Every summer when I was a kid, my dad packed my brother, sister, mom and me in the 1966 apple red Ford Country Sedan Station Wagon and headed out on the American highways in search of Civil War battlefields, countless Holiday Inns and camp grounds. Being the youngest, I had the last choice of seats and inevitably ended up in the way back, surrounded by suit cases and tent poles facing backwards. In between exhorting truckers to blast their horn, I would yell a question to the front of the car. It was the same question that I found myself asking Monday night while sitting at the bar of the 4th Base tavern: “Are we there yet?”
While the question from the back of the Ford was a high pitched whine requesting an answer towards the end of an 8-10 hour day of driving/riding, the same words I uttered the other day were rhetorical and quizzical. The question I asked myself Monday was in reference to the United States’ journey to become a soccer nation.
I had tickets to the Mexico vs. Senegal World Cup tuneup at Soldier Field Monday Night. I also had a 4:00 pm sponsor meeting in suburban Milwaukee. The meeting went long and the rush hour traffic, exacerbated by Milwaukee’s highway construction, was bumper to bumper. I detoured off the highway and tried to cross town on an arterial road. Another detour directed me past the 4th Base, one of my favorite places in Wisconsin.
As I approached, my Honda Civic Hybrid seemed to take control and pulled itself over at 5117 W. National Avenue. The 4th Base is a blue collar sports bar in a blue collar town in a blue collar state, West Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Opening the door, there’s a thin haze of cigarette smoke clouding above the U-shaped bar.
Wisconsin has thousands of bars like it, but none that are JUST like it. Sure, there’s a 1950s wall mounted pinball machine, Patsy Cline singing from the juke box and a matronly bar maid playing bar dice with a couple of flat topped customers. The 4th Base, however has a few important differences from the thousands of other shot and a beer joints in America’s Dairyland. It is a virtual sports museum.
The walls display dozens of old photos – many of them of the bygone Milwaukee Braves who played a dozen years in Milwaukee County Stadium a few blocks north of the bar which now has the stadium’s final home plate embedded in its side. Many of the photos are of a single
Puerto Rican hero who gave his life for earthquake victims after giving the Pittsburgh Pirates exactly 3,000 hits. There are football helmets – NFL, college and USFL. The ceiling is draped in basketball jerseys, including an Atlanta Hawks Pete Maravich #44 and the wooden decorative cover of the Milwaukee Brewers home dugout at old Milwaukee County Stadium.
And of course, dangling over the cash register wearing a white sanitary stocking and blue stirrup sock is the prosthetic leg of former American League batting champ and Milwaukee Brewers manager Harvey Kuenn. Kuenn operated Cesar’s Inn, a two (maybe) star motel and bar just down the street for many years.
Baseball pictures, basketball jerseys, football helmets - even if impressively unique and classic, are well placed in a homey establishment like the 4th Base. The food, however, is severely out of place. There is no menu per se. Patrons are directed to the refrigerated deli case, which is wedged between the far side of the bar and the ladies room. There you can view dozens of delectable options inviting your imagination to select the meal. The cook (it’s hard to call anyone a chef in a place like the 4th Base) will help you choose between steamed lobster, pan fried walleye, crab legs, tilapia, alligator, jumbalaya, filet mignon or killer sirloin burgers. I chose a 22 ounce black and blue porter house steak with steamed vegetables.
I was shocked Monday night, but not by the food selection, not by the crowd gathering before the Milwaukee Brewers vs. Atlanta Braves game and not even by the chocolate lab sitting a few bar stools away. I was blown away instead to see what the new bartender was wearing. His name was Mike, he’s a 2002 graduate of Milwaukee’s Pius XI High School and is going back to school to finish his degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee – Richie Cunningham’s alma mater.
Mike, the 4th Base bartender, was wearing a Frank Lampard Chelsea jersey. In this classic Milwaukee establishment, the royal blue top was more out of place than the blackened swordfish or shrimp scampi. I figured he must be an impostor of sorts. Assuming he was another recent bandwagon jumper, I asked him how he came to support the Blues. He said he became a fan in 2005 when he spent a semester in west London and took in a 2-1 Chelsea victory over Fulham in the derby held at Stamford Bridge. Other signs of true soccer fandom included his knowledge of Didier Drogba’s second half hat trick on Sunday and pleasant recollections of attending Milwaukee Wave indoor soccer games in his youth.
A couple of patrons teased him for wearing a soccer jersey. The bar matron came to his defense by saying “At least it’s a sports shirt.” And then two customers across the bar started chatting with him about Chelsea’s return to the top of the Premier League. That’s when, thinking that this may be evidence of a tipping point in American soccer, I whispered to myself, “Are we here yet? Has soccer finally arrived in the United States?” Mike then burst my bubble. I asked him if he’d been down to Chicago for an MLS game. He said he hadn’t, but he’d love to take his fiancée. I inquired when he was getting married. His response…and his ignorance to the meaning of the date and time of his wedding, brought my hopes that this was a sign of the arrival of soccer crashing down.
Mike, the American soccer fan who supports England’s (current) top club is getting married on June 12th….at 1:00 pm CT.