Carl Sawatski thrilled Nashville baseball fans in 1949 and 1950 with his long home runs while catching for the Vols. His nickname was "Swats" more on a play on his name than his prowess at the plate.
Sawatski was in Shickshinny, Pa., on November 4, 1927, but later made Little Rock his home. He began his professional career in the PONY League with Bradford (1945). Playing in the outfield, Sawatski led the league in home runs (13) and RBIs (111) while batting .295. In 1946 he split playing time in Schenectady (Canada/American) and Bloomingdale (North Atlantic League).
The following year, Sawatski was back in Bloomingdale where he played in outfield and behind the plate. He led the North Atlantic League in home runs (34) and drove in 139 runs. Sawatski also batted .352 the second highest average in his career. In 1948, Sawatski was in Des Moines (Western) leading the league in home runs (29) before being called up to the major leagues with the Cubs. He made two pinch hit appearances failing to reach base.
The Chicago Cubs, parent club of the Nashville Vols (Southern Association) sent Sawatski to Nashville where he was now a full-time catcher. In 1949, Sawatski was a Southern Association terror. While the Vols won the Southern Association's pennant, Sawatski hit a career high .360. His batting average was second to teammate Bob Borkowski (.376).
Sawatski recorded 45 homers and 153 RBIs for top honors in the league. Only two players at that time had hit more home runs or drove in as many runs in the history of the SA. The left-hander also collected five grand slams for a new league mark. He began the 1950 season in Chicago, but was sent back down to the Vols in mid-season. In Nashville, Sawatski batted .308 in 80 games clubbing 24 home runs and 73 RBIs. Appearing in 38 games for the Cubs, he batted .175 (18-for-101), one homer run and seven runs batted in.
While property of the Cubs, Sawaski was in the army for during 1951-52. Upon his return to baseball in 1953, Sawatski returned to Wrigley Field playing in 43 games and batted .220 (13-for-59) with a single home run and five RBIs. In December 1953, Sawatski was placed on waivers and picked up by the cross-town White Sox. No National League team could find a place for Sawatski.
The White Sox general manager, Frank Lane, gave this explanation on his roster addition of Sawatski: "We need a left-handed hitting catcher and how else could we hire one this cheap?" When pressed for a better response Lane added, "To find out why he was the pennant answer to the Cubs." (Lane was referring to a remark made three years earlier by the Cubs general manager Wid Matthews who said then, "I could tell you better when we could win a pennant if Sawatski had not gone into the service").
Now playing in the American League, Sawatski appeared in 43 games for the White Sox batted .183 (20-for-109) with one homer and 12 runs batted in. Sawatski was sent down to the minors the next two years. In 1955, he was in Minneapolis (American Association) where he put up good numbers as a full-time player hitting .268, 27 home runs and 72 RBIs.
Sawatski was in Toronto (International League) in 1956 batting .280, 22 home runs and 63 runs driven in. He bounced back to the National League in 1957 this time with the Milwaukee Braves. A newspaper article reported on the Braves roster addition: "The Braves purchase of Carl Sawatski from Toronto last fall brought many a snicker from those who remembered the roly poly guy who used to pinch hit occasionally for the Chicago Cubs.
"But the Sawatski seeking a catching job with the Braves this spring bears amazing little resemblance to the pudgy Cub of four years ago. He is so slim that several veteran Braves failed to recognize him when he reported for spring training last week. With Sawatski's new figure has come new hope for success in the major leagues something that alluded him in five previous trials with the Cubs and Chicago White Sox. He weighs around 210 pounds now still a fair sum for a man 5 feet 11 inches tall but nothing compared to the 230 or more in 1953."
Said Sawatski at the time, "When I went up to the Cubs in 1950 I had had only one full year as a catcher. I used to be an outfielder. Well, I wasn't ready and they sent me back to Nashville in mid-season. Then I went into the army for two years and we didn't even have a team. When I came out I sat on the bench for two years, with the Cubs in 1953 and the White Sox in 1954. I feel now that I have polished my catching to a point where I can make the grade in the majors."
Sawatski stayed on the bench to close out his career with Milwaukee (1957 through part of 1958); Philadelphia (part of 1958 through 1959) and St. Louis (1960-63). He played in the 1957 World Series failing in two pinch at-bats to record a hit in the Braves series win over the Yankees. Known as a "chunky" catcher in his career this story is from his final year as a Cardinal:
"Trainer Bob Bauman had the smelling salts ready in the Cardinals dugout in case any of the Redbirds passed out, April 17. Could it be true? Had squat Carl Sawatski actually stolen a base? Yes, the Swisher had come through with the most famous theft since the Brinks robbery. And fellow slowpoke Smokey Burgess will have to do a lot of explaining as a result of Sawatski's first stolen base since he came up to the majors 11 years ago.
"The theft was most appropriate because it came in the middle of American Comedy Week. Was it a delayed steal? "No, that's just the way I run all the time," cracked the Redbird receiver. "I guess they figured Tom Sturdivant was going to throw another knuckleball with two strikes on the batter and Burgess might have trouble handling the ball."
"Sawatski who had been to the plate more than 1, 000 times in the majors, slid into second under the throw from Burgess. It was a case of going from the sublime to the ridiculous, for the inning before, Sawatski had helped the Cardinals to a 7 to 0 lead over the Pirates with a tremendous home run. The ball sailed over the pavilion roof in deep right center and bounced off Grand Avenue before hitting a parked car across the street. "I never hit a ball harder anywhere," said Swish.
Sawatski would later become the general manager of the Arkansas Travelers and President of the Texas League. His major league numbers include: 633 games; .242 average; 1,449 at bats; 58 HR; 213 RBIs. He died in 1991 in Little Rock at age 64.
Traughber's Tidbit: Steve Balboni (1980) and Brian Dayette (1982) hold the Sounds record for most home runs in a single season with 34.
Tidbit Two: Clay Christiansen (1982) and Stefan Wever (1982) hold the Sounds record for most victories in a single season.
Tidbit Three: Skeeter Barnes (1979, 1988-90) and Don Mattingly (1981) are the only Sounds to have retired jersey numbers. Barnes wore No. 00 and Mattingly wore No. 18.
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email [email protected]. Be sure to pick up a 2010 Sounds program for a feature story on Nashville's championships teams from the 1895 Seraphs to the 2005 Sounds.