Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Meet the Brewers #32: Ken Sanders

With the placement of two pitchers on the DL and Marvin Milkes's incessant chopping and changing of the roster, additional bodies were needed in Milwaukee at the end of May in 1970. Thus, a reliever with a checkered history in major league baseball received the call up to the major leagues -- Ken Sanders. Sanders's first game in Milwaukee came on May 30, 1970

The Brewers had raced out to a five-run lead in the first-inning of the game -- thanks in large part to a hit by Brewer #30, Roberto inside-the-park grand slam home run (a play on which Al Kaline almost choked on his own tongue and died on the field) -- but starter Lew Krausse faltered and gave up 6 runs and the lead. Thus, in the fifth inning, the call to the bullpen for Sanders came. He pitched okay -- giving up one run in 2-2/3 innings -- and the Brewers came back to win the game after that.

1971 Topps/O-Pee-Chee
Kenneth George Sanders was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 8, 1941. He grew up there but signed with the Kansas City Athletics pretty much right after high school in 1960. The A's sent him to the Florida State League and, as an 18-year-old, the A's had him pitch 240-2/3 innings. That year, he lead the FSL in wins (19), innings pitched (by only 9 2/3 innings), and complete games with an incredible 22. Imagine if those numbers got put up now by an 18-year-old kid at any level.

Sanders was not a big man -- standing 5'11" tall and weighing 180 pounds in his heyday with Milwaukee -- and, as a result, he was not a fireballer or ever threatened to lead the league in strikeouts. Indeed, the 22 complete games he threw in the Florida State League represented 44% of all of his career complete games -- all in the minor leagues. He never again threw more than 166 innings in a single season after that, and he never completed more than 8 games in any particular season.
1971 O-Pee-Chee back
Still, Sanders fought his way to the major leagues by 1964. Oddly, between 1960 and his making the major leagues in 1964, he spent only 7 games in Triple-A...and that was in 1962. He didn't stick in the majors in '64, though. In 1964, he spent most of the season in Double-A in Birmingham, Alabama. That team was noteworthy as well -- as being the first integrated sports team in state history thanks to the inclusion of pitcher John "Blue Moon" Odom and outfielder Tommie Reynolds on the team. A book called Southern League was written about the team; oddly enough, Sanders appears to have missed the team photo (probably by being in the majors at the time).

He went back to the minors -- this time to Triple-A -- before being drafted away from the A's by the Red Sox in the Rule 5 draft before the 1966 season. He pitched okay in 24 games in Boston -- 3.61 FIP/3.80 ERA (about league average) in 47-1/3 innings -- before the A's apparently thought, "you know what, we need Sanders back." So, they traded future Seattle Pilot Jim Gosger, pitcher Guido Grilli, and Sanders to the A's for Rollie Sheldon, John Wyatt, and Jose Tartabull. While this was pretty much a trade of spare parts, Tartabull did play 115 games for the Miracle Sox of '67. On the other hand, Sanders pitched the rest of 1966 in Kansas City -- finishing 6th in appearances with 62 -- before spending '67 in the minors.

Dell Today's 1971 Milwaukee Brewers Stamp
Sanders pitched a little bit in 1968 for the A's -- now in Oakland -- but he spent most of 1968 and 1969 at Triple-A. He finally got the break he needed when the still-Seattle Pilots traded for him with Mike Hershberger, Lew Krausse, and Phil Roof in exchange for Ron Clark and Jaybarkerfan favorite Don Mincher. His pitching earned him the nickname in Milwaukee -- perhaps from Bob Uecker -- of "Bulldog" and rightfully so. Brewers manager Dave Bristol stuck Sanders in the bullpen and kept letting him pitch. 

And boy, did Sanders pitch well in 1970. He finished 30 of the 50 games he pitched, throwing 92-1/3 innings. He became the Brewers closer before teams seemed to care about that title. Relying more on pitch movement and location, he still managed to strikeout 6.2 batters per 9 innings while walking only 2.4 and giving up just 1 homer all season.

1972 Topps
By 1971, though, Sanders had become a bona fide stud. He led the American League by appearing in 83 games that season. He threw 136-1/3 innings in relief -- probably burning him out, but what did Milwaukee care, right? -- and had a sparking 1.91 ERA (thought that was a bit of a mirage, since his FIP was 2.97). He also paced the American League in Jerome Holtzman's pet statistic, saves, totaling 31 of them.

Of those 83 games in which he pitched, he finished an incredible 77 of them. That total was, at the time, a major league record by a ways -- by 10 games over the previous record held by Dick Radatz in 1964. It is still good enough for fourth best all-time behind two seasons by Mike Marshall and the 2002 season from Oakland's Billy Koch. To compare, though, Koch's season destroyed him. Koch performed his feat at the age of 27. After that, he pitched in a total of 102 games and was never the same pitcher -- with his walk-rate spiking upward terribly. On the other hand, Sanders -- who was 29 in 1971 -- pitched another five seasons with a 3.50 ERA. It took its toll -- his K-rate dropped propitiously from 6.2/9 in 1970 to 5.3 in 1971 to just 3.8/9 over the rest of its career -- but he still was a lot better than Koch.

1994 Miller Brewing Commemorative
1971 was a tough act to follow, and Sanders struggled some. His ERA went up to where it probably should have been in 1971 -- to 3.12. He appeared in 62 games and threw 92-1/3 innings. After the 1972 season, the Brewers decided to cash in and threw him in a trade to Philadelphia with Ken Brett, Jim Lonborg, and Earl Stephenson in order to get John Vukovich, Bill Champion, and eventual franchise stalwart Don Money.

Sanders never played in Philly, though, as the team flipped him a month later to the Minnesota Twins in a trade. From there, Sanders played just a couple of months in 1973 with the Twins before they waived him and the Indians claimed him. He stuck around in Cleveland for basically a season before being released in June of 1974. 

The California Angels picked him up, and Sanders spent time there and in Triple-A in 1974. In 1975, the Angels traded him to the New York Mets, where he enjoyed something of a late career revival of a 90-inning stretch with a 2.60 ERA (despite 2.4 K/9!). His contract was sold in late 1976 to the Kansas City Royals, who pitched him 3 innings and then released him. He tried to hook on with the Brewers for the 1977 season, but he did not make the team out of spring training. Instead, he spent 30 games in Triple-A Spokane for Milwaukee before finally calling time on his career.

2000 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 1970s All Decades Team
Sanders really was the only real relief ace that the Brewers had before Rollie Fingers joined the team by trade after the 1980 season. He was an easy selection as the relief pitcher on the 1970s Brewers All-Decades Team on the team's 30th anniversary.

Thanks to his Midwestern upbringing, Sanders and his wife Mary Ann felt very comfortable in the Milwaukee area and settled in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, permanently. After his big league career ended, Sanders became a real estate agent. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article from 2013 notes that his claim to fame as a real estate agent was to list and sell the "Field of Dreams" in Dyersville, Iowa.

Again, at least as of 2013, Sanders still golfed every day he could in Wisconsin, which means from late April to early October. He still has the little book he kept on hitters as a pitcher, and, as he correctly notes, his first ever major league strikeout was of Mickey Mantle. When Sanders told Mantle about that fact, Mantle said, "big f**king deal -- you and 1,000 others kid!"

According to the Trading Card Database, Sanders appears on 8 total cards as a Brewer. I have the 6 you see here. I am missing the 1971 Milwaukee Brewers Picture Pack and his 1972 O-Pee-Chee card.


  1. I really enjoy reading these. One I'm looking forward to is Barry Cort

  2. Hahaaha. I love that Mantle quote. I don't think you could get out of A ball these days with a K rate under 3.