Ken Sanders is a name that many Milwaukee Brewers fans recognize from the team’s past. He was a relief pitcher that racked up numerous saves with the Brewers during 1970-72, but unfortunately each year the team finished with under a .500 record.
Sanders was born on July 8, 1941 in St. Louis, Missouri. He played baseball, soccer, and football while attending St. Louis University High School. After only a month at St. Louis University, he started on a path to the big leagues by signing an amateur free agent contract with the Kansas City Athletics.
During his time in the minors, Sanders both started and relieved games. He started off with 19 wins for Sanford of the Florida State League in 1960. At just 18 years of age, he had logged 240 innings and registered 191 strikeouts. He also logged 22 complete games out of 28 starts.
Sanders also made minor league stops in Portsmouth, Binghamton, Albuquerque and Portland. His major league debut came with the A’s on August 6, 1964. He pitched 1.2 innings of relief against the New York Yankees and didn’t allow a run, plus recorded his first career strikeout against Mickey Mantle.
Many years later Sanders had an opportunity to chat with Mantle as they drove to a charity golf tournament. Sanders told Mantle that he was his first strikeout victim. “He said, ‘Big bleeping deal. You and 1,000 others, kid,'” Sanders remembered.
While his stats were good for the remainder of the 1964 season, Sanders spent all of 1965 back in the minors. After the season he was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the Rule 5 draft. Sanders appeared in 24 games for the Red Sox in 1966 before being traded back to Kansas City in a multi-player deal.
Sanders spent almost all of his time in the bullpen that season, but did make his only career start for Kansas City, lasting just four innings. Again, while his overall stats were good that season for both teams, Sanders would spend 1967 and nearly all of 1968 in the minors. By that point the A’s had moved to Oakland and Sanders pitched just 10 innings in relief.
In early 1970 a trade to the Seattle Pilots would change Sanders’ direction for the better. He was dealt with Mike Hershberger, Phil Roof, and Lew Krausse from Kansas City for Don Mincher and Ron Clark. After the Pilots were bought in bankruptcy court and moved to Milwaukee, Sanders was sent to AAA Portland to start the season. He started to think about getting out of the game at age 28. The new Brewers were looking at bringing in younger players and that left guys like Sanders and fellow “aged” reliever Dave Baldwin left to plug holes in the minor leagues. Fortunately Sanders and Baldwin were both called up to join the Brewers in late May. This turn of events helped both establish themselves and extend their careers.
Saves were a new recorded stat for relievers, and Sanders quickly proved he was capable of saving games. During 1970 he recorded 13 saves along with a 5-2 record. He wound up appearing in 50 games, far more than any pitcher on the team. The Brewers lost 97 games, but along the way Sanders was given the nickname “Bulldog.”* “He was so mean, tough, and stubborn on the mound,” manager Dave Bristol said later.
Sanders easily eclipsed his stats in 1971 after a lung ailment sidelined him for most of spring training. He said, “There was a spot on my lung about the size of a silver dollar and the doctors were afraid my illness would turn into a more serious type of pneumonia.” While Sanders could have missed six months that year, the spot broke up and he was back in business. By the end of the season he had made the most MLB appearances (81) by any pitcher, and set a record by finishing 77 of those games. If you factor his 31 saves and 7 wins, then Sanders figured into over half of the Brewers 69 wins. He was named the American League’s “Fireman of the Year” by the Sporting News.
The next season was a different story. Sanders started out strong but had pitched himself out of the closer role by the All Star Break. New manager Del Crandall didn’t stick with Sanders as his predecessor Dave Bristol had in 1970-71. The Brewers traded Sanders after the season to Philadelphia, and then the Phillies sent him to Minnesota after just two months.
Even though Sanders was traded away from the Brewers, he decided to make Milwaukee his home, and still resides in Hales Corners today. He was once quoted as saying, “After the ’71 season I said, ‘let’s buy a house, we’ll be here forever. I was traded nine months later and then another two months after that. But we decided to raise our family here, and we adopted two babies here so obviously Milwaukee has been an important part of our life.”
Sanders bounced around the next four years, wearing a few different uniforms. He was the Twins closer after being traded there, but lost the job and was eventually put on waivers. He had a better stint with the Cleveland Indians, yet they also released him in 1974. Next up was a minor league gig with the California Angels. Sanders was called up after 19 games at AAA, and spent the remainder of the season on the team. He was traded to the New York Mets, and again was able to shine alongside former Brewers teammate Skip Lockwood. They made up a tough bullpen along with Bob Apodaca – who later became a pitching coach for the Brewers. Sanders posted a 2.70 earned run average that year and followed it with 2.87 in 1976. His contract was sold to Kansas City and he made just three appearances in a Royals uniform at the end of the year.
Sanders made a return to the Brewers in 1977 with a minor league contract. At 35, he was hoping for another shot at the big leagues, but knew the Brewers viewed him as “sort of an insurance policy.” He spent the first three months with the AAA Spokane Indians, logging 40 innings with a 4.50 ERA. He decided to retire from baseball in mid-June, saying, “I’m a young 35, but this is a young man’s game.” Sanders admitted to leaving the game with few regrets. He said, “It’s been a great career for me, and provided for my family very well. I’ve enjoyed all 17 ½ years of it.”
Sanders left behind some great career numbers: 408 appearances, a total of 6562 1/3 innings pitched, and a total ERA of 2.97. He was a closer in an era where pitching multiple innings was the standard. As an example, he pitched three innings six times in 1971. Another standard during that time period was pitchers carrying a “black book” where they recorded what to throw to get a specific hitter out. Sanders still has his black book to this day.
Sanders says he’s most proud of having a career ERA under 3.00, and that he never had a shoulder or arm injury. Being a relief pitcher didn’t give him many opportunities to hit – he had just 67 career plate appearances with two runs batted in. One of those RBI’s came against future Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer in 1966.
During his career, the 5’10” Sanders was known as a control pitcher. He could typically throw his fastball in the upper 80s to low 90s, and was able to get hitters out with sliders, sinkers and changeups. Sanders said he never threw a curve in the majors, and having a bad curveball as a kid led him to learning how to throw a slider. In my interview, he gave a lot of credit to his early Brewers coaches for staying with him as he developed.
“Both (Manager) Dave Bristol and (Pitching Coach) Wes Stock were very instrumental. They gave me the confidence to pitch in the big leagues. Once I blew a save and Bristol put me right back in the next night. I ran off 13 straight saves.”
Having a good catcher was important for a sinkerball pitcher like Sanders. The Brewers had two excellent defensive catchers early on in Jerry McNertney and Phil Roof. Sanders told me, “Being a low ball pitcher with their defense was very important. Roof’s expertise in blocking balls in the dirt was reassuring to me. Something I didn’t have to worry about.”
After baseball, Sanders immediately moved into a long and successful career in real estate. His greatest achievement in the field was listing and selling the Field of Dreams property in Dyersville, Iowa. In 1985 he founded the “Swing with the Legends” golf classic in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The initial goal was to raise money for local charities, and to date the annual event has raised over $1 million.
In a 1989 interview, Sanders looked back on the early days of Milwaukee Brewers baseball and his career in real estate. He recalled, “It took the ball club longer to get where they wanted to be with attendance and recognition because of that animosity of older fans, who still were bitter because of the Braves leaving Milwaukee. There should have been excitement with having a new franchise. But it wasn’t apparent those first couple years.” When Sanders moved into real estate and called on clients, he would say he was a Brewer. Generally the response was, “Which one? Schlitz, Pabst or Miller.”
Now retired, Sanders spends time at Tuckaway Golf Club in Franklin where he is a longtime member. You will occasionally see Sanders at fan events or at Miller Park. One place he will always be found is on the Miller Park “Wall of Honor” which was created to commemorate Milwaukee Brewers players, coaches and executives. Each individual enshrined on the wall had to meet set criteria of service to the club and/or career accomplishments. As winner of a major award (Fireman of the Year), Sanders met the criteria and was inducted with the initial group of 58 individuals on June 13, 2014. He is the only player from the original 1970 Brewers team on the “Wall of Honor.”
I asked Sanders about this achievement and he replied, “It is a great honor. I have made my home in the Milwaukee area since 1970. I raised my children here (with wife Mary Ann) and now have grandkids here. They think it is cool. Also I have a special place on the wall between Bud Selig and Bob Uecker. They have been friends since 1970.”
I’d like to extend heartfelt thanks to him for responding to my request for an interview via email.
*There seems to be some confusion as to who gave Sanders his “Bulldog” nickname. A few articles in recent years have credited the origin to Bob Uecker. I believe it is false to attribute this to Uecker, mainly because he wasn’t hired as a scout until early September, 1970 – and didn’t get behind a microphone until later. By then Sanders was already being called “Bulldog” and “Toy Bulldog” (due to his smaller stature) in local newspaper articles. Wikipedia, which isn’t always a perfect reference, gives credit for the nickname to manager Dave Bristol. I also believe this is false – and is the only place I could locate any connection to Bristol. In a September 4, 1970, Milwaukee Journal article, Bill Sears was mentioned as the person who gave Sanders his distinctive nickname. Who was Bill Sears, you ask? He was the Brewers publicity director. Sears was named to the post back in mid-April, and it was the same position he held for the Seattle Pilots. Sears handled publicity for Seattle’s minor league team before that, and had previous experience with the University of Seattle and a local civic group.
It’s more glamorous to have Uecker be the one behind the nickname, or reasonable that Bristol equated mound toughness with a bulldog. But if credit should be given where it is due – then it may land on Sears. I don’t mean to split hairs over something seemingly trivial as nickname origin – although as someone interested in the facts, I feel I need to step up and present the truth, even in the case of something that looks trivial on the surface. I will still try to get back in touch and confirm this with Mr. Sanders.