The best player to ever wear the #29 in Reds history was more than just a hero on the ballfield; he was a hero off it as well.
Henry John Sauer had a less than endearing nickname, “The Honker,” during his playing days that lasted from the beginning of the 1940s, up until the conclusion of the 50s. The New York Yankees signed Sauer at the young age of 20 in 1937, but understandably, many of their starting positions were hard to crack into.
Fast forward to 1941, and Sauer was just poking his head into the big leagues. This, of course, was with the Cincinnati Reds. He had yet to find any kind of consistency to his game, and with his country enthralled in the Second World War; Sauer put his baseball life on hold, and traded in his bat for a rifle.
After completing his military service, Sauer seemed to come back a different man, as many do after serving in a war. Sauer clobbered 21 home runs and drove in 90 runs at Triple-A Syracuse, which was the Reds affiliate at the time. The ice was just beginning to break.
Long before baseball players were pumping up their biceps to make themselves look like Greek Gods, there were men who could still clobber a baseball a long ways without the needles and bench press. What happened in 1947 with Hank Sauer at Triple-A Syracuse, is the thing of mere legend. (Of course, the legend is not wrong. It really did happen. Use baseball-reference.com, or fangraphs.com, both sites have a backing of these statistics, and are frequently used when we have statistical questions.)
In the history of Major League Baseball, only four separate players have ever had the kind of season that Sauer did, albeit Sauer’s was of course at the AAA level. The names on the list are not surprising: Babe Ruth (three times), Jimmie Foxx (twice), Hack Wilson and Mickey Mantle. The criteria for this list is as follows: 50 home runs, .330 batting average, .400 on-base percentage and a .600 slugging percentage. In 1947, Hank Sauer produced this jaw-dropping statistical line:
.336/.428/.668 – 1.096 OPS – 50 Home Runs – 141 RBI’s – 76 Walks: 75 Strikeouts
Not only was Sauer clobbering the dust off the ball, he was not swinging and praying for the longball. He had 182 hits that season, including 28 doubles, (and a triple) which gave him 103 singles.
The most shocking and egregious aspect of the whole scenario, is the fact that it actually occurred. Minor League baseball is vastly different from that of pro ball; if a player is tearing the cover off the ball, he is promoted up to the Major League club, thus, throwing a snag into the statistics. Therefore, while many will be quick to discount Sauer’s achievements that season, it is the simple fact that it even occurred that is impressive. The Cincinnati Reds never managed to call him up to the Majors, and they did not trade him. He spent the entirety of his year at Syracuse, and absolutely destroyed the baseball. Much like Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak of 61 games as a member of the San Francisco Seals, so many people are quick to take away the achievements due to the circumstances. Sauer may not have appeared in the show in 1947, but the damage he did down in the Minors, was soon to be unleashed on the National League.
He wasted no time bludgeoning pitchers, as he cracked 35 home runs in his “rookie” season at age 31. Interestingly enough, he led the league in strikeouts, even though he did only strike out 85 times. In today’s age, if a batter strikes out 85 times, they’re considered to be a player who does a good job of putting the bat on the ball. To quantify, no player on the Reds that saw significant time this year struck out less than Sauer. Brandon Phillips led the way with just 98 whiffs, but drew only 39 walks in comparison to Sauer’s 60.
After having Sauer for such an extended period of time, the club began to realize that at the start of the 1949 season, Sauer may be slipping past his prime. In fact, they shipped him off to the Chicago Cubs after 152 at-bats that only produced four home runs. In a testament to his body’s will and longevity, Sauer went to the Cubs and became a household name. He is revered in Cubs land as a tremendous ballplayer, and yet, even a better person. He mashed 198 home runs for Chicago over his seven years, even narrowly beating out Robin Roberts for the 1952 National League MVP Award.
While his tenure in Cincinnati was marred with youth and inexperience, it is powerful, in many ways, to see the player Sauer became. He served his country before he really had ever proved anything to anyone in baseball. There was no fallback plan if he happened to be injured during the war, as the money was not yet sufficient; and even if it had been, he would have been yet to earn any.
Sauer finished out his playing days with various clubs, such as the St. Louis Cardinals (1956), New York Giants (1957) and San Francisco Giants (1958-59). His career numbers truly do tell his story: 288 Home runs, only 1,278 total hits, 714 strikeouts: 561 walks, and maybe most telling, only 11 stolen bases.
The other candidates for the selection of the best to wear the #29 were admittedly slim, but the runner-up would have to be Bret Boone. Boone certainly never tore the cover off the ball while in Cincinnati, but he did go on to have a more than average career out in Seattle, regardless of his alleged involvement in the “Steroid Era” of the game. Ryan Hanigan donned the number for the past six seasons and certainly will be missed, as he was always known as a fan-favorite.
Selecting Hank Sauer became a treat, because it allows us to look back at a career that many may not be familiar with, and admire the quirky nuisances of a game that so many try to justify. Baseball is a game that has, and always will, consume its audience like a spreading amoeba, but men that play the game like Sauer, will always be there to remind us that it is just a game.
Hank Sauer passed away on August 24, 2001, in Burlingame, California.