Flashback From the Fifties — Hank Sauer

Before Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, there was The Mayor of Wrigley Field, Hank Sauer. He earned his title with the long ball, and in less than seven years with the Cubs he hit 198 homers and drove in 587 runs. He also won the NL Most Valuable Player Award in 1952, the first time a player on a second division team had been so honored. Hank accomplished all of this despite either being injured or underutilized in three of those years.

BEFORE THE CUBS

Hank had a lengthy career prior to arriving in Chicago, and he extended his career long after leaving. (One way of extended your career is to lie about your age, which Hank did when he signed his first minor league deal—saying he was 18 rather than his actual age of 20.) He spent the 1935-40 seasons with the New York Yankee and Cincinnati Red organizations before getting his first taste of the big leagues in 1941 when the Reds brought him up in September.

Hank was unable to stick with the Reds, though. And then the war took two years away from him (he served in the Coast Guard). Upon his return in 1945, he was off to a good start through 31 games. Unfortunately, Hank hurt his leg on a slide, a tendon injury that brought an end to his season and reduced his speed for the rest of his career. After this setback, Hank was back in the minors for the 1946 season, recuperating, but in 1947 he turned a corner.

As Sauer said in an interview with Jim Sargent many years later, Syracuse Chiefs’ coach Jewel Ens gave Hank an idea. He had a fast bat and a powerful swing, but he was pulling too many balls foul. Hank was a big man for the time, 6’ 3” and almost 200 pounds. Ens suggested Hank use a heavier bat—a 36 inch, 40 ounce model. The result? Hank hit .336 with 50 home runs and drove in 141. The Reds got the message, and Hank got another chance in 1948. He was 29 in Hank Sauer years, but 31 in reality.

Hank came through for the Reds, hitting 35 home runs and driving in 97 in his first full big league season. Then, he says, his manager suggested he try to hit to all fields. As a dead pull hitter, this did not improve Sauer’s game, and he got off to a slow start in 1949, as did the Reds, who were in seventh place on June 15. A perfect time to make a trade with the eighth place team—the Chicago Cubs. So, in their wisdom, they sent big Hank Sauer and Frankie Baumholtz, another outfielder, to the Cubs for fan favorite little Peanuts Lowry (5’ 8”) and little-used Harry “the Hat” Walker. A great trade—for the Cubs.

WITH THE CUBS

No sooner did he arrive in Chicago, but Hank’s bat came to life again. Manager Frankie Frisch didn’t care if Hank hit to all fields; he wanted the long ball. Hank obliged, finishing the season with a combined 31 homers and 99 RBI, second on the Cubs only to Andy Pafko. The Cubs finished last, but Sauer was an important new piece.

With Pafko and Sauer as the team sluggers, hopes were high that 1950 would be a good year for the Cubs. Unfortunately, pitching was in short supply (“ace” Bob Rush went 13-20 that year) and no regular fourth starter emerged. Pafko hit 36 homers and Sauer 32 with 103 RBI (both made the All Star team), and even shortstop Roy Smalley chipped in with 21 homers, but the rest of the team lagged and the Cubs rose only one spot to seventh place. This was also the year that Emil Verban hit .108 as a pinch hitter (he was known for his glove). One of Hank’s personal highlights was hitting three home runs in one game against one of the Philadelphia “Whiz Kids,” star lefty Curt Simmons.

The front office intervened at the trade deadline in ‘51, sending Pafko and three others to Brooklyn for four journeymen (most notably Eddie Miksis). Without Andy’s protection in the lineup, Hank’s numbers declined somewhat, but he still hit 30 homers and drove in 89. The Cubs, however, returned to eighth place, using nine different starting pitchers without much success.

Then came the 1952 MVP season. Hank started strong, including another three-homer game against the Phillies Curt Simmons, which at that time made him the first player to hit three off the same pitcher twice. He was named to the All Star team and hit the game-winning home run in that game too, driving in Stan Musial, and providing a win for teammate Bob Rush.

More remarkably, Cubs pitching came around in 1952, and the Team rose above .500 at the All Star break. Timely hitting (Baumholtz hit .325) supported some excellent pitching performances by Bob Rush (17-13, 2.70 ERA, 1.142 WHIP, 4 shutouts, 17 complete games), Warren Hacker (15-9, 2.58, 0.946, 5 shutouts, 12 CG), and Paul Minner (14-9), and even 43 year-old Dutch Leonard, who “finished” 45 games, saving 11, with a 2.16 ERA.

Unfortunately, Hank injured his neck on a slide early in September, and played his final weeks in pain and with little flexibility. Starting the month with 34 homers, he ended the season with 37, good enough for a tie for the NL lead with Ralph Kiner. Hank led the league with 121 RBI and was second in slugging percent with .531.

Sauer might have been helped in the MVP vote by the success of two pitchers, rookie Joe Black and Robin Roberts. Hank was the best of the hitters that year, so the divided vote for the pitchers allowed him to place first. But first is first, so Hank Sauer became the first player ever named MVP playing on a second division team without a winning record. In fact, Hank had led the Cubs to a fifth place finish and a .500 W-L record—the most successful season since the third place finish in 1946. And, sad to say, the best until the 82-80 year of 1963.

As a result of his success, Hank was earning the then-handsome salary of $37,000 for the 1953 year. So for the first time in his career, he did not have to work at a part-time job during the winter, as most ballplayers did in those pre-union, pre-free agency days.

The injury bug struck again in ’53, however, beginning with a broken finger in spring training, and another broken finger early in the season. Later, he broke a hand. He stayed in the lineup as much as possible, because even a one-handed Hank Sauer was better than most.

The ’53 year marked another front office move—the Cubs acquired Ralph Kiner in a multi-player trade. Kiner had led the league in homeruns seven consecutive times, a truly remarkable feat, but by ’53 he was beginning to lose some of his power. Furthermore, he had to play left field, so Hank had to move to right.

Hank had led National League left fielders in several fielding categories in ’52—putouts, assists (17), double-plays (3)—and was second in range factor. But neither of the sluggers was fleet of foot, so center fielder Frankie Baumholtz had to run from one side of the field to another to try to compensate. Thus arose the nickname, described by Mike Royko, as the “Quicksand Kids,” a play on the Philadelphia “Whiz kids” and the 1950’s TV show “Quiz Kids.” Not as old as Royko, I confess to not knowing this term. I always thought they were the Leadfoot Outfield of 1953, but in any case, the Kiner trade led to some dicey moments in the field. (And remember, Hank played with broken fingers or a broken hand for most of the season.)

Kiner hit 28 homers, the injured Sauer managed 19, Randy Jackson contributed 19, and first baseman Dee Fondy hit 18, so the Cubs had some power, but the pitching staff reverted to form and 4.00+ ERAs. The promise of ’52 was dashed and the Cubs returned to seventh place and a 65-89 record in ’53. But a glimmer of hope always remains for Cubs fans. In September of 1953, the Cubs brought up two rookies: Gene Baker and Ernie Banks.

As the 1954 season began, Hank was back in good health and the Cubs had a new keystone combination in Baker at second and Banks at shortstop. By May 31, 1954, the Cubs were hitting a ton. They beat the Cardinals 11-4 with six home runs—two by Hank, one each by Randy Jackson, Banks, Bill Serena, and the pitcher Paul Minner. Kiner contributed a double and a triple. He was hitting .348, Hank was at .343, and Jackson .308. What could go wrong?

June 1954 might be the prototype of the “June swoon.” On May 31 they were 20-22 and on June 30 they were 24-43. Put another way, the Cubs were 4 and 21 for the month. This may have been when announcer Jack Brickhouse applied the term “snake-bit.” The team never recovered, ending the year at 64-90, yet another seventh place finish.

Nevertheless, at age 37, Hank had one of his best years. He finished with 41 homers, 103 RBI, a line of .288/.375/.563 for an OPS of .938. Kiner was down to 22 homers, but Banks and Jackson each hit 19 and averaged in the .275 range, so hitting was not the problem in ’54. Once again, pitching lagged.

The Cubs celebrated their star with “Thank Hank Day,” resulting in what Hank called “seven or eight bushel baskets with tobacco pouches” thrown onto the field by fans. (This had become a tradition in the left field bleachers after a Hank home run.)

Ominously, the Cubs offered Hank a contract for ’55 with a salary cut.

He got the money back, but the writing was on the wall. The Cubs traded Kiner and used Hank sparingly in ’55. He played in only 79 games and hit 12 homers while batting a career worst .211. Clearly, management wanted to move him, and they did so after the season, sending him to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Ernie had his first great year in ‘55, hitting 44 home runs. And his salary was only $10,000.

AFTER CUBS

With the Cardinals, Hank was a part-time player, but he roomed with Stan Musial. According to Hank, they became close friends, and Stan expressed amazement that Hank could hit so well in Wrigley Field with all those white shirts in the center field bleachers. (Those were the days before WF installed the hitting background.) Sauer and Musial often enjoyed staying out quite late when on the road. When management told Hank they had to let him go he said “But I’m hitting pretty well.” “Yes, but Musial’s not hitting as well as he should, so you’ll have to go.”

So he joined his fourth major league club, the New York Giants, in 1957. Not only did he continue to hit pretty well, but also he became the primary left fielder in the starting lineup, playing in 129 games that year. Although his average was down at .256, he hit 26 homers and drove in 76 runs. The last left fielder to patrol the Polo Grounds for the New York Giants, Hank won the NL Comeback of the Year award. Then it was off to San Francisco.

The Giants played at Seals Stadium in ’58 and ’59, before the now-abandoned Candlestick Park was available. Hank was becoming a part-timer again, partly due to nagging injuries. He hit 12 home runs in ’58, but was reduced to a strictly occasional pinch-hitting role in ’59, eventually becoming a coach to preserve a roster spot for the young outfielder, Felipe Alou. For those three years with the Giants, Hank played with Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, and other legends of the game.

Fittingly, his last hit in the majors was a pinch-hit home run on July 25, 1959—off Art Ceccarilli of the Cubs (but the Cubs won the game, 5-3). He was 42 years old.

After his playing career ended, Hank served as a hitting coach for the Giants and then moved into the front office, first in player development and later as the de facto director of the Giants’ farm system. He finally retired in 1993, continued to enjoy baseball in California, and died in 2001 at age 84 while playing golf.

Hank never played in the post season, but he’s in the record books in several spots.

He’s one of five players since 1919 to have three or more multi-homer games in a season at age 40 or older, joining Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Reggie Jackson, and Moises Alou. But Hank is unique in achieving that feat twice. And he resides alone at the top of the list with his five multi-homer games in ’57, his “comeback” year. For his career, Hank’s 288 homers put him 157th on the all-time list, ahead of Hall of Famers Ryne Sandburg, Hack Wilson, and Gabby Hartnett.

Amazingly, virtually all of Hank’s achievements during his eleven full seasons occurred after his 31st birthday, when he first became a regular for the Reds. In his interview with Jim Sargent, Hank regretted never playing in the World Series, but fondly remembered his 1952 MVP year. His homerun ball that won the All Star game resides in Cooperstown. He was never a serious Hall of Fame candidate, but that ball represents the solid career of “The Mayor of Wrigley Field.”

SOURCES: Baseball-Reference.com; Jim Sargent, SABRBioProject.
Photo credit: Boston Public Library via photopin cc