RIP to John Sanders, a long-tenured baseball coach at the University of Nebraska. His major-league baseball career, on the other hand, lasted for a matter of minutes. He died on February 5 after a battle with cancer. He was 76 years old. Sanders played one game in the major leagues, with the Kansas City Athletics in 1965.
John Frank Sanders was born in Grand Island, Neb., on November 20, 1945. He had a lengthy list of athletic accomplishments at Grand Island High School. He was a quarterback on the Islanders football team, a leading scorer on the basketball team and a record-setting discus thrower. As a quarterback in his senior year, Sanders won the 1963 East Big 10 Conference championship by leading Grand Island to a 20-19 win over Fremont. He ran for two touchdowns and threw for another in the game. He was recognized as an All-State football and basketball player by the time he graduated in 1964. He also set the Nebraska state record for the discus throw with 169 feet, 4-1/2 inches.
The one sport where Sanders wasn’t regularly mentioned in Nebraska newspapers was baseball, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a passion for him. He had once been a batboy for a Yankees farm team in the defunct Nebraska State League. “The whole family, dad, brothers, aunts and uncles were involved in baseball and I had been playing the game since I was a little kid in Grand Island,” Sanders later explained.. “When I was offered a pro contract with the Kansas City A’s on my high school graduation night, I made a decision to make baseball my career.”
Sanders impressed Kansas City A’s scout Whitey Herzog, who signed Sanders to a “substantial” bonus contract in June of 1964. Herzog watched Sanders collect 3 hits in 5 at-bats in an 18-2 thrashing of a team from Cody, Wyoming, before signing him. The contract, in addition to the bonus, called for the A’s to pay for eight semesters of college education. Sanders worked out with the A’s for a few days before joining the Wytheville (Va.) A’s of the Rookie-level Appalachian League. He didn’t play much — just 11 games before a broken nose ended his season — but he batted .433 with a home run, 7 RBIs and two stolen bases. During the ’64 offseason, the A’s added the 18-year-old to the 40-man roster.
Sanders played in the Florida Instructional League over the winter and failed to hit .200, though his fielding in the outfield was good. Despite his inexperience, Sanders was added to the A’s 40-man roster. He was part of a very inexperienced crop of rookies on the big-league roster that included outfielder Joe Rudi (20 years old), pitcher Catfish Hunter (19), catcher Rene Lachemann (20), third baseman Skip Lockwood (18) and pitcher Don Buschhorn (19). A’s owner Charlie Finley had gone on a spending spree to land a wealth of young talent, and he had seven rookies on the big-league roster to protect them from the first-year player draft. It didn’t help the big league club, which lost 103 games and finished in tenth place. But it does explain why a 19-year-old outfielder with 11 games of professional experience was on the roster in the first place.
Sanders made his one and only appearance on April 13 against the Detroit Tigers. It was the A’s third game of the season, and they were pounded by the Tigers 11-4. In the bottom of the seventh inning with the score 8-3, Detroit brought in reliever Denny McClain. The first batter, Dick Green, grounded out to shortstop. Wayne Causey was then called in to pinch-hit for A’s pitcher Wes Stock. He reached on a single, and manager Mel McGaha had Sanders enter into the game as a pinch-runner. He never left first base. The next two batters, Bert Campaneris and Mike Hershberger, both flew out, and that ended the inning. Sanders was replaced by pitcher Jim Dickson, and he never got into another game.
Years after the fact, Sanders laughed about a slow runner like him ever being used as a pinch-runner. “I was asleep on the bench, and the manager woke me up to go in,” he joked. Sanders said that when he got to first base, where Norm Cash played, he had a baseball card all ready for him to sign on the field.
Teams at the time started the season with expanded rosters and had to cut them down to 25 players by early May. On May 4, Kansas City claimed 20-year-old pitcher Jim Rittwage off the Cleveland roster. Meanwhile, they lost both Rudi and Sanders, who were claimed by Cleveland and Boston, respectively. The team would eventually get Rudi back, and he would make his major-league debut a few years later.
As for Sanders, the Red Sox assigned him to Wellsville of the Class-A New York-Pennsylvania League. He had a very good season, batting .309 with 9 home runs and 69 runs driven in. He also showed uncommon patience for a teenage ballplayer, drawing 61 walks for a .402 on-base percentage. On the downside, he committed 10 errors in the outfield for a poor .935 fielding percentage. He was removed from the Red Sox 40-man roster when the team claimed former Kansas City pitcher Jose Santiago.
Sanders was then acquired by the Mets, who moved him to Triple-A Jacksonville in 1966. He seemed overwhelmed, batting .140 in 29 games — no mention was made of why he played so little, but it could have been an injury or military service. He hit .185 for Double-A Williamsport in 1967 and then had 1 hit in 4 games for Class-A High Point-Thomasville in 1968. That closed out his professional baseball career.
Sanders used those eight semesters of college education that the A’s owed him and went to Northern Colorado University, where he got a B.A. and an M.A. degree in business. He took a series of teaching and coaching jobs in Colorado, Oregon and Arizona. Sanders was named baseball coach at Arizona Western College in June of 1975; he had been assistant coach and professor of business. In 1976, he was named assistant coach at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The Cornhuskers had a best-ever 29-13 record, and assistant coach Sanders was given much credit for injecting new life into a program that had stagnated. When head coach Tony Sharpe retired after 31 years on the job, Sanders was named as his replacement.
Sanders threw himself into his work. He established a Big Red baseball school and spearheaded fundraising efforts to improve the team’s infield and dugouts. He landed top recruits and initiated fall practices to improve upon his players’ skills. “There’s three things in doing anything successfully,” Sanders explained. “The first is pride in your program. The second is selling out to what you’re doing, and the third is respect for the people you work with. You have to believe what you’re doing is important in order to improve.”
Sanders led the Huskers baseball program from 1978 through 1997, making him the second-longest tenured baseball coach in school history. His teams had 17 winning seasons, including seven seasons of 40+ wins in his first eight seasons. The Huskers reaches the NCAA regional tournament in 1979, 1980 and 1985. He had a record of 767-453-1. By the time he and the school parted ways in 1997, he was the Cornhurkers’ all-time winningest coach. Sanders coached five first-team All-Americans and 13 total All-Americans, according to the school. Thirteen of his players reached the major leagues, including 1995 first-round draft pick Darin Erstad. Other future major-leaguers who played under Sanders include Tim Burke, Bob Sebra, Kevin Jordan, Pete O’Brien and Kip Gross.
After leaving Nebraska, Sanders served as a manager in for the Red Sox in the Gulf Coast League from 1999 through 2002, with a 122-111 record. He also served as a scout for the Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. Sanders was inducted into the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame in 2002
For more information: Omaha World-Herald