When I first started following baseball in 1960, New York Yankees dominated the record book. Babe Ruth’s single season and career home run records, Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played, Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak and Jack Chesbro’s most wins in a season marks were all considered unbreakable. One year later, Maris hit 61 but that was OK by me because he was a Yankee. Then Aaron grabbed the Babe’s other record, Ripken replaced the Iron Horse, and a juiced up McGuire eclipsed Maris. That leaves just DiMaggio’s 56 games and Chesbro’s 41 victories still Pinstripe property.
I do believe that the Clipper’s hitting streak will fall some day in the not too distant future but Happy Jack’s victory mark will withstand the test of time. The ironic thing about Chesbro’s 41-win season in 1904 was that he too used juice to help him set the mark. But his juice came out of his mouth instead of a syringe and was applied to a baseball instead of being injected into his butt. Jack had one of baseball’s best spitballs and in 1904 he used it to near perfection. Just like steroids’ impact on the the human body however, foreign substances applied to a baseball can have disastrous side effects. One of the spitters Chesbro threw during the 1904 season finale against the Red Sox fluttered so much it got past the New York catcher and the winning run scored, costing the Highlanders the pennant.
Chesbro pitched seven seasons for New York with a cumulative record of 128-93. His total big league career lasted 11 years and his lifetime record was 198-132. That 40-victory season got him elected to the Hall of Fame by the old-timers committee in 1946.
|NYY (7 yrs)||128||93||.579||2.58||269||227||36||168||18||2||1952.0||1752||795||560||26||434||913||55||1.120|
|PIT (4 yrs)||70||38||.648||2.89||122||104||16||92||17||3||938.2||888||407||301||12||252||349||58||1.214|
|BOS (1 yr)||0||1||.000||4.50||1||1||0||0||0||0||6.0||7||4||3||1||4||3||0||1.833|
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant may not have been very famous as a Yankee or even a big leaguer, but he was a legend of the game none-the-less. His name was James Harrison Hannah and he shared the Yankees catching duties with at first, Roxy Walters and then Muddy Ruel. “James Harrison” was what was on his birth certificate, but like both Walters and Ruel, he too had a nickname, one of the most fitting aka’s ever for a baseball catcher. Being six feet one inch tall and weighing 190 pounds, Hannah was close to half a foot taller and forty-to-fifty pounds heavier than the dimensions of an average American male back during WWI. So folks called him “Truck.”
As the war raged in Europe, the Yankees were well on there way to laying the foundation of what would become the game’s greatest dynasty. The cornerstone was an owner with lots of money who truly understood how spending big chunks of that cash to build a winning baseball team could be a wise investment. That owner, a beer brewer named Jake Ruppert showed up in 1915. The next piece of the foundation was a team manager who was not just a good judge of talent and effective field technician, but one who was tough enough to handle the rowdy, hard-living young men who played the game back then. For the Yankees, that was Miller Huggins, who took over as New York skipper the same year that Truck Hannah joined the team, in 1918.
One of just 15 big league players (and three Yankees) to be born in the state of North Dakota, Truck Hannah had started playing professional baseball as a 20-year-old back in 1909, with the Tacoma Tigers in the Northwestern League. He pretty much lived out of his suitcase the next half-dozen years, moving from one town and minor league team to another until he found a more permanent home in Salt Lake City, catching for the Bee’s, that city’s Pacific Coast League franchise. He was that team’s starting catcher for the next three years, giving Major League scouts a wide enough window to notice both his decent bat and huge physical size. Sure enough, New York offered him a contract and on Opening Day 1918, Huggins put “Truck” behind home plate and the two participated in their very first games as Yankees.
Unfortunately for Hannah, he got to the Major Leagues just as the game was changing. The deadball era was coming to a close and every team wanted players who could hit as well as field. Hannah had averaged right around .275 during his three seasons at Salt Lake and if he had been able to do likewise with New York, we may have been able to include the name “Truck” as the first in the long line of great catchers who have worn the pinstripes. But Hannah hit just .235 during his three seasons as a Yankee and that simply wasn’t good enough.
The Yankees released Hannah after the 1920 season. That December, the Yankees made a deal that sent Muddy Ruel to Boston and brought Red Sox catcher, Wally Schang to New York. The switch-hitting Schang would hit .316 in his first year in pinstripes and start behind the plate for the Yankees’ first-ever World Championship team two years later.
Meanwhile Hannah returned to the Pacific Coast League, where he would continue to catch (and also manage) for the next 18 seasons, finally leaving the employ of the Los Angeles Angels in 1939 at the age of 49. Along the way, he appeared (as himself) in two of Hollywood’s earliest talking films and became famous for throwing handfuls of dirt into an opposing hitter’s shoes or at their hands as pitches approached the plate. He might not be in Cooperstown but Hannah did become a PCL Hall of Famer. And even after he left the Angels, the old Truck wasn’t quite ready for the junk heap. He accepted a job to manage the Memphis Chicasaws and during the team’s 1942 season, both Memphis catchers were hurt and unable to play on the day of a doubleheader. Hannah suited up and at the age of 52 caught both ends of the twin bill.
By the way, the other two Yankees to have been born in North Dakota were former outfielder Ken Hunt and the current Yankee DH, Travis Hafner. Hannah shares his birthday with this record-setting pitcher and another former Yankee catcher.
There have only been three “Duke’s” in Yankee franchise history. The first was the very versatile starter and reliever, Duke Maas, who went 26-12 during Casey Stengel’s last three seasons as Yankee skipper. The second Yankee “Duke” was New York City native, Duke Carmel, who first played for Stengel’s Mets in 1963 before donning the pinstripes for just six games during the 1965 season. The third and most recent Bronx Bomber named Duke, was the veteran catcher, Duke Sims, who spent his first seven big league seasons doing a lot of catching and some pretty effective hitting for the Cleveland Indians. He then got traded to the Dodgers in 1971, was released by LA the following year and got picked up by the Tigers. He played parts of two seasons in MoTown and was again put on waivers during the 1973 season. That’s when the Yankees picked him up.
Sims was a solid defensive catcher with a strong arm and not to shabby offensively either. He had hit 23 home runs for the Indians in 1970 and though his lifetime average was just .239, he carried a .340 career on base percentage. But with Thurman Munson entrenched as Yankee catcher and both Jerry Mays and a youngster named Rick Dempsey backing him up, Sims was pretty much a luxury the Yankees couldn’t afford or find a spot to play. He got into only 4 games during the end of the 1973 season and just 5 more at the beginning of the following year. That’s when the Yankees made a terrific deal. They traded Sims to Texas for a left-handed pitcher named Larry Gura.
Sims would end up retiring that year after going to the Rangers and hitting .209. Gura, on the other hand would pitch another eleven seasons in the big leagues and win 123 more games before retiring. The only problem was that he got 111 of those victories wearing the uniform of the Kansas City Royals instead of the Yankee pinstripes. That’s because after going 12-9 during his first two seasons in New York, somebody in the front office got the bright idea to trade Gura for catcher Fran Healy. So instead of magically transforming the inexpensive waiver selection Duke Sims into one of the AL’s better southpaws during the late seventies and early eighties, the Yankees ended up with two easy-to-forget seasons of Fran Healy’s backup catching.
|CLE (7 yrs)||536||1823||1561||180||369||51||4||76||216||5||230||337||.236||.344||.420||.764|
|LAD (2 yrs)||141||432||381||30||92||14||2||8||36||0||47||62||.241||.326||.352||.678|
|NYY (2 yrs)||9||28||24||4||5||1||0||1||3||0||4||6||.208||.321||.375||.696|
|DET (2 yrs)||118||409||350||42||92||14||0||12||49||1||49||54||.263||.356||.406||.761|
|TEX (1 yr)||39||118||106||7||22||0||0||3||6||0||8||24||.208||.280||.292||.572|