Roy “Tex” Sanner: The Houma Houdini

 

ONE OF THE bloodless casualties of World War II was organized baseball. In 1941, the last summer before Pearl Harbor, there were 43 leagues, from the two major leagues all the way down to Class E, operating throughout the United States and Canada. That meant approximately 6,200 players on 302 teams were vying for one of the 400 roster spots in the major leagues. In other words, approximately only 1 out of every 16 players had a chance at becoming a big leaguer in 1941.

However, once the United States got into the fight, the thirst for manpower severely depleted the major and minor leagues. The situation was so dire that by opening day, 1943, there were just 10 minor leagues in operation. With almost all able-bodied men of professional baseball age taken into the service, this left just about 1,800 players fighting for those same 400 major league roster spots. Translation is that opposed to 1941 when only 1 out of every 16 players had a chance of playing in the majors, in 1943 1 out of 5 players could find themselves in the big leagues. Factor in the constant pull of the draft and the changing of some men’s draft exemptions as the need for more and more soldiers became clear, a player’s odds became even better. That’s how players like the one-armed Pete Gray and 15 year-old Joe Nuxhall got their taste of the big leagues.

That’s not to say all the players who were called up to play during the war were substandard. Hall of Famers such as Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, and Warren Spahn made their debuts during the war, along with hundreds of others who would go on to have great careers long after the fighting stopped. The point I’m trying to make here is that if a player was fundamentally sound and had so far avoided being drafted or the urge to volunteer, the chances were better than any other point in history that he could realize his dream of becoming a big leaguer.

One of those players was Roy Sanner.

A strapping 6-foot, reddish-blond haired farm boy from southwest Arkansas, Roy Sanner began his baseball career in 1941 when he and his wife Willie Irene traveled to Topeka to visit relatives. By chance, the Topeka Owls were holding tryouts, and the 20 year-old Sanner, who had pitched for local Arkansas recreational teams when he wasn’t farming, impressed the Owls enough to be given a contract. After a couple games with Topeka, the Owls farmed him out to the Cheyanne Indians, where the rookie southpaw went 10-5 while hitting .279.

Not bad at all for a first year pro, but that record became even more impressive when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor before the year was out. And while every able bodied male was either entering the services or taking war-related jobs, Roy Sanner received a medical exemption because of an enlarged heart.

In 1942, Sanner won 20 games to lead the Western Association in wins and strikeouts. On August 10, he no-hit the Joplin Miners, striking out 8 and allowing just two men to reach base, one on a walk and the other on an error. He also hit a fresh .303 along with 17 doubles. This double-barreled showing led to the Brooklyn Dodgers purchasing Sanner’s contract and inviting him to their 1943 spring training camp.

Because of the wartime travel restrictions, the Dodgers trained at the Bear Mountain Inn, five miles north of West Point in New York’s Hudson River Valley. Among the hundreds of hopefuls shivering in the frigid early spring workouts was the highly touted Roy Sanner.

The New York Area newspapers made much of Sanner’s league leading 20 wins and strikeout crown. Though Brooklyn had won the pennant in 1941 and finished two games back in 1942, the club was mostly aging veterans and in dire need of young talent, especially on the mound. Most of the promising arms in their pre-war minor league system were in the service, so this lack of any serious competition opened a path for Roy Sanner that looked like it could lead straight to Ebbets Field – only it didn’t.

The reasons why are varied and many. One major obstacle was that the Dodgers manager, Leo Durocher, preferred veteran ballplayers. With a few exceptions such as Pee Wee Reese and later Willie Mays, Durocher had no time for naïve rookies, especially ones from the rural parts of the country and not used to big city ways. According to countless testimonies of his former players and teammates, Durocher was a bully and a loudmouth who wasn’t afraid of publicly belittling players he didn’t care for. When Roy Sanner reportedly showed up to spring training wearing coveralls and carrying his belongings in a paper bag, Durocher took an immediate dislike to the Arkansas farm boy.

At the same time, the Dodgers beat writers took one look at Roy Sanner and knew they had the material for countless colorful stories – or hit pieces – depending on where you were from. For instance, a syndicated wire story by Hugh Fullerton, Jr. had Sanner being taken to New York City’s Radio City Music Hall by a teammate. When asked, “What do you think of this place?” Sanner was said to have replied, “Sure would hold a lot of hay.” The same tale would be retold by Dodgers officials with the locale changed to the Empire State Building. Another Sanner vignette in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle has him refusing to accompany his teammates on the subway, telling them, “Not me,” says Sanner, a ridge runner from the Arkansas Ozarks. “I’m skeered of these things. Those trains run underground.”

The 1993 edition of the baseball journal Nine had an excellent piece on Roy Sanner by Paul Leslie. In researching his article, Leslie talked with Dodgers executive Emil “Buzzy” Bavasi, who related several Sanner tales such as his arriving to the Dodgers camp without socks or underwear and donning the aforementioned coveralls. Bavasi related how Sanner was reluctant to visit Manhattan, remarking, “I ain’t a-goin down to that city. Not me.” When Bavasi asked why, Sanner said, “No room to walk. Them sidewalks is so crowded somebody will run right into me.” Bavasi also repeats the subway story, only this time he is the one accompanying Sanner, and the story includes him shouting, “Lemme out! Lemme out! How can we live down here with all of that water pressin’ down on us?”

It’s hard to tell how many or how much of these stories are true. Besides Bavasi, Leo Durocher himself includes several digs on Sanner in his 1948 book, The Dodgers and Me. Both Bavasi and Durocher were big city swells who knew their way around Manhattan nightlife and cocktail parties, so their perception of a rural farm boy like Sanner would be pre-colored by their urban prejudices of the south. This wasn’t the first time big league management or city slicker sportswriters painted a player with the rube paintbrush. Heck, star players like Dizzy Dean and Pepper Martin embraced the “hick” labels thrust upon them by sportswriters and made it their public persona. However, unlike Dean and Martin, it looks like Sanner didn’t take the ribbing too kindly, especially from Durocher. According to several stories, this eventually came to a head when the two got into a fistfight.

Sanner’s son, Roy, Jr., had this to say to Kevin Czerwinski for his MLB.com article “The Houma Houdini”: “I don’t really know what happened. Dad didn’t talk about it a whole lot. It was a big mystery. But he got into it with someone and that basically destroyed his career. Dad would tell tales from time to time, and he told me he got into a fistfight with Durocher and that’s what basically ended his career.”
Truth be told, in most lines of business, taking a swing at your boss would be a job-ender. But this was baseball, and Leo Durocher was on the receiving end of many knuckle sandwiches in his tumultuous 35 years in the big leagues. So, while the fistfight and being high up on Durocher’s shitlist may have had some bearing on Sanner not making the Brooklyn Dodgers, there’s a bit more to the story.

Remember those loveable hicks Dizzy Dean and Pepper Martin? Well, both of those guys had several successful seasons in the high minors before arriving in the majors. Roy Sanner had barely two years of pro ball under his belt, all spent at the bottom two rungs of organized ball. The sudden switch in the level of talent he was facing was sure to cause problems, no matter how good he was.

In the two spring training games I found, Sanner was clearly outclassed. On March 28, Sanner pitched for the Dodgers top farm club, the Montreal Royals, and faced the regular Brooklyn lineup. Sanner gave up four runs in the first inning, and future Hall of Famer Joe Medwick tagged him for a home run a double before he was pulled after the third inning. On April 2, he was lent to the West Point Military Academy team and pitched four innings against the Brooklyn regulars. This time the Dodgers scored 9 runs on 10 hits before he was taken out in the fourth inning.

The pressure of jumping from the bush leagues to the big leagues would be too much for all but the most exceptional players. Besides his enlarged heart, Roy Sanner had a second physical ailment that would hinder his performance periodically: migraine headaches. These debilitating headaches would appear without warning despite his taking medication for them. Sanner’s migraines were more well-known later in his career, but it can be presumed that he suffered from them at least as far back as 1943.

Then, on top of all that, Sanner left training camp the second week of April for his home in Arkansas when his wife Willie Irene became ill. When you throw in the syndicated hick stories and a disagreeable manager, it’s no wonder why Roy Sanner had a rough spring training in 1943. It was soon announced that Sanner would be joining the New Orleans Pelicans for the ’43 season. Leo Durocher and his Dodgers would finish in third place, a dismal 23 1/2 games out of first.

ROY SANNER spent the next two years bouncing between the Dodgers top two farm teams in New Orleans and Montreal. A 1948 story in the Baton Rouge State Times Advocate claims the New York Giants had offered New Orleans $10,000 for his contract, but when Sanner developed arm trouble the Giants backed out of the deal. He won 15 games and hit .310 for New Orleans in 1945, but the Dodgers gave up on him once the war ended, deciding to concentrate on the thousands of servicemen looking to restart their careers. In normal times, this would have been the end of the road for Roy Sanner – but like 1942, this was not normal times.

In just the first season after the war ended, 1946, the minor leagues jumped from 14 leagues to 45. With the rapid expansion came the need for more ballplayers, which enabled Sanner to hold a job, albeit at a lower level. While his pitching arm healed, Sanner found an outfielder job with the Anderson A’s, a New York Giants affiliate in the Class B Tri-State League. The next year Sanner slipped to the Class D Houma Indians in the Evangeline League, the very bottom of the minor leagues.

THE EVANGELINE LEAGUE was coming off a scandal-ridden season that saw several star players from the Houma Indians banned from baseball for throwing three playoff games. It was hoped that the acquisition of a veteran like Roy Sanner would make up for the banned players and restore some respectability to the ballclub.

Sanner joined the last place Indians at the end of May. Bringing his sore arm along slowly, he pitched in just 9 games for Houma, winning seven and keeping his ERA to a nice 2.65. He played 82 games as an outfielder, batting .292 with 17 homers to help the club finish in 5th place.

Houma brought Roy Sanner back for 1948 and augmented the pitching staff with a trio of talented youngsters who would combine to win 43 games. But it would be Sanner who would be the ultimate star of the ’48 season.

In today’s game, it is impossible to relate to the season Roy Sanner had in 1948. On the mound, Sanner won 21 games while losing just 2. His ERA was 2.58 in a league of heavy hitters who averaged 6 runs per game. He completed 22 out of the 23 games he pitched and averaged almost 11 strikeouts a game. And he did all this while suffering from his periodic migraine headaches that would sideline him for days at a time.

Sanner’s pitching dominance was due to his having much more experience than the bulk of the players in the Evangeline League. At 27, Sanner had been pitching professionally for seven years, three of them at the top levels of the minors. Over the years he had developed an extensive repertoire of pitches that most minor leaguers were unaccustomed to facing. At a time where most low level minor leaguer pitchers had a fastball and a curve, Sanner had those plus a changeup, knuckleball, and a secret spitball. He was also experienced enough to know how to mix them up and keep a batter off balance.

As great as he was on the mound, Sanner was as good or better as an outfielder. He batted .386, hit 34 home runs and batted in 126 runs, all league leading numbers which landed him the Triple Crown. He also led the league in doubles and total bases and had a 31-game hitting streak to boot. To combat Sanner, who was now called the “Houma Houdini” by the press, rival managers tried applying a defensive shift similar to the one that had recently been tried in the majors to stop Ted Williams. Sanner quickly adjusted and began hitting the ball to the opposite field to neutralize the shift.

The amazing thing about Roy Sanner’s 1948 season is that it might have been even better had he not left the team at the end of August. What happened was Sanner’s magnificent season had made headlines throughout the country. Several teams in the Texas League were interested in buying his contract and, in August, the Dallas Rebels won out, paying a league record $10,000. Sanner demanded $3,000 of the price to which a compromise of $2,000 was reportedly reached. However, Sanner’s request for it to be put in writing was continually ignored by the Houma executives, and on August 29, he returned to Arkansas.

His departure likely cost him the league’s pitching Triple Crown to go with the batting one he already owned. When the season ended, Sanner came in second in wins (22 to his 21), second in ERA (2.37 to his 2.58), and second in strikeouts (259 to his 251). Had he finished the season, this would likely have gone down as the most dominant overall season ever recorded in organized baseball. But because of the Houma front office shenanigans, we’ll never know for sure.

THAT NO OTHER teams higher than the Class AA Texas League were interested in a player as dominant as Roy Sanner speaks to the talent in baseball in 1948. Five other minor leaguers won their league’s batting Triple Crown that summer, and according to Kevin Czerwinski’s MLB.com article, four had even better numbers than Sanner. There was also his age; Roy Sanner was 28 in the summer of 1948, while the average age for a minor leaguer in that period was a youthful 23-24. Then there were the headaches. Migraines were even more a mystery in the 1940s than they are today, and that, together with the enlarged heart that kept him out of the service, worked against him being a more serious prospect for the majors. And beneath all of that there was the fistfight with Leo Durocher – the last thing any team wants is a player who isn’t afraid of taking a swing at the manager.

ROY SANNER remained in the minors through 1957, never rising above Class AA. He had one last great season in 1952 when he hit .368 with 45 homers for Texarkana in the Big State League. Because some of the leagues in which he played did not record their complete statistics, it’s impossible to say exactly what Sanner’s final tallies were, but in his 17 seasons it’s safe to say he batted in the .320s and won about 137 games.

Kevin Czerwinski writes in his MLB.com story that Sanner returned to Arkansas and attended a trade school to become what his son Roy, Jr. called, “a gentleman plumber.”

COULD ROY SANNER have made the majors? Perhaps with another year or two of experience in the high minors he would have gained the skills to crack the Dodgers rotation. With the Dodgers finishing second in 1946, 1950, and 1951, it is interesting to think what difference an extra arm in the rotation would have meant in the standings. But we’ll never know, will we?

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TEX?

Most modern mentions of Roy Sanner refer to him as “Tex Sanner” or “Roy ‘Tex’ Sanner.” A quick look at Sanner’s bio shows that he was born in Nebraska before his family moved to Arkinda, Arkansas when he was 11 and continued to live in Arkansas at least through 1949. So why the nickname “Tex?”

I really have no clue. I was able to find that he had been called “Tex” in newspapers as early as 1941. However, during his time with the Dodgers in 1943 and his magical season in Houma in 1948, he was simply “Roy Sanner.” In fact, Sanner never even played for a Texas-based team until the very end of 1948 when he joined the Dallas Rebels. However, every team he appeared for until his retirement in 1957 was a Texas-based club. Because the bulk of my story deals with the years 1941 to 1948, I decided not to use the “Tex” nickname in my story.

But that doesn’t answer the question why he was called “Tex” as early as 1941. The only guess I can offer would be proximity approximation – Arkinda, Arkansas is about 10 miles from the Texas border. Perhaps much like people from Camden, NJ might tell people unfamiliar with east coast geography that they are from Philadelphia because it is the nearest well known location, maybe Sanner did the same, saying he was from Texas instead of nearby Arkina, Arkansas?

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Thanks to Booklet Series subscriber William J. for suggesting a story on Roy Sanner. Enough can’t be said about Paul Leslie’s article “Roy Sanner and His 1948 Season of Seasons in the Spring, 1993 Nine: A Journal off Baseball History and Social Policy Perspectives. Special thanks to Rich P. for being kind enough to make me a copy of the article to work from. Finally, a big dziękuję to my cousin Chris Zolcinski for the late-night mathematics assist.

 

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This week’s story is Number 50 in a series of collectible booklets.

 

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 4 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 042 and will be active through December of 2022. Booklets 1-41 can be purchased as a group, too.

One thought on “Roy “Tex” Sanner: The Houma Houdini

  1. Another gem, Gary! Your work brings both smiles and serious
    reflection every time. Roy Sanner was unknown to me,
    but now he has a permanent spot in my imaginary Cooperstown….

    Many thanks for your craft and art,
    Ben Jones

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