Like many other former players, Saul Rogovin had trouble coping with life after baseball. But he did something about it: He earned a college degree in his fifties and found a rewarding second career as a schoolteacher.
Saul Rogovin was born in Brooklyn on October 10, 1923. His parents were Jacob and Bessie Rogovin. He went to Abraham Lincoln High School and played baseball as an infielder, winning the Public League title for his school when he belted a game-winning homer.
Soon after graduation, he tried out for the Dodgers in Georgia, but did not get a contract. Saul then played with a class D team in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, where he was paid $60 a month, but the club soon folded. In 1941, he took a job as an assembly-line worker with Brewster Aircraft and played with the plant team. Dolly Stark, a National League umpire, saw him and recommended him to the Giants’ manager, Mel Ott. At a tryout at Lakewood, New Jersey, the Giants’ wartime spring training camp, Ott was impressed with Saul’s power and signed him to a contract with Jersey City as an outfielder. After appearing in just two games, he was sold to Chattanooga of the Southern Association, where he played third base. Red Lucas, a coach there, suggested Saul try pitching. On the last day of the 1945 season Saul started and threw a four-hit shutout against the Birmingham Barons. He felt he had finally found his niche.
Just when it looked like he was set to become a starter for the Lookouts he was traded in 1946 to Pensacola. Rogovin had difficulty in finding a position there and played little. Many ballplayers were returning from military service in 1946, and Rogovin was shunted aside. Wally Dashiell, the general manager of the Pensacola team, contacted every team in the International League on Saul’s behalf. Finally Paul Richards, the manager of Buffalo, decided he liked what he saw. Buffalo signed Saul to a contract for the 1947 season and Richards became his baseball godfather. Bringing him along slowly, Richards caught all of his six starts. He had Rogovin change his delivery from three-quarters to straight overhand, increasing his effectiveness. Richards saw potential in Rogovin, but he also detected a high-strung and sensitive personality. He coddled the young man, seeing to it that he did not get into things before he was ready.
Saul went to the Venezuelan winter league. When he refused to pitch one game because of a sore arm, the team owner had him carted off to jail for a brief stay. In 1948 the Detroit Tigers took Rogovin and catcher Joe Ginsberg from Buffalo. Rogovin made his debut with the Tigers on April 28, 1949, but pitched only 5 2/3 innings with a 14.29 earned run average before he was returned to Buffalo. There he won 19 games with an ERA of 3.50.
Saul was back with Detroit in 1950. Now 27 years old, he developed a sore arm after pitching on a cold, damp night in spring training. Even though it was only an exhibition, he told sportswriter Milt Richman that manager Red Rolfe refused to take him out. During the regular season Saul pitched in 11 games, with a 2-1 record and a 4.50 ERA. His crowning glory for that year was hitting a grand slam homer. But his pitching did not satisfy the Tigers and he was farmed out to Toledo and eventually sent home to rest his arm.
In 1951 he pitched poorly and Detroit placed him on waivers. Paul Richards, now manager of the Chicago White Sox, picked him up. Richards limited his work, starting him every fifth day and keeping him out of the bullpen. Rogovin finished with a 12-8 record for both teams and his 2.78 earned run average led the league. It was the high point of his career. Seven of his eight losses were by one run, and the eighth by two runs. In 1952, Saul won 14 and lost 9 with a 3.85 ERA. In one game he went 16 innings and struck out 14 batters. It appeared he had arrived. But his arm still gave him intermittent problems.
Saul sometimes fell asleep on the bench and after one night game was found asleep in the dugout at Comiskey Park long after his mates had showered and dressed. Some felt he was lazy; according to a later article by Saul Wisnia in the Washington Post, he suffered from a sleep disorder. On the mound, however, he was all business.
Richards was sympathetic, but the press felt that Saul was temperamental and soon Richards grew less tolerant. Starting the 1953 season Rogovin was showing fine stuff and won a six-hit shutout over the Tigers, but the arm trouble hit him again. By early August he was on the disabled list. He returned in September to pitch a four-hit shutout against the Cleveland Indians, finishing with a 7-12 record and a dreadful 5.22 ERA.
Washington Post sportswriter Bob Addie reported that the final straw came when Rogovin was caught sleeping in the clubhouse during a crucial game against the Yankees. The disgusted general manager, Frank Lane, traded him to Cincinnati on December 10, 1953.
His sore arm persisted the following spring, and the Redlegs shipped him to AAA Havana. He pitched a three-hitter against Rochester in his first start for the Sugar Kings, and then beat the same team again a week later. He posted an 8-8 record with Havana.
The Sporting News reported that he married Doreen Lipsit at Rodeph Shalom Temple in New York on January 30, 1955.
In 1955 his guru Paul Richards, who had moved on to manage the Baltimore Orioles, brought him back to the big leagues. In April he won a 10-inning complete game over Washington and exulted, “This was the best game I ever pitched.” That was his only victory; by July he had lost eight times and was released.
A few days later he tried out with the Phillies and won a contract. He shut out the heavy-hitting Cincinnati club on July 20, and then whitewashed the Cardinals in his next start. He posted a 3.08 earned run average with the Phils to go with a 5-3 record. Milton Richman wrote in Sport magazine that he had acquired a sinker and a change-up to supplement his fading fastball. Rogovin remarked, “Somebody cracked that I now throw with three speeds slow, slower and stop. But who cares, as long as I’m winning? They can have the fastball.” The next season, as a spot starter and reliever, he retired 32 batters in a row over two games, but his ERA rose to 4.96.
He pitched only four times for the Phils in 1957 before he was sent down to Miami of the International League. “I don’t blame the Phillies,” he said. “They have a bunch of promising kids who throw hard, but I never got a real chance.” He had some success with the Marlins, but went on the disabled list in August and was released the next spring. He finished his major league career with 48 wins, 48 losses and a 4.06 ERA, slightly worse than average for the leagues and parks in which he pitched.
After his retirement he worked as a liquor salesman. In 1979 he told New York Times columnist Red Smith, “Being out of baseball hurt me inside, hurt me so bad that I couldn’t go to a game for years. I wanted to go visit my old team, keep up my baseball contacts, but I couldn’t. I got to be a loner. I’d be irritated with customers. I quit selling liquor and didn’t do anything for a while.”
At the age of 51 Saul went back to college, more than 30 years after he started. When he submitted his application to Manhattan Community College, a dean told him that, despite his age, he would have to take a physical education course. Saul pulled out a bubble-gum card with his picture on it and asked if his major-league career would fulfill the physical education requirement. The dean decided that would do. After two years he transferred to the City College of New York, where he earned a degree in English literature.
He began a new career in 1979 as an English teacher at Hughes High School in New York, and later moved to Eastern District High in Brooklyn. He told Mark Kriegel of the New York Daily News, “After I left the game there was a void, something empty I couldn’t fill until I became a teacher.”
Saul taught the poems of Langston Hughes, the novels of John Steinbeck and the short stories of Ernest Hemingway. The students did not believe middle-aged Mr. Rogovin was a ballplayer until he pulled out old faithful, his bubble-gum card. He was happy teaching; he said, “The kids make you young.”
Saul never made more than $17,500 a year as a ballplayer. He was disappointed in his baseball career. 48 wins and 48 losses did not satisfy him. This big man with the sad, drooping eyes overcame what he believed was a failed career to reach out and get an education and pass it on to kids from a tough section of Brooklyn.
Saully, as his second wife Evelyn called him, contracted bone cancer and died at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York on January 23, 1995, at age 71.
Horvitz, Peter S. and Horvitz, Joachim, The Big Book of Jewish Baseball,. New York: SPI Books, 2001.
Kriegel, Mark. New York Daily News, September 15, 1994
Merchant, Larry. New York Post, June 5, 1975.
National Baseball Hall of Fame player file. Cooperstown, New York.
New York Times obituary January 26, 1995.
Richman, Milton, Sport, July 1956, quoted in Bill James and Rob Neyer, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Shatzkin, Mike and Charlton, Jim, The Ballplayers. New York: William Morrow and Company 1990.
Smith Red, “Face on Bubble-Gum Card,” The New York Times, April 12, 1979, p. A18.
Wisnia, Saul. Washington Post. (Undated, probably 1995)