The Philadelphia Phillies are among the oldest franchise in Major League Baseball, dating back to 1883. The first six decades of the franchise’s history were marked largely by ups and downs (mostly downs). Although they won the National League pennant in 1915, they mired in futility thereafter, winning only 41.2 percent of their games over the next 33 seasons. That all changed when Eddie Sawyer was brought on as the team’s manager.
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Edwin Milby Sawyer was born in Westerly on September 10, 1910. He was the middle child of Scottish immigrants, Robert Sawyer, a stonecutter, and his wife, Isabel Milby. Edwin, or Eddie, as he came to be known, developed an interest in sports at a young age. When he was 10-years old, as one story goes, he worked as a bat-boy for a visiting semi-pro team that played exhibition games against Westerly teams. It wasn’t until later in life he learned that the team was actually the Red Sox (who did not play on Sundays), playing under assumed names to avoid being discovered.
Eddie started at Westerly High School in 1924, and he graduated with the class of 1928. While in high school, he was a four-sport athlete, playing baseball, football, and basketball and running track. Eddie proved to be quite well-liked, being voted most popular, serving as class president and was named captain of the baseball team. In his senior yearbook, it was said that he was a “shining example of the perfect athlete combined with personality plus.” Westerly won the Rhode Island State baseball championship in 1927, due in large part to Eddie Sawyer’s skilled pitching.
Despite the fact that he was successful both academically and athletically, Eddie did not have the financial resources to attend college. After graduation, he was given a tryout with a team in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but he did not make the team’s roster and returned home to Westerly, where he found work as an assistant caddy master at a local golf course while playing semi-pro baseball for the Westerly Independents.
Three years after graduation, Eddie learned that Ithaca College in New York would extend tuition credit to incoming students allowing them to work their way through college. Knowing this, he applied and was accepted to the school. In order to pay for his tuition, Eddie tended furnaces, swept gyms, and worked as a short-order cook for a fraternity house.
In addition to all of his hard work, he was able to succeed academically, obtaining a bachelor’s degree and membership in the Oracle Society (Ithaca’s version of Phi Beta Kappa) in 1935. While in school, he also pitched and played outfield for the school’s baseball team and was the star halfback of the football team.
During his summer off from college in 1934, he played summer college league baseball in Malone, New York and was eventually signed to play for the Norfolk Tars, the Class B team for the New York Yankees. Upon signing, Eddie was given a $1,000 signing bonus, which he promptly validated by leading the Tars to the Piedmont League pennant while hitting .361 in 102 games.
After graduating from Ithaca, Eddie went on to attend Cornell University, where he earned a master’s degree in biology, all while playing for the Class A Binghamton Triplets of the New York-Penn League. On July 8, 1935, he married his wife, Pauline “Polly” Bassett, a New York girl who had also attended Ithaca.
Their wedding day was not without its troubles, however. The wedding was intentionally scheduled for an open date on the Triplets’ schedule, but just 48 hours before he was to be married, Eddie learned that the League had ordered Binghamton to play a makeup game in Scranton on his wedding day. Showing dedication to his craft, Eddie rushed from his own wedding to Scranton where he played in the game that same night (while his wife was not pleased with this decision, they remained married for 62 years, suggesting he was forgiven).
Eddie Sawyer continued to find success with the Triplets through the 1936 season, and because of this, he was called up to the Oakland Oaks, the Yankees’ Pacific Coast League team. In Oakland, Eddie’s shortcomings as a player, specifically his slow speed and a separated shoulder, diminished his chances of making the major leagues, and after the 1937 season, he decided to give up baseball. He then started teaching physiology and biology at Ithaca College while working towards his PhD.
His love for the game would not let him stay away for long, however. In 1938, he resolved to give baseball one more chance, returning to Binghamton for another season. Before the season began, Eddie told his wife that if he did not hit over .300, he would quit baseball. At the end of the year, his batting average settled at .299, however, he did not give up. Before the 1939 season, the Yankees asked Sawyer to be a player-manager for the Class C Amsterdam (NY) Rugmakers.
He had another stellar season, leading the league with a .369 average while driving in 103 runs. Although the Rugmakers finished in first place, they were eliminated from the playoffs. The following year, Eddie returned to play and manage for the Rugmakers, hitting .329 and leading the team to the league title. In 1941, he was named the player-manager of the Norfolk Tars hitting .277 in 128 games before returning to play and manage the Triplets. He remained in Binghamton until the end of the 1943 season, when he officially retired as a player.
In addition to playing and managing for several different baseball teams, Eddie also coached football at Binghamton North High School and served as the assistant football, baseball and basketball coach at Ithaca College while also serving as Assistant Athletic Director.
Sawyer’s managerial style was often described as ‘laid-back’ and ‘hands-off.’ He rarely held meetings with players, and tried not to complicate the game with intricate signs. He was also known for not showing his frustration on the field, only being ejected from major league games ‘four or five times’ early on in his career. Despite letting his team approach the game in their own way, one of his players once claimed he “gets 20 percent more out of a team than any man I ever saw.”
In 1944, Eddie left the Yankees organization because he did not feel he could move up the managerial chain. He knew a man by the name of Herb Pennock who was about to bring him in to the Red Sox organization when Pennock suddenly left Boston to manage the Phillies organization. Sawyer was brought in for the 1944 season to manage the Phillies’ Class A Utica team. When he took over, the team did not have a nickname, so Sawyer opted to call them the Blue Sox.
Eddie remained with Utica through the 1947 season, winning the regular season pennant in 1945 before dropping to seventh place in 1946. In 1947, the Blue Sox smashed through the league, winning the pennant by ten games and eventually finishing as league champions. Sawyer’s success was rewarded and he was named the manager of the newly acquired Class AAA Toronto Maple Leafs. An even bigger opportunity was fast approaching.
To be continued…