“Pack a bag.” The speaker was Lloyd Larson, sports editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel. It was March 18, 1953. Larson was talking to Lou Chapman, one of the members of his staff.
“What for?” came the obvious question.
The answer changed Chapman’s life. He was asked to catch a plane for Florida to begin a new beat. The announcement had been made just hours earlier – the National League owners had approved Lou Perini’s request to transfer his baseball team, the Boston Braves, to Milwaukee. Chapman would write feature stories and personality sketches of the ballplayers. It was a dream come true.
Nearing age 40, Chapman had been watching the years slip past while he took bowling scores over the phone and tried to manufacture excitement by writing about the least talented team in the National Basketball Association. Catch a flight? Lou would have walked to Florida. Within a day he was sending back a torrent of information from Bradenton about Milwaukee’s – about his – new team. For the next 13 years, he never stopped.
Louis Chapman (no middle name) was born in Milwaukee on June 19, 1913. His parents, Dora and Harry Chapman, were Russian Jews who emigrated in 1907 or 1908 from the area around Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine. Harry worked for his father’s ice business. In the winter Harry and his brother would drive a truck to Pewaukee Lake, 20 miles west of Milwaukee, cut big chunks of ice out of the lake, and drive them back. They would store the ice and then peddle it during the warm months.
Lou’s only sibling was a younger brother named Benward Chapman, who for 35 years was a prominent physician in Milwaukee. Among his better-known patients were the Beatles, Don and Phil Everly, and the perennial host of the Miss America pageant, Bert Parks.
Lou attended Milwaukee’s West Division High School. After graduating he enrolled in the Marquette School of Journalism, earning his degree in 1937.In 1940 Lou met the love of his life, Harriet Grafman, the daughter of Polish immigrants who ran a small grocery store on Milwaukee’s north side. “Her eyes were just beautiful,” Lou told a reporter. “They were what attracted me to her first.”2 Inspired by her lovely brown eyes, Lou wrote her a poem. She in turn recited poetry to him. They soon began dating in earnest, and the following year they were married.
Harriet was a cultured woman of the arts. During her high-school years she studied piano at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. She was an accomplished painter and sculptor. She once helped her son Richard build a model of the Arc de Triomphe out of toothpicks for his school project.3
She wrote articles for the Milwaukee newspapers. While Lou attended Marquette, Harriet studied at Milwaukee State Teachers’ College, graduating in 1934. She became a kindergarten teacher in the public schools and taught until 1965, not including the war years. During World War II she worked in Washington, D.C., in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which evolved into the CIA.
Besides her involvement with the fine arts, Harriet also had a baseball connection. Portions of a home movie she made of her husband and his friend Henry Aaron were incorporated into a documentary film, Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream. The movie follows Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s career home-run record. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1996, losing out to a feature about Anne Frank.
Harriet had another connection to “show biz.” She and Lou had two sons. Stuart Chapman was a magazine publisher and writer who started a medical publishing firm in New York. His brother, Richard, worked as a screenwriter for both television and Hollywood films. He was the executive producer of the 1980s TV series Simon and Simon. He wrote the screenplay for the film My Fellow Americans, which starred Jack Lemmon and James Garner. As of 2013 Richard was a senior lecturer in screenwriting at Washington University in St. Louis.
In 1942 Lou received his draft notice. He was initially assigned for basic training at Jefferson Barracks, just south of St. Louis. He was later stationed at Scott Air Force Base, in Illinois. He edited the base newspaper and trained as a radio operator. When World War II ended, Chapman was honorably discharged, having received the rank of sergeant.
Returning to Milwaukee, Chapman worked briefly for the Milwaukee Journal and then joined the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1948. He labored in obscurity until the Braves arrived, and then suddenly he was a celebrity – well, a minor celebrity. So pervasive was Braves Mania that the team held a series of instructional clinics for women, the theory being that baseball was too sophisticated for their pretty little minds to grasp. Lou was a panelist at each clinic for two seasons.
At the second of the tutorials, on August 11, 1953, an overflow crowd of a thousand women asked questions of a truly impressive panel. Braves players included Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn, and Joe Adcock. Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter of the St. Louis Cardinals were in town and agreed to sit in. LoRene Spahn, wife of the Braves’ star left-hander, served as the panel’s token distaff member. Announcer Earl Gillespie and journalists Red Thisted and Chapman rounded out the group.
The ladies had been encouraged to dress in their Sunday finery – hats and all – because the event was being filmed for showing on the NBC Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. The women’s baseball inquiries ran the gamut from lame to sensible. “Why aren’t women allowed to play in Organized Baseball?” one asked. “Why four balls for a walk and only three strikes for a strikeout?” queried another. The most memorable exchange of the QA was handled by Chapman. “What does ‘good in the clutch’ mean?” was the question.
Without missing a beat, Lou replied, “You must understand first of all that the expression has nothing to do with any activity in the parlor.”4 That was about as bold as television would allow in 1953.
On a rainy Monday evening, May 25, 1953, during a twi-night doubleheader, Chapman was in his customary spot in the press box at County Stadium, witnessing a historic pitching performance. In the nightcap, portly right-hander Max Surkont struck out eight consecutive Cincinnati Reds, the first pitcher to accomplish that feat since 1884. The drama of the moment was heightened by the fact that a 33-minute rain delay separated the seventh and eighth whiffs. After the game, Lou eagerly ran to the clubhouse and interviewed Surkont, who told him straight out that the last strikeout pitch had been a perfect spitball. This win lifted Surkont to 6-0, the first and only time during a nine-year major-league career that he would begin so well.
Chapman revealed to his colleague Red Thisted what Surkont had told him about the spitter. A veteran (and competing) sportswriter overheard the conversation and warned Chapman not to use the information. “It’ll damage his career,” he cautioned. Chapman was new to covering baseball, and now he faced an ethical dilemma. He pondered it, but not for long. He had a deadline. In the end, he did not use the juicy information. It gnawed at him, though. It was the last time, he said later, that he ever sat on a story.5 As far as Surkont’s baseball career went from that time, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in December 1953 and pitched for the last time in the major leagues in May 1957.
Generally speaking, Chapman would do nearly anything to get a story. While some writers covered the games from the press box, Lou was a fixture in the locker room or wherever the ballplayers hung out. There was a story, perhaps apocryphal, that he once hid inside a locker during spring training trying to overhear which players would be cut from the roster. Some of the players jokingly referred to Lou as Scoop or Gumby, short for gumshoe, a term for detective. As Lou’s son Stuart put it, “My father was the quintessential newspaperman. He relentlessly pursued stories.”6
Chapman was also fearless. While covering the American League Brewers during the 1970s, he once wrote a story critical of the Kansas City Royals’ All-Star third baseman, George Brett. Shortly afterward he encountered Brett in a hotel lobby in Kansas City. As Lou’s son Richard described it, “George was waiting for him. He started screaming at my dad, ‘I’m going to pinch your (expletive) head off.’”
Lou, who needed thick soles to stand 5½ feet tall, stood his ground. “Go ahead,” he yelled back. “I’ll show you the biggest lawsuit in Royals history.”7
Unlike Brett, many of the ballplayers liked Chapman and admired his honesty. On January 25, 1955, Lou wrote in a story that Jackie Robinson criticized Eddie Mathews for being thin-skinned and unable to deal with bench jockeys. “I like to needle him,” Robinson said in the article. “He gets hot under the collar. … Eddie will have to learn how to take it.”8 The remarks stirred some controversy. Soon after that Lou received a letter from Robinson. The note presented Jackie’s side of the story but also said he understood why Chapman had written it the way he did. Richard Chapman explained that “Jackie just wanted to make sure their friendship was not at all affected. It was a very complimentary letter that Jackie wrote.”9
Lou was not stingy with his opinions, though. In 1961 he and Sentinel colleague Red Thisted co-authored a three-part series of articles headlined “What’s Wrong with the Braves?” The trilogy earned a $500 “Grand Annual” sports writing award as the outstanding sports entry from Hearst newspapers across the country.
And just what was wrong with the Braves? The answer was multilayered: indifferent front office, deadwood on the bench, weak bullpen. Bottom line, though, the finger pointed at manager Charlie Dressen. He had allowed team morale to sink to an all-time low. He was “a petty tyrant, cast in the mold of Captain Queeg of ‘Caine Mutiny’ ill-fame.” He handled the club “as if they belonged in a horse-and-buggy, tough-principled John McGraw era.”10 Chapman and Thisted attributed those opinions to the ballplayers, but they did not use quotes. What’s more, the style was pure Chapman. He was dead-on in his thinking, and fans – and ownership – knew it.
Dressen read the articles and got into a shouting match with Chapman in the County Stadium hospitality room, calling him a variety of names, of which “snake” was the mildest.11
Lou retaliated in print. For what he claimed was the only time in his career, he let personal enmity color his reporting. He knew Dressen had never attended high school. In a story about Alvin Dark, Lou wrote, “Alvin Dark is a rarity among managers. He has a college degree. Some managers have never gone past the eighth grade.”12 Dressen responded by keeping the reporters out of the clubhouse for 20 minutes after each game. The Braves fired Dressen on September 2, 1961.
Dressen’s 20-minute lockout rule, obviously directed at Chapman, was nothing by comparison. Four years later the Braves’ front office banned Lou from the locker room altogether. This was during the lame-duck season of 1965. Lou admitted that “I tried to make it as uncomfortable as possible for the carpetbaggers.”13 To do this, every time an opposing player or official came to Milwaukee, Lou would write a story quoting that person being critical of the Braves owners.
On Saturday, June 19, he quoted St. Louis Cardinals reliever Hal Woodeshick as saying, “I feel sorry for the Milwaukee fans, but that’s life – everyone’s after that almighty dollar.” Woodeshick said the Braves would win the pennant if they were playing in Atlanta.14
Apparently that was the last straw for the Braves’ front office. As Lou wrote, “On Father’s Day the Braves disowned me.”15 Assistant general manager Jim Fanning announced, “As of now, the Braves clubhouse is off limits to Lou Chapman.”16 Chapman received the news in a phone call from Bob Wolf of the Milwaukee Journal. At the stadium Chapman was physically barred by an attendant, who told him to see Fanning.
“You have had a disquieting effect,” Fanning told Lou, “on the players in the clubhouse, the employees in the ticket office, and throughout the stadium. Our people here tingle whenever you come around them.”17 Fanning admitted that none of Lou’s articles had been distorted or false. He also told Chapman that he could interview any of the players he wanted to but only in Fanning’s executive office, not the clubhouse. Lou named three players plus manager Bobby Bragan. One by one they traipsed into the office to speak with the reporter.
The Milwaukee chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America immediately filed a letter of protest with the league office and with Commissioner Ford Frick. The indefinite ban was rescinded and ended after one day.
Lou prided himself on being a wordsmith and a voracious reader. He especially admired legendary sportswriter Walter “Red” Smith. Lou’s son Richard told of the time after an All-Star Game when his father carried Smith’s typewriter across the field for him because Smith was quite elderly. Lou always felt privileged to have done that.18
The Braves came and went, but Lou Chapman stayed on the Sentinel staff until 1979. He was given a rebirth when the Brewers took over County Stadium in 1970. Nine years later it was time to go.
Lou spent his retirement years in Venice, Florida. He died there on April 30, 2004. His body was returned to Wisconsin for burial in Spring Hill Cemetery, where his grave overlooks Milwaukee’s ballpark.
This biography is included in the book "Thar's Joy in Braveland! The 1957 Milwaukee Braves" (SABR, 2014), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To download the free e-book or purchase the paperback edition, click here.
Chapman, Lou, “Baseball Was My Beat,” (three parts), Milwaukee Sentinel, November 17, 21, 23, 1979.
Thisted, Red, and Lou Chapman, “What’s Wrong with the Braves?” (three parts), Milwaukee Sentinel, June 16-18, 1961.
“Chapman, Thisted Win ‘Grand’ Prize,” Milwaukee Sentinel, October 13, 1961.
“Harriett G. Chapman,” Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, June 29, 2001.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Chapman, Richard, telephone interview, November 26, 2012.
 “Sentinel’s Lou Chapman Gives Braves the Color,” Milwaukee Sentinel, April 11, 1955.
 Amy Boerema, “Chapman Filled Home with the Arts,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 14, 1996.
 Red Thisted, “Clinic for Women Fans Put on TV,” The Sporting News, August 19, 1953.
 Lou Chapman, “Grimm Resigned To Soften His Firing,” Milwaukee Sentinel, November 17, 1979.
 Richard Chapman, telephone interview, November 26, 2012.
 Tom Haudricourt, “Sentinel Writer Gave Fans Inside Scoop on Baseball,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 3, 2004; Richard Chapman interview.
 Lou Chapman, “Robinson Flashes Brand New Personality, but Story’s Same,” Milwaukee Sentinel, January 25, 1955.
 Richard Chapman interview.
 Red Thisted and Lou Chapman, “Dressen, Players Clash Behind Scenes,” Milwaukee Sentinel, June 16, 1961.
 Lou Chapman, “Braves Had Problems Adjusting to Dressen,” Milwaukee Sentinel, November 23, 1979
 Lou Chapman, “It Was Sportswriter vs. Braves in Battle Over Move,” Milwaukee Sentinel, November 21, 1979.
 “Braves Close Clubhouse to Sentinel Writer,” Milwaukee Journal, June 20, 1965.
 Lou Chapman, “Our Lou Gets ‘Red Carpet’ Deal as Braves Lift Ban,” Milwaukee Sentinel, June 21, 1965.
 “Braves Close Clubhouse,” Milwaukee Journal.
 Lou Chapman, “Our Lou Gets ‘Red Carpet’ Deal.”
 Richard Chapman interview.