It was about this time of year 60 years ago, wintry days and nights in Chicago. I was 12 years old, in late 1952, and living with my parents in a second-floor apartment on Springfield Avenue on the West Side. I recall lying in bed reading a sports magazine before turning off the lights and going to sleep. But my sleep would be made fitful that night by something I had been reading. There, in the story on the Cubs’ slugging left-fielder Hank Sauer, also called the Mayor of Wrigley Field because he was so popular, was an item about the mysterious disappearance of his baseball glove.
I don’t have that magazine any more, and don’t remember which one it was, but a line in it is indelible in my memory. It said that Sauer was now very careful in attending to his gloves because one that he had, and had broken in with, I presumed, tender loving care, was gone. He last remembered coming in from shagging balls in the outfield to take batting practice one late July morning that year, and tossing his glove onto the dugout bench, selecting a bat and repairing to the batting cage. That was the last he ever saw of that glove.
I don’t know if detectives were put on the case, or cops were scouring neighborhoods in the hunt for the mitt. But a chill had gone down my spine. I knew the story—one of the few who did—and Hank Sauer didn’t. I had turned off the lights and stared at the dark bedroom ceiling, consumed with guilt, aware of how it had caused Sauer bewilderment as well as an unsettling sense of loss. And, in a boy’s imagination, I also pictured myself looking out from behind steel bars in prison.
From that time, and on into my adulthood, I had wanted to confide to Hank Sauer how his glove had just happened to vanish. And then one dramatic day, 37 years after the larceny had occurred, I did.
I was reminded of this tale of guilt and criminality on a Friday in late August 2001 when I learned that Sauer had died at 84, having suffered a heart attack on the first hole of a golf course in Burlingame, Calif., near San Francisco.
There was a moment of silence held before the Cubs-Cardinals game in Chicago the following day, a Saturday, and well there should have been. Sauer was the first player to be named Most Valuable Player while on a team that finished in the second division—his Cubs finished fifth of eight teams.
That was, yes, 1952. Sauer was co-leader in the major leagues with 37 homers and led the majors with 121 runs batted in. He had a fine 15-year major league career with four teams, but his best years were with the Cubs, with whom he played for seven seasons. He was so beloved in Chicago that fans in the left-field bleachers, to show their appreciation for his exploits, would throw packets of chewing tobacco to him, and he would happily stuff them into his back pocket, when he wasn’t stuffing the contents into his cheek.
Sauer was a large man—6-foot-3, 200 pounds—with a long, rugged, lined face but not an unkindly one; in another life he might have been a longshoreman who stood up to the management thugs.
And that was the face—it was unmistakable even after all these years—that I saw on Tuesday evening, Oct. 17, 1989, in Candlestick Park, at around 5:30. It was shortly after the earthquake hit the Bay Area, and the third game of the San Francisco Giants-Oakland A’s World Series had been postponed.
The crowd of some 60,000 was streaming out of the ballpark. As I was heading for an exit, here came Sauer from the opposite direction. He even wore a name-tag on his white sweater, since he was then a scout for the Giants. He was with a small party, which turned out to be his wife and daughter and son-in-law.
Now, I had been a professional sportswriter for 24 years at that point, and had never once crossed paths with him, though I had kept an eye out for him. I decided, earthquake or no earthquake, this was, finally, my chance.
”Mr. Sauer,” I said.
He stopped. ”Yes,” he replied, with a quizzical smile. Maybe he thought I wanted his autograph, even while a portion of Northern California was collapsing. I introduced myself and then said, ”Mr. Sauer, I’ve got something I’d like to say to you. In private, if you don’t mind.” He looked at me strangely, excused himself from his family and moved over a few feet to a railing.
”It’s something that happened in Chicago in 1952,” I said.
” ’52—that was my M.V.P. year,” he said.
”I know.” Then I told him how two kids from the West Side—one 14, the other 12—had sneaked into Wrigley Field through a vendors entrance early that day and made their way into the dugout. There were no ushers, since the gates had not opened. Sauer came in from shagging balls in the outfield, tossed his glove on the dugout bench and, hardly noticing the two kids sitting there—maybe they were sons of someone in management, or kids of one of the new players—went for batting practice.
The 12-year-old took the glove and tried it on, pounding the pocket, thrilled to be inside a major leaguer’s mitt. He handed it to his friend to check out. His friend took the glove, quickly slipped it under his sweater: ”Let’s get out of here!” He leaped up and ran up the steep ramp leading from the dugout under the stands.
”You crazy?” shouted the younger boy. ”That’s Hank Sauer’s glove! Come back!” The older kid was flying, and then so did the younger boy.
The older boy was not a bad kid—he grew up to be a solid citizen—but temptation had got the best of him. Hank Sauer listened intently. ”I… I was the 12-year-old boy,” I confessed. Sauer reached out and placed his large hands around my throat.
”You stole my glove,” he said, his eyes narrowing.
”No, Hank, I didn’t steal it—and I won’t say who did—I just wanted you to know that.”
Then he withdrew his hands, and broke into a smile. ”Thanks for telling me,” he said. ”I had always wondered. And I’m happy you got it off your chest.”
Everyone I’ve ever spoken to about Sauer has said he was a gentleman, besides being a good ballplayer and a good scout. And the glove? My friend who snatched it—and I still am reluctant to name him, a kind of West Side omerta—told me years later that he played with it until the stuffing came out. He never seemed to be anywhere near as guilt-ridden as I was. “Sauer could afford other gloves—I couldn’t,” he had told me. As for me, I was glad that I told Hank Sauer the story when I did, for I never saw him again.