Former Milwaukee Brewers owner and Major League Baseball Commissioner Emeritus Bud Selig’s frank For the Good of the Game: The Inside Story of the Surprising and Dramatic Transformation of Major League Baseball, written with Phil Rogers, quite candidly covers baseball’s “steroids era” from the 1980s to the late 200os, the players’ strike in 1994-95, and the preservation and growth of the game during his tenure as Commissioner. This growth included the construction of several new baseball stadia for teams across the country, of course—including in Selig’s beloved, small-market Milwaukee.

Selig’s For the Good of the Game admirably includes a section on the local controversy in the mid- to late 1990s about how what became Miller Park would be financed. It angrily lashes out at those policymakers whom he thought duplicitous during the debate.

“I witnessed some of the worst, most Machiavellian behavior you can imagine,” according to Selig. “I had politicians—including our governor at the time, [Tommy] Thompson, and our mayor, John Norquist—routinely say one thing to my face and do the opposite behind my back.” Thompson and Norquist have responded forcefully in their own defense.

The book’s section on the stadium also nicely includes an expression of gratitude to The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, where I worked at the time, for its role in the funding package.

“We eventually got it done with a public-private partnership,” Selig writes. “When the project was in trouble, we received a huge late lift from Michael Joyce, president of the Bradley Foundation, one of the biggest and most respected foundations in the country. His support,” along with others, Selig adds, “rallied other local business leaders who were supportive of the stadium effort.”

Many things can be learned from how the overall package was put together more than two decades ago and how it has worked out for the city. Given that which Bradley did, and how, there are some lessons related to philanthropic giving in particular.

The project was, as Selig says, in definite trouble in June 1996. The public portion of the public-private partnership was increasingly in doubt. There were a lot of, and changing, creative plans among government officials to basically move money around among existing public entities to finish the deal. Then, when there were difficulties in making those plans a reality, one could sense policymakers tensely starting to lay the foundation for assigning blame, to others.

“We saw time slipping away,” Bradley’s Joyce said at the time.

Any public financing would be unpopular. A state senator had just been recalled from office for supporting a 0.01% tax increase in five southeastern-Wisconsin counties to help finance the stadium. Losing the Brewers would be unpopular, too, though. Milwaukee had already lost the Braves to Atlanta in 1965—a very dispiriting blow to the place already derisively considered “bush league,” second-rate, by so many from elsewhere.

Decisive and agile

From its unique philanthropic position, Bradley was able to and did respond. First, it was decisive.

“[L]et’s build a stadium now, because if we don’t do it now, it's not going to get built,” said Bradleys then-chairman I. A. “Tiny” Rader in introducing the announcement of Bradley’s support on June 26, 1996. “It's time to stop dithering and we’ve got to build a stadium, because it’s of very great importance, in our view, to Milwaukee and all the citizens here.”

“Today, we’re stepping up to the plate, to use a baseball expression,” Bradley president Michael S. Joyce told a local television reporter. “Yes, we’re putting on the table $20 million of new money, not moving money from one pocket to another—$20 million dollars in the form of a charitable investment to get the stadium built. That’s it. Hard cash, American, $20 million.”

With the low-interest loan, “[t]he foundation is acting on its own,” Joyce declaratively told the reporter.

As I said, we are stepping up to the plate. The important thing for us was another baseball expression: keep your eye on the ball. And frankly, the ball is this: we have major-league baseball in this community. We’re going to lose it unless we get the stadium done, unless we get it done right now. So we are hoping to stimulate this community to step up to the plate and get this done right now, this week. I mean this has got to be done. It has to be done.

Second, and relatedly, Bradley was administratively agile. There were no months of investigating, evaluating, and planning how the money would be used and/or for which of the various existing or potential plans. No consultants, no collaborative convenings.

“This action is somewhat the reverse of the other recent plans to save the Brewers. They were long on details and short on money. But today’s announcement effectively has only one detail to it: $20 million dollars of new money, not money moved from one pocket to another,” Joyce said during the announcement.

It will take some time for the lawyers and the accountants to work out the specifics and name the instrument of investment. But when they’re done, the central fact will remain unchanged—that as of today, the kind of money needed to complete the stadium project, to keep the Brewers, the “build-it-now” money, is on the table. 

While Bradley didn’t and wouldn’t necessarily have used the term, it was engaging in aggressive, imaginative, risk-taking venture philanthropy. In developing the outline of the arrangement, Bradley quickly researched and mimicked the model of the Eli Lilly Foundation’s and others’ support of the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, to where the Baltimore Colts moved in 1984.

Fundamentally, mindful of civic identity

Third, more largely and maybe most importantly—humbly looking, with patience, both backward and forward—Bradley’s fundamental, animating worldview was one mindful of its own locale, its history, its legacy, its future, its civic identity. This is not inconsistent with the administrative agility the foundation had shown.

“Forget the politics, forget the players’ strike, forget the whining of the few but loud who do not represent a community outstandingly devoted to preserving its heritage for future generations,” Joyce said. “And remember this: major-league baseball is an authentic, unifying, and eloquent expression of American tradition that is played in our greatest cities.Milwaukee achieved that status in 1953, only to lose it” when the Braves left in 1965. “It was regained in 1970 by the heroic efforts of dedicated local leaders”—including Selig—"who now need active and vocal support from all citizens and their institutions to affirm that Milwaukee is and will continue to be a major-league community.”

Well-reflecting Bradley’s programmatic emphasis on the preservation and revitalization of civil society, notably without any detailed charts with data about material or economic “return on investment” from the foundation’s support, Joyce stirringly said,

Brewers baseball on the radio is the background music of summer life in Milwaukee. Whether we attend their games, or tune in their broadcasts, or check their box scores in the morning paper, the Brewers are a common cause, a connection among us. Their games are avidly followed in every home for senior citizens and knowingly discussed on every playground ball field, at our kitchen tables, in our taverns, at our festivals and picnics, from the factory floor to the executive suite in our workplaces. The names and deeds of our ballplayers are the substance of a conversation that everyone can join. ...

Miller Park opened in 2001, delayed a year by a tragic construction accident that cost three workers their lives. Construction and interest costs for the project have totaled an estimated $524 million.

Last year, the Brewers were one game away from playing in the World Series. This year—or if not, perhaps some year after that—we Milwaukeeans, pretty much all of us, together believe they may win it all.