Sanford Remembers the Pennant Race of 1949
When Fred Sanford learned the St. Louis Browns had traded him to the New York Yankees in early December 1948, he saw it as an early Christmas.
In St. Louis, Sanford was a workhorse for a team battling to get out of the cellar. But in New York, he would play for a pennant contender led by Joe DiMaggio that had grown used to winning.
“There’s no such thing as losing,” Sanford said. “It’s win, win, win. There’s only one thing you can do in an area like New York and that’s win. You finish second and it doesn’t make any difference.”
The trade made Sanford an alumnus of one of baseball’s most memorable pennant races, one chronicled by David Halberstam in the current book, “Summer of ’49.”
New York won the pennant by sweeping the Red Sox in the last two games of the season, the first of five straight American League crowns the Yankees would claim. New York went on to win 14 of 16 league titles from 1949-64.
Sanford has bittersweet memories of that season and of his short stint with baseball’s most celebrated franchise. He played only three seasons for New York, but still considers himself a Yankee.
“I’m a Yankee fan, but I’m no (George) Steinbrenner fan,” he said of the Yankees owner. Aside from the designated hitter rule, he said the owners are the biggest change in the game in the last 40 years. They pay inflated salaries for mediocre players and are more involved in the day-to-day activities of the team.
“It was a hobby of theirs,” he said, of owners in the 1930s and 1940s. “They loved the game. They didn’t come down to the clubhouse and start stirring things up. They’d come down to visit, but they didn’t come down to tell anybody what to do.
“I think the love of baseball isn’t as strong today,” he said. “In our day, you had to produce to make some money. Now the players have got money running out of their ears.”
When Sanford was pitching American Legion baseball in Salt Lake City before World War II, the Yankees showed little interest. They decided he didn’t have a fastball and let the Browns sign him. He pitched for several minor league clubs in the Browns’ organization and was 12-21 with the Browns in 1948.
After the trade, in which the Yankees reportedly gave St. Louis $100,000 and other concessions to obtain the rights to Sanford, he knew it would be difficult finding a niche.
“I didn’t have that pinpoint delivery,” said Sanford, who retired here. “I never had it and never would have it. I had a good fastball and a good curveball. You don’t win 12 games with a last-place club unless you can do something, even though I lost 21.”
Instead of pitching every third or fourth day, Sanford battled to be the club’s fifth starter. Some weeks he would be in the starting rotation, others he pitched batting practice just to give his arm a workout.
At one point, Sanford was 4-3 and the New York media called him the "$100,000 lemon.”
“It got to me,” Sanford said. “All I was was a kid from Salt Lake City. I wasn’t a kid from Los Angeles or some big area like that. I knew I could do better.”
Sanford did play a role in the Yankees’ pennant. He won his final three starts, including a 7-1 victory over Washington that stopped a four-game losing streak and kept New York close to the Red Sox.
Going into the season’s final two games at Yankee Stadium, New York trailed Boston by one game and needed to win both to clinch the pennant. One Boston victory would give the Red Sox the pennant and cap a storybook comeback for a team that was more than seven games out at one point.
“On Saturday, we beat the Red Sox 9-8,” Sanford said. “On Sunday, all the marbles are on the table. It was 1-0 for seven innings. In the bottom of the eighth, we scored four runs and made it 5-0.
“In the top of the ninth, the Red Sox scored three runs and had the bases loaded and we got the third out.”
For Sanford, the pennant and the feeling he had when presented with a championship ring on Opening Day 1950 is embedded in his memory.
“The biggest thing was that last game of the season and getting into the World Series,” Sanford said. “And of course, winning the World Series, but you can’t win it until you get in it. Everything you hear about in hockey, football or basketball is ‘The Ring.”’
The Yankees went on to beat the Dodgers in five games in the World Series. Manager Casey Stengel listed Sanford as a probable starter of the fifth game, but elected to go with ace Vic Raschi, who ran into early trouble.
Stengel told Sanford and lefthander Joe Page to begin warming up. Stengel called for Page to face a lefthanded hitter. The Yankees won 10-6 and clinched the World Series and Sanford never got to pitch.
Sanford had problems with lefthanded hitters, including Ted Williams of the Red Sox.
“When I first went up to the big leagues in the fall of 1946, I was warming up down in the bullpen and he was watching me,” Sanford said. “The first time I faced him, he hit a home run off me over the right field roof in St. Louis. He hit me pretty good, but he hit most righthanders pretty good.”
In contrast, DiMaggio was an easy mark for Sanford. While still with the Browns, Sanford pitched a 12-inning game against the Yankees and DiMaggio went 0-for-6. During the 1949 season, DiMaggio was hobbled by bone spurs and missed the first half of the season.
When he finally returned, he was a step or two slower than he had been, and Sanford remembers one game pitching out of trouble because DiMaggio couldn’t reach a fly ball.
“I was in a little bit of a jam that he got me in,” he said. “The ball was hit to right-center field and he could have caught it, normally. But I got out of the inning and he caught up to me as I was leaving the mound.
“He put his arm around me and said, ‘Fred, it’s all my fault; I should have caught that ball.’ I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat and thought, ‘Here’s a $100,000-a-year ballplayer who’s coming over and apologizing to me because he didn’t catch the ball.”’