Autumn means post-season baseball and clashes on the college and NFL gridirons. Most fans of the two sports are aware that a few players managed to carve out careers in both sports. The obvious examples are Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, who successfully played both sports professionally in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Jim Thorpe and George Halas were two early 20th century examples players who dabbled in both sports.
The aforementioned Jackson won the Heisman Trophy in ’85 before embarking on his professional careers in baseball and football. Thirty-five years earlier, another Heisman winner played both sports professionally: Vic Janowicz.
Although Vic was on the watch list of several MLB teams in high school, he decided to attend Ohio State to play football exclusively. He won the Heisman in ’50 as a two-way player seeing action as a tailback and safety. In addition, Vic handled the punting and place-kicking chores for the Buckeyes. In a game against Pittsburgh, he single-handedly scored 46 points. Against Michigan, Vic punted 21 times for 685 yards. His first card is from a ’51 college football set produced by Topps.
Janowicz surprised the sports world by initially forgoing pro football and signing with the Pirates in ’52, even though he hadn’t played baseball since his senior year in high school. The $10,000 signing bonus given to him by Pirates GM, Branch Rickey, resulted in Vic becoming a “Bonus Baby.” Under major league rules, “Bonus Babies” (players who sign for more than $4,000) had to remain on the big-league roster for two years.
Predictably, Janowicz saw limited action with the Pirates, which stunted his development. Used mostly as a third catcher, he hit .214 in ’53 and ’54, earning him a release at season’s end.
Despite his benchwarmer status, Janowicz had several cards. Topps included him in the ’53 set, and both Bowman and Topps issued cards for Vic in ’54. His final card is a ’55 Bowman “Color TV” card, even though he didn’t play that season.
The ’54 and ’55 Bowmans feature Janowicz wearing the helmet all the Pirates wore-including pitchers-at the behest of Branch Rickey. His goal of preventing head injuries was sound, but the helmets were composed of heavy plastic making them extremely uncomfortable. Maybe that explains the 100 loss seasons the Pirates endured in this era.
Interestingly, the cards all mention that Vic was an All-American at OSU but omit his winning the Heisman. I assume the award didn’t have the same lofty status that it holds today, since there were many clubs and organizations that sponsored awards in the ‘50s.
With his baseball career aborted, Janowicz gave the NFL a try, signing with the Redskins who had drafted him in ’51. He plays two season for Washington, leading them in rushing in ’55 while handling the place- kicking duties as well. Bowman’s ’55 NFL set has a Janowicz card and Topps issued one in ’56.
Vic’s career ended tragically in a car accident in ’57. The resulting head injury left him paralyzed on the left side of his body.
Bo “knew” football and baseball, so did Vic.
New York Times: February 29, 2009, Vic Janowicz Obituary
“From Heisman to the Diamond:” Baseball Hall-of-Fame Website
Trading Card Database
3 thoughts on “From Buckeye to Branch’s Bonus Baby Buc”
Very interesting because his story is new to me. Also did not know about those Pirate helmets. Well done
LikeLiked by 1 person
Another former Major Leaguer Galen Cisco starred on the 57 Buckeye team
Vic’s 1956 Topps card is my favorite football card of all time. That ’56 Topps issue was also the first set I ever collected as an 8-year old fan. I loved everything about it—the size, bright colors , team logos, boldly outlined player photos. And the Janowicz card featured an action shot that I later learned is the Heisman pose. Never mind that he looks about as tough as Bambi. Thanks for the spotlight on a forgotten footnote of ’50s football (& baseball).
LikeLiked by 1 person