Don Savage was a depression-era New Jersey schoolboy athlete who could have played football for a number of major colleges but chose baseball instead. Unfortunately, he suffered two serious knee injuries during his high school playing days and those injuries would haunt him and eventually shorten his big league career.
The Yankees signed him in 1938 and groomed him mostly as a third baseman. He spent the next four seasons following another future Yankee third sacker named Billy Johnson through New York’s farm system. That ascent suddenly got abruptly stalled during the winter of 1941 when Savage, feeling unusually tired all the time, went to the doctor to find out what was wrong with him. He was diagnosed with diabetes and would spend the rest of his life trying to keep the disease under control.
The one and only advantage of the diagnosis was that it made Savage permanently ineligible for military service. That meant, once he felt well enough to resume his career, the Yankees could count on him being available for the remainder of the war years. He got the OK from his doctors to play for the New Jersey Bears in 1943 and put together a good enough season there to get invited to the Yankees’ 1944 spring training camp. With most of the Yankee veterans and top prospects in military service by then, New York manager Joe McCarthy had plenty of time to pay attention to the team’s new arrivals. He liked Savage enough to bring him north and start him at third base on Opening Day, replacing Johnson who had an outstanding rookie season in 1943 but had then been called into the service.
After getting off to a hot start, Savage’s fragile knees failed him and he began missing games and valuable at bats. The injuries also disrupted his fielding work and before he knew it, he was spending most of his time sitting in the Yankee dugout, watching another Yankee wartime third baseman, Oscar Grimes take his position away.
Savage ended up playing just 71 games during his rookie season and averaging .261. His offensive numbers were decent enough, especially considering his injuries, but it was his mediocre defensive play at the hot corner that eventually caused McCarthy to give up on him.
Savage got to play in 34 games for New York in his second season but after averaging just .224, his big league playing days were over. He ended up working as an elevator mechanic back in his New Jersey hometown and then tragically losing his two-decade battle with diabetes at the age of 42, on Christmas Day in 1961.
The biggest contribution Doug Bird made to the Yankees was surrendering the eighth inning two-run home run to Thurman Munson that enabled New York to win the pivotal third game of the 1978 ALCS against the Royals. Munson’s homer was the only earned run Bird allowed the Yanks in a total of six postseason games he appeared against them between 1976 and ’78. After that series, the Royals traded Bird to Philadelphia where he had an unspectacular 1979 season. When the Phillies released him, the Yankees signed the tall right-handed native of Corona, California and he went 3-0 with a save for the 1980 AL East division winners. He was doing even better in 1981 when New York swung a deal that sent Bird to the Cubs for Rick Reuschel, who had been the ace of Chicago’s rotation for most of the previous decade. Even though Bird was 5-1 at the time of the trade, you had to be impressed with the Yankees’ front office ability to turn a Bird into a Reuschel. As it turned out, Reuschel went 4-4 for New York the rest of that season and then developed arm trouble and missed all of 1982. The snake-bitten Yankees released him in June of 1983. Reuschel would end up rehabbing his arm and become the ace of the Giants staff in the late eighties. In the meantime, Bird was converted back into a starter with the Cubs and after a 9-14 season in 1983 he was traded to Boston and was out of the big leagues one year later. Doug was born in Corona, CA and turns sixty-three-years-old today.
|KCR (6 yrs)||49||36||.576||3.56||292||43||171||3||1||58||714.2||702||315||283||62||188||464||1.245|
|CHC (2 yrs)||13||19||.406||4.70||47||45||1||4||2||0||266.1||302||153||139||31||46||105||1.307|
|NYY (2 yrs)||8||1||.889||2.68||39||5||10||0||0||1||104.0||105||35||31||8||30||45||1.298|
|PHI (1 yr)||2||0||1.000||5.16||32||1||10||1||0||0||61.0||73||35||35||7||16||33||1.459|
|BOS (1 yr)||1||4||.200||6.65||22||6||7||0||0||1||67.2||91||52||50||14||16||33||1.581|
I believe it was my dear departed friend Nick Fusella, who first told me about Elmer Valo. We were probably sitting at our favorite bar drinking draft beer and watching a Yankee game during which one outfielder or another crashed into an outfield wall while trying to make a catch. Some other old-timer sitting at the bar shouted out Pete Reiser’s name, the one-time Brooklyn Dodger phee-nom who made crashing into outfield walls an art form in the early forties. That’s probably when my seventy-something-old-at-the-time buddy Nick “educated” me about Valo. The story stuck with me because of the player’s name, “Elmer Valo.” Its one of those monikers that’s almost impossible for a baseball history buff like myself to forget. Valo was born in Czechoslovakia on today’s date in 1921. Six years later, his family migrated to a town in northeastern Pennsylvania called Palmerton. Elmer got involved in sports and developed into an outstanding high school athlete. He was signed to a minor league contract by the old Philadelphia A’s in 1939 while he was still in high school and only a year later, he played in his first big league game for Philadelphia when he was just ninteen-years-old.
From everything I’ve read about this guy, he was one of the hardest working players in baseball during his era. He didn’t have a lot of natural ability but he could run really fast and had a never-quit work ethic. After returning from military service in 1945, Valo became a fixture in the A’s outfield for the next decade. In the first six of those years, he topped the .300 average mark four times and with efficient applications of his great speed and hustle, became a great defensive outfielder. Unfortunately, he was a star player for one of baseball’s worst teams so pretty much the only people paying attention to Valo’s all-around game was the A’s rather tiny fan base.
The Philadelphia sports pages from back in Valo’s playing days were loaded with written accounts of the outfielder’s great catches and his frequent jarring outfield wall collisions. During one game against the Yankees in 1948, he made three home-run saving catches and on the final one, he knocked himself unconscious when he jumped into the stands managing to hold onto the ball anyway. Simply put, he did not know how to stop trying to make a catch. He’d be running at top speed, knowing he was inches away from hitting immovable brick barriers and just keep on running or leaping toward the baseball he happened to be pursuing at the moment. After colliding with one to many walls, Valo’s baseball skills began declining. After averaging close to .300 during the first half of his big league career, he became a struggling, oft-injured part-time player during the second-half. His last great season was 1954, when the A’s relocated to Kansas City. Valo was healthy enough to appear in 112 games that season and hit .364. By the following May, however the A’s had released him and he returned to Philly to play with the Phillies. He would then play for eight different teams during the next eight seasons including the Yankees for a short eight-game stretch in 1960.
|KCA (15 yrs)||1361||5229||4308||691||1229||196||68||47||491||103||820||222||.285||.403||.395||.798|
|MIN (2 yrs)||109||121||96||6||23||5||0||0||20||0||20||7||.240||.372||.292||.664|
|LAD (2 yrs)||146||304||262||23||69||12||2||5||40||0||37||27||.263||.352||.382||.734|
|PHI (2 yrs)||148||397||334||44||92||15||3||6||45||7||56||27||.275||.384||.392||.776|
|CLE (1 yr)||34||33||24||3||7||0||0||0||5||0||7||0||.292||.424||.292||.716|
|NYY (1 yr)||8||7||5||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||1||.000||.286||.000||.286|