Eighty-eight-year-old Jack Sanford flips through a brown leather scrapbook that holds all the newspaper clippings from his time in baseball. His legal name, John A. Sanford, is inscribed in gold letters on the front.
"S-A-N-F-O-R-D," he says. "I was born in Buzzards Bay. Right along where the railroad tracks are. I was born right there, and we had a big family — five brothers and two girls."
I didn’t pitch to get in any hall of fame. I just pitched because I loved the game.Jack Sanford
Sanford sits in the dining room of the nursing home where he lives in Bourne, Massachusetts. His ex-wife, Carla, brought the scrapbook and his 4-year-old grandson, who might be a little young to appreciate Jack's stories.
"I had chances. I mean, I got looked at by the Dodgers, and the Braves and the Red Sox. I sat in the dugout with [Roy] Campanella and [Edwin “Duke”] Snider and [Donald] Newcombe. I didn't know what to say. You know, I'd shake their hand, and I'm going, 'Wow.'"
Coming out of high school, Jack wanted to sign with the Red Sox — they were always his team. But they didn't have any roster spots available on any of their minor league affiliates, at least not in the U.S.
"They wanted to send me to the Canadian league. And I said I'd go, but I says, 'I joined the Army.' Because they were still drafting. And I figured I was going to get drafted. Well, naturally after I signed to go in, they stopped the draft. And I'm saying, 'Oh, what did I do?'"
Someone hands Jack an old black and white photograph. Five young men, two in uniform, stand with one very proud looking mother. Sanford and all four of his brothers served in World War II.
"I went in right at the end," he explains. "I couldn’t wait to get a uniform on. Next thing I know, I’m in Tokyo, and I’m saying 'What am I doing here? This is wicked.'"
Jack served as part of the occupying force in Tokyo after the war. He tells a great story about saluting General Douglas MacArthur — he calls him "Dugout Doug." Jack and some of the guys formed a baseball team, and one day they squared off against the Army's official squad.
"Of course, I shut 'em out for about four innings, and they come chasing me after the game saying, 'We want you to play for the Army team. We want you here.' I says, 'I'm going home.' And one of the captains came and said, 'Won't you stay for another year?'"
Memory is a funny thing. Sometimes, when Jack tells this story, he's in Tokyo, and he says he would have stayed if he hadn't been so homesick. Other times, it's at the end of his stint in Korea, and he says he never considered staying, because you were lucky if you got out alive.
But we're jumping ahead. Jack turned down the folks who wanted him to play baseball for the Army and returned home in February of 1948.
At this point in the story, Carla flips to another page in the scrapbook to show me an envelope from the Boston Braves — they'd later become the Atlanta Braves.
"That’s the original contract that he signed for $150 a month. January 13, 1949," Carla says.
"Now was $150 a month enough?" I ask.
"I could've got more," Jack says. "But you were so happy to sign a contract. And the guy, you know, he says, 'Jack, you can sign any contract we got on the table. How's that?' Of course they were A, B, C or D contracts. Whatever I wanted. So finally, I says, I'll sign the lowest one that way I probably won't get let go. And everyone said, 'You did the right thing. A lot of kids they sign A and B, and they get cut in spring training, and they go home. But you did the right thing.' So that made me feel better."
"Was I nervous? Yeah I was nervous. It's big leagues and you're saying, you know, 'Do I belong here?'"
Among his family, Jack's stories are legendary. His nephew, Tom, tells me that the family visits and calls as often as they can to listen to him talk — and then they call each other to compare notes.
And one of Jack's favorite stories starts one evening at spring training in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in 1949.
"So we went out for a few beers. And the next day: meeting. They knew where we were, how many beers we drank, who left early and who stayed. We got the whole report, and they released four of them right in front of me and they're looking at me. And I’m saying "I’m next." But fortunately I went home early. I just had a beer or two, and I went home. So I didn’t get released. And I’m saying, "Woooo, I gotta behave.""
Jack was sent to a class D team in Bluefield, West Virginia and then to class C in Owensboro, Kentucky. But the money wasn't very good, and he decided to go play baseball back home. In the '40s and '50s, the Cape League wasn't a place where very many players got noticed. But, no matter, Jack wouldn't be staying for long.
Korea And Beyond
"Oh I made the biggest mistake I could’ve ever made. When I got outta the service in '48, all the guys [said,] 'You didn’t sign that paper on the last table?' 'Oh yeah, I signed it.' 'What the hell did you sign that for?' And I says, 'Why? What’s wrong?' 'You joined the reserve.' 'I did?' Oh well, I says, 'You know, I won’t get called.' Wrong."
"I did a little swearing then. A month later, I'm in Korea, and I'm saying, 'How the hell did I get here so quick?'"
The Cape Cod Times published a letter Jack sent home from the war:
Just a few lines to shoot the breeze for a few minutes. I'm over here in Pusan, Korea now… And with some miracle from heaven got shipped down here instead of the front lines. I guess I better not brag because we may be shipped north any day now.
Some guys here have a slogan, "We'll be back with you in '52." Mine is: "Let's all be one in '51."
"'51, I was there, and we won the championship," Jack says.
Jack got back from Korea in time to join the Sagamore Clouters in September of 1951. The Cape Cod Times reported that his team was down two games to none when he came on in relief and won the game.
But the newspaper didn't get the whole story that day. See, Jack hadn't actually been released by the Army yet.
The first time he pitched, Jack was on leave. No big deal. The second time, well, the Army still hadn't released him, and he went AWOL. When he got back to Fort Dix, Jack discovered that there had been some developments while he was away.
"How many were there in my outfit? One. Me! They were getting discharged, and I was home pitching a ball game. I didn’t get in any trouble. Luckily, I think the captain was a baseball fan. I remember him saying to me, 'Did you win?' And I says, 'Yeah.' He says, 'OK, as long as you won.'
The Army finally discharged Jack, but there was still one more game to go in the All Cape Championship. Jack took the mound for the Clouters and brought them their very first title. The Cape Cod Times noted that he, "fanned six, walked one and held the Cape's most dangerous sluggers to five singles and one two-bagger."
Sagamore won another championship in 1954 with Jack Sanford on the mound. But one day in 1955, Jack went to throw the ball and discovered that he couldn't do it.
"I didn’t hear a clunk, but the ball didn’t go very far," Jack says. "The guy that put the pin in Ted Williams shoulder was in Hyannis. So I went down. He checked me out, and he says, 'Son, I guess your playing days are over.' And I say, 'Oh, come on doc.' I didn’t wanna give up, but no. I says, 'Jack, that’s it. That’s gotta be it.'"
Jack says he tried to stay involved with the Cape Cod League for a while, but his wife wanted him home. He had a family and eventually became the campus police chief for the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. In 2005, he was inducted into the Cape Cod Baseball League Hall of Fame.
"I didn’t pitch to get in any hall of fame. I just pitched because I loved the game," Jack says. "I didn’t care if they gave me a trophy or whatever. I got a few of them. My cat broke most of them. He got up on my trophy case one day and walked, and I’m going, 'Get down!' He got down alright, with all the trophies. Crash, bang and I’m going, 'Oh no, no.'"
Eight minutes into our conversation, Jack's grandson started saying that he wanted to go home. After two hours, I notice that he's camped out under the table we've been sitting at, and the situation is starting to look desperate.
We say goodbye and thank Jack for his service. His nephew, Tom, wheels him back to his room. As we're packing up our equipment, the nursing home staff come out to set up for lunch. I ask one of the women if she's ever gotten to hear Jack's stories.
"Mr. Sanford?" she says. "Nah. He's usually pretty quiet."
This segment aired on December 5, 2015.