SABR

Bill Sayles

This article was written by Maurice Bouchard.

It is fitting that Bill Sayles started his big league career in Boston. The Sayles family had come full circle. He may not have realized it, but he was not the first of his family to ply his trade in Massachusetts. His ancestors landed on Boston’s shore before Boston was Boston. The Sayles family can trace their ancestry in America to John and Philippa Sayles, who left Sudbury, England, in 1625 or 1626 and settled in what was to become Charlestown, Massachusetts (now part of Boston). There, in 1626, they had a daughter, Phebe, and in 1633, a son, John. After Philippa died in 1635, the family moved to Providence, Rhode Island. The Sayles family became well established in Providence and the surrounding towns for five generations before Stephen Sayles (b. 1780) moved his family to Wallingford, Vermont. Stephen’s grandson Willis G. Sayles (b. 1846) became a civil engineer and surveyor. He moved with his wife, Delia, and their young son, Clyde Otis, from Vermont to Oregon in the early 1880s to work for the burgeoning railroads. The family moved to Walla Walla, Washington, for a time, but Clyde was back in Oregon before 1916. It was in Oregon that Clyde met and married Nell (nee Ashton) Nisbeth.   Their first child, William Nisbeth Sayles, was born on July 27, 1917, in Portland, Oregon. Another son, Robert C., came five years later.  

Bill learned to play sports with his East Glisan Street neighborhood friends in the Russellville section of Portland. Young Sayles grew to become a three-sport star at Washington High School. He played basketball; he was the quarterback and punter1 for the football team; and pitched for the baseball team. During his high school years, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound right-hander was something of a baseball celebrity in Portland. Sayles was a star pitcher for the Portland City League champion, Ballin Finance. In 1934 and 1935, Sayles was the leading pitcher on Portland City League all-star teams. These teams were notable because they included future major-league stars Joe Gordon and Johnny Pesky and were coached by former Red Sox and Yankees pitching standout Carl Mays. Mays, winner of 207 major-league games, imparted much baseball wisdom to his young pitcher. Sayles credited Mays with teaching him how to pitch. After Sayles graduated from high school in 1935, he was named to the Oregon Prep All-Star Team. With these accomplishments, it is easy to see why the University of Oregon offered Bill a baseball scholarship. He was the leading pitcher for the Ducks freshman baseball team the following spring.

Bill Sayles has the distinction of being on the first United States Olympic baseball team. A former major-league outfielder turned promoter, Les Mann, worked tirelessly to make baseball an Olympic sport. He couldn’t convince the United States Olympic Committee in 1932 (when Los Angeles was the host city), but managed to persuade the Germans to include baseball as an exhibition sport in 1936. Trials were held in Baltimore in July. Sayles made the U.S. team and joined the rest of the Olympians as they traveled to Berlin in August 1936. Unfortunately, no other country fielded a baseball team. Consequently, the “tournament” was reduced to a single exhibition game between two American squads, dubbed “World Champions” and “U.S. Olympics”. About 100,000 mostly bemused people were in attendance.2 At the time, it was the largest crowd ever to see a baseball game.

Although announcers were explaining the rules in three languages, the German audience could not make sense of the game. They would be silent for spectacular fielding plays but cheer wildly for high popups. The game was played on a poorly lit, makeshift field with no mound. One member of the team joked, “They hung a 20-watt bulb in the outfield.”3 Because the diamond was described on the infield of the track, the outfield dimensions were nonstandard, to say the least. The distance to right field was more than twice the distance to left. In later years, Sayles often told the story of Adolf Hitler’s appearance at the game.4 Before batting practice, Hitler’s guards told the young Americans that Hitler would enter the stadium during batting practice and they were to stop batting while the German people recognized their leader. They also didn’t want anyone hitting the ball to where their boss was sitting. Hitler chose to sit on the short side of the field, just beyond the left field “fence.” It proved too tempting for the young ballplayers. Not only did they not halt batting practice when Hitler made his entrance, they purposely tried to hit balls in Der Führer’s lap. The World Champions defeated the U.S. Olympics 6-5 in seven innings. Sayles pitched for the World Champions but was not involved in the decision.

The following spring, Sayles played for Oregon’s varsity nine, coached by Howard Hobson, and became their leading pitcher. He pitched two no-hitters for the Ducks that season. He led his team to the Northern Division championship, was named the Pacific Coast Conference’s outstanding pitcher, and was named to the 1937 conference all-star team. After the college season was complete, Sayles pitched in a semipro senior league in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he compiled a 14-4 record and was named to the all-star team. After the standout seasons with the Ducks and in Vancouver, major-league scouts were bound to notice. Earl Sheely, the Red Sox’ West Coast scout, signed Sayles to his first professional contract. The 20-year-old, who was now married to the former Geraldine May of Portland, said the financial inducements to leave school had greater appeal after his recent nuptials.

Sayles’ first assignment in the minor leagues was with the Little Rock Travelers, managed by Doc Prothro. The Travelers were part of the eight-team Class A1 Southern Association. Sayles compiled a 7-9 record in 1938 with the fifth-place Travelers. Sayles was a hard thrower (Ted Williams remembered his fastball to a reporter from The Sporting News nearly 30 years after the fact).5 Like many hard throwers, Sayles suffered from control problems. He struck out 53 in 133 innings for Little Rock but he also walked 70. Even so, he had a respectable 3.32 ERA and four complete games in his initial professional season. 

Sayles went to spring training with the Red Sox in 1939, and early in March manager Joe Cronin told Jack Malaney of the Boston Post he was impressed with his young pitchers (including Sayles).6 Four years later, Sayles remembered it differently. In an interview with Frank C. True, Sayles said,

“I know it’s traditional for pitchers to howl about getting a raw deal, but, really, I don’t believe Cronin saw enough of me to know the color of my hair.” He went on to add, “The longest conversation I ever had with him [Cronin] was when he walked over to me during spring training in 1939 and said ‘You’ll never make the Red Sox.’ What his basis for the statement was still is a mystery to me. I asked a question, but it went unanswered. Such a blunt rebuff took the heart out of me for several months.”7

Whatever was said, by the end of March, Sayles was released to Little Rock to start another season with the Travelers.   Sayles spent the first three months of the 1939 season with Little Rock where he “performed brilliantly.”8 In mid-July, when Jim Bagby Jr. was sent down to the Travelers, Sayles was called up to the Red Sox. He made his major-league debut, in relief, on July 17, 1939, at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. The Sox were losing 8-3 when Sayles was brought in with no one out in the fourth inning. Sayles pitched the last five innings, giving up five runs on four hits with one strikeout, four walks, and a wild pitch as the Sox fell to the Tigers, 13-6. It was not a great outing but Sayles did manage his first major-league hit, a single off Buck Newsom. 

Sayles’ next appearance came two days later, in the second game of a July 19 doubleheader against the White Sox in Comiskey Park. He came into the game, started by Fritz Ostermueller, with two outs in the fifth inning and Boston trailing 5-0. Sayles pitched 2 1/3 innings and gave up three runs on five hits with a strikeout and a walk. The Red Sox lost the game, 8-0. Sayles didn’t get into another game until July 28, when, yet again, he came in to relieve when the Red Sox were already behind. They were trailing the St. Louis Browns, 6-1, when Sayles relieved Elden Auker with one out in the top of the second inning. Sayles held the Browns scoreless over 1 2/3 innings, allowing just one hit, with a strikeout and three walks. 

On August 2, with the Sox trailing the Cleveland Indians, 8-2, at Fenway Park, Sayles pitched hitless, scoreless eighth and ninth innings. The lanky Oregonian’s last major-league outing of 1939 came three days later in the same homestand, this time against the Tigers. The Red Sox were getting pounded, 11-3, when Sayles took the mound in the top of the seventh. The Tigers, fresh off a seven-run sixth inning, continued the onslaught against the rookie right-hander. Sayles gave up five runs, including a grand slam to Tigers catcher Birdie Tebbetts in the seventh. Sayles held the Tigers scoreless in the eighth and ninth innings but the damage had been done as the Red Sox succumbed to Detroit, 16-4. His earned-run average ballooned to 7.07 in 14 innings of major-league work. Shortly thereafter, Sayles was optioned to the Scranton Red Sox of the Eastern League. He appeared in seven games for the first-place Scranton team in August. Sayles had a 4-2 record, including four complete games with 24 strikeouts and 21 walks in 47 innings. His ERA was 2.30. Sayles was recalled to Boston on August 30, but did not get into any more games with the parent club.

Sayles was back with Little Rock to start the 1940 season. In 1939, before his stints with Boston and Scranton, Sayles had posted an 8-8 record for the sixth-place Travelers with a very respectable 3.13 ERA in 141 innings. Sayles looked to improve upon that record in 1940, but arm trouble limited him to just six games. When a tonsillectomy, undertaken to relieve arm problems, proved ineffective, Sayles was placed on the suspended list with a sore arm in late April or early May. Apparently this was not the first time Sayles had experienced arm trouble. According to Jack Malaney, writing in the Boston Post and The Sporting News in early 1941, “Several times Sayles has been bothered by a sore arm. It cropped up on him midway through last season.”9 Malaney described Sayles as a pitcher the Red Sox had been trying to develop over the prior three or four years and said Sayles went as far as writing a letter to Joe Cronin asking for advice on his ailing arm.

Sayles finished the 1940 season with a 3-1 record for the Travelers and a 3.04 ERA in 35 innings. He struck out 18 and walked 13. The 23-year-old hurler no doubt looked for bigger and better things in 1941, but it was not going to be in Little Rock. After visiting the St. Louis Cardinals, team physician Dr. Robert F. Hyland, about his sore arm, Sayles went to Red Sox spring training in Sarasota. He was in the Red Sox camp for about a month when his contract was sold outright (he was out of options) to the Louisville Colonels of the American Association in late March. Sayles won his first two starts for Louisville, although he had to leave one of the games with a stiff neck. The stiffness was “caused by the straining of several leaders [tendons] while emitting a yawn[!].”10 By mid-July Sayles had fully recovered from the arm problems of the year before and was “turning in a consistently effective job.”11 He compiled a 13-12 record for the second-place Colonels in 1941. He had 11 complete games in 30 appearances with a rather high 4.37 ERA. He struck out a career high 107 batters in169 innings; he issued 71 walks.

Sayles was back with Louisville in 1942. With solid pitching and timely hitting, the Colonels got off to a fast start. “Chick”12 Sayles scattered six hits in a 4-3 win over Toledo in April, his “brilliant hurling offsetting the explosiveness of Louisville’s young and inexperienced infield that made four errors.”13 Late in April, Sayles pitched all 14 innings in a 4-3 loss at Toledo. In early May, he pitched a one-hitter in a seven-inning game but lost 1-0 to the first-place Kansas City Blues. Overall, Sayles won 11 and lost 12 games for the fifth-place Colonels. He pitched a career high 183 innings and established a career high with 12 complete games. He struck out 90 and walked 79 while compiling a 3.44 ERA. 

In December 1942, Sayles, who spent the winter in Portland working for the Zellerbach Paper Company, learned the New York Giants purchased his contract. The conditions of the purchase allowed the Giants to return Sayles to Louisville by May 1, 1943, without penalty. Further, the Giants would not have to pay Sayles if he was called up for military service. With that hanging over his head, Sayles signed his contract in early March and reported to the Giants’ wartime spring training locale in Lakewood, New Jersey.

The Giants were coming off a third-place finish in 1942. All teams lost players to the military in those years and the Giants were no exception. First baseman Johnny Mize, outfielders Willard Marshall and Babe Young, and pitcher Bob Carpenter were all in the service. Combine that loss of talent with the off-years turned in by shortstop Billy Jurges and player-manager Mel Ott and the Giants were staring at a second-division finish. Sayles, a fastball/curveball pitcher in 1939, had been working on a changeup since he last appeared in a major-league game. He was likely anxious to test it against major-league hitters. Sayles was also motivated by Cronin’s rebuff four years earlier. He wanted to make good to prove his old skipper wrong. Sayles pitched well in spring training. On April 19, he was the only effective pitcher of the three who pitched in a 9-3 exhibition loss to the Washington Senators.14 Sayles apparently impressed the Giants management because the May 1 deadline came and went and Sayles was still with the big club. 

After being out of major-league ball since 1939, Sayles got his first taste of National League action on May 1, the Giants’ seventh game of the season. He relieved starter Cliff Melton in the sixth inning of the first game of a twin bill at the Polo Grounds. The Giants were already behind, 5-0, when Sayles entered the contest. He gave up one run in three innings as the Giants went on to lose, 9-2. Sayles pitched two innings in the nightcap as well. Again appearing in a losing effort, he got a no-decision in the 3-0 loss. Sayles made his first major-league start in the second game of a twin bill on May 5, appropriately enough in Boston against the Bees. It was the first time Sayles had entered a major-league game when his team was not behind. He was lifted for a pinch hitter in the top of the sixth with the Giants trailing 3-0 (his opposing pitcher, Manny Salvo, with a single, a triple, and two RBIs, did most of the damage to Sayles). The Giants, however, erupted for six runs in the bottom of the sixth and went on to a 7-3 victory. It was Bill Sayles’ first major-league win; it was also his last.

Sayles was used as a reliever and a spot starter for the next three months by the fading Giants. He got one of those spot starts on May 18 against the Reds and pitched well. He gave up just one run through seven innings but wasn’t involved in the decision as Cincinnati won, 3-2, in 10 innings. On May 30, Sayles started the second game of a doubleheader in St. Louis. He pitched well for seven innings but gave up two runs in the eighth and took the loss as the Cardinals prevailed, 3-2.

June 4, at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, was a memorable day for Sayles and the Giants but for all the wrong reasons. New York starter Van Lingle Mungo lasted just 3 1/3 innings and Sayles was called in with the Giants down 6-2.15 An error by Sayles in the sixth led to two unearned runs and an 8-2 Pirates lead. The game appeared over but the Giants charged back with five runs in the top of the eighth to make it 8-7, Corsairs.16 In the bottom of the frame, Vince DiMaggio singled. Sayles’ first pitch to the next batter, Pirates second baseman Pete Coscarart, went through Ernie Lombardi. The Giants catcher was charged with “a world record passed ball.”17 The preternaturally slow Lombardi took so long to get to the ball that DiMaggio rounded second and took third. Sayles, for his part, was so disconsolate over Lombardi’s effort that he failed to cover home and DiMaggio scored what proved to be the winning run. The Giants scored a run in the top of the ninth but fell short, 9-8.

By the end of July 1943, the eighth-place Giants were 36-57, 25 1/2 games behind the first-place Cardinals. The Giants were in need of a change and the crosstown rival Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager, Branch Rickey, had a plan. Rickey coveted 6-foot-6, 20-year-old first baseman Howie Schultz, then the property of the St. Paul Saints in the American Association. For their talented first sacker, the Saints wanted Bill Sayles among others. Sayles had pitched well against the Saints while he was in the American Association and the Saints thought he would do a good job for them.  Rickey had to get Sayles, pitcher Bill Lohrman, and infielder Joe Orengo from the Giants. Rickey offered the Giants first baseman Dolph Camilli, a Brooklyn fan favorite, and pitcher Johnny Allen. Because of league rules, the Dodgers and the Giants could not complete the swap as a trade.18 The deal was constructed as five separate waiver transactions. While this might seem like a trivial technicality, the structure of the transaction kept Sayles in the big leagues. The Cubs, for reasons known only by them, twice refused to allow waivers on Sayles and Lohrman before eventually relenting. The delay prevented Rickey from providing the two pitchers to the Saints. He was forced to offer other players and $40,000 to get his precious Schultz. Consequently, Sayles reported to the Dodgers on the road in St. Louis and remained with the club for the rest of the 1943 season.

Sayles made only five appearances for the Dodgers, all in relief. He had no record and compiled a 7.71 ERA in 11 innings. Sayles had made 18 appearances, including three starts, for the Giants, with a 1-3 record and a 4.75 ERA. He had 38 strikeouts and 23 walks in 53 innings.

After the 1943 season, the major-league portion of Bill Sayles’ career was over. By early 1944, his professional baseball career was also over, at least temporarily, as world events finally caught up with him. In early February 1944, Sayles passed his pre-induction physical and then joined the Army Air Corps hoping to become a pilot. Sayles failed the pilot’s test, however, and was assigned to be a tail gunner, a job with a very low life expectancy. Sayles had some friends and contacts in the military and was able to get reassigned as a physical education instructor in Fort Lewis, Washington.19 There he guided, as player-manager, the Fort Lewis baseball team to a Ninth Service Command title.20 Unfortunately, Sayles did further damage to his arm while in the Army and was no longer able to pitch. 

Sayles was back with the Dodgers for spring training in 1946 but he was optioned to the Asheville Tourists of the Class B Tri-State League on April 13. Sayles played the outfield and managed the Tourists. The Tri-State League was a new circuit, one of many that cropped up after the war. Sayles guided the Asheville nine to second place (83-57) after spending much of the season in first place.21 He was named the league’s Manager of the Year and Most Valuable Player. In addition to having a great first season as manager, Sayles had an all-star year as an outfielder. He hit .334, which was second in the league. He led the league in RBIs at 105 and also had 24 doubles, 10 triples, and 6 home runs. 

On July 26, 1946, the Tourists had held a day for Bill Sayles and it was a memorable one. Sayles was presented with a “flock”22 of gifts, including a new car. League president C. Manley Llewellyn and even the opposing manager gave a speech. In the second inning, however, Sayles argued a little too vociferously with umpire Al Zingone about a strike called on a Tourist. Sayles refused to leave the field and arbiter Zingone took out his watch. Sayles remained on the field and Mr. Zingone declared the game forfeited to Charlotte. He then left the field in a shower of beer bottles. Because so many fans came out to see a baseball game, President Llewellyn persuaded Charlotte to stay and play an exhibition game. Asheville lost the exhibition contest as well, 9-3.23

Sayles, recently divorced, remarried on February 26, 1947, to Oregon native Eileen Prohaska24, and was back as the Tourists’ player-manager in 1947. The manager portion of his job was difficult in his second year. The team slumped to a losing record (65-74) and sixth place in the eight-team league. Also, Sayles was suspended for three games by President Llewellyn for an incident in Reidsville, Georgia, where Sayles again refused to leave the field and the police had to be called twice. In mid-July, Asheville forfeited the second game of a doubleheader due to “an all-night rhubarb”25 in which three players were ejected. As a player, however, Sayles had another great year at the plate. He came in second again in the batting race with a .360 average. Sayles had 28 doubles, 8 triples, 12 home runs (fourth in the league), and 98 knocked in (seventh in the league). He was named to the All-Star team. The stress of managing, however, surpassed the success of playing; Sayles retired after the ’47 season. Bill and Eileen Sayles went home to Oregon. Bill went to work for a forest products company and the two raised three children, Bill Jr., Karen, and Tammy.

Sayles was back in baseball by 1957, this time as an assistant general manager of the Vancouver (British Columbia) Mounties of the Pacific Coast League. He held this position until March 1959, when he took the same position for his hometown Portland Beavers, also in the PCL. The Beavers’ general manager, Tommy Heath, was also the field manager. The combined responsibilities were too much for Heath and by the end of the 1959 season Sayles had taken on most of the general manager duties although Heath retained the title. Sayles, for example, was responsible for the very successful Kids Night at Portland’s Multnomah Stadium. The event drew a record 24,109 fans including 17,000 youngsters admitted on special 50-cent tickets.26 Sayles, who had the title of business manager in 1960, became the general manager before leaving the Beavers in 1962. From 1962 until 1982, Sayles was the West Coast scouting supervisor for the St. Louis Cardinals. His territory included California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and western Canada. Sayles scouted and signed several quality major leaguers for the Cardinals, including Nelson Briles, Reggie Cleveland, Keith Hernandez, and Bob Forsch.

In 1982, Sayles retired from baseball and went into the men’s clothing business. From 1983 to 1995, he owned the Esquire Men’s Apparel shop at Salishan Spa and Golf Resort on Oregon’s Pacific coast just south of Lincoln City. On November 20, 1996, at 79, Bill Sayles succumbed to cancer. His remains were cremated.

Notes:

1. Interview with Bill Sayles Jr., May 30, 2008.

2. Estimates ranged from 90,000 to 150,000.

3. http://www.la84foundation.org/SportsLibrary/JOH/JOHv1n1/JOHv1n1e.pdf

4. Bill Sayles Jr. interview.

5. The Sporting News, July 15, 1967, p. 8.

6. The Sporting News, March 9, 1939, p. 6.

7. National Baseball Hall of Fame Library file on Bill Sayles. Article by Frank C. True in 1943. The publication is not known.

8. The Sporting News, July 20, 1939, p. 1.

9. The Sporting News, January 16, 1941, p. 4.

10. The Sporting News, May 1, 1941, p. 1.

11. The Sporting News, July 24, 1941, p. 5.

12. The Sporting News, April 23, 1942, .p 5.

13. Ibid.

14. New York Times, April 23, 1943, p. 25.

15. It’s not possible to tell from the box score or the accompanying story whether Sayles allowed inherited runners to score, but Mungo was on the hook for the loss.

16. The Pirates were often called Corsairs by sportswriters of the 1930s and ’40s.

17. Drebinger, John, New York Times, June 5, 1943, p. 21.

18. Most reference books, e.g., The Baseball Encyclopedia and web sites, www.baseball-reference.com, call it a trade.

19. Bill Sayles Jr. interview.

20. Before his assignment in Fort Lewis, Sayles also played baseball at Camp Lee, Virginia.

21. The Tourists lost to Knoxville in the first round of the Tri-State League playoffs.

22. Bisher, Furman, “Sayles Gets Car From Fans, Gate From Ump in Asheville,” The Sporting News, August 7, 1946, p.30.

23. Ibid.

24. Bill Sayles Jr. interview.

25. The Sporting News, July 23, 1947, p. 32.

26. Gregory, “Beavers’ Success Earns ’60 Pact for Aid Sayles,” The Sporting News, August 26, 1959, p.33.

Sources

The Sporting News, New York Times, Boston Post, New York Herald-Tribune,

Worcester Telegram.

The Baseball Encyclopedia (New York: Macmillan, 1992)

Ballew, Bill. Baseball in Asheville (Charleston SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004)

www.baseball-reference.com

www.baseball-almanac.com

www.retrosheet.org

www.sabr.org

www.ancestry.com

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