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Enter Ashburn and Roberts, A Pair Of Big Pieces
The year began with a tragic irony. Phillies’ General Manager, Herb Pennock, the man who, over the four years beginning in 1944 when he took the job, had been so feverishly wheeling and dealing, trying to build a winning ball club in Philadelphia, died on January 30th of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 54; less than a month later he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, honoring his pitching prowess earlier in the century with the Philadelphia A’s, the Boston Red Sox, and the New York Yankees.
Twenty one year-old Whitey Ashburn was manager Ben Chapman’s centerfielder from the start of the 1948 season; 22 year-old righthanded pitcher, Robin Roberts joined the parade on June 18, making the 20 mile trip upriver from Wilmington where he was 9-1 in the Interstate League. The arrivable of these two was not greeted with any undue hullabaloo, because there was no indication of how good they would be. However, when the season ended there was little doubt that Ashburn, at least, had greatness written all over him; he batted .333, second to Stan Musial’s league-leading .376, and stole a league-high 32 bases (it was also a career high). Roberts’ rookie year was more subdued – 7-9, ERA 3.19. On June 18, Roberts pitched well, but lost his major league debut to Pittsburgh’s Elmer Riddle, 2-0. Five days later he got his first major league win, a complete game 3-2 win over Cincinnati before 13, 501 fans at Shibe Park.
But here, in the middle of the season, following a seven game road losing streak, Ben Chapman was fired as Phillies manager, and after a 6-6 interlude under coach Dusty Cooke, was replaced by Eddie Sawyer. In 1939, Sawyer had been a player-manager for the New York Yankees’ Class C Amsterdam Rugmakers, in the Canadian-American league where he hit .369 with 103 RBI. In 1944 he joined the Phillies organization as manager of the Utica Blue Sox in the class A Eastern League. Phillies president Bob Carpenter liked him, it seems, in no small part because Sawyer was an educated man, with a Phi Beta Kappa key from Utica College and a Masters Degree from Cornell. It’s interesting to muse whether Herb Pennock would have hired such a man, and one can only wonder what dark thoughts Ben Chapman harbored about this man.
On the same day Sawyer took over the Phillies, odd managerial changes were completed in New York: Leo Durocher was out as Dodger manager, but in as Giants’ manager. Old Philly friend, Burt Shotton, took over the Dodgers.
In any case, Eddie Sawyer’s introduction to major league managing must have left him shaking his head in despair – he went 23-40, and suffered through a 10-game road losing streak in August. The Phillies finished in 6th place with a 66-88 record, 25 ½ games behind the winning Boston Braves.
Eddie Sawyer would have to wait ‘til next year. He would have all winter to figure it out. Eddie was a quick study, the day after the season ended on October 3 with a Curt Simmons win just as the year before, Sawyer began to deal; he pulled off three before Christmas that brought important pieces to the 1949 team:
October 4 - traded Harry “Harry the Hat”Walker to the Cubs for slugging outfielder Bill “Swish” Nicholson.
October 11 - the Phillies paid $20,000 to the Cubs for righthanded pitcher Russ Meyer.
December 14 – traded Monk Dubiel and Dutch Leonard to the Cubs for righthanded pitcher Hank Borowy and firstbaseman Eddie Waitkus.
These deals accomplished two things: (1) they made the Phillies better (3rd in 1949), and (2) they made the Cubs worse (dead last in 1949). Sawyer was getting the hang of it.