This article was written by Bill Lamb
Versatile in the field and with some extra-base pop in his bat, Don Savage overcame a chronic knee injury and other health problems to become a wartime member of the New York Yankees. In many ways, the arc of Savage’s baseball career can be traced through his physical condition. The knee injury, as well as the onset of diabetes while he was still a minor leaguer, rendered Savage unfit for World War II military service, thus making him available for call-up by the roster-depleted Yanks in 1944. But the knee injury also curtailed his playing time in pinstripes and eventually precipitated his retirement from the game at an early age. And sadly, complications from diabetes would later claim the life of Don Savage when he was only 42 years old.
Donald Anthony Savage was born in Bloomfield, New Jersey, on March 5, 1919. He was the second of three sons born to Vincent F. Savage (né Saiewicz), a Polish Catholic immigrant brought to America as an infant in 1895, and his New Jersey-native wife, the former Jennie Post.i Father Vince Savage was a semipro baseball player in his youth and later encouraged the athletic talents of his boys. Don Savage first came to attention on the gridiron, playing halfback for Bloomfield High School, a New Jersey schoolboy powerhouse in the 1930s. Coached by a local legend named Bill Foley, the Bloomfield eleven often featured players from an ethnic enclave known as Polack Hill.ii The first of the knee injuries that would plague Savage throughout his professional career was suffered in a game against next-town rival Nutley High during Don’s sophomore year. The following spring, Savage had recovered sufficiently to assume the shortstop position for a crackerjack Bloomfield baseball team that, behind the hurling of future Yankees teammate Hank Borowy, won the prestigious Greater Newark Baseball Tournament of 1935. Two seasons later, Don Savage was the shortstop selection on most New Jersey newspaper high school All-State baseball teams.
Despite a second knee injury suffered while playing short during his senior year, Savage received numerous college scholarship offers upon his high-school graduation in June 1937. Eventually he chose Rutgers over Fordham,iii Georgetown, Duke, and other suitors. But he stayed only a year in college, and was signed to play professionally by New York Yankees scout Paul Krichell in May 1938. Interestingly, the previous summer Don had played semipro ball in the fast-paced Essex County League, where adversaries included Billy Johnson of nearby Montclair, then primarily a pitcher but later the main New York Yankees third baseman of the 1940s. For the next seven years, Savage would often follow in Johnson’s wake as the two men made their way through the Yankees’ minor-league chain.
Savage began his pro career as a 19-year-old third baseman for the Butler Yankees of the Class D Pennsylvania State Association, taking the place of Billy Johnson, who had just been elevated to Norfolk. A dead pull right-handed batter, Savage hit well, posting a .314 batting average, with modest (17 extra-base hits) power in 49 games. His fielding, however, was shaky – 14 errors and a substandard .917 fielding percentage. Still, he had made a decent start and was advanced in the Yankees’ farm chain during the 1939 season, first going to Easton of the Class D Eastern Shore League and thereafter to Akron of the Class C Middle Atlantic League. After another good year with the stick/so-so year with the glove,iv Savage was promoted to the Norfolk Tars of the Class B Piedmont League in 1940. There, two life-altering events occurred. On the diamond Don demonstrated useful versatility, playing 65 games in the outfield when not stationed at short or third. He also upped his power numbers at the plate, with 10 homers among his 34 extra-base hits. Off the field, Savage met a vivacious Norfolk rooter named Marie Vizzini and courtship ensued. They were wed on March 1, 1941. In time, the birth of sons Donald Jr. (1942) and Michael (1947) would make their family complete.
Marriage evidently agreed with Don Savage. Succeeding Billy Johnson in the infield for the Augusta Tigers of the Class B South Atlantic League, Savage had a first-rate 1941 season. He hit .295, with 43 extra-base hits, and saw his first extended tour of duty as a shortstop in the professional ranks, playing 106 (out of 139) games as a middle infielder for the Tigers. That winter, however, Savage’s future, baseball and otherwise, became a matter of grave concern. Back home in New Jersey for the offseason, he felt weak and began losing weight at an alarming pace. After several weeks in a Montclair hospital bed, Savage was diagnosed as diabetic. He responded to medical treatment and was subsequently discharged. But for the remainder of his life, Don would need a self-administered injection of insulin every morning.v He sat out the entire 1942 season on doctor’s orders, working as a shipping clerk at a Bloomfield plant while he regained his health. World War II military service, however, was out of the question. Savage was accorded permanent 4-F status, and would not even be summoned for future physicals by his local draft board.vi
In the spring of 1943 Don was medically cleared to resume his baseball career and was assigned to the Newark Bears of the Double-A International League, the Yankees’ top farm club. Now close to his former self, the 6-foot, 180-pound Savage turned in an eye-opening campaign. He first caught the attention of Yankees brass with a home run in a preseason exhibition game against the Bombers and, with the Yankees and Bears training together in Plainfield, New Jersey, Don was the beneficiary of instruction imparted by New York top-liners, including Yankees manager Joe McCarthy. As the 1943 season progressed, six major-league clubs reportedly made offers for Savage but the Yankees declined to part with their Newark prospect.vii Don vindicated the Yankees’ confidence. Although he batted only .258, he led the second-place Bears in home runs (16), RBIs (74), and stolen bases (23). Perhaps more important, Savage had recovered his durability and stamina, appearing in 144 games, primarily at shortstop. Immune to the military draft, Savage now figured prominently in Yankees plans.
The assemblage gathered for Yankees spring training in 1944 was a pale shadow of the juggernaut that had captured every American League pennant save one since 1936. After the 1942 season the military had claimed Yankee greats Joe DiMaggio, Red Ruffing, Phil Rizzuto, and Tommy Henrich. Gone the following winter from the World Series champs of 1943 were more New York stalwarts, including Bill Dickey, Spud Chandler, Joe Gordon, Charlie Keller, Johnny Murphy, and rookie third baseman Billy Johnson. Johnson had made an auspicious Yankees debut, batting a solid .280 with 94 RBIs, while providing sterling defense at the hot corner. Impressed sportswriters had placed Johnson fourth in 1943 MVP voting and many bestowed upon him the then unofficial accolade of Rookie of the Year. But Johnson, too, had now been called to military duty and would need to be replaced.
Among those counted upon to fill the Yankees’ roster void was 25-year-old Don Savage. Newspaper profiles soon informed the New York faithful of the prospect’s background, including one peculiar factoid. Although he had lived his entire life no more than a bus ride away from Yankee Stadium, Savage had never laid eyes on the ballpark. “I always went to the Newark park because my ambitions were concentrated on the Bears,” he explained.viii To at least some degree, the unfamiliarity of Savage’s new playing environs would be counterbalanced by a familiar face often on the Yankee Stadium pitching mound: high-school comrade Hank Borowy, then coming off a 14-9 campaign for the Yanks.
With holes to fill around the diamond, manager McCarthy initially leaned toward putting the versatile Savage in the outfield before stationing him at third base for the Yankees opener. Savage made his major-league debut in Fenway Park on April 18, 1944, going 0-for-3 against Red Sox right-hander Yank Terry. The next day Savage got his first hit and went 4-for-8 in a doubleheader against the Red Sox. Off to a fast start, Savage had Yankees fans temporarily forgetting the departed Johnson. In his first 15 games, he hit .333 and played sound defense. Soon, he was being touted as the Yankees’ latest rookie star. “Give all the credit to Mr. McCarthy,” Don demurred, diplomatically. “I used to hug the plate and pull every ball to left field. Mr. McCarthy made me adopt an open stance to face the pitcher and as a result, I am able to see the ball much more clearly. And I’m also hitting to right field at times, something I’ve never been able to do before.”ix Then the first of a series of nagging injuries struck. During an early May game against the Philadelphia A’s, he crashed into an iron fence at Shibe Park and “suffered a terrible shaking up.”x Don quickly bounced back, hitting his first major-league homer during an 8-4 Yankees win over Cleveland on May 14. “Don Savage has done a fine job at third,” reported sportswriter Dan Daniel.xi Shortly thereafter, Shibe Park struck again. After hitting a home run in the second game of a June 8 doubleheader, Savage twisted his knee on the Shibe Park infield and had to be carried off the field. Two months later, he re-injured the knee “with an off-stride step,” again during a game at Shibe Park.xii
In the end, the injuries and ensuing layoffs took their toll on Savage’s playing time and performance. Midway through the season, he was supplanted at third by Oscar Grimes. By season’s end, Savage had appeared in only 71 games, bating .264, with four home runs, 24 RBIs, and 31 runs scored. In his 60 appearances at third base, Savage posted a .946 fielding percentage, a near mirror-image of the .945 posted by Grimes during his time at third that season. All in all, the 1944 season had been a disappointment for the third-place (83-71) Yankees, and often a frustration to Don Savage. But with the war still raging, the young, draft-immune infielder remained in New York plans for the coming campaign.
In 1945 Savage proved unable to displace Grimes as the Yankees third baseman. The periodic recurrence of knee trouble further limited his playing time. Reduced to a utility role, Don appeared in only 34 games split between infield and outfield assignments. He hit a soft .224 in 58 at-bats and fielded worse, particularly at third, where he posted a dismal .891 fielding percentage in 14 games there. The midseason departure of his pal Borowy, on his way a combined 21-win season between the Yanks and the National League pennant-winning Chicago Cubs, only added to the gloom for Savage. With hostilities in Europe and the Pacific finally ended midway through the 1945 season and military veterans (including Billy Johnson) returning to the Yankees fold, the future in New York did not look promising for Savage. Still, the Yanks kept him on their reserve list that winter and he began 1946 in the Yankees spring training camp. But not for long. Before camp was out, Savage, Tuck Stainback, Joe Buzas, Monk Dubiel, and other wartime Yankee fill-ins were demoted to Newark.
Although he was only 27 years old, Don Savage’s major-league career was now behind him. In his 105 games as a New York Yankee, Savage had posted a cumulative .256 batting average, with 17 of his 76 base hits good for extra bases. He had scored 36 runs and driven in 27. His lifetime infield/outfield fielding percentage was a mediocre .935. Savage spent the 1946 season with Newark, but had little success. He had further knee problems and was sent home after being injured in a game in Montreal in late May. Savage later returned to the Bears but the season was pretty much a washout. In 66 games he managed only a paltry .207 BA. Obituaries and other published remembrances of Savage maintain that he retired from baseball at the conclusion of the 1946 season.xiii But Baseball-Reference indicates that Savage attempted a comeback two years later, serving as player-manager for the St. Jean (Quebec) Braves of the independent Provincial League in 1949. Statistics for the St. Jean season are not provided.xiv
Don spent the remainder of his too-brief life in his hometown, living with his wife and children in an apartment building located near his parents’ home. He worked as a mechanic for the Otis Elevator Company, converting manually operated elevators into automatic ones,xv and took an active role in supervising youth athletics in Bloomfield.xvi In the winter of 1960-1961, Don’s diabetic condition began to worsen, eventually requiring his admission to Mountainside Hospital in Montclair. He died there late Christmas evening, December 25, 1961, at the age of 42. After a Funeral Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Bloomfield, Savage was laid to rest at Mount Olivet Cemetery, no more than a long fly ball away from the Bloomfield High School athletic fields where he had first tasted sports glory some 27 years earlier.
i Sources for the biographical information presented herein include the Don Savage file maintained at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York; US Census data, and certain of the newspaper articles cited below. Savage’s baseball stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference.com. The Savage family’s first-born child (Vincent John Savage, born 1916) appears not to have survived infancy. The youngest one (Harold Michael Savage, born 1921) lived to be 82.
ii Aside from Don Savage, Polack Hill in the 1930s produced future American League All-Star pitcher Hank Borowy, North Carolina State Hall of Famer Eddie Berlinski, and, a few years later, Notre Dame/Denver Broncos quarterback Frank Tripucka. Savage’s Bloomfield High teammates also included future Chicago Bears running back Bill Geyer, but Indian Bill had German-immigrant parents and lived in a different neighborhood.
iii At the time, former Bloomfield High School teammate Hank Borowy was an intercollegiate pitching star at Fordham. Later, Don’s younger brother, Hal (Harold) Savage, became a basketball standout for the Rams.
iv In 57 games at Easton, Savage batted .308, with 21 extra-base hits, and posted a slightly improved (.922) fielding percentage. Baseball-Reference has no statistics for Savage’s time with Akron, but his promotion to Class B Piedmont League for the 1940 season suggests continued improvement in Savage’s performance.
v Thereafter, the sporting press of that less sensitive era would sometimes refer to Savage as “The Insulin Kid.” See e.g., The Sporting News, March 16, 1944.
vi After graduating from Fordham University, Hal Savage served as a Marine Corps officer. Later in life, he became an attorney, with a law office in Bloomfield.
vii The Sporting News, July 1, 1943.
viii As quoted by sportswriter Dan Daniel in the New York World-Telegram, April 1, 1944.
ix Unidentified May 1944 news clipping in the Don Savage file at the Giamatti Research Center.
x The Sporting News, May 11, 1944.
xi The Sporting News, June 8, 1944.
xii The Sporting News, August 17, 1944.
xiii See e.g., Newark Evening News, December 26, 1961, and The Sporting News, January 3, 1962.
xiv The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds. (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 2nd ed., 1997), names Savage and Red Hayworth as the St. Jean managers in 1949. Inferential support for the notion that Savage’s playing career resumed in 1949 is provided by the 1949 Bloomfield Town Directory, which lists his occupation as professional baseball player.
xv Circa 1960 questionnaire completed by Savage and maintained in the Don Savage file at the Giamatti Research Center.
xvi Obituary published in the Newark Evening News, December 26, 1961.