Obituary: “Salty” Saltwell (1924-2020)

RIP to Eldred “Salty” Saltwell, a 50-year veteran of professional baseball and a 30-year veteran of the Chicago Cubs, including a year as the team’s general manager. He died on May 3 at the age of 96. That one season as the Cubs general manager in 1976 is pretty infamous in Cubs lore, but there have been a number of exaggerations and outright falsehoods that just don’t match up to history.

Eldred Ray Saltwell was born on April 14, 1924, in Sioux City, Iowa. He attended East High School and Morningside College there. His higher education was interrupted by a three-year stint in the U.S. Army, much of it spent in the European and Pacific Theaters. He received his degree from Morningside in 1949, after he’d returned stateside. While he was attending the school, he also spent three years as the sports publicity director. He helped start the school’s sports public relations department, in fact. He never was involved in any athletics as a player, though.

“I was too busy making money at various jobs from publicity man to making travel arrangements,” he explained.

Saltwell also was involved heavily in the early years of the Sioux City Soos, a minor-league team that started up when the Class-A Western League was revived in 1947. During their first year, he was in charge of the stadium’s ushers. In 1948, he did telegraphic play-by-play descriptions for transmission to home radio stations of the visiting teams, reported the Sioux City Journal. In 1949, he was in charge of the players’ clubhouse and was the team trainer. In February of 1950, he joined the team in an official capacity as the assistant to the team’s general manager, Mike Murphy.

“We’re very happy to have Salty as a member of the Soos’ family,” Murphy said. “His interest in the organization and his experience in various athletic fields make him the perfect man for the job.”

Saltwell, whose special assistant title basically gave him the dual roles of business manager and office manager, took the position of executive secretary of the Western League in December, 1953. The League’s president, Ed Johnson, was a U.S. Senator representing Colorado, so when he was called to Washington to deal with the Joe McCarthy hearings, Saltwell was the de facto man in charge.

The Cubs kept Saltwell moving during his early years with the Cubs. Source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram, November 7, 1957.

Two momentous events happened to Saltwell in 1955. He married Betty Cairy, another Morningside graduate, on Valentine’s Day. They had two children and were married until her death on January 10, 2019. Saltwell also joined the Chicago Cubs organization when he was named president of the Des Moines Bruins, the Western League affiliate of the big-league club. He held the position for a year and was then sent to Los Angeles to get further executive grooming. He worked as the concessions manager for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League in 1956 and was named president of the Fort Worth Cats in 1957. He retained the title of Cats president, even though he spent most of 1958 in Chicago, working in the Cubs front office. He relinquished ties to the Cats the following year, as his duties with the Cubs became his full-time work.

Saltwell was the assistant secretary and treasurer of the Cubs, and he also ran the concessions at Wrigley Field. Running a restaurant with a 30,000+ capacity is no easy job. For the Cubs’ Opening Day game against the Phillies on April 17, there were 36,000 hot dogs, 10,000 hamburgers and other sandwiches, 21,000 ice cream products, 14,000 bags of peanuts, 5,000 bags of popcorn and more than 100,000 cartons of hot and cold beverages, ready to be sold by vendors. Plus, springtime in Chicago could mean that vendors could sell beer in the first inning and coffee in the seventh.

“We keep pretty close tabs on the weather. Heating up water for coffee can be time consuming, and it’s bad business to keep the customers waiting,” Saltwell said.

Saltwell, right, with Des Moines Demons manager Lou Klein. Source: Des Moines Register, January 27, 2013.

Eventually, his title was vice president of park operations, which meant he oversaw everything from concessions, souvenir sales and even handling complains from Wrigleyville neighbors that the park’s organ music was too loud.

In October of 1975, Cubs owner Phillip K. Wrigley shocked the baseball world when he named Saltwell, 51, as the team’s new general manager. He was the first person in the organization to hold the title of GM since 1949, when Jim Gallagher resigned to become business manager. He wasn’t looking for the job, and he admitted to be surprised when it was offered to him. But Saltwell was ready for the new role.

“I consider myself a baseball man,” he said. “I’ve been in it since I graduated from college in 1949. I made trades on the minor-league level as general manager for several clubs. I’ve negotiated contracts.”

The announcement ran in newspapers on October 1, 1975. That same day, Chicago Tribune sports columnist Robert Markus started his column with the lede, “So now the Cubs have a hot dog vendor as their general manager.” The headline of the column was “Saltwell lacks baseball savvy.” Both the headline and the lede were off-base, but the impression stuck. Markus himself admitted Saltwell probably did a good job as operations manager. “I’ve heard nothing to the contrary. In fact I’ve never heard anything about Saltwell good or bad. The only one in the Cubs organization who ever knew he was around, apparently, was Phil Wrigley.”

That was the crux of the problem. The Cubs were owned by someone who didn’t seem to know or care how to make the Cubs a winner, but Wrigley was a private person in poor health, and he hardly ever visited Wrigley Field. So Saltwell became the focus of that ire.

His first trade, made less than a month into his tenure, sent Don Kessinger to the Cardinals for reliever Mike Garman. Kessinger was the last key part of the 1969 Cubs team, but he was at the end of his productive years. Garman lasted just a season with the Cubs and was flipped to the Dodgers for Bill Buckner and Ivan DeJesus. That deal was definitely a “win” for the Cubs, even if it was an unpopular move at the time.

But Saltwell was stuck. The major league team had a bare handful of talent and not much in the minor leagues, so he couldn’t pull off any destiny-altering trades or sign any big free agents. He had to work with the hand he was dealt, for the most part. When asked about trying to land a player like pitcher Andy Messersmith,” Saltwell replied, “I think that Ray Burris, Bill Bonham and Rick Reuschel have the potential to go in that direction. Burris took a big step last season in winning 15… You know we investigated the Messersmith possibilities, but did not enter the bidding.”

Messersmith, one of the earliest big-name free agents, signed with the Atlanta Braves and won 11 games in 1976. It was his last good season. Reuschel and Burris both won more games with the Cubs, so maybe Saltwell had a little more baseball savvy than he was given credit.

Not that it was a perfect run. When contacted by the Mets that Tom Seaver was available, Saltwell said, “We’re more interested in a lefthander. We’ll discuss it among our people. If there’s any interest, we’ll get back to them.”

Some of Saltwell’s moves had questionable results. He traded Andre Thornton to Montreal for Larry Biittner and Steve Renko. Both players played decently for the Cubs, but Thornton became an All-Star DH for Cleveland. He shipped pitcher Milt Wilcox to Detroit for cash, and Wilcox turned from an ineffective reliever to a solid starter with the Tigers. He let Steve Stone get away as a free agent, and Stone later became a Cy Young winner with the Orioles — though few people in 1976 could have predicted that turn of events. He did add rookie pitcher Bruce Sutter to the major-league roster, and the future Hall of Famer saved his first 10 MLB games that year.

The Cubs draft in 1976 didn’t go well, either. The team picked pitcher Herman Segelke, who pitched in 3 games in the majors, in the First Round. They passed on Mike Scioscia and Bruce Hurst, who went later in the round.

The most exciting thing that happened under Saltwell’s watch occurred in Dodger Stadium on April 26, when Rick Monday snatched away a flag that two anti-war protesters were going to burn on the field. Not only was Monday one of the team’s few offensive heroes, along with Bill Madlock, but he also became an American hero.

“That incident just goes to further prove what a class guy Monday is,” Saltwell commented. “I’m going to see that the commissioner’s office gets a report on what he did.”

The Cubs finished 1976 with a 75-87 record, putting them in fourth place in the AL East. It was an identical record to the 1975 team, and it ultimately cost manager Jim Marshall and Saltwell their positions. Marshall was fired, and Saltwell was reassigned to overseeing the Cubs’ business affairs. He was replaced by Bob Kennedy, a veteran baseball man with loads of savvy. Kennedy was the guy who traded Madlock to San Francisco after he’d won two straight batting titles. That trade is frequently attributed to Saltwell, but he was long out of player management by then.

Overall, the stigma of Saltwell’s year as a general manager has been blown out of proportion, and he is frequently slammed for a trade he never made. The reality is that the Cubs were stuck in a malaise that started from the top, with a dying and disinterested owner in P.K. Wrigley, and it impacted the entire organization. Saltwell had a few mistakes in his run as GM, but he was mostly guilty of being an easy target. He was, after all, “a hot dog vendor.”

Saltwell continued to work as the vice president of administration and retained his position in the front office when the Cubs were sold to the Tribune Co. He stayed behind the scenes, but he remained an important part of the operations. He was the vice president of the Cubs Care Foundation, the team’s charity arm, and he was one of the National League executives who helped determine MLB schedules. He was named the Cubs Executive of the Year in 1987 and was honored as a Distinguished Alumni of Morningside College in 1989. By then, he had eased into semi-retirement, as a consultant for the Cubs.

For all his years with the Cubs, Saltwell watched relatively few games. He admitted that his family were bigger baseball fans than he was. “I’ve probably held 12 to 15 different positions [with the Cubs],” he said in a 1989 interview, “and they’ve all been on the business side. When you’re in the business end of baseball, you’re not paid to watch ballgames. I’m in the ballpark every day, but you can’t go out and watch nine innings of baseball and get your work done. So about the only games I see are the ones I watch on television.”

For more information: Chicago Sun-Times

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