Before Yogi Berra came up with his now famous quip, “It looks like déjà vu all over again,” Chicago Cubs outfielder Hank Sauer could very well have originated that witticism, after he scorched Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Curt Simmons with three home runs for a second time on June 11, 1952. Sauer’s three solo homers were all that was needed to single-handedly defeat Simmons and the Phillies. Sauer had previously victimized Simmons on August 28, 1950.
Since coming to the Cubs from Cincinnati in a trade in June 1949, Sauer had been hailed as the team’s biggest bargain since the acquisition of Hack Wilson for the 1926 season.1 From 1949 through 1951 Sauer posted seasons of 27, 32, and 30 home runs. In 1952 he hit 37 home runs, drove in 121 runs and received the National League Most Valuable Player Award.
By June 11 Sauer was on pace for a season approaching Wilson’s historic performance in 1930: 15 home runs and 55 RBIs.2
Playing before a Wrigley Field crowd of 10,765, the Cubs were contending with the New York Giants for second place in the National League. Second-year right-hander Turk Lown, with a 2-2 record, was manager Phil Cavarretta’s starter.
The Phillies started Phillies lefty Simmons, who had missed the entire 1951 season and spring training in 1952 while serving in the Army.3 Simmons entered the game with a 4-1 record and a 1.90 ERA.
The Cubs drew first blood in the bottom of the second on a leadoff home run by Sauer. The Phillies tied the game in the top of the fourth on a single by Smoky Burgess, a force-out of Burgess at second on Jack Lohrke’s groundball, a walk to Connie Ryan, and a run-scoring single by Tommy Brown.
The Cubs threatened in the bottom of the fifth when Roy Smalley singled off Simmons and advanced to third on a sacrifice by Lown and a single by Eddie Miksis. But Simmons struck out Dee Fondy and Bill Serena.
The Phillies countered with a threat in the top of the sixth. Singles by Jackie Mayo and Connie Ryan, who advanced to second base on the throw, followed by an intentional walk to Tommy Brown loaded the bases. With two outs, Richie Ashburn singled for what apparently meant two runs. However, in his rush to reach third base from first, Brown failed to touch second base, and second baseman Miksis touched the bag for the third out.4
Sauer put the Cubs back on top, 2-1, with another leadoff home run in the bottom of the sixth. When he returned to the dugout, Smalley said to him, “Remember that game in ’50 when you got to Simmons for three homers? I’ve got a hunch you’re going to do it again.”5
Smalley’s hunch couldn’t have been more prophetic. Sauer bashed number three off Simmons in the bottom of the eighth inning, making the score 3-1.
The Phillies tried to come back in the top of the ninth. Pinch-hitting for Simmons, Bill Nicholson drew a leadoff walk off Lown. Ralph “Putsy” Caballero ran for Nicholson and, with one out, moved to third when Granny Hamner doubled to left. Dutch Leonard relieved Lown and struck out Johnny Wyrostek. Caballero scored the Phillies’ second run when first baseman Fondy booted Burgess’s groundball. An aggressive Hamner attempted to score, too, but was thrown out at the plate, right fielder Gene Hermanski to second baseman Miksis to catcher Johnny Pramesa, preserving the Cubs’ 3-2 victory.
In his third victory of the season, Lown gave up nine hits and six walks in 8⅓ innings but only two runs as the Phillies left 11 runners on base. Lown struck out six. Simmons was charged with his second loss, giving up eight hits and two walks; but at the end of the day it was Sauer alone who overpowered Simmons.
After the game, Sauer attended a publicity event at umpire Jocko Conlan’s batting range in Chicago, where special police had to manage a huge crowd that showed up to see their superman take some cuts. Sauer downplayed his heroic day at the plate, saying, “All I want to do is help the club.” He described his three homers as being in three zones: “The first one was a high fastball. The second one I hit was a curve. And the third was a fastball inside and not as high as the first one. But don’t let anyone kid you about Simmons. That fellow’s a real pitcher.”6
Years later, when asked whether Simmons had been a soft touch, Sauer made light of the two three-homer performances. “I just happened to be hot those days,” he said. “I don’t think it would have mattered who was pitching. Besides, I can remember one game in which Simmons struck me out three times.”7
In addition to drawing similarities with Hack Wilson’s season of 1930, Sauer’s 18 home runs at that point in the season were also being mentioned in comparisons with Babe Ruth’s home-run pace during his 60-homer season of 1927.8
The Cubs wound up in fifth place in the league at 77-77, 19½ games behind the pennant-winning Brooklyn Dodgers. The season was a 15-game improvement over 1951, when the Cubs finished in last place. It would be their only .500-or-better season between 1947 and 1962. The Phillies finished the season in fourth place, 10 games ahead of the Cubs.
Sauer edged out Phillies pitcher Robin Roberts for the MVP Award by 15 points (226 to 211) and Dodgers rookie relief pitcher Joe Black by 18 points. His selection triggered considerable controversy at the time, since he played for a second-division team, the first time it had ever happened.
Sauer’s detractors argued that Roberts’s and Black’s performances were more valuable than Sauer’s. Roberts was the only 20-game winner in the National League with 28 victories, the most since Dizzy Dean’s 30 wins in 1934, and had a 2.59 ERA. Black was similarly impressive as he won 14 of his 15 games pitching in relief and recorded 15 saves for the pennant-winning Dodgers.
Sauer won the award on the merits of his home-run and RBI totals, since he was only a .270 hitter and had a reputation as a marginal outfielder. However, in an article in Baseball Digest in February 1953, Chester L. Smith of the Pittsburgh Press defended Sauer’s selection. “There’s a general misapprehension regarding the selection of the MVP,” Smith said. “He is not presumed to be the best player in the league, but the man who did the most for his club. Sauer made a respectable team out of the Cubs, who had been consigned to the basement.”9
In the same Baseball Digest article, Francis Stann was critical of Sauer’s selection, saying, “[T]ake the bat out of his hands and Hank isn’t much of a ball player. In September Hank was no great asset even to his second division team. He batted .213 and drove in only seven runs.”10
Cubs manager Cavarretta defended his outfielder, saying, “I wouldn’t trade Sauer for both Roberts and Black. If I did I should have my head examined. No pitcher could possibly have been as valuable to us last season as Hank was. He played in 151 games. I can’t tell you how many games he won for us with his bat and I want to say right now he won some games with his fielding, too.” Cavaretta said Sauer’s offensive famine in September was due to his playing in pain with a lame back.11
This article appears in “Wrigley Field: The Friendly Confines at Clark and Addison” (SABR, 2019), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To read more stories from this book online, click here.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted the following:
Holtzman, Jerome, and George Vass. The Chicago Cubs Encyclopedia (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), 195.
Munzel, Edgar. “Rags to Riches,” in Bruce Jacobs, ed., Baseball Stars of 1953 (New York: Lion Books, 1953), 145-150.
Pietrusza, David, Matthew Silverman, and Michael Gershman, eds. Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia (New York: Total/Sports Illustrated, 2000), 1001.
Sargent, Jim. “Hank Sauer,” SABR BioProject, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/fd5e9f41
1 Ed Burns, “The Sweet Sauer Man,” Baseball Magazine, September 1952: 8-9, 39.
2 In 1930, Wilson hit 56 home runs, second only to Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60 in 1927. Wilson’s 191 RBIs remain a single-season major-league record.
3 Edward Veit, “Curt Simmons,” SABR BioProject, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/e98dbe08.
4 Irving Vaughan, “Cubs Outfielder Boosts His RBI Total for Season to 58: Hank’s Eighteen Homers Match Babe Ruth Pace of 1927,” Chicago Tribune, June 12, 1952: 1, 6.
5 Al Stump, “Sauer Can’t Win,” Sport, June 1953: 28-31.
6 Edward Prell, “Fans Swarm Over Sauer in Batting Show,” Chicago Tribune, June 12, 1952: 1, 6.
7Milton Richman, “Homers Are His Specialty,” in Bruce Jacobs, ed., Baseball Stars of 1955 (New York: Lion Books, Inc., 1955), 113-118.
9 Francis Stann, “Sauer Choice!,” Washington Star article in Baseball Digest, February 1953: 30-32.
11 John C. Hoffman, “Sauer Grapes!” Baseball Digest, February 1953: 31-34.