March 5 – Happy Birthday Don Savage
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.