Former catcher Bill Sarni had immense ups and downs during his 13-year playing career; perhaps more of a disparity than anyone before him or since. A teen-aged phenom, he started in the Pacific Coast League as a 15-year-old and ultimately made himself into a solid big league receiver. Unfortunately, his story was not to be a happy one, as he was forced to retire at the age of 29 due to a heart attack suffered while playing pepper with teammates before a spring training game.
A native of Los Angeles, Sarni was the size of a full-grown man before most and attracted the interest of the local Los Angeles Angels (affiliated with the Chicago Cubs) in 1943. This was due in equal parts to his ability, the baseball talent drain during that time because of World War II, and because the team lost two catchers in quick succession to injury. He settled in quickly, hitting a home run in his first at-bat and by the end of the season was the team’s starting catcher. This was no ordinary minor league team either. They ultimately finished with a 110-45 record and had a roster packed with future major leaguers, including the likes of Andy Pafko and Ken Raffensberger.
The right-handed hitting Sarni more than held his own during his inaugural season, hitting .229 with a home run in 33 games. He continued to improve with age, even hitting .295 in 105 games as a 17-year-old in 1945.
Although, he did not put up star numbers, he continued to progress as a good defensive catcher with a decent bat. For whatever reason, it took him a bit longer to break into the majors, but he finally got his shot in 1951 with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Sarni finally stuck as a major league regular in 1954 with the Cardinals. The 26 year-old, more than a decade after he started his career, emerged as a borderline star behind the plate. In 123 games, he hit an even .300 with 9 home runs and 70 RBIs. He also nabbed an impressive 56 percent of the base runners attempting to steal on him. Although he followed that up with more modest numbers the next year, he was finally established.
Mid-way through the 1956 season, the catcher was involved in a nine-player trade between the Cardinals and the New York Giants that sent him east. He struggled a bit in his new surroundings but still hit a combined .254 with a career-high 10 home runs and 45 RBIs in 121 games. He was strong as ever against the run, gunning down 45 percent of runners.
Looking to start off the 1957 season on a good foot, the catcher instead encountered tragedy that spelled the end of his career. On February 27th, while playing pepper with some teammates during the team’s first spring training work out, he collapsed with what would be diagnosed as a heart attack. Since he was just 28 at the time, doctors were initially reluctant at making that conclusion, but the subsequent tests bore out the sobering news.
Giants’ President Horace Stoneham told the press “The doctors told me Bill is the second youngest man he ever treated for a heart attack. They said the attack was similar to the one suffered by President Eisenhower. Sarni will be able to live normally otherwise but they told me he never will be able to play baseball again.”
Stoneham was magnanimous in the wake of Sarni’s hospitalization, vowing to employ him as a coach as soon as he was well enough in order to earn him enough service time to qualify for baseball’s five-year pension requirement. This was a promise he kept after his former backstop was released from the hospital a month after his initial admittance.
Despite seeing his career end in the cruelest of ways in the midst of his prime, Sarni picked up the pieces and took up coaching. Towards the end of the 1957 season, he explained, “Some people may feel sorry for me but I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world just being around the boys again and getting a chance to remain in baseball… I’ve thought about catching again but I came to realize there were two important factors to be considered. First, I have a responsibility to my family, my wife and my little boy and girls. Second, who would sign me to play? They’d be taking a big chance. The Giants have been wonderful to me.”
Given a new lease on life, Sarni did not become a baseball lifer. Instead, as reported by the Baseball Necrology, he became a general partner in a brokerage firm in St. Louis. Sadly, he passed away in 1983 from another heart attack at the young age of 55. In parts of five major league seasons, he appeared in 390 games, hitting .263 with 22 home runs and 151 RBIs.
Although he didn’t get to finish playing on his own terms, Sarni made his mark on the game, which is more than most can say. Once a hotshot whiz kid, he never became a super star but was well on his way to a solid career before being knocked out of the game by his heart. It’s safe to say baseball has never seen another player with a journey to the majors like him before or since.
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