This article was written by David E. Skelton
A talented African-American athlete and a fleet-footed outfielder who raced through the minor leagues with flattering comparisons to Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson, Ted Savage had the unique distinction of having to seek legal assistance in confronting one major-league team in order to stay with the franchise that ultimately promoted him to the big leagues (and in a bit of irony, conclude his major-league career in the city that was then the home of the franchise he had to legally confront). After posting numbers that could have arguably garnered Rookie of the Year consideration, Savage was traded one month after concluding his inaugural campaign, and shortly thereafter relegated to the platoon status that remained his signature role for the remainder of his nine-year major-league career. Seemingly in need of keeping a bag at the ready, he ended up playing for eight different teams over that nine-year period.
Born Ephesian Savage on February 21, 1937, in the latter years of the Depression, in Venice, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, the future major leaguer attended school in nearby East St. Louis, Illinois. The latter city was in 1917 the site of one of the worst race riots the US has ever witnessed, and the community continued to struggle for years thereafter. Growing up in such a challenging environment, young Savage, who excelled in baseball, football, and basketball, displayed his talents for the city’s Lincoln High – the same school that Sam Jethroe, one of the earliest African-American players in the major leagues, attended – and briefly with Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. Savage eventually left college for a three-year stint in the US Army, where he displayed his athletic prowess by leading the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, to the 4th Army championship in 1958 with a .411 batting average.
In 1960, shortly after his discharge, Savage signed a contract with the Philadelphia Phillies organization. On the strength of a strong spring-training performance, the Phillies actually contemplated retaining Savage with the parent team – two straight last-place finishes, with two more to follow, had the club searching for solutions in any and all directions – but Savage was eventually assigned to the Williamsport Grays of the Class A Eastern League. A .284 batting average and a league-leading 40 stolen bases, including a number of thefts of home, helped the Grays win the league championship.
In 1961 Savage was promoted to the Buffalo Bisons in the Triple-A International League. He produced such sterling numbers that the Phillies, at various times in the course of their 107-loss season, gave strong consideration to calling up the 24-year-old right-handed batter. Leading the league in a number of offensive categories, Savage was named the Most Valuable Player and also garnered consideration for the IL’s Rookie of the Year. Touted as the league’s “most exciting rookie since Jackie Robinson,” Savage was instrumental in leading the Bisons to the Governors’ Cup, the league’s playoff championship.i The path appeared clear to the major leagues as Phillies manager Gene Mauch indicated: “If Ted Savage plays the way he did at Buffalo, we’re going to have to make room for him in the outfield.”ii
It was at this stage that a piece of Savage’s history came to light. It was divulged that in 1956 the Kansas City Athletics had signed Savage to a contract after a tryout camp in Belleville, Illinois. Shortly thereafter, Savage had a change of heart, deciding instead to enter college, and asked for his release, but the ballclub refused to grant it. The Athletics continued to refuse when he again requested release after his three-year stint in the Army. Savage hired a lawyer, who succeeded in gaining free-agent status for the slugger, allowing him to sign with the Phillies in 1960.
Savage was the recipient of varied accolades as he approached spring training in Clearwater, Florida, in 1962. In a survey, baseball writers anointed him the Phillies’ “Hottest Young Prospect” and the player “Likeliest to Improve.”iii Bobby Bragan, then a scout for the Houston Colt .45s, said that in Savage “there’s a dash of Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson.”iv Ted was prominently cited as a leading contender for Rookie of the Year honors, but as he modestly pointed out, “I haven’t played an inning in the National League yet.”v
A spring camp marred by injuries contributed to a slow start for Savage once the season began, but this was countered by a torrid two-month pace beginning in May, during which Savage’s batting average reached as high as .323. Eventually relegated to a platoon role in a crowded outfield that included stalwarts such as Tony Gonzalez and Johnny Callison, Savage still managed 16 stolen bases (placing him among the team leaders in the category) and finished with a respectable .266 batting average for his inaugural season.
That winter Chicago Cubs second baseman Ken Hubbs won NL Rookie of the Year honors in a vote that conspicuously did not include the fine performances of Hubbs’s teammate Cal Koonce, St. Louis hurler Ray Washburn, and Ted Savage. In fact, had it not been for a few votes garnered by Pittsburgh’s Donn Clendenon, Hubbs would have been the unanimous choice. Based solely on offensive output, Savage’s production in many ways fared as well as or better than that of Hubbs and Clendenon. If his lack of votes was an oversight, it paled in comparison to the challenges Savage was already facing.
After the season the Phillies sent Savage and infielder Pancho Herrera to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for aging veteran Don Hoak. If Savage had problems breaking into a starting outfield that included Gonzalez and Callison, he was certainly going to be challenged with the likes of Roberto Clemente, Bill Virdon, and Bob Skinner (with Donn Clendenon, Manny Mota, and Willie Stargell competing for playing time as well). Pittsburgh’s motives in acquiring Savage were unclear. It was reported that he had been secured by the Bucs to serve as “the No. 1 pinch-hitter with a chance to break into the outfield,”vi but this potentially rosy scenario ran contrary to two less-than-rosy realities: Savage’s performance as a pinch-hitter had already proved less than successful, with just a .143 batting average in 21 pinch-hit opportunities with the Phillies; and a later report hinted that the Pirates might have dangled Savage as trade bait to the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s shortly after acquiring him. If Pittsburgh’s motives were unclear, the Phillies’ motivation for trading him was much murkier.
Why would a team trade a once-promising prospect for a 35-year-old veteran whose best playing days were likely behind him? A prospect who had been described as having “show[n] a great deal of raw talent … [though] lack[ing] polish.”vii Would patience on the part of the Phillies have produced the “polish” necessary to develop the talent-laden outfielder? Perhaps the answers lie in a scathing critique of the team less than a decade later.
In the wake of a 1971 trade involving another once-promising African-American – outfielder Larry Hisle –Philadelphia sports columnist Allen Lewis detailed the history of problems the Phillies had encountered when it came to race, including the lack of patience shown in developing a number of African-American athletes. He cited examples such as Richie Allen and Grant Jackson, not to mention Ferguson Jenkins, who was traded at the age of 23, only to go on to carve a Hall of Fame career elsewhere. The column asked: Was racism a factor in the Phillies’ trade of Savage nine years earlier? Though the question may never be answered, it is worth noting that in the Lewis column, Phillies’ owner Bob Carpenter was quoted as admitting “[o]ur track record hasn’t been good” when it came to race, and vowing to correct the problem.viii
Having bartered a number of players in a decidedly youth-oriented pursuit, the 1963 Pirates proceeded to experience the associated growing pains that caused the club to plummet into the NL’s second division. Yet even with its eighth-place finish, the team still excelled in the outfield with the presence of Clemente et al., and Savage struggled to secure regular playing time. An extended stay on the disabled list – illness followed by a groin injury – didn’t help, and Savage ended the season with a mere 85 appearances and a dismal .195 batting average. He particularly struggled against right-handed pitching (.121 in 66 at-bats), and pursued winter ball in the Puerto Rican League seeking to correct his hitting deficiencies.
A confident Savage was poised for the 1964 campaign on the strength of a fierce offensive output in Puerto Rico, followed by an equally strong spring. All-star honors with the Caguas Criollos accompanied Savage’s pursuit of the league’s home run crown against teammate Jose Cardenal (then a San Francisco Giants prospect), and it wasn’t long before other major-league teams began making inquiries as to Savage’s availability. Spring-training games were no less impressive, featuring a splendid .353 batting average that placed Savage squarely in “a gallant fight to win the left field post.”ix But during the season left field ended up being manned primarily by the threesome of Stargell, Mota, and the recently acquired Jerry Lynch, while Savage wound up returning to the International League.
In another season plagued by injuries, Savage’s production with the Columbus Jets fell far short of his 1961 output (though he again led the league in stolen bases with 26), and he soon found himself on the move again. New Pirates manager Harry Walker helped engineer a trade to secure two St. Louis prospects whom he had managed the year before while in the Cardinals’ system, and Savage was part of the package. Technically he was purchased on behalf of the Cards’ International League affiliate Jacksonville Suns, and in Florida in 1965bhe resumed his efforts to return to the major leagues. Savage stole a team record 34 bases. On July 13 against his former team, Columbus, Savage blasted a drive over the 430-foot marker in center field in Jets Stadium – only three such drives were similarly recalled, one of which was hit by Ted Williams.
Ten days after he struck the prodigious blow, Savage was promoted to the parent Cardinals. A horribly slow start (he went hitless in his first 19 at-bats) contributed to a lackluster .159 batting average for St. Louis and resulted in Savage’s return to Triple-A ball – Tulsa of the Pacific Coast League – to start the 1966 campaign. There he came close to replicating the fine season he posted with Buffalo in 1961. A sizzling start was slowed by a stint on the disabled list (when he underwent some minor internal surgery), and his overall output – Savage was honored as one of the league’s All Star outfielders by the National Association of Baseball Writers –helped guide the Oilers to a first-place finish in the PCL’s East Division. Manager Charlie Metro said he considered Savage “a better center fielder than eight of those now up in the big leagues,”x and it wasn’t long before Ted was one again competing at the big-league level again. His recall by the Cardinals coincided with right fielder Mike Shannon’s late-August slump that afforded Savage a handful of starting assignments; but when Shannon’s bat recovered, Savage was relegated to pinch-hitting situations or defensive replacement roles.
After the season St. Louis acquired former Yankee slugger Roger Maris for third baseman Charley Smith. The move solidified the Cardinals’ outfield for 1967, but left a hole at third base, and Savage was promptly sent to the Florida Instructional League “in an attempt to convert him into a possible third [base] replacement.”xi Eventually the hot corner was awarded to Shannon and the Cardinals proceeded to a world championship season, while Savage was sold in May to the Chicago Cubs, a team coming off a 103-loss last-place finish.
For more than two decades, the Cubs had had but one winning season. Suddenly, under second-year manager Leo Durocher, the Cubs exploded into contention, maintaining a first- or second-place standing for most of the season until July. An 18-30 record beginning on July 4 doomed any realistic hopes of a pennant. Injuries and ineffectiveness caused the Cubs to use 13 different starting pitchers, while right field was a turnstile of 11 players. Savage got a lot of playing time in right, while appearing in the most major-league games since his rookie campaign five years earlier. But his difficulty handling right-handed hurlers caused the Cubs to soon look elsewhere, and in April 1968 Savage was again on the move, this time to Los Angeles.
The 1968 Dodgers were a team in transition from the Sandy Koufax–Don Drysdale led championships of the mid-1960s to the Tommy Lasorda-led dominance of the ’70s and ’80s. On a roster that included once-great performers like Ken Boyer and Rocky Colavito playing out the end of their careers, Savage again struggled to see playing time (while also being plagued with injuries) and appeared in only 61 games for the Dodgers, frequently as a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement. Just before the start of the 1969 season he was on the move again, this time to the Cincinnati Reds, and his playing time and output mirrored that of 1968.
For a change, Fate soon smiled on Savage. One day before the start of the 1970 season, he was sold to the Milwaukee Brewers, the second time in four years that he was discarded by a World Series-bound club. A franchise newly established in Milwaukee after its inaugural campaign in Seattle, the team was “in desperate need of a right-handed bat that had some power. Savage was an obvious choice.”xii The move also reunited Savage with his manager from the year before, Dave Bristol. Bristol had high praise for his new acquisition: “He’s the kind of guy who will run through a brick wall if you ask him to … always giving you 200 percent on the field and at the plate. A team like ours needs a guy like Savage. He’s not only a nice person, but the kind of guy you want around until our younger players develop.”xiii After flirting with a .300 batting average through much of the 1970 season, Savage ended with career highs in batting average (.279), home runs (12), runs batted in (50), and triples (5), numbers that could have been better if he hadn’t been handicapped by leg injuries in April. By all appearances, Savage had finally found a permanent big-league home.
But as implied in Dave Bristol’s comment about “younger players develop[ing],” the Brewers soon moved dramatically in the direction of youth, as evidenced by the fact that no Brewer older than 30 had more than 300 at-bats in 1971. And when the team had an opportunity to trade the 34-year-old outfielder for a player seven years younger, Savage found he was on the move again. The move to the Kansas City Royals brought Savage’s career full-circle in a way, for the Kansas City Athletics (by 1972 in Oakland) were the team that originally signed him to a professional contract in 1956. Savage was used sparingly, and his season – and major-league career – were ended after he suffered a hand injury on July 3 in a game that turned out to be his last in the major leagues. In August he was sent to the Royals’ Triple-A affiliate in Omaha, and he was released after the season. An unsuccessful bid with the Cardinals the next spring as a nonroster invitee was followed by two campaigns in the Mexican League. (In 1972 with the Jalisco Charros, Savage was teamed with former Phillie Tony Gonzalez, one of the players he had sought to unseat for a starting outfield role ten years earlier.) After the 1973 season, at the age of 36, Savage forsook the field altogether.
Throughout his playing career, Savage had spent offseasons in various jobs: a substitute teacher; a radio announcer in St. Louis; and the “director of a community relations program in a tough section of East St. Louis, Ill.”xiv He went on to earn a Ph.D. in urban studies from St. Louis University, then spent nine years as the athletic director at Harris-Stowe State University, a historically black state university in St. Louis. In 1987 Savage was hired by the St. Louis Cardinals as assistant director of community relations and a minor-league instructor. After a 25-year career with the Cardinals, Savage retired in 2012 as director of target marketing in the Cardinals Care and community-relations department.
In 1970, 42 years before his final retirement, Savage had been quoted as saying, “(I)f you play more, you can do better.”xv The quote seems most fitting applied to Savage, whose once-budding major league career was torpedoed by a seemingly hasty decision to relegate the young athlete to platoon status. One is left to ponder the old adage of “what might have been?”
There is no guarantee that minor-league success will convert to major-league stardom, and baseball is littered with the careers of highly acclaimed players who did not attain the success expected of them. But how often does a promising youngster receive favorable comparisons to former greats such as Mays and Robinson? How often does a sterling prospect get traded for a soon-to-be retired veteran, only to see a quick demotion to utility status on a near-permanent basis? The production exhibited during his rookie campaign, and generally replicated in 1970 with the Brewers, speaks to an ability thwarted by many seasons sitting on the bench. In retrospect, it seems a shame that the regular playing time sought by all athletes was abruptly snatched away from Savage, robbing us from witnessing what could have been.
Thanks for assistance from Norm Richards, Brian Walton, and the many other generous responders to the SABR-L inquiry of November 16, 2012.
i “Frosh Savage Hero of Bison Playoff Kings,” The Sporting News, October 4, 1961, 51.
ii “Mauch Paints Phils’ Future in Rosy Color,” The Sporting News, February 7, 1962, 24.
iii “Scriveners’ Slants,” The Sporting News, April 18, 1962, 10.
iv “Mauch High on Kid Savage,” The Sporting News, February 21, 1962, 26.
v “Savage Nixes Buildup,” The Sporting News, March 14, 1962, 31.
vi “ ‘Where Oh Where Did We Bury That Big ’60 Haul?,’ ” The Sporting News, February 16, 1963, 1.
vii “Phils’ Trade Talk Balked by Gonzalez,” The Sporting News, October 20, 1962, 28.
viii “Phils Attack Old Problem: Handling of Negro Players,” The Sporting News, November 20, 1971, 48.
ix “Buccos Bash Rivals With 8 .400 Hitters,” The Sporting News, April 11, 1964, 27.
x “Vet Metro Spots Sharper Pitching,” The Sporting News, July 9, 1966, 29.
xi “Tom-Tom Boys Beating Merry Tune for Chisox,” The Sporting News, October 29, 1966, 43.
xii “Savage Hopes Roaming Days Are Over,” The Sporting News, January 16, 1971, 58.
xiii “Savage Batting Attacks Enliven Brewers,” The Sporting News, August 23, 1970, 23.