The premier second baseman of his era, Ryne Sandberg’s combination of power, speed, and exceptional defense made him one of the finest all-around players to ever man his position. One of only three players in baseball history to have both a 40-homer and a 50-steal season during their careers (Brady Anderson and Barry Bonds are the other two), Sandberg is also one of only three second basemen to hit as many as 40 home runs in a season, becoming in 1990 the first player at the position to lead his league in that particular category since Rogers Hornsby in 1925. More than just an outstanding offensive performer, Sandberg is also generally considered to be one of the greatest defensive second basemen in the history of the game. The only second sacker to win as many as nine Gold Gloves, Sandberg played four full seasons in which he did not make a single throwing error. His career fielding percentage of .989 is the highest mark posted by any second baseman in major-league history.
Born in Spokane, Washington on September 18, 1959, Ryne Dee Sandberg seemed destined for a career in baseball from the moment his parents elected to name him after New York Yankee relief pitcher Ryne Duren while watching a game on television earlier that summer. A three-sport star at Spokane’s North Central High School, Sandberg received numerous offers to attend college on a football scholarship after being named the starting quarterback on Parade magazine’s all-American team upon graduation. Sandberg, though, chose baseball instead, explaining his decision years later by saying, “I knew it would be a lot easier on my body than football.”
After being selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 20th round of the 1978 amateur draft, Sandberg spent the next three years working his way up the ladder in Philadelphia’s farm system, primarily as a shortstop. He made his major-league debut with the Phillies at shortstop just two weeks before his 22nd birthday in September of 1981, spending the final few weeks of the season with the big club, and notching his first big-league hit in his six plate appearances.
Considered to be nothing more than a utility infielder by most Philadelphia scouts, the team included Sandberg in a deal during the offseason that also sent veteran starting shortstop Larry Bowa to the Chicago Cubs for their starter at the position, Ivan DeJesus.
The Cubs initially envisioned Sandberg as a centerfielder, but they eventually chose to insert him at third base instead, although he also saw occasional playing time at second. The 22-year-old rookie acquitted himself well at both positions, committing only 12 errors in 156 games, while also batting .271, scoring 103 runs, and stealing 32 bases on the offensive end.
After Chicago acquired veteran third baseman Ron Cey from the Dodgers prior to the start of the 1983 campaign, Sandberg shifted to second base full-time, a position he manned the remainder of his career. Although Sandberg scored 94 runs in his first year at his new position, his other offensive numbers (8 home runs, 48 RBIs, and a .261 average) weren’t particularly impressive. Nevertheless, he quickly established himself as the National League’s finest defensive second baseman, winning the first of his record nine consecutive Gold Gloves.
It was during the following 1984 campaign that Sandberg developed into a star. After performing extremely well over the course of the season’s first two-and-a-half months, the 24-year-old second baseman became a household name on June 23 when he homered against St. Louis relief ace Bruce Sutter in consecutive at-bats during a nationally televised game at Wrigley Field. The blows, each of which tied the scored, were struck in the ninth and tenth innings, capping off a five-for-six, seven-RBI performance by Sandberg that eventually led to a 12-11 victory by the Cubs. Following the contest, Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog proclaimed, “One day, I thought he (Sandberg) was one of the best players in the N.L. The next day, I think he’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen.”
Sandberg went on to hit 19 home runs, knock in 84 runs, bat .314, steal 32 bases, amass a career high 200 hits, and top the circuit with 19 triples and 114 runs scored, en route to leading the Cubs to the Eastern Division title (their first championship of any kind since 1945) and capturing league MVP honors. In addition to his offensive heroics, Sandberg committed only six errors in the field all season, at one point going 61 consecutive games without making a miscue. Although Chicago subsequently lost the NLCS to San Diego, Sandberg batted .368 and compiled a .455 on-base percentage during the five-game series.
Sandberg remained the senior circuit’s top second baseman in each of the next four seasons, having another superb year in 1985, when he hit 26 homers, drove in 83 runs, scored 113 others, batted .305, and stole a career high 54 bases. He reached the 30-homer plateau for the first time in 1989, when he hit 30 long balls, batted .290, and topped the circuit with 104 runs scored, en route to earning a fourth-place finish in the league MVP voting. Sandberg placed fourth in the balloting again the following year, when he posted the most impressive offensive numbers of his career. In addition to leading the league with 40 home runs, 116 runs scored, and 344 total bases, the Chicago second baseman finished among the leaders with 100 runs batted in, 188 hits, a .306 batting average, and a .559 slugging percentage. By hitting 40 homers, Sandberg became the only player ever to have seasons in which he hit 40 home runs, stole 50 bases, and compiled 200 hits. He also became just the third second baseman in major league history to hit 40 home runs in a season (Rogers Hornsby and Davey Johnson were the others). Furthermore, Sandberg established a then major-league record by playing in 123 consecutive errorless games at second base.
Sandberg had big years again in 1991 and 1992, hitting 26 home runs and surpassing 100 runs scored each season, batting .291 and .304, respectively, and driving in a total of 187 runs. But, although he batted .309 in 1993, injuries limited him to only 117 games, 45 runs batted in, and 67 runs scored.
Sandberg started off the 1994 campaign poorly, suffering through a 1-for-28 slump at one point and hitting only .238 by mid-June. Although only 34 years old at the time, he chose to announce his retirement on June 13, displaying the tremendous integrity that was such an intricate part of his nature by saying, “I am certainly not the type of person who can ask the Cubs organization and the Chicago Cubs fans to pay my salary when I am not happy with my mental approach and my performance.”
Sandberg later revealed in his book, Second To Home, “The reason I retired is simple: I lost the desire that got me ready to play on an everyday basis for so many years. Without it, I didn’t think I could perform at the same level I had in the past, and I didn’t want to play at a level less than what was expected of me by my teammates, coaches, ownership, and most of all, myself.”
Sandberg sat out the remainder of the 1994 season, and all of the 1995 campaign as well. However, baseball beckoned him once more, and he decided to return to his first love in 1996. Sandberg had a productive year at the plate, hitting 25 home runs and driving in 92 runs, but he batted only .244 and struck out a career high 116 times. Still, the 36-year-old second baseman remained an exceptional fielder, committing only six errors in 1,234 innings. Sandberg played one more year before he elected to retire for good at the end of the 1997 campaign. He ended his career with 282 home runs, 1,061 runs batted in, 1,318 runs scored, 2,386 hits, 344 stolen bases, and a lifetime .285 batting average. Sandberg topped 25 homers six times, 100 runs scored seven times, 100 runs batted in twice, and 30 stolen bases five times, and he also batted over .300 on five separate occasions. En route to compiling the highest lifetime fielding percentage of any second baseman in major league history, Sandberg put together streaks of 30 or more errorless game 15 times. He also led all N.L. second basemen in assists on seven separate occasions. In addition to winning nine Gold Gloves, Sandberg was honored by being named to 10 All-Star teams.
Former Cubs manager Don Zimmer marveled at Sandberg’s all-around excellence, saying, “He made so few errors that when he made one you thought the world was coming to an end. Then he hits 30 or 40 homers and scores 100 runs. I saw them all…I saw the best second basemen who ever played, and in my opinion Ryne Sandberg is the best second baseman who ever played baseball.”
Greg Maddux, a teammate of Sandberg during the former’s first few years in the league, stated, “Having Ryne Sandberg play second base behind you was like having a security blanket. You name it and he could do it – offensively, defensively, on the bases. In his prime, he was probably the best all-around baseball player I’ve ever seen.”
Admired not only for his playing ability, but also for his character and integrity, Sandberg was among the game’s most respected players. Andre Dawson competed against Sandberg as a member of the Montreal Expos, before joining him on the Cubs in 1987. Speaking of his former teammate, Dawson said, “As an opposing player, you marveled at what the guy could do because he could beat you in so many ways. Then, when you played with him, he’s the type of individual who, every time you heard people talk about him, they wanted their kid to grow up like Ryne Sandberg. He was special. Everyone knew that.”
Former Cubs GM Dallas Green expressed his admiration for Sandberg by saying, “It’s not often guys like Ryno come along. He was one of the cleanest-cut professionals I’ve ever known and one of the great leaders I’ve seen. Ryno provided leadership without ever having to say a word.”
Sandberg initially kept a low profile following his playing career. However, he later took on various jobs that again placed him before the general public, including a brief stint as a radio analyst on ESPN. He has since become a manager in the Cubs minor league farm system.
Following his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005, Sandberg delivered a rousing speech at the induction ceremonies in which he expressed his love and respect for the game, the manner in which he feels it should be played, and the disdain he feels towards the showmanship that has become such an integral part of the national pastime in recent years.
Speaking of his election to the Hall, Sandberg stated, “If this validates anything, it’s that learning how to bunt and hit and run and turning two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light at the dugout camera.”
Sandberg added, “I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponent or your teammates or your organization or your manager, and never, ever your uniform.”
Displaying the team concept he retained inside him throughout his career, Sandberg suggested, “Hit a home run – put your head down, drop the bat, run around the bases, because the name on the front is more – a lot more important than the name on the back.”
Sandberg’s playing ability and tremendous character are the things that prompted former teammate Lee Smith to proclaim, “Ryne Sandberg is probably the best thing that ever happened to the Chicago Cubs. On the field, he was almost perfect. Off the field, he was perfect.”