For those of you who enjoy this sort of thing, I was perusing the Historical Baseball Abstract, the 2001 revised edition, and came across this passage, quoted (but not referenced in the text) in Bill’s appraisal of Hank Sauer, the 60th-best left fielder of all time as of 2001:
The reason I got the MVP that year over Robin Roberts is because I hurt him. I think I got two homeruns off of him that broke up one game he was shutting us out. I hit a homerun to beat him 1-0. Then I beat him another game, a couple of games like that I think that’s what did it.—Hank Sauer, Our Chicago Cubs
Now I have no idea what Our Chicago Cubs is, or was, or was supposed to be, but since Bill didn’t comment on the quotation, I assume he included it (on page 691, if you’re scoring at home) because he found it interesting or worth our while to read or something. I am here to tell you that if you read the passage quoted above, and believed a syllable of it, you (and probably Bill) got hoodwinked bad.
Most baseball memoirs, as I’ve demonstrated over the years in my tracer articles, are infused with a whiff of general unreliability and not a little out-and-out bullshit, but this may be the most egregious example I have found yet, and that’s saying something. I find it not only egregious, but triply so, in that it got reproduced in the Historical Abstract, which I took as the final word in reliability. Had it stayed buried in Our Chicago Cubs, whatever that was, it would have passed unnoticed for this past half-century or more, but Bill’s quoting it has probably put more eyes on it than Hank Sauer ever dreamt possible.
The context of the passage concerns Sauer’s only MVP award, in 1952, which he did win narrowly over Robin Roberts—so there’s no ambiguity at all which MVP award Sauer is referencing here. I decided to check out the games Sauer refers to, mostly because it’s easy enough to do, but also because the atrocious grammar of the passage alerted me to something fishy. Note how Sauer repeats “I think” –first in the (incomplete) sentence “I think I got two homeruns off of him that broke up one game he was shutting us out” and again in the final (fused) sentence “Then I beat him another game, a couple of games like that I think that’s what did it.” He thinks he hit a home run? He doesn’t know? He isn’t sure? That’s the sort of thing (I think) that one remembers.
And how many games is Sauer describing here? Two games in which he beat Roberts single-handed? One game? Four games? I decided to look it up.
It should not astonish you that Hank Sauer Did. Not. Get. A. Single. Base. Hit. Off. Roberts. In. 1952.
Not a one.
Roberts, en route to a career high 28 wins that year, pitched only four games against Sauer’s Cubs at all. Four games facing one opponent is a very low figure for a guy with 37 starts, the fewest of any of Roberts’ opponents in the league that year, so it simplified my search. Actually, my search could have ended with my verifying the games Roberts pitched against the Cubs that year, because it shows not only that he pitched the fewest games, and the fewest innings, facing the Cubs but that no Cub hit a single home run off Roberts all year long.
This itself is fairly amazing, since Roberts was famous for surrendering home runs, as Wrigley Field was for encouraging them to be hit, and since Sauer himself hit 37 HRs that years. (Roberts held the all-time career record for giving up HRs from 1957 through 2010, when Jamie Moyer took the lead. Roberts now stands second on that all-time list.)
But no. No Cub touched Roberts for a homer in 1952, and when I looked at the four games individually, I found that Sauer had 11 at bats against Roberts, and zero hits. 0-for-11. Schneidered. Shut down. And shut out. And shut up.
Lifetime, BTW, Sauer did not hit Roberts well, either. His career BA facing Roberts was .198 in 116 at-bats (an OBP of .256, which happened to be Roberts’ lifetime BA-against.) There was one peculiarity in Sauer’s 1952 line facing Roberts –it didn’t make a lot of sense to me that the one tiny kernel of truth in Sauer’s recollection is that he did knock in a run against Roberts that year, and it did make the score 1-0 at the time. Mind you, it was in the first inning of the June 12th game https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/CHN/CHN195206120.shtml , which the Cubs won 3-1 (after the Phillies tied it up 1-1, so it wasn’t even the game-winning RBI) and it drove in a runner on third base with a flyball to the outfield. Here’s the partial line of that at-bat (sorry about formatting screwups--Authory doesn't support bbref's formatting very well) :
Flyball: RF (Deep RF); Addis Scores; Hermanski to 2B/Adv on throw to Hm
Sauer is credited with an RBI, and as you can see in the first column he is also debited with making an out, so it should get scored as a Sacrifice Fly, right? Right? Or am I crazy?
Don’t answer that. I was puzzled, because no Sac Flies were listed for that game, nor for Roberts’ season total for 1952, which seemed even more peculiar.
Turns out that no batter hit a Sac Fly in 1952 because they weren’t part of the official record until 1954.
Also turns out, then, that I had wrongly credited Sauer with only 11 fruitless at-bats against Roberts that season when in truth he deserved 12. Now, 0-for-12 isn’t a single-season record for futility, I’m sure, but it’s far from dominating a pitcher to the point it caused MVP voters to switch their votes from “Roberts” to “Sauer.”
The MVP race in 1952 was very close, by the way. It looks as if a single first-place vote switching between Sauer and Roberts would have made Roberts the MVP, which WAR says he should have been anyway. Roberts led the NL with 8.6 WAR while Sauer stood in 9th place with 5.4 WAR.
In sum, Sauer’s assessment of the MVP voting in 1952 is almost entirely, 100% screwed up from beginning to end, which makes me marvel at Bill’s quoting of it in the Historical Abstract. I’m almost tempted to credit Bill for running the quote as a sort of tracer-challenge, except for the absence of commentary on it. As it stands, it’s a non sequitur: Bill neither leads into it nor follows up on it, leaving it to us to be entertained by Sauer’s insight into how he got to be the 1952 NL MVP.
As usual for these things, the teller of the tall tale not only gets his facts wrong, but gets them wrong in a way that aggrandizes his own performance. If you expand just a bit on Sauer’s boasting of his ownership of Roberts, he is in effect stating that he alone was responsible for keeping Roberts from a 30-victory year. It sounds as if he’s taking credit for keeping Roberts from winning at least two more games than he did win, which would have added up to 30 wins.
The weird thing about Roberts’ 1952 28-win season, I found out by running this tracer, was that there never was much tension over his getting to 30 wins, because he had an unimpressive 7-5 W-L record as of June 19th, going 21-2 from there on in to get to 28 wins, and he had to win his final 8 starts in the seasons last 30 games to get to 28. In other words, there never was a reasonable pathway to 30 wins for Roberts in 1952; he would have had to win games at an inhuman rate, which it happened he did do, just to get to 28 wins. I contrast Roberts’ season with some others I can recall—McLain’s 31-win year in 1968, and Vida Blue’s 24-win year in 1971, when Blue won his 16th game in Oakland’s 70th game of the year—and there was a rooting interest in their reaching 30 wins almost all season long. (McLain, in contrast to Blue, didn’t win his 16th game in 1968 until nearly two weeks after Blue, in his season’s 82nd game, but he had a much stronger finish to his year.) If you could somehow combine Blue’s record through June 20th (14-2) with Roberts’ finishing kick from that date on (19-2) you’d reach the practical limit of victories in the modern era, which McLain nearly achieved.
One final note: the 2001 revised Historical Abstract has had its 20th anniversary, making quite clear that the rankings in it have changed drastically. Sauer’s ranking as the 60th- best left fielder of all time may have fallen completely out of the top 100 by now, for all I know. There were left fielders in mid-career in 2001 who didn’t make Bill’s top-100 ranking, such as Manny Ramirez, who started that year’s All-Star Game having played less than 90 games of his Red Sox career to that point. And of course there were players still in high school in 2001 who have finished their MLB careers by now, such as Ryan Braun, who dwarfs Sauer in almost every category among left fielders. Without counting very carefully, there must be 40 post-2001 left fielders who have climbed into the top 100—just thinking back randomly over the relatively undistinguished lot who’ve played left field for the Mets alone over the past twenty seasons, I come up with Jeromy Burnitz, Cliff Floyd, Jason Bey, Michael Cuddyer, Yoenis Cespedes and maybe a few others I’m forgetting, most of whom would crack the top-100 LF listing for sure.