This article was written by Chris Rainey
In July 1883, the Cleveland Blues were in the thick of the National League pennant race. Pitcher James McCormick began complaining of a lame arm and leg problems.1 In an era where teams used a two-man pitching rotation, McCormick’s condition put a strain on his pitching partner, Hugh “One Arm” Daily. Manager Frank Bancroft was forced to reach into the amateur ranks for additional help. In his words, “I was sent scurrying down to Western Reserve College.”2There he contacted Willard Newton Sawyer, an 18-year old, left-handed fireballer, with experience in the college and semi-pro ranks. Sawyer made his debut against the New York Gothams on July 21 in relief of McCormick, who had injured his arm. He retired all seven batters he faced including setting down Buck Ewing, Roger Connor and John Ward in the eighth.
Sawyer’s major-league career lasted the rest of the season. Bancroft noted that “he was a fine specimen of athletic Christian manhood. He never became a star twirler, but in business he has shown like a meteor.”3 Meteors shine brightly as they enter our atmosphere, but that illumination is fleeting. In contrast, Sawyer’s business career burned brightly for 30 years in steel and engineering. He served two decades as president of a large manufacturer.
Will Sawyer joined the third generation of his family located in Brimfield, Portage County, Ohio. Portage County is located in the northeastern section of Ohio and was part of the Connecticut Western Reserve that was established in the late 1700’s. His grandfather Henry, a New Hampshire native, settled there in the 1820’s. He worked as a cooper. Sawyer was the second child born to Charles Frederick and Mary Ann Sawyer (nee Thomas). His July 29, 1864 birth placed him between Charles, born 1857, and Julia, born 1870. Sawyer’s father is listed in census records as a grocery clerk, but most likely was the store owner. The children all were sent away for schooling; Sawyer attended Adelbert College (aka Western Reserve College). The school was originally located in Hudson, Ohio, but was moved to Cleveland in 1882.
Sawyer played baseball at school and in the summers joined the semi-pro team in Kent, Ohio. Kent is located five miles north of Brimfield and was the closest town of sizeable population. Box scores of his early, amateur career do not hint that he was a pitching prodigy. He was frequently the winner and often posted double-digit strikeouts, but the opponents scored freely. As a teenager pitching once or twice a week against less-than-formidable opponents, he never had to learn the art of pitching. He merely reared back and let the ball fly. His control was a concern and a Plain Dealer scribe worried that “he may not be steady, that he may pitch wildly and that his pitching will batter up the catchers.”4
As a lefty, Sawyer was a unique addition to the Blues. The franchise had not had a fulltime lefty since Bobby Mitchell in 1879. After his debut, the Blues used him in an exhibition against Youngstown, Ohio. He tossed a marvelous game, allowing only two hits while striking out nine in six innings of work. At bat he singled twice and scored each time. The batting performance was a sharp contrast to his action in league games where he was 1-for -47. His .021 career batting average stands as the worst effort by any Nineteenth Century player with over 25 at bats.
The management felt he was ready for a start and threw him against the Providence Grays and their ace Charles “Hoss” Radbourn on July 26. The Grays had beaten Cleveland in the previous game to reclaim a half-game lead in the standings. Added pressure was placed on Sawyer because second baseman Fred Dunlap was ill and catcher Fatty Briody had to replace him.
Sawyer exhibited nervousness but the game was scoreless going into the fourth. An outfield error and a wild pitch put a runner on third with two outs. Radbourn hit a grounder back to Sawyer. Grays outfielder John Cassidy hollered out for a play at “Home”. Sawyer did not realize the ruse and rather than an easy out at first, he threw home late. In their next at-bat the Blues responded with two hits and benefited from two errors to go ahead 2-1. They added two more in the seventh before a single and a couple walks allowed Providence a run in the eighth. In the bottom of the eighth, Sawyer coaxed the only walk of the day by Radbourn and scored on an error to make the final 5-2.5 The Plain Dealer pronounced Sawyer a “success” and blamed his seven walks on umpire Burnham. Sawyer was credited with keeping the Grays off balance and allowing only five weak hits.6
For the next month, the Blues spent much of the time in first place. While McCormick rehabbed his injured arm, Sawyer took his spot in the rotation. On July 28 he lost a rematch with Providence, 9-2. This was followed by two losses to Boston. He beat Buffalo 14-5 in a miserable game where he only allowed five hits, but the team made 11 errors and he threw three wild pitches. On August 14 he lost 5-0 to the Detroit Wolverines. McCormick returned to action and Sawyer was dropped from the rotation.
Sawyer put on a dazzling exhibition in Grand Rapids on August 28 where he struck out 16. Earning a spot start in Chicago on August 30, he lost 9-1. That performance led a local writer to quip that “management should see that we have had about enough of Sawyer.”7 The Blues dropped their next game 21-7 to Chicago and fell out of first place, never to return. Bancroft realized that he had a marketable talent and tried to package Sawyer with catcher Cal Broughton to acquire infield help, but all attempts fell through.
On August 31, Sawyer played left field and relieved fellow rookie Lem Hunter in an exhibition with the Indianapolis Hoosiers. He poked a single in the 9-2 loss. On September 3 the club held a benefit intra-squad game. Sawyer pitched for one side and won 11-9. Most impressively he got two hits. The next day he took the box in Buffalo and was defeated 9-3. When McCormick went down for good, Sawyer got five late season starts. He tied New York and then lost to them 5-0. He gave up five runs in the fourth inning to lose 6-3 to Providence September 21, but beat them 3-2 on September 25. He closed out his regular season with a 4-1 loss to Boston.
Sawyer closed out his career with a 4-10 record. Sporting Life summed up Sawyer’s shortcomings by noting he had “no judgment as to the peculiarities of batters, and little, or no, headwork.”8 However there was obviously talent in his arm that went unappreciated. In addition to finishing third amongst National League qualifiers in strikeouts per nine innings, Sawyer remains today the lone qualifier to be a league leader in fewest hits per nine innings in his only major league season.
The regular season ended on September 30, but the team continued to play exhibition games through the third week of October. Sawyer saw plenty of action in those games. He earned a win and a tie in a series with Cincinnati. He beat the Philadelphia Athletics, champions of the American Association, but lost to the Baltimore Orioles, who finished last in the Association. He also posted a win over Toledo.
Cleveland chose not to reserve Sawyer for the 1884 season. Baseball historian David Nemec suggests that Cleveland did not reserve Sawyer because of an agreement they had made with him when he signed. Nemec finds it curious that Cleveland did not try to rescind that agreement and hold onto Sawyer, especially since they recognized his talent and had tried to use him as trade bait.9
Sawyer was at a crossroads and had to choose between baseball and the start of his engineering career. Horace Phillips, owner and manager of the Grand Rapids, Michigan, franchise in the Northwestern League offered him a conditional contract. If Sawyer played baseball in 1884, it could only be with Phillips’ club. Sawyer contemplated moving to Philadelphia and starting in engineering, but eventually opted to play ball. It was a wise move because he coaxed the highest salary in the league out of Phillips.10
The Grand Rapids roster was loaded and Sawyer became the number three pitcher behind John Henry and Pretzels Getzien. The young trio, all under 21 at the start of the campaign, led the team to a 48-13 mark. The franchise disbanded in early August. The timing of the team’s demise worked in Sawyer’s favor because the Cleveland Leader reported, “His arm, it is said, has given out completely.”11 In 13 games he was 8-4 with a robust .091 batting average. He took his paychecks and moved to Philadelphia intent upon becoming an engineer.
Sawyer spent a few years in Philadelphia learning the intricacies of engineering. He originally aimed at civil engineering, but became fascinated with machinery. He moved on to Pittsburgh in the late 1880s, where he reputedly trained and worked with Charles M. Schwab and Willis E. Corey.12 Both of them were members of Andrew Carnegie’s US Steel inner circle, dubbed “Carnegie’s Boys.” How close Sawyer was to Carnegie is uncertain, but he gained a wealth of knowledge about business practices and steel production. The contacts he made were priceless in his future endeavors. It became clear that while his “headwork” was questioned in baseball, he had a mind for business.
On September 17, 1891, Sawyer took Jeannette “Bessie” Ketchum as his bride. The couple would welcome five children over the next fifteen years. Frederick was born in Pittsburgh. Sawyer left that city for Alabama and the steel mills of Birmingham. Willard was born there. The family then moved to Cleveland where Sawyer took a position with the Wellman-Seaver-Morgan Co., which specialized in making huge generators and other machinery. The proud parents welcomed Charles and Helen to the family in Ohio before Sawyer left to become general manager of the Lake Superior Corporation in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada. Martha joined the family there.
Sawyer returned to Ohio in 1907 to serve nearly 20 years as the president of the Wellman-Seaver-Morgan Co. Over time the company became simply Wellman Engineering with plants in Cleveland and Akron. Under Sawyer’s shrewd leadership, the firm earned many large government contracts that kept the workers going all shifts.13 In 1927, poor health forced Sawyer to step down and pursue a quieter lifestyle. With Bessie by his side they returned to Portage County and lived in their summer home year round. All five children attended college and the three sons went into various business enterprises in Cleveland. Sawyer died in Kent on January 5, 1936. He was buried in the Standing Rock Cemetery in Kent, Ohio.
I would like to extend my gratitude to SABR member and 19th Century baseball historian David Nemec for his work on fact-checking this piece. He cleaned up errors and discrepancies while adding invaluable insight.
1 Canton Repository, July 3, 1883: 3.
2 Ren Mulford Jr. “Reds Larrupers,” The Sporting Life, May 30, 1908: 5.
3 Mulford, ibid.
4 “Out and In-Door Sports,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 23, 1883: 1.
5 “Sporting Gossip,” Cleveland Leader, July 27, 1883: 6.
6 “In and Out-Door Sports,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 27, 1883: 4.
7 “Sporting Gossip,” Cleveland Leader, August 31, 1883: 3.
8 “Notes and Comments,” Sporting Life, September 10, 1883: 6.
9 Email correspondence from October 23, 2016, included in Nemec’s notes when fact-checking the biography.
10 Cleveland Leader, June 26, 1884: 7.
11 Cleveland Leader, August 18, 1884: 3.
12 “Not Worse for Ball Playing,” Sporting Life, April 6, 1907: 4.
13 Karl H. Grismer, The History of Kent, Historical and Biographical (Kent: Record Publishing Co., 1932): 274.