Friday, October 13, 2006
Eddie Sawyer began his baseball career in the 1930s as a prospect in the New York Yankees system. A severe shoulder injury in 1937 crippled Sawyer’s chances of making the majors, so Sawyer fell back on his degree in biology and taught at Ithaca College in New York State while making the transition to managing by coaching a local football team. Sawyer’s intellectual style of managing attracted the Phillies, who hired him to bolster their farm system by coaching the Phillies minor league team at Utica. After succeeding and developing talent there, Sawyer went to Toronto in early 1948 to take over the team there, meeting players like Richie Ashburn, Granny Hammer, and Willie Jones there. While coaching in Toronto, Sawyer made the wise decision to make Richie Ashburn a centerfielder instead of a catcher. At the end of July the Phillies high command made the bold decision to elevate Sawyer to manager.
He was just 37 and had never coached or played major league baseball before.
Sawyer was a calm, laid-back person who brought an intellectual’s style to the game. The patience that Sawyer showed his players enabled the Phillies to develop a lot of young talent during the 1948 and 1949 seasons. Sawyer’s decision to bring Jim Konstanty, a little-regarded pitcher languishing on the Phillies team in Toronto, up with him was a stroke of genius in 1950, as Konstanty won 16 games and saved 22 more and won the NL MVP award. (See, Part III on Monday.)
After the 1950 season the Wiz Kids dynasty in the making unraveled. The Phillies went 101-116 (.465) in 1951 and 1952 under Eddie Sawyer. What happened? Did Sawyer’s laid-back style backfire and result in his players getting lazy and arrogant? Or were the Phillies not talented enough to keep up with the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, two teams willing to raid the Negro Leagues for talent, while the Phillies racist refusal to incorporate black players cost them games? Was Eddie Sawyer a scapegoat for the Phillies racism in the '50s?
I’d submit that the latter answer is probably the more accurate one, though Sawyer's laid-back style might have backfired as some of the young Wiz Kids grew lazy and complacent. But racism was probably the main factor. The Phillies, simply put, shot themselves in the foot by refusing to add players like 1951 MVP Roy Campanella, who grew up in Philaelphia, to their roster. While the Dodgers, Giants and the rest of the NL forged ahead with racial integration, the Phillies fell behind. 1951, the year after the Phillies pennant run, after all was the year that Willie Mays joined the Giants.
Not surprisingly, Eddie Sawyer stayed away from baseball and took a job with a company that manufactured golf balls in the Philadelphia area. In 1958 the team welcomed him back for a brief time, having him take over in July to oversee the first eighth-place (i.e., last-place) finish the team suffered since 1947. The ’59 Phillies also finished eighth. The Wiz Kids faded away. Ashburn was traded to the Cubs after the ’59 season, Shortstop Granny Hammer and Third baseman Willie Jones were dealt to the Indians, pitcher Curt Simmons was dealt to the Cardinals in 1960 and pitcher Robin Roberts left the Phillies after 1961. Eddie Sawyer’s decision to quit coaching after the first game of the 1960 season, a 9-4 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field which saw Robin Roberts surrender eight runs in four and a third innings pitched, stunned observers and really marked the end of the Wiz Kids era. When asked why he quit, Sawyer replied: "I'm 49 and I want to live to be 50."
The dynasty that should have been was over and Sawyer never returned to coaching. He went back to business and briefly worked as a scout for the Phillies and Kansas City Royals during the 1970s before passing away in Phoenixville in 1997.
Part III on Monday, we'll be talking about Jim Konstanty, the 1950 NL MVP.
This indicates the real failure of the franchise...they didn't sign any good white players either. The farm system produced nothing of value until 1957 at which point the Whiz Kids were starting to age.
One example highlighted in Kevin Kerrane's fine book involved the failure to sign Al Kaline, who the Phillie scouts had virtually begged Bob Carpenter to sign. How about an outfield of Ennis, Kaline and Ashburn from 1952 on?