He died on Friday, August 24th on the first tee of a golf course in Burlingame, Calif., near San Francisco. He was 84.
Why is he important?
For one thing, he was the original ''Hammering Hank.'' A fellow came along later whose fame eclipsed his and took the nickname away from him -- Hank Aaron -- but in the early 50's, Hank Sauer was the big bat for the Chicago Cubs and a hero to hundreds of Galesburg schoolboys. I was one of them.
Half a century ago, I wavered between loyalty to the Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Redbirds usually prevailed because they were at least competitive with the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, who dominated the National League. The Cubs were in the World Series in 1945; but after St. Louis won the Series in 1946, no Midwest team even won the National League pennant until 1957 -- when the former Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee and took both the pennant and series from the hated New York Yankees. Their star was Henry (Hank) Aaron.
My summers were split between afternoon Cub games broadcast by Jack Brickhouse and Cardinal night games broadcast by Harry Caray. What kept the Cubs in contention for my favor was the Custer Park Youth Softball League. Every August, the league would take the winning team plus a dozen all-stars to Wrigley Field to see the Cubbies play. (Since the Cubs were usually mired in the second division by then, it wasn't hard to get a couple-dozen good seats along the foul lines for avid rooters.) What's more, we usually got to see them play the Dodgers or Giants. I'll never forget the afternoon I met Gil Hodges, the Dodgers' big first baseman, who'd sneaked out to the concourse to buy a hot-dog during the seventh inning stretch. (No clubhouse spreads in those days!) He signed my program and shook my hand, and I marveled as my hand disappeared completely in his.
I remember Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo and Duke Snider, too -- but the only Cub players I can remember clearly are outfielders: Andy Pafko, Phil Cavaretta and Sauer. From 1949 to 1952, though, I got to see the Cubs play every August; and so I saw one game in Hank Sauer's biggest year.
In 1952, he tied Pittsburgh slugger Ralph Kiner for the National League home run title with 37 round-trippers. He also topped the league in RBIs with 121. As a result, Sauer became the first player in major league history to be named Most Valuable Player while on a team which finished in the second division. (The Cubs finished fifth among the league's eight teams.) Sauer was also a National League All-Star in 1952 -- as well as 1950.
Sauer had an even better year in 1954 with 41 home runs, 103 RBIs and a .288 average -- but Ted Kluszewski hit 49 homers for the Cincinnati Redlegs (as they were called in the Cold War years); and Sauer never again did so well. Still he had a decent major league career. He hit .266 with 288 home runs and 876 RBIs in 15 years with Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco. He was an original member of the 1958 San Francisco Giants and retired after the 1959 season. He remained as a scout and coach with the Giants until 1993.
That allowed me to see Hank one more time. He came down to Fresno to scout and give hitting tips to the AA affiliate Fresno Giants; and before one of their games, he took his turn at batting practice. He could still wallop the ball, and he hit a few out of the park. He must've been in his 50s by then -- but for a few glorious minutes, he took me back to my boyhood and golden August afternoons at Wrigley Field.
He never made the Hall of Fame; but Hank Sauer is still one of my treasured favorites. RIP, Hank, and I hope they play baseball in Heaven.