Monday, February 7, 2011

Happy Truck Day! (A Previously Unknown Baseball Holiday)

By The Common Man

Today is Truck Day around the Major Leagues, which is exciting because The Common Man totally forgot that we were celebrating the career of Truck Hannah.

Hannah is one of 15 MLB players born in North Dakota, along with Darin Erstad, Travis Hafner, disgraced former manager Tim Nelson, Rick Helling, and Frank Brosseau (who only pitched 3.2 innings for the Pirates in his career, but TCM played Little League with his son Rick, so perhaps you’ll indulge TCM a little here). 15 guys. From the whole state. It’s cold there.

Anyway, Truck Hannah went west as a young man and caught on in some Class B and D leagues before getting an extended shot behind the plate with Salt Lake City in the old PCL. There, he caught the eye of the New York Yankees. It did not start auspiciously for Truck in The Big Apple. In May, he was on 1B when he or the runner on 2B missed a sign:
“It was a thoughtless Monday for the Yanks on the base paths. In the fifth inning, Truck Hannah made the onlookers marvel by trying to steal second when Elmer Miller had a perfectly legal lease on that locality. Manager Huggins was coaching first at the time and of course he probably flashed a signal for a double steal. The radio service, however, was very poor, for Miller’s attempt to get on toward third brough forth a merry cackle. When he saw the huge figure of Hannah thundering toward second, he was so dumbfounded that he stood stock-still in his tracks. Miller was an easy out and Hannah was lucky not to be a victim, also.”
He was popular in his time with the Yankees, though, in part because of his size (close to 200 lbs was pretty big back then; you can see how big he was on the right Muddy Ruel is on the right) and in part because of his affability. He shared the catching job with Muddy Ruel for three years but neither was very effective. So at the end of 1920, they sent Hannah back to the minors and traded Ruel in a big deal to the Red Sox, which netted Wally Schang. Hannah was not a great hitter, even for the Deadball Era, and finished his stretch in the American League at .235/.331/.300.  In his last season with the proto-Bombers, he played with The Babe in Ruth's first season in the Bronx.
Back in the PCL, Hannah became something of a beloved figure with the Los Angeles Angels, where he apparently became something of a trickster god behind the plate. Hannah told the LA Times (reprinted in this 1957 Baseball Digest) about his better methods to disrupt a batter.
“Among other things, Truck used to make a habint of squatting innocently behind the plate, reaching down and grabbing a handful of dirt and assorted debris and pouring it inside the batter’s shoes.
‘I gave that up after a while, confessed Truck. ‘There got to be too many guys in the game from Arkansas and Oklahoma. I’d toss rocks and sand in their shoes, but since they hadn’t worn any until they were at least old enough to vote, it sort of felt good to them to have something biting at the soles of their feet. It was just like being back home again and they got to hitting the ball a lot better than they did when there was nothing inside their shoes but feet.’”
 He also allegedly was an expert at “tipping” a hitter’s bat, or interfering with his swing,
“I wouldn’t dream of knowingly committing such an offense…. This would be unethical and I want no part of such practices. Of course, now and then, in my eagerness to catch the ball, I would reach out and my hand or glove would come in brief contact with the bat. This was probably due to the fact that I had large hands and the knuckles were a bit stiff so that I could not bend my fingers and keep them out of the way. Hitters who misunderstood me used to get pretty put out by it all.”
 Finally, in a move that Hannah claimed was completely legal at the time, he used to
“pick up a handful of dirt and pebbles and just as the ball reached the plate I’d throw them at the hands and wrists of the batter. Didn’t hurt him any, but the shock was enough to make him flinch and before he recovered he was walking back to the dugout wondering what happened.”
Hannah stuck around LA, and became a player-coach in 1932, and would play occasionally until 1935, when he was 46 years old. In June of 1936, the Angels sent manager Jack Lelivelt back east to look for new players, leaving Truck in charge of the team. Lelivelt was gone for four weeks, during which time the Angels (who had been 26-38), won 18 of 28 games. You can probably guess who the next manager of the Angels was. Hannah lasted three years as the boss in LA, winning the PCL pennant in 1938. In 1939, he led the Angels to a 3rd place finish, but made it to the finals of the Presidents Cup, the league’s playoff tournament. According to the LA Times, the “chief reason for Hannah’s dismissal, it is believed, was because he didn’t develop young players fast enough to suit the front office fancy.”

Hannah went on to manage in Memphis and St. Paul after that. In 1940, with Memphis, both of his catchers were out with injuries, so he suited up for a doubleheader. At 52 years old, Hannah caught all 16 innings, and told reporters, “Gosh, I’m tired.” After managing in Minnesota, he retired to California. His daughter, Helen, became the business manager for the Muskegon Lassies, in the All-American Girls Baseball League in 1950. Truck played in a few Old Timers games, but largely stayed out of the spotlight, aside from giving the LA Times that interview in 1957 (in which he claimed Babe Ruth had moved to the outfield because, “suddenly the batters were getting to him….Every time he threw a curved ball he stuck his tongue out of the corner of his mouth. It was a dead giveaway and all the batters had to do and swing from the sacroiliac, for they knew exactly what was coming.”). He died of natural causes in 1982, 92 years old. Happy Truck Day, everybody!*

*The Common Man has just been informed that Truck Day refers to the day when big league teams send their trucks full of equipment down to their Spring Training homes. To which The Common Man says, “Big effing deal.” Look at that picture on the right.  It's insipid. Wake him up when the trucks get to Florida and Arizona. Now that’s a big day. In the meantime, appreciate the irascible Truck Hannah. A much better use of your time.

1 comment:

Michael Clair said...

I am in complete support of celebrating Truck Hannah day. Much better than looking at photos of people putting bags of equipment on 18-wheelers.