brief fan that summer was he and Rhea’s adapted daughter, Barbara. According to a newspapers story, Barbara was able to distinguish her father’s distinctive stride and eagerly patted her hands together along with her mother when it was Bunny’s turn to bat.
Though the Blues failed to win the pennant, the fans had the second annual City Series against the Kansas City Monarchs to look forward to. The Monarchs finished second in the Negro National League and featured almost the same lineup as 1921. This year the city championship was to be a best of nine series.
Game 1 showed Plunk Drake completely in charge of the Blues hitters, all of who hit .300 or better that season. Brief managed only a single in four trips to the plate as the Monarchs won 6-2. Game 2 ended in a similar result, Rube Currie holding the Blues to just seven hits to win 8-4. Brief was hitless in three at bats. Bullet Joe Rogan took the mound for Game 3 gave up 13 hits in the seesaw affair. The Monarchs scored two in the top of the 9th on Oscar “Heavy” Johnson’s second homer of the game, giving them the 7-6 edge.
In Game 4 Blues ace Jimmy Zinn pitched an 8 hit/8 strikeout beauty, but Rube Currie matched him, gaining the edge on a 2-run home run by Hurley McNair. With that 2-1 win, the Monarchs had won four straight and feelings were running a little high. At one point a fan’s heckling got the best of Blues shortstop Lena Blackburne who jumped into the stands, coming back on the field only after giving his tormentor a matching pair of shiners and busted lip. Brief went 1 for 3 with a stolen base.
The Blues avoided a series sweep by taking Game 5 by a score of 8-3. Brief contributed a 2-run single in three tries. Game 6 was another seesaw, with the teams tied at three runs apiece in the 9th inning. The Blues looked like they would win in the bottom of the 9th when Bunny Brief, who was 2 for 3, came to bat with the winning run on third with two out. Brief hit a tremendous drive to the deep left field corner, but Hurley McNair reined it in to end the inning. McNair then went on to drive in what proved to be the winning run in the top of 10th, giving the Monarchs the City Championship. For Bunny Brief’s part, he did better than the previous year, batting .318, but was limited to just one double.
The teams divided $8,584.50 between themselves, a nice purse for six games’ work. Unfortunately, the series proved to be the last of its kind. One reason for the curtailing of exhibitions featuring a complete minor league team was the embarrassment caused when they lost to a Negro League team. As it is today, back in 1922 MLB and MiLB were all about protecting “the brand”, and any losses to what was supposed to be an “inferior league” hurt their image of superiority. For Bunny Brief’s part, he did better than the previous year, batting .318, but was limited to just one double.
That fall, Brief was approached by McAllister College in St. Paul to be the winter conditioning coach for their baseball team. Brief chose instead to return to Traverse City with Rhea and Barbara, spending the winter months running an all-star indoor baseball team.
For the 1923 campaign, the Blues revamped their lineup and added a few promising young stars, foremost being Dud Branom, a big Texan who had hit .391 for the Enid Harvesters the previous season. Branom was unemplyable at any other position except first base, so Bunny, who had at one time or another played every position, was platooned between third base and left field. Also new for 1923 was the Blues new ballpark, Muehlebach Field. While this was good news for the fans, the park’s new left field dimension of 312 feet meant that Bunny’s favored place to deposit his home runs was significantly father than in the old park.
The Blues battled it out with St. Paul throughout the summer, each team taking turns in first place. St. Paul had been the dominant franchise in the American Association since winning their first pennant in 1919 and had reclaimed the flag in 1920 and 1922. Kansas City was able to put the nail in St. Paul’s coffin by winning 10 of their last 11 games to take the championship. As expected, Bunny’s home run production diminished, but he compensated by leading the league in batting for the first half of the season, hovering around .400. He cooled off at the end of July, but had maintained a .359 average and led the league with 164 RBI and 161 runs scored. He was the team leader in average, doubles, triples, and home runs and was the main contributor to the Blues’ 112 wins.
As pennant winners, the Blues were slated to face the Baltimore Orioles, champions of the International League, in a best of nine Junior World Series. The O’s were in the midst of seven consecutive pennants and boasted a pitching staff featuring future Hall of Famer Lefty Grove who won 27 games and set an International League record with 330 strikeouts and Rube Parnham, whose 33-7 record was nothing short of intimidating. The series began in Kansas City and the home team jumped out to a 3 games to 1 lead before the series swung to Baltimore. The series swung back and forth before coming down to a deciding Game 9. The Orioles chipped away at the Blues precarious 3-2 lead going into the ninth, but a two-run homer by Bunny Brief put the game in the books, as Kansas City became the Junior World Series Champs. Against what is thought to be one of the greatest pitching staffs in minor league history, Bunny Brief hit .333 with 4 doubles and 4 home runs. Upon his return to Traverse City for the winter, Brief was met at the train station by a band and a crowd of adoring fans welcoming their Junior World Champion home.
The Blues had almost the same lineup going into 1924, and came out of the gate as the odds-on favorites to repeat as pennant winner. Bunny was in top form, leading all Association batters with a .400-plus average for the first two months of the season, and maintaining a .420 average through July. He had modified his home run form to adjust to his new ballpark and remained at or near the top of the home run leader’s list all summer. Brief showed his versatility by ably filling in at second base when Lena Blackburne was injured in July. He was hitting .380 in August when his bat began to cool off and the power diminished. At the same time, St. Paul took the lead and would go on to win another pennant. Brief closed out 1924 with a .338 average and while he was second in the league with 12 doubles, managed to put just 17 homers in the stands. Though he still had a year left to go on his contract with Kansas City, management felt that Bunny was washed up. The lack of power shown by the 31 year-old in the second half of the summer appeared to show that the aging slugger was running on fumes. In a blockbuster trade for the time, the Blues shipped Bunny and aging catcher Bill Skiff and career minor leaguer George Armstrong to Milwaukee in exchange for three players, none of who had ever, or would ever be, in the same class as him. The move came as a shock to the Kansas City fans who had come to love their aging slugger and considered him the best first sacker in the history of the team. The trade surprised Brief as well, especially after he spent seven productive years with the club, won three consecutive home run titles and had been instrumental in the clubs’ first two pennants.
But, as Bunny Brief knew well, baseball has no place for sentimentality. Brief was going on 32 years old and he recognized that room was needed for the next generation of players. However, what he knew, and Kansas City did not, was that there was still plenty of gas left in his tank, and he was determined to prove it in Milwaukee.
As he always did, Bunny Brief spent the winter with Rhea and Barbara in Traverse City. In addition to his basketball and indoor baseball activities, Bunny became a sportswriter for the local paper. It was in this capacity that he first traveled to Milwaukee since being traded. In town to cover a prizefight, Bunny stopped by Brewers’ owner Otto Borchert’s offices to talk about the upcoming season. If Borchert thought that his new slugger, a notorious holdout, would give him a problem agreeing on a new contract he was mistaken. “I’m ready to hit home runs for 1925” Brief said, and proceeded to ink his contract. Afterwards, an upbeat Bunny told local scribes, “Gee, but I’m tickled to get away from Kansas City and come to Milwaukee. I’ll be the Babe Ruth of Class A leagues this year. I am positive that I’ll hit a record number of home runs over the left field fence at Athletic Park.”
The city of Milwaukee was the perfect fit for Bunny Brief, especially when it became known that his real name was Grzeszkowski – for the city had a large and vibrant Polish population. Like immigrants before and after them, Milwaukee’s Poles embraced the game of baseball as a way of blending into the fabric that is America. Just as they had with their own Al Simmons (real name: Alois Szymanski), Milwaukee’s Poles rallied around their fellow countryman and made him feel welcome. Brief’s homespun nature also did wonders to endear him to the fans, who enjoyed hearing stories of his bat that he named “Barbara Belle”” in honor of his beloved daughter.
Brief made his presence known right from the start of spring training. His bat was booming under the Florida sun, making fans forget he was thirty-two. Opening up the season on the road, Brief already had two home runs to his credit before he started his first game at Athletic Park. During that home stand he hit a towering home run that cleared the center field fence. The blast cost Brief $5 because of a bet he had made during spring training that “no one would be able to hit a ball into the centerfield bleachers this season.”
Throughout the first half of the season Brief remained at the top of the home run leaders list, going back and forth with Columbus’ Reb Russell. On July 18 he had 18 and on August 22 he had 24. His kept his average above .350 throughout the summer, ending at the .358 mark, good enough for 4th best in the league. He scored more runs than any other player, 134, was tops in total bases and walks with 403 and 105, respectively, and his 175 runs batted in was 19 better than the runner up.
It was his home run hitting, though, that really grabbed the headlines. Brief had clinched a tight race by going on a tear during the last week of the season, banging out four homers to end with 37. Three of those clouts were in one game, tying the professional record that The Babe himself had set. The first of the trio was to dead center in Athletic Park, the same place he had bet his teammates that no one would reach. Sportswriters present that afternoon claim it was the longest drive ever witnessed at the park, the ball clearing the wall and breaking through the wire cage of Otto Borchert’s prized pigeon coop. It was the 7th home run title of his career, but what’s more, it proved that Bunny Brief was not finished just yet.
No doubt Brewers owner Otto Borchert breathed a sigh of relief that his big money veteran had delivered. As soon as 1926 rang in, Borchert shipped a new contract to Brief up in Traverse City and held his breathe. Everyone knew that Brief was a hard man to bargain with, and with him being the reigning home run champ, he was holding all the chips. A week later the contract was returned, signed by the 33 year-old slugger, no questions asked. At $5,000, Bunny Brief became what was reported as the highest paid player in the minor leagues.
Bunny Brief did his best to make 1926 as close a copy to 1925 as he could. To start the season, Brief was hitting north of .420 and beginning on April 19 hit in the next 26 consecutive games. After the streak ended, Brief cooled off for a few weeks but started June with a two-homer slump-busting game against Minneapolis. The following day he bashed another one that tied the game and helped preserve the Brewers 13 game winning streak.
Age, however, was starting to creep up on Bunny Brief. It’s around this time that the first mention is made of his bunions. The affliction began to hamper his effectiveness in the outfield and he was shuttled between right field and first base, where he wouldn’t have to run so much.
Despite the bunions, Brief hit 26 home runs to win the American Association home run crown for the second year in a row. This was his 8th and final home run title. There was still plenty of pop left in his trusty “Barbara Belle,” as Brief hit a healthy .352, 4th best for batters with over 100 at bats.
1927 was another story. Now 34, Brief, always a streak-hitter, found the distance between them further than they ever had been. Though he was known for his home runs, Bunny’s greatest asset to a team was his ability to drive runs across the plate. In 1927, this just wasn’t happening on a consistent basis anymore. He was taken out of the regular lineup and used primarily against lefthanders, who he had regularly feasted upon in the past. Still, his average hung just above the .300 mark, the lowest it’d been since 1920. He managed just 14 home runs and to make matters worse, the Brewers lost a tight pennant race. Some wags laid the blame for Milwaukee’s failed pennant drive at the bunioned feet of Bunny Brief, who had always been counted on to drive runs in when needed. At the conclusion of the season, the Brewers management expressed their confidence that Bunny merely had an off year, but at the same time stated that they would grant him his release should he secure a managerial position elsewhere.
Perhaps with an eye to his post-playing career, Bunny had expanded his journalistic aspirations beyond the Traverse City paper by writing a column for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Beginning in September, Brief’s gave his expert evaluation on each Brewers game as the fought in vain for the pennant. As far as his writing chops went, Brief had a tight, fact-based style lightly peppered with a humorous line or two. But despite his by-line, what Bunny really wanted to do was play ball.
Bunny was facing the age-old dilemma every star ballplayer does in the twilight of his career: bow out while still respectable or give it one last go and run the risk of looking pathetic.
Over the winter, Otto Borchert elected to slash Brief’s salary by $1,500. This brought the expected unsigned contract back in the return mail, but the two eventually compromised, reportedly for a $1,000 cut. Bunny was still wildly popular in Milwaukee and despite offers to play with Omaha and other lower level teams, the aging slugger was reluctant to leave the city that embraced him when Kansas City had all but written him off.
Brief went into spring training hitting the ball with that old power he was famous for. The Brewers also helped him out by allowing him to captain split squad teams to get a feel for managing. As a respected veteran, Brief had always been a popular clubhouse leader, and now he really seemed to take to working with the younger players.
Despite the odds stacked against him, Brief beat out the fresh crop of outfielders and was named the Brewers starting right fielder. At the beginning of the season, it looked like Brief was indeed back in form. On April 29 he hit a pair of homers against Columbus and going into the first week of May was hitting the ball at a .436 clip. Injury to the team’s first baseman saw Brief returning to the initial sack, and when he slammed his 7th home run of the season on May 22, the papers were calling him the “Comeback Kid.”
It didn’t last. When Brief was moved back to the outfield he was noticeably slower, on one occasion misplaying a ball that led to a Brewers loss. Strikeout became more and more frequent and he was back to being used primarily against lefthanders. With the end clearly near, the sports editor of the Milwaukee Nowiny Polskie, Zyg Kaminski, formed a Bunny Brief Booster Club. The Nowiny Polskie was printed entirely in Polish with the exception of Kaminski’s popular sports section that was read by baseball fans of every nationality. August 20 was the day set aside for “Bunny Brief Day” and every fan that contributed to a gift fund was given a button proclaiming, “I am for Bunny.” Word of his planned special day reached Traverse City and a delegation two hundred-fifty strong was quickly signed up to make the trek to Milwaukee by chartered excursion boat.
More than five thousand fans packed Athletic Park to pay tribute to Bunny Brief. The ceremony began with a 12-piece marching band emerging through the same left field wall over which Brief had hit so many balls. Playing “East Side, West Side,” the band was followed by a brand new Buick sedan. A surprised Bunny stood at home plate as he was presented with the keys to the Buick followed by a set of luggage, an electric heater, wreaths of flowers and a chest of silverware provided by the Traverse City delegation. It was one of the finest tributes to a minor league ballplayer as had ever been seen to that time.
The emotion outpouring of support for Bunny seemed to energize him in the waning days of the season. On August 27 he slugged two home runs, numbers 14 and 15, against Louisville and it came out that both the Indianapolis Indians and the Buffalo Bisons of the International League were interested in Brief’s services. For whatever reason Milwaukee refused a trade and Bunny finished out 1928 as a Brewer. For the year Brief hit .309, and though his home run total of 18 was far below his usual, it was still good enough for second place in the league.
After the season ended, speculation began whether or not Brief would be back in Milwaukee come spring. When the Brewers GM Henry J. Killilea was questioned he responded, “Bunny can stay with us as long as he wants. Any time he can better himself by accepting a job elsewhere he can have his release, but if he wants to stay here I guess we can find a place for him.”
It turns out that Killilea was talking out the side of his mouth, because on January 16, 1929 the Brewers traded him to the Nashville Vols. The trade came as complete surprise to the Milwaukee fans and resentment over Brief’s unceremonious departure was met with much resentment. Brief expressed his displeasure at the trade, believing that he had earned and should have been given an outright release from his contract, which would have allowed him to make a better deal for himself. In fact several clubs offered Bunny good money to sign, but he was bound to Nashville. By the spring of 1929, failing to get out of his Nashville contract, Bunny quit the game.
Bunny spent the first spring since 1913 at home in Traverse City. He opened up a gas station and suited up to play and manage the semi-pro Traverse City Independents. The next year the Springfield Indians of the Three I League wanted to hire Brief as player-manager, but he was still bound by the Nashville contract. Finding all roads back to pro ball blocked, Brief settled into life as a local hero. He was given the highest honor the town could bestow on an individual when he was chosen to select the Queen of the Michigan Cherry Festival, the annual event Traverse City was and still is known for. Perhaps the greatest nod to his home run hitting ability was when the Northern Creamery created a treat in his honor. Joining Babe Ruth, Joe Medwick and Reggie Jackson in the rare pantheon of those who have had sweets named in their honor, the retired slugger was immortalized with the “Homerun Bundy,” a single scoop of vanilla ice cream covered in chocolate and served on a stick.
Brief remained in Traverse City until 1937 when he was lured back to Milwaukee for a special job. Harold “Zip” Morgan created the “Stars of Yesterday” program that organized local boys and girls into a citywide baseball league. After a single year at the helm, Brief was allowed to take leave when he was offered the job as manager of the Wausau Timberjacks of the Northern League. He finished the season with a 60-55 record in the forth place slot. Not finding the life of a manager in the low minors to his liking, Brief returned to Milwaukee where fellow local Polish baseball hero, Jack Kloza, took his place as head of the “Stars of Yesterday” program. Kloza, who was actually born in the old country, was a Milwaukee native and was at one time considered another Al Simmons, but several injuries relegated him to the minors for most of his career. Because the “Stars of Yesterday” had really taken off, it was decided that both local legends would run the program. The city was divided into two leagues, Kloza taking the North Side and Brief the South Side. By 1944 the “Stars of Yesteryear” league had 85 teams with 6,500 participants. Many local kids learned the fundamentals of the game from these two former big leaguers, and the city of Milwaukee was able to boast that it had one of the most talented sandlot baseball scenes in the nation. This level of talent was represented in the city being represented by winning teams in most of the national tournaments held throughout the 1940’s and 50’s.
Bunny Brief and Jack Kloza remained as co-heads of the Stars of Yesteryear League until Kloza passed away in 1962. Bunny followed in February of 1963.
In a career that spanned both the Deadball and the Lively Ball Era and filled with incredible highlights – 8 home run titles in 3 different leagues including a stretch of 5 in 7 years, single season home run records in 2 different leagues, 347 career home runs and a .325 lifetime average at all levels – his 1963 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel obituary headline chose a different way to recognize his lifetime achievements:
Bunny Brief is Dead: Teacher of Baseball
I’d like to give a word of thanks to a few people who helped make this extended story possible. First is Gregory Witul for the assist on the origin of “Bunty.” My Polish knowledge is rudimentary, and while I knew that bunty was an old word meaning rebellious, etc, I wanted to ask someone more plugged into Polonia than I am. Greg writes for Am-Pol Eagle, and specializes in articles on Polish-American history and athletes. I though he might know an alternate use of bunty in the regional language used by the immigrant Polish community – “Poglish” for short. Greg came up with the same definition I did which made me feel more confident in the version I wound up hanging my hat on. Thanks Greg, and I look forward to reading your future Polish-American articles.
Next is Peter Morris, the intrepid baseball biographical researcher who was the first to pin down Brief’s real last name as “Grzeszkowski” and his birthplace as a rural, unnamed patch of Michigan forest. Morris’ research has been a huge inspiration to me, and I highly recommend his book Cracking Baseball’s Cold Cases: Filling in the Facts About 17 Mystery Major Leaguers.
Although I referred to the Brewers Milwaukee ballpark by the name that was used in Bunny Brief’s time, “Athletic Park,” it is more commonly known as “Borchert Field.” The history of this storied ball yard has been given the big league treatment by Bob Buege in his tremendous work Borchert Field: Stories From Milwaukee’s Legendary Ballpark. Buege is a great storyteller and any reader who finds the stories and characters found in the Infinite Baseball Card Set would absolutely enjoy his book.
I’m lucky in that most of the time when I seek outside assistance for stories I am greeted with enthusiastic responses. Unfortunately, when I reached out to the Traverse City newspaper and expressed an interest in writing about a local hero, I was met with unanswered emails and no response to many messages left on the editors’ voicemail. I found this quite sad, because I wanted to get a local take on how Bunny Brief is remembered up in Traverse City today. I guess I’ll never know, but I can tell you that after researching the life of this minor league legend, The Infinite Baseball Card Set certainly wont forget about him anytime soon.
In March of 2023 I was interviewed by Jordan Anderson of the Traverse Area Historical Podcast to talk about Bunny Brief and old-time baseball – listen HERE