Sal Bando, three-time World Series champion and former Brewers general manager, dies at 78

Sal Bando, who spent the final five seasons of a decorated playing career with the Milwaukee Brewers and then held the role of general manager with the franchise for another eight seasons, died Friday at age 78 in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

A statement from his family said Bando had been battling cancer for five years.

The three-time World Series champion as a player with the Oakland Athletics made four All-Star teams during his playing days with the A’s and signed a five-year contract worth $1.5 million with the Brewers after the 1976 season, the first premier free-agency additions in Brewers history.

Bando hit .254 with 242 homers and 1,039 RBI in 16 seasons with the Athletics and Brewers. He won three consecutive titles with the A’s from 1972-74.

“It can never be overstated the role Sal had in Brewers’ history, both on and off the field,” said former Brewers owner and baseball commissioner Allan H. “Bud” Selig. “I cannot emphasize that enough. When he joined us as a player, that was a big day in our history. He helped us turn the corner and was everything we hoped for, and played an important role in helping develop our younger players such as Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, into stars. He was truly our captain. 

“More than a great player, he was a tremendous person, a really great man. And he really loved Milwaukee, choosing to stay here and raise his family, which meant so much to him. Beyond all of that, Sue and I, and our entire family, cherished our friendship with Sal. He will be truly missed. This is a sad day.” 

The Brewers’ first free agent

Sal Bando in 1979.

The Brewers selected the third baseman Bando in the now-defunct free-agency “draft” of 1976, putting them among a small group of teams with negotiating rights. Getting him to agree to a deal marked a new era for the club.

“It has long-term importance, because it proves we can sign free agents, and that will be important in future years,” Selig said at the time.

The Brewers thought they had a chance to sign Bando’s roommate in Oakland, catcher/first baseman Gene Tenace, but he ultimately chose San Diego. Still, the Brewers improved marginally in 1977 and then went on a run of six consecutive winning seasons, starting with a 93-win team in 1978 that was the first winning club in Brewers history.

Bando played in Milwaukee from 1977-81, posting his best year in the uniform with that 1978 team when he batted .285 with 17 homers. He also played 32 games for the 1981 team that became the first playoff qualifier in club history, serving in a player-coach role for his final two years.

Selig had bragged that when the Brewers signed the third baseman, he’d gotten strong recommendation from people with the A’s.

“You don’t understand,” Selig said then. “The heart and soul of the Oakland A’s is not Catfish Hunter, and it is not Reggie Jackson, and it is not Rollie Fingers. It’s Sal Bando.”

From player to front office immediately

Brewers general manager Sal Bando with coach Phil Garner in 1992.

With his playing career complete, Bando immediately became a special assistant to general manager Harry Dalton, the architect of Milwaukee’s run of success from the late-1970s and through the 1980s. But the Brewers hadn’t finished higher than third in the American League East for nine years after the run to the 1982 World Series, and after a series of free-agent signings for the 1991 season flopped, Selig turned to Bando, just 47 years old, as the new president of baseball operations. Dalton stayed on as a senior vice president.

“I would be less than candid if I told you I was particularly thrilled about no longer being the general manager of this team, but I am very, very pleased about remaining with the team,” Dalton said at the time.

Bando’s first major bit of business was firing incumbent manager Tom Trebelhorn, and he led the search that ultimately landed Phil Garner as manager for the 1992 season. Bando’s only winning season in his GM tenure was that first one, a memorable 1992 campaign in which the club won 92 games and took second in the American League East behind World Series champion Toronto.

Paul Molitor’s departure

Paul Molitor had a huge run with the Toronto Blue Jays after the Brewers were unwilling to bring him back for the 1993 season.

The deck was stacked against Bando in the 1990s when salaries began skyrocketing and the small-market Brewers couldn’t keep up until revenue sharing began in 1996. That may have played a role when Bando stood at the forefront of one of the most dubious decisions in franchise history, not bringing franchise legend Paul Molitor back for the 1993 season.

The Brewers braintrust delayed contract negotiations after the 1992 season, then infamously asked Molitor to take a pay cut; instead, the Toronto Blue Jays entered the fray with a three-year offer worth $13 million. The Brewers offered him a shorter, cheaper deal.

“I didn’t understand their approach to that whole negotiation, and I guess I didn’t understand the economics of what they were going through at the time,” Molitor said later. “I just thought that I didn’t have the support. I thought they tried to make me out as the bad guy at the time, and they were trying to protect their image and do some damage control, too.”

At age 36, Molitor turned in the first of two consecutive All-Star seasons with the Jays, finished second in the MVP voting and became World Series MVP. Molitor and Robin Yount are the two players enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame regarded primarily as Milwaukee Brewers.

Bando resigned in August of the 1999 season shortly after firing Garner, who was replaced by interim manager Jim Lefebvre. Just like his predecessor, Bando was reassigned within the organization, into the newly created role of special assistant to the club president.

Bando, a native of Cleveland who played college baseball at Arizona State, remained connected to Milwaukee. Bando’s son, Sal Jr., was head coach for the Marquette High School baseball team that grabbed back-to-back runner-up finishes in the WIAA summer baseball state tournament in 2016 and 2017.

Bando was inducted into the Brewers Wall of Honor as a charter member in 2014. He entered the National College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013 and the Athletics Hall of Fame in 2022.

JR Radcliffe can be reached at (262) 361-9141 or jradcliffe@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JRRadcliffe.

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