Without Folklore, Baseball Fans Only Have A Sauer Taste

Posted: April 12, 1993

He was very tall and lanky and spit tobacco juice. A real pro baseball player. And he could swing the bat. Every season, his average was up over .300.

But he was a career bush leaguer. Big as he was, most of his hits were singles and doubles. And a painfully slow outfielder must slam home runs to make it to the bigs.

He had been there for a few games. It was called a cup of coffee. Just enough to savor the taste.

But it was back to the minors, the bus rides with the kids, the has-beens, and the never-will-bes.

Now he was less than two seasons from his 30th birthday. With his craggy face, he looked older. Ten seasons had passed since he signed as a minor league pro. Likely, he'd close his career in the bushes.

Good enough to be paid for his efforts, but still a baseball failure.

Then one day, as the season was starting, it happened.

A grizzled old coach took him aside and said something like: "Hey, big fella, I want you to try something."

"Try what?" the big outfielder said.

"This," said the grizzled old coach, handing him a baseball bat.

The big outfielder wrapped his huge hands around the handle and, with a grunt, made a practice swing or two.

He shook his head in doubt. "That's a lot of lumber."

The grizzled old coach nodded. "Sure is. Forty-four ounces. Big as they make 'em."

"Don't know if I can swing something that heavy," the big outfielder said. "Feels like a railroad tie."

"Give it a try," the grizzled old coach said.

The outfielder took the big bat to batting practice. He grunted, swung, and the ball disappeared far over the fence.

"Now try it in a game," said the old coach.

He did, and slugged a homer. He knew he was on to something. By autumn, he was hailed as the home run king of the minor leagues.

The next year, he was in The Show, as it was called. But it was his last chance. He had a lot to prove, many years to make up. Little time to do it.

Swinging the awesome weapon, he proved it. Pitchers came to dread him as he walloped 35 homers.

He made an "Aw, shucks" speech at the post-season banquet when he was the oldest player to be named Rookie of the Year.

OK, it's a corny story. The kind of story that used to be collected in pulp-paper sports books that sold for 50 cents.

It's folklore. And you don't find much sports folklore anymore.

Maybe that's why baseball is said to be in trouble. Too many stories about salary, agents, arbitration, negotiation, expansion and other fiscal grief.

Except that my story of the aging rookie is true. Well, maybe 90 percent of it.But if you're a gray-haired Cubs fan, you probably know who the big outfielder was.

Sure, Hank Sauer. The Mayor of Wrigley Field.

The incredible rookie year was spent with the Cincinnati Reds. But when Sauer had a slow start the next year, the Reds dumped him on the Cubs.

And it was as a Cub that banana-nosed Hank slugged about 200 homers in the next seven years.

But those are mere numbers and dead cheers. More important, Sauer brought folklore to the game.

When Hank Sauer came to the Cubs, there were things we knew and things we didn't.

We knew the story of the frustrating years in the bush leagues, and the old coach who put the heavy bat in his hands. We knew about the chaw in his jaw, and that he had trouble hitting the knuckleball or a cute changeup. We knew he was slow and weak-armed, but so what? We knew he was a good guy.

That's what 15-year-olds talked about.

What we didn't know was how much he was paid, whether he was happy with his agent, if he was going to opt for binding arbitration, or if he wanted a multiyear contract with or without incentives.

That's what we didn't know or care about.

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