Grave Story: Fred Sanford (1919-2011)

Here lies Fred Sanford, who was an early victim of the New York sports media and the pressure placed on Yankees players. Sanford pitched for the St. Louis Browns (1943, 1947-48, 1951), New York Yankees (1949-51) and Washington Senators (1951).

John Frederick Sanford was born in Garfield, Utah on August 9, 1919. Described in an early newspaper article as a “broad-shouldered, shy, blond-thatched” pitcher, he pitched for Salt Lake City’s West High School baseball team and once struck out 21 batters in an American Legion game in 1937. After the briefest of tryouts in 1938 with the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League (as in, 1/3 of an inning), he joined the Youngstown Browns, a Class-C team in 1939. He won 14 games for Youngstown in 1940 and had a 10-14 record and 2.84 ERA with the San Antonio Missions in 1941. After a good season with Toledo in 1942, Sanford was called up to the majors by the Browns in 1943. He pitched out of the bullpen for 3 games in May, ending with a 1.93 ERA over 9-1/3 innings before being sent back to Toledo for seasoning.

World War II interrupted Sanford’s baseball career, and he spent 1944 and 1945 overseas in the U.S. Army as part of the 41st Division. The 41st fought in the Pacific Islands and occupied the Philippines after clearing out the Japanese military. Pfc. Sanford conducted Sunday morning baseball school for Filipino children while stationed there.

Sanford returned from the War and rejoined the baseball in 1946, pitching for the Toledo Mud Hens. He was an All-Star and ended with a 15-10 record, though the Mud Hens themselves were a last-place team. The Browns brought him back to the majors, and he responded by throwing shutouts in his first two starts. Sanford blanked the Yankees on 5 hits on September 15 and then the White Sox in 4 hits on the 22nd. The Sox got their revenge by knocking him out in the 4th inning on Sept. 27, but he still ended the season with a 2-1 record, a 2.05 ERA and a bright future with the Browns as a major-leaguer.

Well, “bright future” was a relative term with the Browns. They were awful, and anyone who pitched for them was pretty much guaranteed a losing record no matter how good they were. Sanford, for example, went 7-16 with a 3.71 ERA in 34 games and 23 starts in 1947. He also led the team with 4 saves.

There was also the incident where he turned a foul ground ball into a triple. Jake Jones of the Red Sox hit a little dribbler off Sanford on July 27. As the ball rolled foul, Sanford flung his glove at the ball, bumping it. There was an American League rule in the books at the time that a batter would be awarded a triple if any foul ball that might roll fair is interfered with by a player throwing something at it. Thus, Jones ended up with a 60-foot triple. Had the same thing occurred in a National League game, it would have been just a foul ball.

Source: Indianapolis News, July 17, 1946

Sanford was a league leader in 1948 with the Browns. Unfortunately, it was in the losses category. He went 12-21, and he not only led the AL with 21 losses, but he also placed in the Top 5 in earned runs allowed, hits allowed and home runs allowed. Still, there was something about Sanford that appealed to the Yankees, as they acquired him and catcher Roy Partee in December, 1948, exchange for catcher Sherm Lollar, pitchers Red Embree and Dick Star and $100,000 in cash. The cash was the key part for the Browns, as they were perpetually broke. Sanford was the key for the Yankees. With a good curveball and a fastball as fast as Bob Feller’s, the thought was that Sanford was a good pitcher in need of a good team and would blossom with the Yankees.

What actually happened was that Sanford was a swingman, occasionally starting but mostly working out of the bullpen. He would have months where he was a reliever and months where he was a starter. He got into 29 games in 1949, with 11 starts. He had a 7-3 record but a 3.87 ERA and 1.647 WHIP. He allowed 100 hits in 95-1/3 innings and walked (57) more batters than he struck out (51). Matters didn’t improve in 1950, when he started 12 games and relieved 12 games, walking 79 batters in 112-2/3 innings. In both seasons, the Yankees won the pennant and went on to win the World Series. Sanford never made the postseason roster.

So he didn’t end up becoming a mainstay of the starting rotation like the Yankees hoped. But at least the New York media went easy on him.

Just kidding. They called him the “$100,000 lemon,” in reference to the amount of cash that the Yanks sent the Browns in the trade. New York Herald-Tribune columnist Ed Sinclair had this to say about Sanford’s pitching performance in a 1949 7-3 loss to the White Sox: “…Fred Sanford failed with a flourish in his seventh start… Sanford’s performance was about as sloppy as they come… The lowly White Sox solved Sanford’s not-so-mysterious stuff for 13 hits and five runs… hardly big league pitching at its best.”

Bear in mind, the criticism started even before Sanford throw a pitch in a regular-season game. He was ripped in the papers for a poor showing in Spring Training, 1949. It wasn’t from a lack of effort. Sanford, who was a big man, worked in the offseason to drop his weight from 215 pounds to 198 pounds. He worked with pitching coach Jim Turner to fine-tune his control. The fact that the Yanks spent so much to acquire Sanford put the focus on him, and he was rattled.

“I can’t even make an appearance without somebody throwing that price tag up on me,” he complained in April. “What am I supposed to do, throw a no-hitter every time out? I noticed one of the writers refer to me at ‘the $100,000 bust’ the other day. That’s great for my self-confidence, isn’t it?”

His first start of the 1949 season came on April 23 against the Red Sox, and he was knocked out in the fourth inning, having allowed 7 runs (2 earned).

“My arm wasn’t bothering me too much, but I was terribly nervous and high strung that day,” he told the St. Louis Star and Times. “I was too anxious to win that first one, for when a fellow realizes his club has paid $100,000 for him, he feels like they’re counting on him to win.”

Sanford feared that his weight loss sapped his pitching strength and noted that when he was a Brown, he used to tote an iron ball around the day after a start to put his arm muscles back into place. He searched for it when the Yankees made a road trip to St. Louis, but the Browns trainer conveniently couldn’t find the iron ball to help out an enemy pitcher.

Sanford quit reading newspapers entirely, and the criticism dimmed down when his pitching improved in 1950. By then, he seems to have lost the confidence of manager Casey Stengel, who started him only against teams like the Chicago White Sox who might be interested in trading for the pitcher.

“Funny thing about Sanford is that sometimes he looks like a world beater and other times he just looks like a thrower,” Stengel mused in 1950.

Sanford’s control problems reached their peak in 1951. He pitched in 11 games for the Yankees and walked 25 in 26-2/3 innings. He pitched his final game for the Yankees on June 12 against the Browns – a 5-1 loss – and sat in the locker room after the game, pointing to Stengel’s office. “They’re cookin’ it up now,” he said about a trade, adding that the White Sox had supposedly offered $25,000 for him and had been turned down. “They don’t want me but they won’t give me to anybody else for $25,000.”

Three days later, he was sent to the Washington Senators, who put him right into the starting rotation without hesitation. He went 2-3 for the Senators with a 6.57 ERA and was traded again, back to St. Louis, for Dick Starr, one of the players in the deal that sent him to the Yankees in the first place.

He completely imploded with the Browns for the rest of the season. He won 2 games and lost 4 but had an astronomical 10.21 ERA and a WHIP of 2.195. For the year with the three teams, he went 4-10 with a 6.82 ERA. The Browns shipped him to the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League after the season was over. He pitched decently well for the Beavers over the next two seasons, even winning 17 games in 1952, but a sore arm caused him to call it a career after 1953.

For his 7 seasons in the majors, Sanford had a 37-55 record and 4.45 ERA. He appeared in 164 games and had 26 complete games, 3 shutouts and 6 saves. He walked 391 batters and fanned 265. He had a fair .170 batting average as a hitter and hit his only career home run off of the Indians’ Bob Lemon on July 9, 1948.

According to his SABR biography, Sanford worked as a deputy sheriff and criminal investigator after baseball and also as a production control specialist for Hercules Powder Co., which made explosives for the military.

Fred Sanford was inducted into the Hall of Honor, held in conjunction with the amateur Utah Summer Games, in 1992. The Hall was meant to honor athletes, coaches and others in the sporting world that represent the ideals of the Utah Summer Games. He died on March 15, 2011, at the age of 91. He is buried in Salt Lake City Cemetery in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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