Thirty years ago Saturday, thousands of people stood in line in the rain to collect on a promise made by George Webb, who by then had been dead for three decades.Free stuff in Milwaukee? Let slip the crowds.
Webb, the quirky, iconoclastic restaurant owner who installed two clocks right next to each other in his restaurants for no discernible reason, had predicted Milwaukee's baseball team would someday win a dozen games in a row.
There was no promise attached to the prediction, but all assumed it would mean free burgers if Milwaukee's baseball franchise ever won 12 in a row.
No matter that Milwaukee's team was then the Braves and hamburgers were 15 cents when the prediction was made. But year after year Webb printed the prediction on its napkins. Finally, in April 1987, it happened.
"I didn't think it would take that long, but I knew it would probably happen because of the players we had" in 1987, said Mary Beth Unglaub, a waitress at the George Webb on S. 76th St. in Franklin.
A plan was put in place and Dave Stamm announced at the news conference that a free burger for each customer would be handed out three days later. And they came. Lining up outside restaurants for hours, patiently waiting in the rain to taste victory covered with ketchup, pickles, fried onions and mustard.That 1987 season was a season of streaks for the Brewers. Paul Molitor ran a consecutive game hitting streak into the thirties. Conventional wisdom around baseball was that the fifteen game streak left the Brewers in a good place for the playoffs (which back then involved fewer teams) with .500 baseball the rest of the way. But after the long winning streak came a couple of long losing streaks (I don't recall people joking about the Brewers having to buy hamburgers, although more recently that did come up) and the team finished out of contention.
"It was actually very good for business. It wasn't a dreaded thing, it was an exciting thing," said Tom Aldridge, a second-generation George Webb owner who had nine franchise locations in 1987. "Business went up 20% around the ninth victory and business went up for months after that."
Restaurant owners and managers worried about running out of hamburger patties and buns, but the operation appeared to run without a hitch, assembly lines were set up with workers grilling, adding condiments, bagging and handing out. Styrofoam coolers were filled with burgers as the lines seemed to keep growing throughout the day. A grill fire at the Webb on W. Silver Spring Drive delayed service about 20 minutes and a firefighter jokingly denied that rescue squad members ran into the restaurant to get to the front of the line.
The implicit promise of hamburgers is still in the air. Five burgers for six bucks when the Brewers score five runs in a game is still there. And those clocks? To comply with a Milwaukee restaurant closing law.
But don't dump on George Webb when the Brewers get those five runs in the first three innings, chase the Cub starter, and then the relief pitchers lose their stuff.