In an article that appeared in newspapers across the country on July 31, 1915, sportswriter Grantland Rice ranked 24-year-old Chicago Cubs first baseman Vic Saier as one of the top players in the National League. A left-handed hitter and right-handed thrower with that much sought-after combination of power and speed, Saier at the time was leading the NL in runs scored, RBIs, doubles, and triples, and was tied for the lead in stolen bases. He had more extra-base hits than Sam Crawford and had hit for more total bases than Ty Cobb. It must have seemed that baseball immortality beckoned this young phenomenon, the worthy successor to the “Peerless Leader,” Frank Chance. Alas, just 11 days before Rice’s article was published, Saier had suffered a serious leg injury sliding into the plate and had to be carried off the field. He was never again the same player and was out of baseball by the age of 28.
Victor Sylvester Saier was born on May 4, 1891, in Lansing, Michigan. An outstanding athlete growing up, Vic starred in baseball and football at St. Mary’s High. Stories of his prowess traveled at least as far as Chicago, because the Cubs sent scouts to see him play while he was still in high school. After graduating in 1908, Vic enrolled in St. Mary’s Business College and played for a local town team, the Oldsmobile Nine. His exploits caught the attention of Jack Morrissey, a Lansing native who had played with the 1902-03 Cincinnati Reds. Then managing the Lansing entry in the Southern Michigan League, Morrissey signed Vic for the 1910 season. Not yet 20 years old, Saier led the league with 175 hits and batted .339 with 42 stolen bases as Lansing tied for the pennant with Kalamazoo. That performance convinced the Cubs that Saier was ready, and they paid $1,500 to secure his services for 1911.
Although the Cubs had won their fourth pennant in five years in 1910, Chance had begun to feel the strain of both playing and managing. Saier had a good build for a first sacker–tall, rangy, and thin (he was listed at 5’11” and 170 lbs.)–and it’s probable that the 33-year-old Peerless Leader thought of Vic as his eventual successor at first base. Twenty-nine games into the 1911 season, however, Chance was hit by a pitch, essentially ending his career as a player. After veterans Solly Hofman and Kitty Bransfield failed, Saier found himself starting at first base for the reigning NL champions. How would you like to take a living legend’s regular job, and have him stay on as your boss? How much more would you like it if you were only 20 years old and had started working professionally only the year before? That was the situation facing young Vic, and under the circumstances he acquitted himself well, batting .259 and fielding decently in 73 games at first base.
As the stars of the great Cub teams of 1906-10 got older, their replacements generally didn’t perform as well–with the exception of Saier, whose seasons from 1912 to 1914 were at least in the same ballpark with many of Frank Chance’s. Vic hit .288 in 1912 and .289 in 1913, and during the latter season he led the NL with 21 triples and added 14 home runs, 92 RBIs, and 26 stolen bases. In 1914 Saier’s batting average fell to .240 but his 18 home runs placed him second in all of baseball to Gavy Cravath. Four of those homers came against the great Christy Mathewson, who said that Vic had hit some of the hardest balls ever hit against him. The Cubs had fallen apart into warring camps–they weren’t the most harmonious bunch even in the days when they were winning pennants–but in the midst of all the turmoil, the Chicago newspapers lauded Saier as “The Quiet Star.” Vic had a self-effacing personality and went about his business with a minimum of fuss and bother.
Saier’s leg injury in 1915 kept him out of the lineup for three weeks, and the Cubs’ hopes for a surprise pennant left with him. He finished the season with a .264 average and career highs in doubles (35) and stolen bases (29), and he also hit 11 triples and 11 home runs, the last time he reached double figures in either of those categories. The 1916 season began promisingly when Vic hit a sacrifice fly to drive in the winning run in the Cubs’ first game ever at Wrigley Field. But at an age at which he should have been hitting his prime, his final numbers in almost every offensive category–a .253 batting average with 25 doubles, three triples, seven home runs, and 20 steals–showed a drop-off from 1915.
In a game against the St. Louis Cardinals on April 14, 1917, Saier broke his leg in a collision at home plate when he tried to score from second on a single. His season was over after just six games. Vic might not have been ready to come back even in 1918, but we’ll never know for sure because he elected to work at a defense plant to help the war effort instead of playing baseball. The Cubs sold Saier’s rights to the Pittsburgh Pirates, with whom Vic attempted a comeback in 1919. His manager was Hugo Bezdek, a former Penn State football coach who didn’t know much about baseball and didn’t claim to. According to Casey Stengel, who also played for the 1919 Pirates, Bezdek would turn to Saier and ask, “How did Frank Chance handle that play?” Though he provided veteran leadership, Saier hit only .223 in 58 games and was released before the season was over. Many years later his daughter said that he left the Pirates of his own accord “because he was disillusioned. He always thought of himself as a Cub.”
Saier went back to Lansing where he lived the rest of his life, returning to Chicago only to marry his wife, Felicitas. He managed the City Club for many years and moved back into the house on South Pine Street in which he grew up. Vic Saier died in East Lansing at age 76 on May 14, 1967.
Note: A slightly different version of this biography appeared in Tom Simon, ed., Deadball Stars of the National League (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, Inc., 2004).
For this biography, the author used a number of contemporary sources, especially those found in the subject’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.