SABR

Jack Sanford

This article was written by Warren Corbett.

Jack Sanford got his start in baseball with a push from his big sister. Sanford was named National League Rookie of the Year, won sixteen straight games one season, and started three times in the World Series, but he never got over being labeled “no prospect” when he was a teenager.

John Stanley Sanford was born in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, on May 18, 1929, the youngest of four children of Frederick and Margaret Sanford. Fred’s original family name was Hatch, but he took his stepfather’s name. Like his stepfather, Fred worked for the city water department. He had no particular interest in baseball; when his son was two-and-a-half, the dad bought him a tiny golf club. Mrs. Sanford enrolled the boy, called John or Johnny, in violin and piano lessons. The violin teacher promised to give him the instrument when he completed 20 lessons. He quit after 19.

Some teachers remembered the blond, blue-eyed Johnny Sanford as a sullen, rebellious boy with lousy grades. He was only the second best pitcher on the baseball team at Wellesley High, pitching a no-hitter in his final game. One of his best friends was Lou Perini Jr., son of the construction tycoon who owned the Boston Braves, and Sanford got a part-time job as the elder Perini’s chauffeur. When Perini expressed interest in signing him for the Braves, the club’s local scout—Sanford’s high school coach—advised that he was not a prospect.

Sanford’s sister Nancy, who played third base on a sandlot softball team, urged him to attend a Red Sox tryout camp. She was afraid he’d chicken out, so she packed his spikes and glove, along with food, in a shopping bag and put him on the trolley to Fenway Park. The tryout was another letdown; Sox scouts told him he was too small at 5’9 ½” and about 160 pounds. But a bird-dog scout for the Phillies was watching and took down the boy’s address and phone number. In the fall of 1947 Philadelphia scout Joe LaBate followed up and signed him. That year the Phillies had given a reported $65,000 bonus to pitcher Curt Simmons, who was born the day after Sanford, and $25,000 to Michigan State star Robin Roberts. Sanford received no bonus, just a Class D contract for $125 a month. He earned extra money driving the team bus in his first season at Dover, Delaware.

The young right-hander spent two years in Class D, a year in Class B, and two in A ball, walking more than six batters a game while getting bigger and stronger. He grew to just under six feet tall and around 190 pounds. At age 24, he went 14-13 with a 3.96 ERA in his first year at Triple A with Baltimore. The Phillies brought Sanford to their big league camp the next spring. He pitched well and believed he had earned a spot on the club, but was sent down to Syracuse, triggering an angry confrontation with a front-office executive.

His bosses were already leery of his temper; one called him a “red-ass.” The assistant farm director, Eddie Collins Jr., said that when Sanford thought an umpire had missed a strike, “he’d blow his top. It would unsettle him so much that he couldn’t do what he wanted with the next pitch.” During the 1954 season his Syracuse manager suspended him for insubordination when he refused to come out of a game. Sanford later explained, “I guess maybe it was insecurity more than anything else. I didn’t have anything outside of baseball.”i He was still living with his mother after his father died in 1952 and had taken a business course, but couldn’t handle the class work.

Sanford refused to accept that he was nothing more than a wild, mediocre minor league pitcher. He took the train every spring from Massachusetts through Philadelphia on his way to Florida: “I can remember looking out the train window at Shibe Park when I went through the North Philadelphia station every year. I might have been going to East Oshkosh, but I’d tell myself, ‘That’s where you’ll be pitching one of these days.’”ii

After an 8-14, 3.86 line at Syracuse, he was drafted into the army in October 1954. While on furlough, he married his high school girlfriend, Patricia Reynolds. He trained as a missile technician, but spent much of his time pitching for the post team at Fort Bliss, Texas, ringing up five no-hitters. When he was given leave before his discharge in September 1956, the Phillies invited him to join the team and throw batting practice.

Pitching coach Whitlow Wyatt took note of the BP pitcher’s humming fastball and suggested that manager Mayo Smith put him into a game. The Phils were dragging to the end of a losing season, so Smith started the unknown in the second game of a September 16 doubleheader against the Cubs. Sanford lasted seven innings before a finger blister popped. He allowed just four hits and one run while walking eight, and earned his first major league victory at age 27. “I can’t see how a fellow who can pitch that well spent seven years in the minor leagues,” Smith said. “You can bet he’ll be with us next year.”iii

Sanford had suffered numbness in his pitching hand while in the army, the result of an injury in a fight, and the Phillies sent him for treatment after the season. The first doctor wanted to operate, but a second one prescribed medication instead. Even with the pills, his fingers would go numb in cold weather, and he used a hand warmer on the bench.

When Sanford finally made the majors, nine years after he signed his first contract, Robin Roberts had already won 179 games and Curt Simmons 96. During spring training in 1957, Sanford said, “I’ve got to make it. I’m married now and we have a little girl. I’ve got to get that big league money.”iv His and Patsy’s first child, Laura, was 17 months old. He suspected that the Phillies kept him only because, as a returning serviceman, he did not count against the 25-man roster.

He had gained weight in the army and thought he had gained life on his fastball. Whit Wyatt worked with him to remake his slow, sweeping curve into a sharp downward hook. He won five of his first six decisions, and then on June 1 he shut out the powerful Brooklyn Dodgers on two hits, striking out 11. His next start produced 13 strikeouts and a three-hit shutout against the Cubs. By the All-Star break his record stood at 10-2, and he was leading the league in strikeouts.

The only rookie on the NL All-Star team, Sanford relieved in the sixth in the game at St. Louis and threw his first warm-up pitch to the backstop. The first man he faced was Ted Williams: fly out to left. Then he gave up two hits, cheap ones in his memory, and one run in his single inning of work. He won four more complete games by the end of July. As the victories piled up, he said, “I can’t believe this has happened to me. I was nervous in my first start last fall, and I’m still nervous.”v His mother warned him not to “do like you did with that violin and stop at 19.”vi He didn’t make it to 20. After losing three times in September, he finished at 19-8 for a .500 team, with a 3.08 ERA. His 188 strikeouts led all major league pitchers.

Sportswriters named Sanford the National League’s Rookie of the Year. The Phillies more than doubled his salary to a reported $18,000. The biggest shock of his surprising season was his 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio; he had never struck out as many as he walked in the minors. He did lead the league with a dozen wild pitches. One of them beaned Cincinnati’s Frank Robinson, then caromed off Robinson’s helmet to knock catcher Stan Lopata out of the game.

The 1958 Phillies fell to last place, and Sanford sank with them. His ERA rocketed up to 4.44 while his strikeout rate dropped to five per nine innings, from seven the year before. He finished 10-13, completing only seven of 27 starts. The front office decided he was a one-year wonder, and Sanford thought they might be right. In December Philadelphia traded him to the San Francisco Giants for pitcher Ruben Gomez and backup catcher Valmy Thomas. The Phils’ owner, Robert Carpenter, later called the deal the worst of his career.

The Giants had climbed to third place in 1958 as Orlando Cepeda and five other rookies joined Willie Mays in a slugging lineup, but their pitching was weak. Before the 1959 season opened they acquired Sam Jones, a three-time NL strikeout leader, to round out a starting rotation with Johnny Antonelli, 20-year-old Mike McCormick, and Sanford. Facing St. Louis in his second start, Sanford walked three men in the first and gave up a run on a sacrifice fly. He held the Cardinals hitless until Stan Musial led off the seventh with a single, the only hit Sanford allowed. He regained his rookie-year form, lowering his ERA to 3.16 and posting a 15-12 record.

The Giants took over first place on July 4, and then called up first baseman Willie McCovey, who batted .354/.429/.656 over the final third of the season. The club held a three-game lead on September 9, but the Dodgers swept a weekend series to pass them. Manager Bill Rigney panicked and leaned almost exclusively on his top four starters, plus reliever Stu Miller, in the final two weeks. The pitching staff wore out before the end. San Francisco lost seven of its last eight to finish third behind the Dodgers and Braves, who tied for first and had to go through a best-of-three playoff to decide who would face the Chicago White Sox in the World Series.

The Giants were also-rans for the next two seasons as their ace, Antonelli, and Jones declined. Sanford was a below-average pitcher with a 4.00 ERA and 25-23 record over the two years. His fierce temper had not quieted. On the days he was scheduled to pitch, even his wife and four children knew better than to speak to him. After he arrived at the ballpark, he paced the clubhouse, scowling and silent, until it was time to warm up. When he disagreed with an umpire, he stomped around the mound, waving his arms and talking to himself. Catcher Hobie Landrith said, “I don’t think he saw the catcher, batter and umpire. I don’t think he saw anything. When he was out there he was one bundle of nerves that couldn’t wait to get the ball and throw it again. He never wanted the catcher even approaching him. ‘Give me the ball. Give me the ball! GIVE ME THE BALL!’”vii

By 1962 the Giants had rebuilt their pitching staff with two new left-handed starters, Billy Pierce and Billy O’Dell. They also had a new manager, their former shortstop and captain, Alvin Dark. The club hung in close behind the first-place Dodgers all summer. On June 17 Sanford beat St. Louis to pull his record above .500 at 7-6. He went on to win sixteen straight decisions, never losing throughout July, August, and the first half of September. He had added a slider to his arsenal and could throw it consistently for strikes. “[I]t kind of took everybody by surprise, because I had been just a fastball pitcher over the years.”viii But he was not overpowering the competition; he completed only six of 20 starts with a 3.26 ERA during the streak. Dark told him to throw as hard as he could for as long as he could and let the relievers do the rest. One writer called him “the composer of the Unfinished Symphony.”ix Sanford said, “What a pitcher needs is good luck and a strong bullpen.”x He ended the season 24-7 with a 3.43 ERA. The Giants finished in a first-place tie with the Dodgers after Los Angeles lost its last four games to blow the lead.

In the first game of the best-of-three playoff, the Giants rocked Sandy Koufax with three runs in the first inning on the way to an 8-0 win behind Pierce’s three-hitter. Sanford, battling a cold, started the second game in the new Dodger Stadium. He shut out Los Angeles through five innings as the Giants built a 5-0 lead. When he walked the first batter in the sixth, Dark went to the bullpen. Stu Miller, Billy O’Dell, and Don Larsen coughed up seven runs (one charged to Sanford) and the Dodgers won, 8-7. In the deciding game the Giants rallied for four in the ninth and a 6-4 victory to go to the World Series.

It was the first coast-to-coast Series, the Giants against the Yankees. After New York won the opening game, Sanford started Game 2 on two days’ rest, still sniffling from his cold. He dominated the Yankees with a three-hit shutout as the Giants won, 2-0. He called it the best game of his life, but added, “I was shaking all over. I was nervous at the start and nervous at the finish.”xi

The Series was tied at two games apiece when Sanford got the ball for Game 5 in Yankee Stadium. The Yankees scored twice on Sanford’s wild pitch and catcher Tom Haller’s passed ball, but the game was even at 2-2 in the bottom of the eighth. Sanford had allowed only three hits, one a bunt and another a bloop off the shortstop’s glove. He fanned the opposing pitcher, Ralph Terry, leading off the eighth, for his tenth strikeout. Then Tony Kubek and Bobby Richardson singled. Dark went to the mound, but stuck with his starter to pitch to rookie Tom Tresh. “I tried for a strike on the outside corner,” Sanford said, “but it was a fastball right in the middle and that was it.”xii Tresh mashed the ball far into the right-field seats for a three-run homer that beat the Giants.

The Series returned to San Francisco and ran into a rainstorm that delayed Game 6 for four days. The Giants pulled even behind Pierce’s three-hitter. In Game 7 Sanford matched up against Terry for the third time. Candlestick Park lived up to its reputation, with a 30-mile-per-hour wind screaming in toward home plate. The Yankees took a 1-0 lead when two singles and a walk loaded the bases in the fifth, and Bill Skowron came home as the Giants turned a double play. Terry retired the first 17 batters before Sanford singled in the sixth. The Giants threatened in the seventh. Willie Mays launched a drive into the left field corner, but Tresh made a circus catch. It saved a run, because McCovey followed with a triple.

Sanford was dodging bullets all afternoon, giving up seven hits and walking four. In the eighth Bobby Richardson reached base on a wide throw by Giants shortstop Jose Pagan. Tresh singled off Pagan’s glove and Mickey Mantle singled to right to fill the bases. Dark brought in Billy O’Dell. He needed only five pitches to retire the side, leaving the runners frozen and the score still 1-0.

The Giants had one last gasp left for the ninth. Matty Alou dragged a bunt single past the mound. Terry stiffened to strike out Felipe Alou and Chuck Hiller. Mays sliced a double down the right field line, but Matty Alou stopped at third as Roger Maris and Richardson relayed the ball home. Most witnesses agreed that Alou would have been cut down if he had tried to score. The next batter, McCovey, lashed the famous line drive that would have made the Giants champions if it had been two feet higher. Richardson snared it to end the Series.

After the game, Sanford and Harvey Kuenn—two veterans who had played in their only World Series—sat in the clubhouse until midnight and killed a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey. Sanford said, “I never realized how difficult it would be to take a World Series loss. It hurts, really hurts.” He added, “It was a 2,000,000-to-one shot that it fell to me to pitch the seventh game of the Series. Not in my wildest boyhood dreams did I ever envision that a World Series would come along and I’d be the seventh game pitcher.” (He said that, or something like it. The quote sounds like a sportswriter’s voice. And whatever Sanford did say, it undoubtedly included a number of words unsuitable for a family newspaper.)Years later, recalling McCovey’s line drive, he said, “I dream about it every night. It never goes away.”xiii

Sanford finished second in the Cy Young voting in 1962 behind Don Drysdale, who won 25 games and led the league in strikeouts. The next year he endured the heaviest workload of his career: 42 starts and 284 1/3 innings to go 16-13 with a 3.51 ERA at age 34. He was never again a regular starter. Early in the 1964 season the numbness in his hand returned and marched up his right arm. “[I]t was really a scary feeling,” he remembered. “I couldn’t do a thing. I couldn’t cut the kid’s meat. I couldn’t use it. I’d go to do something naturally, pick something up, and it would just fall out of my hand.”xiv A blood clot had choked off circulation. In an eleven-hour operation, surgeons took part of a vein from his right ankle and sewed it into the artery under his armpit. “It’s like a tire patch,” he joked. “A 10,000-mile guarantee at least, I hope.”xv Later he acknowledged, “I was just very thankful that I didn’t lose my arm.”xvi

Sanford went to the Arizona instructional league in November to try out the repair job. “The first time I started throwing I was scared to death,” he said.xvii The tire patch held, and he opened the 1965 season in the starting rotation. He ran his record to 4-1 and pitched seven shutout innings against the Mets in June, but lasted past the third inning only once after that. In August San Francisco sold him to the California Angels, where his former manager Bill Rigney was in charge. He pitched ineffectively for the rest of the season.

Rigney converted Sanford into a reliever in 1966 and temporarily revived his career. He pitched in 50 games, primarily in middle relief, but didn’t like the role: “Let’s face it, the only reason a guy is in the bullpen is because he’s not good enough to start.”xviii His 13-7 record was the best on a club that finished sixth in the ten-team league, but his 3.83 ERA was worse than average.

In June 1967 the Angels traded him to the Kansas City Athletics. His reunion with manager Alvin Dark lasted only two months. When he pitched poorly, Dark wanted to make him the pitching coach, but owner Charlie Finley said no. Sanford was released on August 15. Dark was fired five days later after Finley accused him of supporting a players’ mutiny against the overbearing owner.

Sanford and Dark weren’t out of work for long. The Cleveland Indians hired Dark as manager for 1968, and he brought Sanford aboard as pitching coach. A big part of Sanford’s job was to pump up the confidence of Sam McDowell, a wild, terrifyingly fast young left-hander who had come unraveled the previous year. McDowell said Sanford taught him to slow down and think on the mound, to develop a philosophy of pitching. Sudden Sam dramatically reduced his walk rate, and his ERA improved by two runs per game. For three years he was one of baseball’s elite pitchers, until his alcoholism caught up with him.

Sanford quit the Indians after two seasons to go to work for Lou Perini as manager of a golf club in Florida. He was a top-flight golfer, often finishing among the leaders in ballplayers tournaments. Over the next two decades he served as golf director at several of the Perini Company’s country clubs.

Jack Sanford died of a brain tumor at age 70 on March 7, 2000, in Beckley, West Virginia. His marriage to Patsy had ended in divorce. He was survived by his second wife, Ileta, and the children of his first marriage: John Jr., Laura, Nancy, and Susan.

Years after he retired from baseball, Sanford revealed that his early rejection and long slog through the minors had fueled the anger and anxiety that dogged him throughout his career. “Every day felt like a matter of survival, of just staying there,” he told interviewer Mike Mandel. “I could never really relax and consider myself a major leaguer…. But without baseball I probably never would have enjoyed life as much as I have…. I have no regrets, none whatsoever.”xix

 

Notes

i Harry T. Paxton, “Baseball’s Oldest Youngster,” Saturday Evening Post, March 29, 1958, 74.

ii Newsday (Long Island, NY), undated clipping in Sanford’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, New York.

iii Sporting News, September 26, 1956, 8.

iv Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, July 15, 1957, 15.

v Sporting News, July 31, 1957, 5.

vi Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin, June 9, 1957, SG3.

vii Mike Mandel, SF Giants: An Oral History (self-published, 1979), 74.

viii Ibid., 113.

ix Sporting News, October 6, 1962, 9.

x “Jack Sanford’s Grim World,” Sport, March 1963, 73. This clipping is in Sanford’s Hall of Fame file. The author’s name is not visible.

xi Pittsburgh Press, October 6, 1962, 6.

xii UPI-Chicago Daily Tribune, October 11, 1962, E1.

xiii Sporting News, December 15, 1959, 3; New York Times, March 13, 2000, A19.

xiv Mandel, SF Giants, 114.

xv Newsday, June 19, 1965, clipping in Sanford’s Hall of Fame file.

xvi Mandel, SF Giants, 114.

xvii Ibid., 115.

xviii Sporting News, July 2, 1966, 15.

xix Mandel, SF Giants, 112, 115.

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