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When Baseball Practice Was At The Milwaukee Zoo

Historic photo collection/Milwaukee Public Library
Polar Bears at the old Washington Park Zoo in Milwaukee. (Not shown: Baseball practice.)

Before the Brewers won the National League’s Central Division in 2018, they were longtime members of the American League. But before they were in the American League, another version of the Brewers played in the minor leagues, at a long-departed stadium called Borchert Field. It’s a fictionalized version of those Brewers who play a role in a recent middle-grade novel by Milwaukee native Stacy DeKeyser.

But the book, "The Rhino in Right Field," is more than a novelization of the Brewers of yore. It tells the story of a young first-generation American living in Milwaukee in the 1940s. He’s the son of Greek immigrants, and he hopes to compete in a contest being sponsored by the baseball team. But alas, the contest is on a Saturday, the day he is expected to work in his father’s shop.

The contest is a figment of DeKeyser's imagination, but many of the stories, situations and settings in the novel are taken from real-life tales her dad told of growing up in Milwaukee in that era. In the book, the protagonist, Nick, surreptitiously practices his baseball skills among the exhibits at the zoo near his home.  That may seem like a far-fetched idea, but DeKeyser says it came straight from her dad's experience.

The Rhino in Right Field is Stacy DeKeyer's fourth novel for young readers.

"If I didn't know my dad, I wouldn't believe it," she says.  "But I did know that he grew up a couple blocks from the Washington Park Zoo, and it was their playground. He was a city kid and the park was where you played.

"And, so, he would just tell us stories about how they played ball between the buffalo pen and mountain goat mountain. And if the ball went over the fence and into the animals' yard, somebody had to get it out."

The book is DeKeyser's fourth novel, but she says it stands apart from her other works because the subject matter is so personal. "I've always been pretty close to my dad," she says, "but it is very special. I never thought I would write something so close to my actual history and life, as well as his." For his part, DeKeyser's dad has given the book his thumbs-up.

Beyond an appreciation for the history, DeKeyser says she hopes her young readers also gain some insights into the experiences of immigrants and their families and see similarities with their own experience. "Basically, kids are still kids, and bullies are still bullies, and embarrassing parents can still be embarrassing parents, and friendship is the same no matter what."

And while young Milwaukee readers will hopefully gain an appreciation for the way life was here, neither DeKeyser or the modern-day Milwaukee Brewers are likely to recommend practicing baseball at the Milwaukee County Zoo.