This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf
With his thunderous left-handed home-run stroke, the self-converted catcher Carl “Swish” Sawatski established a reputation as one of the most feared sluggers in Organized Baseball by leading four different leagues in round-trippers in his first five years as a professional (1945 to 1949). Despite his slugging potential, Sawatski bounced around in four different organizations struggling with weight issues before finally earning a permanent spot in the big leagues with the Milwaukee Braves during their magical run to the World Series in 1957. A classic pull hitter, career backup catcher, and effective pinch-hitter, Sawatski retired in 1963 after four productive years with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Carl Ernest Sawatski was born on November 4, 1927, in the small borough of Shickshinny, Pennsylvania, about 130 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Nestled at the mouth of the Shickshinny Creek along the Susquehanna River, Shickshinny is in the heart of coal country in the northern Appalachian Mountains. Carl’s parents, Ernest and Stella (nee Gryniewicz), both born in the Keystone State, were the children of Polish-speaking immigrants. Living with modest means in the desperate times of the Depression, Ernest worked on various Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects while Stella found piecework as a seamstress to support their three children, Marcella, Chester, and Carl, born between 1922 and 1927.
Dorothy Sawatski, Carl’s widow, told the author in a 2013 interview how Carl grew up with a baseball bat in his hand, hitting everything he could find at home and playing sandlot ball whenever he could. However, hard work and sacrifice defined the period. In an interview near the end of his professional baseball career, Sawatski recounted how he began digging for coal in abandoned local mines as an 11-year-old and carrying it by boat along the Susquehanna River to home. When his parents separated, his mother left the rural confines of Appalachia with her children and moved to Mountain View, New Jersey, in the New York City metropolitan area, where she worked in a factory during World War II. Later his father moved to the vicinity and opened a taxicab business.
A short, stocky youngster, Carl played football and basketball at Pompton Lakes High School, dabbled in boxing at the Diamond Gloves in Paterson, New Jersey, and competed as a third baseman in American Legion baseball in the summer. Known for his towering home-run blasts and his voracious appetite, the left-handed batter attracted the attention of local scouts. “I got a $500 bonus from the Phillies when I signed as a 16-year old [in 1944],” he recalled. “I weighed 188 pounds then. Yes, I was heavy even then.”
Finishing high school in 1945, Carl was assigned to the Bradford Blue Wings in the Class D Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York (PONY) League, where he was converted to a right fielder. Notwithstanding his shaky defense, Sawatski tied his manager, Lee Riley, for the league lead with 13 home runs. Promoted to the Schenectady Blue Jays of the Class C Canadian-American League the following season, Sawatski faltered, hitting just .235 with one home run in 136 at-bats, and was released by the club. “I loafed during the winter of 1945-46 and my weight zoomed to 253,” he explained.” For the rest of Sawatski’s baseball career, discussions about his weight were coupled with those about his prodigious power.
No doubt embarrassed by his release, Sawatski caught on with the Bloomingdale Troopers, who played just seven miles from his hometown, for the second half of the 1946 season. His older brother, Chester, was also listed on Bloomingdale’s roster that season. Facing less rigorous competition in the inaugural season of the Class D North Atlantic League, he belted seven home runs in 154 at-bats, but he had to reinvent himself if he hoped to continue his career. “I knew I had to do something about my size,” he said. “Since I couldn’t change my appetite, I changed positions. Due to my build, catching seemed like the best position, so I converted myself.” Catching full time in 1947, Sawatski struggled while crouching behind the plate but not while standing at it. Batting .352 for the Troopers, who had a working agreement with the Boston Braves, Sawatski garnered headlines for his hitting. After belting four home runs and knocking in 14 runs in a three-game series against the Kingston Dodgers, the Kingston (New York) Daily Freeman called his performance the “greatest display of batting power in North Atlantic League history.” Nicknamed Butch for his stature, Sawatski led the league with 34 home runs and knocked in 138 runs in just 127 games. But the Braves weren’t impressed. They sold him to the Chicago Cubs in the offseason.
The Cubs assigned Sawatski to their Class A affiliate in the Western League, the Des Moines Bruins, for the 1948 season. Playing for manager Stan Hack, Sawatski hit home runs in two of his last three at-bats of the season to lead the league with 29 and help the team to a first-place finish. The Cubs rewarded the 20-year-old slugger by calling him up in September. In front of just 1,842 fans at Wrigley Field on September 29, Sawatski made his major-league debut in the fourth inning when he unsuccessfully pinch-hit for pitcher Bob Chipman against the Cincinnati Reds.
Participating in his first major-league spring training in 1949, Sawatski competed with Smoky Burgess for the role of third catcher behind Bob Scheffing and Rube Walker. Limited by a sore arm he developed early in camp, Sawatski was sent to the team’s Double-A affiliate in the Southern Association, the Nashville Vols. The “thick torsoed” slugger felt at home at Sulphur Dell with its short right porch which SABR’s Warren Corbett has described as “resembl[ing] a ridiculously short par-three hole on a golf course,” just 262 feet down the foul line. But the 5-foot-10 Sawatski possessed a power stroke no matter where he played. Opening the season at Joe Engel Stadium in Chattanooga against the Lookouts, Sawatski blasted what some observers thought was the longest home run ever hit and estimated that it traveled 575 feet.
The “huge, powerful catcher” demolished the ball all season, leading the Southern Association with 45 home runs and knocking in 153 runs even though a broken thumb suffered in August forced him to miss three weeks and limited him to 128 games. Sawatski was “a star for the Vols because he prefers catching to dieting,” reported a local paper. Nicknamed “Swish” for the sound of his bat launching another home run, Sawatski anticipated a late-season call-up, but the Cubs had obtained former All-Star catcher Mickey Owen in July when he was reinstated after his ban from baseball (for having jumped to the Mexican League in 1945) was overturned. The “most promising” of Cubs prospects and the league’s most valuable player led the Vols to the league championship and then put on an unprecedented display of power in the team’s Dixie Series championship over the Tulsa Oilers of the Texas League by cranking five home runs in the seven-game series.
Sawatski’s improvement as a bona-fide catcher in his first year with the Vols was arguably more important than his slugging accomplishments. In just his third year as a full-time catcher, he played for player-manager Rollie Hemsley, who had a 19-year big-league career as a catcher. According to his widow, Carl credited Hemsley more than any other coach or manager for teaching him the intricacies of being a defensive-minded signal-caller and transforming him into a major-league catcher.
Sawatski made his best catch of the 1949 season when he met local resident Dorothy Lusk at a Vols game against the Travelers in Little Rock, Arkansas. Mrs. Sawatski, a former professional singer, told the author that she did not know much about baseball and was attending one of her first contests when one of her friends introduced her to Carl before the game. Befitting a romantic movie, Dorothy and Carl were married on New Year’s Eve. They had two children, John (who was a catcher in the St. Louis Cardinals organization in the early 1970s) and Charles, whom they called Chuck. “I became a big baseball fan,” said Mrs. Sawatski. “We rented an apartment or house in every [home] city Carl played in. I never missed a home game, took the kids to the games, and would wait for him with some of the other players’ wives after the games. Those were exciting times.” In the offseason, the family resided in Little Rock, where Dorothy was an instructor at a local junior college. During his active playing career, Carl held various offseason jobs in his adopted home city, including construction and real estate.
With four minor-league home-run championships in five years, Sawatski had unlimited potential, but The Sporting News reported that “the only difficulty seems to be his weight.” Cubs scout Pat Monahan, who is given credit for helping the Cubs sign Sawatski in 1948, stunned the baseball world when he announced that the stocky slugger is “the closest in the game to another Babe Ruth.” After a productive spring training despite a split finger and pulled back muscle, Sawatski made the team as the third catcher behind Owen and Walker in 1950. But after going 0-for-10 (including his first two major-league starts as a catcher), Sawatski was reassigned to the Vols. “That kid can hit the ball a country mile,” said Cubs skipper Frankie Frisch, but the team was upset with his weight and poor fielding. “Frisch was a disciplinarian,” said Mrs. Sawatski. “That’s what Carl needed at the time. Frisch helped Carl find his way [with the Cubs]. Carl respected Frisch and they had a good relationship.” Returning to Nashville, Sawatski publicly declared that he had sworn off drinking beer to lose weight and stated, “I still have confidence I can hit major-league pitching, but I realized that I needed more catching experience.” Recalled on August 3, Sawatski went hitless in his first 16 at-bats (extending his major-league hitless streak to 28 at-bats) before he singled off Sal Maglie in the Cubs’ 5-4 loss to the New York Giants on August 23. As the Cubs’ primary catcher in September, Swish batted .222 (14-for-63) for the month and belted his first big-league home run, a solo shot off the Pirates’ Bob Chesnes.
Drafted by the Army in 1951, Sawatski was stationed at Camp Chaffee, near Fort Smith, Arkansas. Without a camp baseball team, Sawatski worked out with the Fort Smith Indians to stay in shape. His two-year tour included active duty in Tokyo, where he provided physical therapy to injured solders in Omiya Hospital.
Sawatski returned to the Cubs in time for spring training in 1953, but two years away from baseball had taken their toll. Reporting to camp weighing 240 pounds but winning “his earnest battle against obesity,” Sawatski trimmed down to compete for a roster spot. Claiming the spot as third catcher, Sawatski was on the team’s active roster the entire season, but spent most of his time in the bullpen warming up pitchers. He made just six starts and batted .220 (13-for-59). Placed on waivers in the offseason, Sawatski was purchased in late November by the Chicago White Sox.
White Sox general manager Paul Richards envisioned Sawatski as an able third catcher, but Swish’s two-year stint with the team was filed with frustrations. Sharing backup duties with Matt Batts the entire season, Sawatski batted just .183 (20-for-109); and with just one home run, his nickname faded into distant memory. After honing his defensive skills in the Venezuelan League in the 1954-55 offseason, Sawatski reported to White Sox spring training with a new look. “[I] was sitting in the bullpen, about 420 feet from home plate,” he said, “when I covered my left eye and found that couldn’t see the pitcher’s number.” Joining Hank Foiles of the Cleveland Indians as the two most prominent catchers to wear spectacles, Sawatski hoped his corrected vision would help his hitting. It did, but not for the White Sox. The notoriously competitive Richards had tired of Sawatski’s weight, hitting, and fielding and optioned him to the Minneapolis Millers, the New York Giants’ affiliate in the Triple-A American Association. Swish the slugger made a comeback. He belted 27 home runs and helped lead the Millers to the American Association title and then hit another three round-trippers to defeat the Rochester Red Wings in the Junior World Series.
Hoping to parlay his success with Minneapolis into another shot at the big leagues, the 28-year-old Sawatski was surprised by his release from the White Sox during spring training and acquisition by Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the International League. With his reputation of purchasing players and then selling their contract to major-league clubs, Cooke saw a chance to make a few bucks with Sawatski. Despite a broken hand sidelining him for six weeks, Sawatski was the league’s best catcher, launching 22 home runs in 332 at-bats, and leading the Maple Leafs to the league playoff finals. On the heels of his record-setting six home runs in 12 playoff games, Sawatski was acquired by the Milwaukee Braves.
With a .187 batting average thus far in his major-league career, Sawatski missed most of spring training with the Braves in 1957 with a broken middle finger on his throwing hand. Nonetheless, manager Fred Haney was impressed with Sawatski’s competitive nature and team-oriented attitude, and tabbed him as the team’s third catcher behind All-Star Del Crandall and Del Rice, Bob Buhl’s personal signal-caller. After an inconsistent first third of the season, the Braves found themselves in second place, tied with the Dodgers, a half-game behind the Cincinnati Reds. Given his first start of the season on June 13 against Brooklyn, Sawatski had one of the best games of his big-league career. Having already smashed two doubles, he got a third hit (in his fourth at-bat), a towering three-run home run to left-center field off reliever Clem Labine to secure the Braves victory and catapult them back into first place. Proving his value to the Braves, Sawatski was unexpectedly productive in the 19 games he started behind the plate, hitting .297 (19-for-73) with five home runs and 13 runs batted in, and finished the season with a .238 average, six home runs and 17 RBIs. After playing in September with a broken right index finger, Sawatski pinch-hit twice in the Braves’ exciting World Series victory over the New York Yankees, and struck out both times.
Fresh off a championship and a hefty World Series share worth $8,924.36, Sawatski returned to Little Rock and began officiating football and basketball games. The offseason running and officiating helped Sawatski to overcome his weight issues. Playing between 200 and 215 pounds for the rest of his career, Sawatski impressed teammates with his new stature.
Finding little playing time behind Crandall and Rice and with just ten at-bats by mid-June, Sawatski was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for catcher Joe Lonnett. Platooning with Stan Lopata, Sawatski was a classic pull hitter and faced primarily right-handed pitchers for the remainder of his career. Against his old teammates on July 4 at County Stadium in Milwaukee, Sawatski had a career-high four hits (in four at-bats) and clouted a solo home run off Gene Conley in a 5-1 victory. Thirteen days later, Swish collected four hits for the second and last time in his career in a loss to the Giants in San Francisco.
With 60 of his 61 games started in 1959 coming against right-handed hurlers, Sawatski developed into a feared hitter, batting .315 against righties (57-for-181), including nine home runs, 43 runs batted in, and a .519 slugging percentage. Facing the Braves on May 25 in Philadelphia, Sawatski launched one of the longest home runs in the history of Connie Mack Stadium; he hit a Buhl fastball over the 60-foot-tall scoreboard in right-center field, 405 feet from home plate. Sawatski pulverized another Buhl fastball two years later while playing for the Cardinals for his only big-league walk-off home run. With the Phillies mired in their second consecutive last-place finish and struggling at the gate, averaging fewer than 11,000 fans per game, Sawatski was unhappy with losing and his paltry salary. “I told [Phillies general manager] John Quinn that if I wasn’t traded, I’d hang it up,” said Sawatski. Quinn complied with his wish and traded the 32-year-old to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Bill Smith and outfielder Bobby Gene Smith (unrelated despite their identical surnames) on December 4, 1959.
With the short right-field pavilion roof and power alley in Busch Stadium I (formerly known as, and at the time still often referred to as Sportsman’s Park), Sawatski landed in the perfect spot. “We got Sawatski for his bat,” said Redbirds manager Solly Hemus. “He’s not outstanding with his glove.” During his four years with the Cardinals, Swish annually put on a Jekyll and Hyde act: He was an unusually productive slugger in St. Louis, where he hit .316 (110-for-348) with 25 home runs and 75 runs batted in. Without the charitable right-field distance on the road, he hit just .193 (64-for-332) with 10 home runs and 41 runs batted in.
Serving as Hal Smith’s backup in 1960, Sawatski developed a reputation as a feared pinch-hitter with eight runs batted in on seven hits in just 27 at-bats. The following season he went 11-for-39, including four home runs. The Sporting News reported that Sawatski had “great deterrent value. Opposing managers … would have a tired left-handed pitcher in the game rather than bringing in a right-hander who would have to face Sawatski.” With his down-to-earth personality, Sawatski had the perfect temperament for a pinch-hitter. “I feel honored when a manager calls on me in tight situations,” he said. “I study the pitcher and try to figure out what he’s throwing in certain situations. But I do a lot of guessing and regardless of what you hear most hitters do a lot of guessing up there.”
After notching career highs in hitting (.299) and slugging (.517) with 10 home runs and 33 runs batted in during the 1961 season, Sawatski hit 13 home runs in just 222 at-bats in 1962 to tie the Cardinals’ single-season record for home runs by a catcher (shared by Hal Smith, Walker Cooper, and Eddie Ainsmith). On September 9, 1962, Sawatski tagged Jim Brosnan of the Reds for his only major-league grand slam. The pinch-blast to right field came on an 0-and-2 pitch with two outs in the ninth to lift the Cardinals to a 5-3 win at Crosley Field. With the development of Tim McCarver as a sturdy everyday catcher in 1963, Sawatski saw his playing time diminished and batted just .238 in 105 at-bats. Sawatski was a player’s player and popular clubhouse leader. Known for his jovial disposition, big smile, and thunderous laugh, Swish was called the team’s “Judge” who presided over the players’ kangaroo court and ruled on petty playing infractions, determining fines when necessary. A joker who enjoyed playing tricks on fellow players, Sawatski was often the target of jokes focusing on the slowest player in baseball.
When the 35-year-old Sawatski, in his final season, got the first stolen base in his major-league career, against the Pirates on April 17, 1963, it was called the “most famous theft since the Brinks’ robbery.” After belting a home run in the second inning off Tom Sturdivant, Sawatski lined a single in the third inning and was given the green light to run. “I guess they figured Sturdivant was going to throw [Julian Javier] another knuckleball with two strikes on the batter,” he said, “and Burgess might have trouble handling the ball.” Coincidentally, Sawatski repeated the sequence of events later that season against the Phillies when he launched a home run in the seventh inning, then lined a single and stole second base in the eighth inning, just two months before he retired. He was still a threat in St. Louis, where he hit .340 with five home runs and 12 RBIs in 50 at-bats. Swish retired at the conclusion of the season with 58 home runs (all against right-handed pitchers) and 213 runs batted in during his 11-year big-league career and hit another 202 round-trippers in his eight-year minor-league career.
“Carl loved playing for the Cardinals,” Mrs. Sawatski said. “He was close friends with Red Schoendienst and Stan Musial and they all retired together after the 1963 season.” Musial and Sawatski were both from hard-working Polish families with limited means, and lived in small coal-mining towns in the Pennsylvania Appalachians. “Carl and Stan spent a lot of time together. I think with their background, they understood each other well. Stan’s wife, Lillian, was always at the games with us.”
Retiring to Little Rock, Arkansas, with his wife and two sons, Sawatski continued to work in construction and real estate. He maintained a close relationship with the Cardinals, appearing regularly at their games, playing in reunion games, and attending special events. In 1966 the Cardinals signed a working agreement with the Texas League’s Arkansas Travelers, who played their games in Little Rock, thus providing Sawatski with an opportunity to resume his baseball career. When longtime general manager Ray Winder died in 1967, Travelers team president Max Moses and board member Jack East, who were instrumental in keeping baseball in the city, offered Sawatski the GM position. “Carl came home one day,” Mrs. Sawatski remembered, “and said ‘Guess what?’ He was excited to get back in baseball. He dedicated his life to the sport.”
In 1968 Sawatski was named general manager of the team and just two years later was named The Sporting News’ Class AA Executive of the Year for his efforts in establishing a model program with strong fan and community support. He was named president of the Texas League before the 1976 season and held the position until his death in 1991. Highly respected for his approach to the game, fairness to teams and players, and understanding of the changing landscape of minor-league baseball, Sawatski received the Warren Giles Award, recognizing outstanding service of a league president, in 1987.
Modest and sometimes shy, Sawatski was a team player who never sought the bright lights of attention or complained about his role on the team. On November 24, 1991, Carl Sawatski, a baseball lifer, died from acute leukemia at the age of 64. He was buried at the Pine Crest Memorial Park in Alexander, Arkansas. In 2005 he was inducted posthumously into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
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.
The Sporting News
Interview with Dorothy Sawatski (Carl Sawatski’s wife) on January 6, 2013.
 The Sporting News, June 23, 1962, 3.
 George Burnham, “Sawatski is at Home in Vols’ Dell” Associated Press, Kingsport News (Kingsport, Tennessee), July 8, 1949, 9.
 “Bloomingdale Troopers Sweep Three Game Series from Dodgers,” Kingston Daily Freeman, (Kingston, New York), July 28, 1947, 8.
 George Burnham, “Sawatski is at Home in Vols’ Dell.”
 “Sawatski Has Sore Arm,” Waterloo Daily Courier (Waterloo, Iowa), March 6, 1948, 43.
 The Sporting News, September 14, 1949, 33.
 Warren Corbett, “Sulphur Dell (Nashville), SABR Biography Project, /bioproj/park/dac74af0.
 The Sporting News, June 23, 1962, 4.
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 The Sporting News, August 24, 1949, 35.
 The Sporting News, November 16, 1949, 6.
 “Baseball Scout Thinks He Has Successor to Babe Ruth,” International News Service, El Paso Herald (El Paso, Texas), November 9, 1949, 31.
 The Sporting News, May 10, 1950, 13.
 The Sporting News, June 7, 1950, 33.
 The Sporting News, August 3, 1951, 39.
 The Sporting News, April 1, 1953, 10.
 The Sporting News, June 23, 1962, 4.
 The Sporting News, October 5, 1955, 27.
 The Sporting News, September 26, 1956, 35.
 The Sporting News, October 23, 1957, 9.
 The Sporting News, June 23, 1962, 3.
 The Sporting News, December 16, 1959, 19.
 The Sporting News, December 14, 1963, 19.
 The Sporting News, November 28, 1964, 9.
 The Sporting News, June 23, 1962, 4.
 The Sporting News, April 27, 1963, 32.
 The Sporting News, December 5, 1970, 35.
 The Sporting News, December 21, 1987, 47.