In 1952, Sauer became the first player from a second-division team (fifth place or lower) to win an MVP Award. That season, playing for the Chicago Cubs, Sauer led the NL with 37 homers and 121 RBI, and at the age of 35 he was the oldest man to win an MVP up to that point.
Sauer is an excellent example of a player who didn’t get a chance to play in the big leagues because of the reserve clause rules of his era. With just 16 teams in the major leagues, prospects like Sauer could be signed by a team and spend years in their minor league system without a chance to earn one of the precious spots on a roster in the majors. In Sauer’s case he was signed at the age of 20 in 1937 by the New York Yankees. The Yankees, rich with talent, especially in the outfield, held his rights for three years until he was snatched by the Cincinnati Reds in the minor league draft. But once he was property of the Reds, Sauer was bound to them for years as they yo-yoed him between their farm clubs and a few brief trials in the majors. Then, World War II broke out, and Sauer enlisted in the Coast Guard where he served two years.
When he returned after the end of the war in Europe in 1945, the Reds placed Sauer on their big league club for the remainder of the season, but in 1946 and 1947 they assigned him to their top farm team in Syracuse. Despite being one of the best hitters in that league for two years (he belted 50 homers in 1947), Sauer was still stuck in the Cincinnati organization. He had been under their control for seven seasons and eight years total. But yet he had only seen action in 47 games in the majors during that stretch and was now nearing 31 years of age. In ’48 the Reds finally promoted hom to Cincinnati for a full season and Sauer excelled – hitting 35 homers and slugging .504 – his homer total was fourth in the league. The big right-handed slugger was one of the best power hitters in the league, obviously.
He got off to a slow start in 1949 and what did the Reds do? They dealt him to the Cubs in a four-player deal that turned out to be one of the worst in their history. Sauer, known as “The Honker” because of his large nose, went on to hit 242 home runs after being jettisoned by the Reds, 198 of them for the Cubs. He was an effective player into his 40s, and one can only imagine what his numbers may have been like had a major league team recognized his talent when he was in his early 20s or had there been more big league teams with more openings. He may have hit more than 400 homers (Sauer hit 150 longballs in the minor leagues).
Confusion with Hank Bauer
Nearly a decade after the end of World War II, the U.S. Congress was holding hearings to investigate charges that some athletes had received special treatment during the war years. It was called “coddling” and it was not just about baseball players, there were football players, boxers, etc. who were named. The hearings were not targeting the players, but rather were designed to determine if the policies of the U.S. military sanctioned coddling of athletes. Unfortunately, some of the names that were included in an initial report were leaked to the press (imagine that), and Hank Bauer’s was included. Bauer was a highly decorated Marine in WWII, having earned 11 campaign ribbons, two purple hearts, and two bronze stars. He was also a star right fielder for the New York Yankees, so when his name was mentioned, the Yankees demanded an explanation. It quickly became clear that someone mentioned Hank Sauer and an aide mistakenly thought it was Hank Bauer. The strange thing is that Sauer never received any special treatment either – he was in the U.S. Coast Guard for two years during the war and served admirably. The hearings were a brief news item and then – as with most of these things – they faded from the headlines.