Former GCL president Saffell dies

Tom Saffell was involved in pro baseball for over 60 years

By Minor League Baseball | September 17, 2012 1:13 PM ET

Tom Saffell, who was involved in professional baseball for more than 60 years and served as president of the Rookie® Gulf Coast League from 1980-2009, passed away on Sept. 10 in Sarasota, Fla. He was 91.

"Few people in baseball will amass a longer, a more unique or a more storied career and life than Tom Saffell," Minor League Baseball President Pat O'Conner said. "His military career was impressive and a well-kept secret to many. Tom lived the baseball life as a player, manager and executive at virtually every level of the game.

"More impressive than his career accomplishments was his heart. He was truly a gentle man. Saffell always had a smile on his face and a kind word to say about everyone. He led the Gulf Coast League through generational-type changes with a steady hand. He will be missed as an accomplished baseball man and a friend to all."

According to Bill Ventolo, his longtime GCL assistant, Saffell got pneumonia after having surgery on his left hip, which he broke last month after tripping over a chair in his home.

"He looked like he was recovering," Ventolo said. "The hip operation went great and it was healing, but then he contracted pneumonia."

Saffell began his baseball career in 1941 in the Appalachian League with the Newport Canners and Kingsport Cherokees. After hitting .231 in 23 games, he returned to his native Etowah, Tenn., and worked for a railroad company.

His playing career was then put on hold because of World War II. Saffell flew 61 missions as a fighter pilot with the 405th Fighter Squadron of the 371st Fighter Group from bases in France and Germany in 1944-45.

After World War II, Saffell resumed his career in the South Atlantic and Carolina Leagues in 1946. He went on to play in 17 more seasons, including parts of four years (1949-51, 1955) with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He also appeared in nine games with the Kansas City Athletics in 1955.

Saffell then managed in the Minor Leagues in 1961-62, 1965 and from 1969-72. He piloted the 1961 Grand Forks Chiefs to the best record in the Class C Northern League, appearing in nine games and batting .500. He was named the 1969 Midwest League Manager of the Year for leading the Appleton Foxes to a league best 84-41 record.

Saffell thought his career in baseball was over after managing the Gastonia Pirates in 1972. Eight years later, he became GCL president, not knowing how much, or how little, he would enjoy it.

"But I got this job and I didn't really think I would like it when I first got into it," Saffell recalled in 2010. "But, after I got into it, it just grew on me -- working with these kids and seeing them develop and working with these young umpires and seeing them develop -- it's really satisfying to an old [guy] like me."

Saffell also mentioned two years ago that he never had a written contract to run the GCL during his tenure as president.

"I went to the meetings and didn't know if I was going to be president, or not," he joked.

After a 30-year run as league president, the championship trophy of the GCL was named the Thomas J. Saffell Trophy, in his honor.

"I think it's a wonderful thing, one of the best things that happened to me in baseball," Saffell said.

Saffell was also honored by Minor League Baseball as the 1999 King of Baseball, for his longtime dedication and service to the game, and in 2005 as the Warren Giles Award winner, for outstanding service as a league president.

O'Conner presented Saffell with a Presidential Citation, a special award designed to recognize exemplary service on behalf of Minor League Baseball, at the 2009 Baseball Winter Meetings™.

Not many people were aware of Saffell's condition, which explains why it took several days for word of his passing to reach the baseball world. Funeral arrangements, including a memorial service in Sarasota, are pending.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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