When my children were growing up in the 80’s, they attended an elementary school that was located next to a nature preserve that was called Sassafrass. A group of parents from the school got together in an effort to construct a new playground and I was asked to serve as the person responsible for getting citizen volunteers to help build the park. We decided we would name the new playground Sassafrass and I came up with the slogan, “Let’s Get Sassy!” which we plastered on billboards and lawn signs and bumper stickers all over town. Amazingly, until this week, when I started my research for today’s Beantown Baseball Birthday blog post with Bill Nowlin’s excellent book entitled “New Century, New Team; The 1901 Boston Americans, I never knew what sassafras was. The word would always have a special place in my heart because it gave me the inspiration and the opportunity to use “sassy” in that slogan, which proved so popular that we got hundreds of volunteers to build that playground. But it wasn’t until I read Nowlin’s profile of George Winter, a pitcher on the very first Boston Red Sox (then known as the Americans) team in history, that I learned what a “sassafras” actually was.
George Winter’s nickname was Sassafrass. Why? Sassafrass is a tree, whose extract is used as the flavoring for root beer. Back at the turn of the 20th century, root beer was one of America’s most popular beverages. So as Nowlin points out, the nickname “Sassafrass” describes a player from that era who added “flavor” or “life” to the game of baseball. That would be Mr. Winter.
Born in Pennsylvania, Winter played collegiate baseball at Gettysburg College, where future Hall of Fame pitcher, Eddie Planck was his teammate. Whese two guys would taking turns pitching, the school’s team gained national attention and soon enough, Connie Mack had summoned the dynamic duo to Philadelphia to try-out for his his new American League franchise. Mack signed Plank but he told the just 5’8″ – 155 pound Winter, he was too small to be a big league pitcher so he signed with the Boston Red Sox instead.
Over the next eight years, the diminutive right-hander proved Mack wrong. He actually out pitched Plank in their rookie year of 1901 by going 16-12 with a 2.80 ERA. He had winning seasons during his first four seasons for a Boston team that was loaded with great starting pitching. So loaded that when they went to their first World Series in 1903, Winter actually was assigned the task of selling tickets, while the three pitchers in front of him in that year’s rotation, Cy Young, Bill Dineen and Tom Hughes got all the starts in Boston’s seven-game victory over the Pirates.
That deep starting pitching depth and bouts with typhoid fever in 1902 and severe stomach problems in 1906 probably helped prevent Winter from putting together an even better record during his years in Boston. Another reason was the uncanny lack of run support the guy seemed to receive when he was on the mound. In 1905 he had a superb ERA of just 2.07 but finished the year just 12-15.
Even when he started out 4-14 during his final year with the Red Sox in 1908 and was put on waivers, his ERA was still just 3.05. He was then claimed by the Tigers and in six starts with his new club his ERA was a microscopic 1.60. His won-lost record, however, was 1-5.
Fortunately, Tiger manager Hughie Jennings paid more attention to the low ERA and put the pitcher on Detroit’s World Series roster that year, giving Winter his first and only opportunity to participate in postseason play. Which brings me back to his nickname. When you were as physically small as Winter was, you had to make up for it by doing all the little things well. Winter was both an outstanding fielding pitcher and he also happened to be one of the fastest runners in the league. It was that speed that got him his World Series debut in Game 1 of that 1908 Series when he was used as a pinch runner in Game 1. He also pitched a scoreless inning of relief in Game 4, which turned out to be his final appearance as a big leaguer. He later became the varsity baseball coach at the University of Vermont. He passed away in 1951 at the age of 73. And by the way, in his head-to-head big league match ups with his old Gettysburg pitching mate Eddie Plank, this “sassy” little right-hander was 6-3. Take that Connie Mack!