Sunday, January 21, 2018

236. Joe Bauman: Seventy-Two Steroid-Free Big Ones

This is the long-delayed final installment of my Home Run Champion Triptych. I had wanted to do the Bauman/Crues/Hauser stories in quick succession, but as it sometimes does, life got in the way. October, November and December are my busy months, filled with long, lonely business travel and rush jobs that need to be completed by Christmas. This year I added on a trip to MLB's Winter Meetings in Orlando where I set up a booth for the first time. The weeks running up to that event was a blur of non-stop work as I not only designed and oversaw production of the graphics for my booth, but also completely re-vamped my website in anticipation of the trade show. For years I had as my company website. Besides being a mouthful in Manhattan, the site was clunky and impossible to update. I decided I needed a completely new site and domain. I settled on the much easier Since many can not pronounce "Cieradkowski," I have always been known as "Gary C," so it was only natural that I'd use that as my new domain. Besides completely re-designing my site, I also linked up my blog directly to my website. It will take a few more weeks until I get all the bugs worked out, but soon you can access The Infinite Baseball Card Set right from I will also have a store where along with my art posters you may also easily purchase copied of '21' and other baseball goodies. I'm quite sure all of you who have complained (rightfully) about the difficulties in ordering anything from my old site will be pleasantly pleased by the ease in which future purchases can be made. Also, the new blog will have an easier interface as well, along with a nice up to date design.

So, I just wanted to say that I am back in the writing and illustration game, and have a growing stack of stories on deck for 2018!

 Joe put the gas cap back on the '52 Mercury Monterrey, and wiped his calloused hands on a rag he pulled from his back pocket. Two wide-eyed young boys, their opened mouth, freckled faces smashed against the back window, followed his every move from the back seat. A light, warm late-afternoon breeze made the enamel Texaco signs mounted above the gas pumps squeak rhythmically.

The driver stuck a pair of dollar bills through the open window and craned his head to look up at the tall gas jockey. "You gonna hit one out tonight, Joe?" Adding the two singles to the thick folded wad of greenbacks he pulled from his pocket, Joe replied "You know I'll do my best, Frank."  

As he watched the Merc pull back onto Second Street, the bell above the office door jingled behind him. "Joe, it's 5" his wife called from the open door, "you better head to the ballpark."

That's how it went in Roswell, New Mexico, in the summer of 1954. The Roswell Rockets star first baseman would put in a full day's work pumping gas at one of the Texaco service stations he and his wife Dorothy owned, knock off at 5 and spend the evening chasing baseball's most elusive offensive record. 

Joe Bauman was a product of the Oklahoma City sandlots. Like most kids in those pre-television, pre-Play Station days, Joe grew up playing the game every chance he had. Just under six and a half feet tall and athletic, he played basketball and football at Capitol Hill High, but it was baseball that he truly loved. His pursuit of the game was encouraged by his pop, Joe Senior, who turned his naturally right handed boy into a left hander. His father also taught Joe how to wrap the palm of his right hand around the knob of the bat instead of around the handle. This helped Joe get under a ball and muscle it skyward. After he helped lead his Legion team to the state championship in 1941, Joe began getting interest from organized baseball. 

It so happened that former big leaguer turned minor league skipper Bert Niehoff made his home in OKC during the winter. Although there were other offers floating out there for the big first baseman, it was that hometown connection that convinced Joe he should sign with Niehoff's team, the Little Rock Travelers. As soon as he finished his senior year, Joe got on a train to join Niehoff.

Little Rock was in the Southern Association, then classified as a Class A1 league, what today would be Double A. The Travelers were an independent club, meaning they were not affiliated with any major league team, and thus had to develop their own talent which they then sold to bigger clubs after the season ended. It was Niehoff's plan to have the 19 year-old Joe work out with his club for a few days, then farm him out to a lower level minor league for more experience. The Travelers shipped him to the Newport Dodgers in the Northeast Arkansas League. After a few weeks, Joe learned his mother died and he went home to Oklahoma for the funeral. When he returned to Newport he found that he couldn't get his head back in the game and finished 1941 with a terrible .205 average. Joe went home for the winter with the intention of getting back into the swing of things, but the Japanese had other plans which they made known on December 7, 1941.

With the United States at war in 1942, Joe put his baseball dreams on the shelf and landed a job at the Beechcraft aircraft factory in Kansas. Like every other large defense plant during the war, Beechcraft had a competitive baseball league for their workers, and Joe spent the summer of '42 playing industrial league ball. He also married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Ramsey. As soon as he turned draft age, Joe joined the Navy, preferring to be on a ship than in a muddy trench. For the duration of the war, Joe was fortunate enough to be kept stateside, on dry land, right on the campus of the University of Oklahoma in Norman. 

Besides the fact that he wasn't immediately shipped out to the South Pacific to face the Japanese, Joe was lucky because his posting gave him priceless baseball experience. Turned out that the base commander was a baseball nut and he made it a point to have a top notch baseball team. Ex-Cardinals star Charlie Gelbert was put in charge of the team which, thanks to nefarious transfers and semi-legit counter orders, was being stocked with sailors who had previous experience in the majors and minors. Soon Johnny Rizzo of the Cardinals, Al Benton of the Tigers and Bennie Warren of the Phillies were suiting up for Gelbert's team. Though he only had a lone mediocre season in the low minors, Joe got up his nerve to try out for Gelbert's team, which he made, much to his surprise. For the next three and a half years, Joe put aviation trainees through their calisthenics in the mornings and played first base in the afternoons for the base ball club, soaking up all the tips offered to him by his veteran teammates.

When he was discharged in 1946, Joe found he was still under contract to Little Rock. Now 24 years old with two years of experience playing alongside major leaguers, Joe went to spring training raring to get his baseball career back on track. Once there, he found that there were 125 former GI's vying for only a handful of spots on the Little Rock roster. Joe was sent to Amarillo in the West Texas League where he hit .301, but it was his 48 home runs that raised eyebrows. The next spring when Little Rock wanted to send him to another low-level league, Joe balked. He told the Travelers' owner point blank that for three years in the Navy he had held his own against former big leaguers - better players than were currently on the Little Rock team. He told the owner that he deserved to move up to a higher level team - or just send him back to Amarillo. 

The owner of the Travelers sent him back to Amarillo.

In 1947 Joe played along side Bob Crues whose 52 homers eclipsed his own record from the previous season. With Crues stealing all the thunder with his home run onslaught, Joe concentrated on putting the ball in play more consistently. While only hitting 38 homers, the hard work improved his average to a nice .348, leading to his contract being purchased by the Boston Braves. 

For 1948, the Braves placed Joe with their highest farm team, the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. Unfortunately, Milwaukee had a guy named Heinz Becker ensconced at first base. Besides being a former big leaguer, Becker had won the American Association batting crown in 1947 and had led the Brewers to the pennant. With this seasoned vet in place, Joe got into only a single game with Milwaukee before being shipped to Hartford.

Though Hartford was a level lower than Milwaukee, Joe got to play everyday - that is until Ray Sanders showed up. Sanders was an ex-Cardinals first baseman who was acquired by the Brewers and then shipped to Hartford because they had Becker. As good as Joe was hitting with Hartford, he was forced to play second chair to the former big leaguer Sanders. Used mostly as a pinch hitter, Joe hit .275 with 10 homers, pretty credible in that unfamiliar and difficult clutch role.

That winter Joe was back in OKC when he received his new contract from Hartford. Instead of getting a raise for 1949, the contract called for a pay cut - $400 and month instead of the $600 he made in '48. Joe returned the contract unsigned, writing "I could make more money selling twenty-seven inch shoelaces on a street corner in Oklahoma City than I can playing for you." After fruitless negotiations with Hartford's GM which ended in "take it or leave it," Joe left it and stayed home in Oklahoma. 

Today it's hard to understand a guy who seemingly throws away a shot at making the majors. But when you put yourself in the cleats of a guy whose baseball clock is ticking fast and suddenly he's not only being sent back to the same level he was at last year, but at a lower salary, things get a little easier to comprehend. Add in the fact that $400 a month for just the baseball months really didn't add up to all that much. Not that Joe was a special case - minor league ball players just didn't earn all that much until unions got involved decades later. In fact, unless you were a Joe DiMaggio or Stan Musial, even the majority of big leaguers had to hold down an off-season job to make ends meet.

So, with his 27th birthday coming up, Joe said goodbye to organized baseball.

That spring Joe was contacted by the manager of a semi-pro team in Elk City, Oklahoma. Elk City was going through an oil boom and a highly competitive league of semi-pro teams had sprung up to entertain the lonely oil workers. In the time-honored tradition of the semi-pro team, Elk City was assembling a team made up of former minor leaguers and younger college players. When Elk City offered Joe the $600 Hartford wouldn't, he agreed to play. Then, just as luck would have it, the Braves organization called, offering Joe the first baseman's spot in Atlanta. He told 'em that they should have spoke up earlier and that he had given his word that he'd play the season with Elk City.

Joe played three years in the Oklahoma semi-pro oil league. Against the semi pro pitching Joe murdered the ball, earning him not just the fans roar of approval but also plenty of "screen money." A tradition of Southeast bush league baseball, "screen money" was a spontaneous monetary tribute pushed through the chicken wire screen that separated the fans from the playing field. After a particularly fine catch or hit, fans would line the fence pushing their dollar bills through the screen while the game was halted so players and umpires could collect the cash. On a good day a guy could collect a couple hundred dollars - in a boom town flush with oil cash, there was no telling how much a home run hitter like Joe could rake in.

Besides playing ball, he and a teammate bought a Texaco gas station. Joe and his teammate worked the pumps and Dorothy held down the cash register. This experience running his own business would be more beneficial to him, and shape the rest of his baseball career than anything else he learned in a ball park. By 1951, Elk City's oil boom went bust and the baseball money dried up. Over the winter a man named Earl Perry stopped by Joe's Texaco station for something more than a tank of gas. Turned out this fella was buying into a minor league team in Artesia, Texas, and wanted to know if Joe would play first base for him.

Technically, Joe was still under contract with the Boston Braves, and he told Perry that. All the fledgling team owner wanted to know was if he bought Joe's contract from the Braves, could he count on him showing up in Artesia in 1952? The answer was "yes." Several weeks later, Joe was property of the Artesia Drillers club of the Longhorn League and making more than he was in Elk City - $1000 a month and another $1000 just for signing. On top of that, the owner gave Joe the option of getting his outright release from the team after he completed his first season. 

So, now after three years, Joe was back in organized baseball. But don't think he had any delusions of making it all the way to The Show - Joe was getting close to thirty and he had a wife to support. He knew he only had a handful of seasons left in him and then he was out of the game. He wisely took his experience of owning a Texaco station in Elk City and replicated it in his new home base. The knowledge that he'd have a steady income regardless of his baseball career gave him a sense of security and a maturity level most bush league ball players did not have.

Joe hit .375 with 50 homers for '52 and followed that up with .371 and 53 homers in '53. Now, in any other league, marks of 50 and 53 home runs would have been huge deal, however the Longhorn league was the backwater of organized baseball, far removed from any big cities. Plus, Longhorn league stadiums were pretty much glorified high school fields, many with odd dimensions and short fences that favored pull hitters like Joe. Hitters were also aided by the light air and hot temperatures, which added an extra pop to any ball put into the air. Still, home runs are home runs and eventually word spreads. Bob Crues made headlines coast to coast when he tied Joe Hauser's record of 69 home runs in 1948 playing in the same kind of bandbox ball parks as the Longhorn League. In '52 Bauman's 50 home runs led the league by a wide margin, the next guy hitting 27, and in '53 he hit 15 more than his closest rival. So, even with short fences and light air, Joe's home run output was far above the league average.

As popular he was with the Drillers fans, his services were no longer needed for the 1954 season. Artesia had signed a working agreement with the Dallas Steers who were sending a whole team of their own young talent to replace the Drillers current roster. Now a free agent, the slugger was quickly signed by the Roswell Rockets of the same league, where Earl Perry had turned up as the teams GM. Joe took his signing bonus and bought a brand new Texaco service station right on Roswell's Second Street, where he settled into the familiar routine of pumping gas in the day, playing ball at night. Roswell turned out to be just the place he and Dorothy were looking for to put down roots. The New Mexico town had sprung up around the Army Air Force base built during the war and which was now home to the nation's elite nuclear bomber squadrons. Besides its air force connection, Roswell had briefly made headlines in 1947 when it was reported that the army had recovered a crashed space craft. Despite its interstellar connection, the remote town had a safe, family-oriented atmosphere, and the Rockets were the go-to summer diversion for its population.

Right from the start of the 1954 season, Joe emerged as the fan's favorite Rocket. It wasn't just his home runs that made him a local hero, but also it was his modest demeanor and that his service station right in town made him something more than the usual transient ball player. The people of Roswell felt that Joe was one of them. It was true that he led a humble life, different than the typical young jocks that were spending their first year without parental superstition. Teammates later said that Joe's big night out would be a plate of chiles rellenos washed down with a Miller High Life. Although he was the Rockets veteran star, he turned down the single room option offered to him on road trips and bunked with a teammate. Likewise at home in Roswell -  the Bauman's were more comfortable at a teammate's back yard barbecue than at one of Roswell's nightclubs or upscale restaurants. 

The Rockets played their home games in Fair Park Field which, like most of the other ball parks in the league, had outfield dimensions that favored hitters. In 2013 baseball historian Scott Simkus wrote about Bauman and Fair Park Field in the very much missed Outsider Baseball Bulletin. Up until that time, the only reference to the park's dimensions was 329 down the right field line. No one bothered to record the other measurements until Simkus, using Google Earth, was able to calculate the dimensions of the old ball park, which still stands today, renamed Joe Bauman Field. The park's left field line was 340, center field 380 and the right field power alley was an inviting 329 feet with a 10' high fence, perfect for a left handed slugger like Joe.

Glover's Packing House offered a hog for every home run hit at Fair Park Field, and by mid-season Joe was single-handedly destroying New Mexico's pork population. He received so many courtesy hogs that he began giving them away to grateful teammates. As the home run totals grew, so did the screen money. At first he was make $40 a shot, towards the end of the season it was reported that totals of $800 had become the average compensation for a Joe Bauman blast.

Years later, Joe was asked what made him hit so many home runs in 1954. Joe attributed his success to the fact that he was healthy all season, no colds or injuries, and more importantly, the ball looked like the size of a cantaloupe all year long. Late in the season, Joe started to wear down. The summer heat and age was catching up with him so he went to a doctor in Roswell. The solution was a lighter bat - Joe switched to a 36 inch/34 ounce Vern Stephens S2 model Louisville Slugger - and a B-12 vitamin shot. Joe's home run assault continued. On August 22 he launched three home runs in a double header against San Angelo, giving him 60 for the season. The middle one gave him the organized baseball record for most home runs in a three year period, 163. The record was previously held by Babe Ruth for his 1926, 27 and 28  seasons in which he hit total of 161. Joe then hit three more in the next three games to bring him to number 63. With only seven games left to play, Joe was still six home runs away from Hauser and Crues record. Then on August 31 he unleashed a hail of hurt against the Sweetwater Spudders pitching staff, slamming four home runs and driving in 10 runs in the 15-9 victory.
The last home run he hit in front of the Roswell fans was number 69, a 375-foot shot that tied Joe Hauser and Bob Crues' record. The local paper reported that the roar let lose by the overflowing crowd as the ball cleared the right field wall could be heard two miles away. The Rockets finished their season on the road with two games each against Big Springs and Artesia. Now the pressure was really on. Life, Sports Illustrated and countless news outlets sent photographers and writers to cover Bauman's every swing. In the first two games, the Big Springs pitchers pitched around him and incessant flashes from photographers distracted the humble slugger as he went homerless. The last day of the season was a double header against the Artesia NuMexers (the Drillers had re-branded themselves after Joe left). Rockets manager Pat Stasey penciled Joe into the lead off spot so he would have more chances to bat. Twenty-six thousand fans jammed into Artesia's ball park to watch history being made. Among the crowd was Joe's mother and father who secretly slipped into town so as not to disturb their boy's concentration. The crowd didn't have long to wait for the record breaking homer. In his first at bat, Artesia's Cuban ace Jose Gallardo rang up a 2-2 count before Joe blasted a fastball 349 feet to set the new record for single season home runs. After rounding the bases Joe joined the other ballplayers in collecting the money pushed through the chicken wire fence by grateful fans. Joe pocketed a reported $800 for number 70. Since the season was effectively over and both Artesia and Roswell had made the playoffs, both teams used position players as pitchers in the second game of the double header. Against these ersatz hurlers, Joe hit homers 71 and 72, thus setting the final number that would stand until a steroid-addled Barry Bonds would hit 73 in 2001.

Joe ended 1954 with those 72 home runs, an even .400 average and 224 RBI, good enough for the Longhorn League Triple Crown. He averaged a home run every 6.9 at bats and his slugging percentage of .916 was 69 points better than Ruth's best (or 53 better than Bonds, if you count his bloated steroid stats). In the Longhorn League playoffs, Roswell lost the in the first round to Carlsbad, 4 games to two. As for Joe, at age 32, there were no big league offers on the table, though the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League did give him a call. But Joe was realistic. He could uproot he and Dorothy and go to Frisco, but what would he gain from that? One last big baseball paycheck? He knew he'd never get further than the Pacific Coast League, and after that, what, maybe two or three more seasons as he pinballed his way back down to the Longhorn League level? Nah, he and Dorothy had found a home in Roswell, so he signed on the dotted line for the same salary he got in '54 and stayed with the Rockets.

Joe again led the league in homers, 48, though his average slipped to a more human .336. Over the winter, the ball player slipped in the snow and injured his ankle. Doctors told him that he'd need surgery to play ball so he voluntarily retired. But the Roswell fans wouldn't have it. Reluctantly, he signed for 1956. By early June he had hit 17 homers in 52 games, but the pain in his ankle hurt incessantly. He told a teammate he was having trouble seeing the ball, which in a league filled with young and wild pitchers meant big trouble for a target as big as Joe. So, on June 12, 1956, baseball's leader in single season home runs retired from the game.

Joe slipped right into the role of full-time gas station owner, eventually adding a second Texaco station to his service station empire. He briefly managed the Roswell Pirates minor league team in 1959, but he begged out halfway through the season. Joe later joined his father in law in a liquor store venture and then managing a beer distributor. Through it all, he and Dorothy lived in Roswell, the New Mexico town where he made history back in the summer of 1954. 

These days you hear so many stories about those old ball players who look back at the life they devoted to baseball and feel short-changed by the game they loved, but that's not what became of Joe Bauman. Ever since he broke the record in 1954 he's been the subject of countless articles trying to belittle in varying degrees his accomplishment, attributing it to bad pitching, light air, short fences, heck, even aliens. Heck, during the Barry Bonds/Sammy Sosa/Mark McGwire era some writers tried to equate Joe's B-12 vitamin boost to the steroids those juicers had pumping through their veins. Every so often a baseball writer would get a hold of the old champ in person to get his opinion on some young ball player who was challenging his record, or to be a part of one of those "where are they now" pieces papers like to run when news is slow. To the day he passed away in 2005, Joe remained modestly proud of his record, his memory untainted by any false illusions of his ability to get to the majors. Joe was a proud bush leaguer through and through, nothing more, but certainly nothing less.

This story was partially built from a very good interview Joe Bauman gave Tony Salin for his terrific book Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes: One Fan’s Search for the Game’s Most Interesting Overlooked Players. For both the Bauman story and the previous one on Bob Crues, Toby Smith's Bush League Boys: The Postwar Legends of Baseball in the American Southwest was instrumental for its small details such as the kind of beer Bauman drank (Miller High Life) as well as giving an invaluable look at life the Southwest bush leagues. It's a really well researched book and should be part of yor baseball library. Of course, the life’s blood of any great baseball history story are the original newspaper articles written during the time the events took place. Since Bauman's record was reported by all the major news outlets, there were plenty of newspaper stories from which I could build this story.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

235. Bob Crues: Chamberlined

No matter how you look at it, being second to achieve something just doesn’t hold the same weight as being the very first. After all, who remembers Clarence Chamberlin, right? Ol’ Clancy had the misfortune of being just a bit late on the draw when it came time to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean – Charles Lindbergh had done it two weeks earlier. Chamberlin’s flight was no less outstanding than Lucky Lindy’s; it’s just that it was done before. Lost in the record of Chamberlin’s not-so-epic flight is the fact that he had a passenger aboard, thus making him the first pilot to carry a passenger across the Atlantic. Sure, that was something, but when compared to being the first to ever fly solo across the pond, it just doesn’t hold the same weight.

If there were a Hall of Seconds, Clarence Chamberlin would surely have a plaque hanging in its gallery of heroes. Somewhere nearby would be another plaque, with the name “Robert Fulton Crues” engraved on it, along with the text explaining his home run record.

For Bob Crues, his shot at having his own place in history came down to one night in Amarillo back in 1948. For 138 games, “Home Run Bob” had ripped apart West Texas-New Mexico League pitching. He was batting just north of the magic .400 mark and he had broken professional baseball’s single-season RBI record months before. With one last game to play, Crues’ home run tally stood at 69. One more and he would break the record set by Joe Hauser in 1933.

Almost 5,000 fans packed Gold Sox Park to see what they hoped would be a new record being made. All the major news outlets had correspondents in the press box and photographers ringed the field. Look magazine was present, their team ready to pull the trigger on the first feature photo article on baseball’s new home run king. A rep from Wheaties stood in the wings, a fresh breakfast cereal endorsement contract with Bob Crues’ name on it waiting to be signed as soon as number 70 left the ballpark. That night, Bob Crues was just one swing away from fame.

Just two years earlier, the married father with one infant son returned home from the army hoping to reclaim some semblance of the baseball career he had before the war. The former Red Sox farmhand was now 27 years old and competing against not only all the returning GI’s, but also the new crop of hungry teenagers. For Crues, this would be the third time he would have to re-start his baseball life.

Life was never easy for Robert Fulton Crues. He was born in Frisco, Texas, just north of Dallas, but grew up in the state’s panhandle region. According to Toby Smith in Bush League Boys: The Postwar Legendsof Baseball in the American Southwest, Crues was an orphan. Most likely due to the negative light to which orphans were held back during the Depression, Crues kept this a secret throughout most of his life. Before he entered grade school, young Bob lost the tip of the index finger on his right hand when his curiosity got the best of him while exploring the water pumping mechanism of a windmill. Just like almost every young boy at the time, Bob learned to play baseball. Instead of his finger being a hindrance to his playing the game, the missing digit actually gave any ball he threw an unnatural break to it. To capitalize on this, Crues taught himself to throw a devastating knuckleball and curveball. The finger also made Crues adapt a unique batting style, holding the bat loosely in his grip. He later said that growing up, Babe Ruth was his idol. It was the perfect choice for like his hero, Crues would also go from a promising pitcher to a home run champion.

By the time he was in his late teens, Crues looked every inch like a man of the Panhandle: 6 foot tall and dark complexioned, strong and lean just like a cowboy from central casting. At the tail end of the 1939 season, the Lamesa Lobos of the West Texas-New Mexico League signed the 20 year-old. The loop was then a Class D league, meaning it was the very bottom of professional baseball. He got into just two games, going hitless in both. The next year Crues was signed by the league’s Borger Gassers. One of the Gassers’ pitchers was old-timer Wilcy Moore, 19 game winner on the 1927 Yankees. Moore took Crues under his wing and taught him how to pitch instead of just throwing the ball. That summer his knuckle and curve had the West Texas-New Mexico League’s hitters dumbfounded and he went 20 and 5 for the year. The Boston Red Sox snapped up the young ace and assigned him to their Scranton farm team for 1941. The Red Sox scouts must have thought very highly of Crues’ arm, because Scranton was in the Class A Eastern League, quite a large jump from Class D. It was while playing in an exhibition game in Greenville, South Carolina, that the first part of Bob Crues’ baseball career came to an abrupt end.

Sitting in the dugout, a wild pitch smashed into the shoulder of his pitching arm. The impact left him in extreme pain whenever he tried to throw his famed knuckle and curve. As proof of how much the team thought of their young prospect, the Red Sox sent Crues to different specialists around the country, yet no matter what doctors did to treat him, every pitch he threw was met with excrutating pain. Throughout 1941 and 1942, Crues took a tour of Boston's farm clubs, from the top down, trying in vain to pitch his arm back to health. Late 1942 found him back in the Class D West Texas-New Mexico league where he started.

The thing that saved Crues from being just another washed up sore-armed pitcher was the war. With the majority of able-bodied men channeled into the service, minor leagues throughout the country folded, including the West Texas-New Mexico League. Crues, now 24, found work at the Pantex Ordinance Works where he met and fell in love with his assembly line co-worker Billie Lane. The two married and began raising a family. Then, Bob’s draft notice came.

That Crues was drafted doesn’t come as a shock, it was 1943 and the Allies were gearing up for the invasion of Europe and every warm body counted. The odd thing is that the army still took him with the top of his trigger finger missing! As it worked out, Crues never got close to a battlefield. Before he finished training he was stricken with severe pneumonia and spent several months in the hospital. When he recovered, the Army shipped him to a base back in Texas. It was there that Bob Crues re-started his baseball career for the second time.

With no chance to serve overseas and nothing much to do, Crues found himself playing for the base’s baseball team. While his injured arm kept him from pitching, Crues discovered that batting cause no pain in his shoulder. The pitcher taught himself how to play the outfield and worked on his hitting skills. By the time the war ended, Crues had perfected his swing and was ready to give pro ball a second try. Problem was, so were thousands of other men recently cut loose from the service.

Now 27 years old with a well-documented injured arm and no experience beyond the low minors, Bob Crues was the last guy a big league team would think of signing. Fortunately for Crues, the old West Texas-New Mexico League opened up shop again. He signed with the Lamesa Lobos and played second base and outfield as well as a few painful tries on the mound. A contract dispute earned him an unconditional release, but fortunately there was another team in the league who wanted to give him a shot.

The Amarillo Gold Sox were owned by former major leaguer “Suitcase Bob” Seeds. As you can gather from his moniker, Seeds had a rambling career, playing for four teams during his nine-year career in the bigs. By 1946 Seeds had returned to Amarillo where his career began, and owned a sporting goods store as well as the town’s franchise in the West Texas-New Mexico League. When Seeds found out Bob Crues had been cut loose by the Lobos, the old ballplayer put him in a Gold Sox uniform. Thus saved from baseball oblivion, Bob Crues restarted his career for the third and final time.

The post-war West Texas-New Mexico League has become known for being a hitter’s paradise. The ballparks were small compared to the larger cities in the north, and most were configured to take advantage of the region’s southerly winds. Because pitchers are always in high demand, a league as low as West Texas-New Mexico only received the most inexperienced or ineffective ones. That isn’t to say the league’s pitchers were tossing softballs in the years following World War II; inexperienced and ineffective also means that many hurlers lacked control over their pitches, making it hard for a batter to get ahold of a ball good enough to hit for distance. That’s one of the circumstances that played to Bob Crues’ advantage. Because he wasn’t formally coached as a hitter and he had played two years of service ball hitting against inexperienced pitchers, Crues had developed into a “bad ball hitter.” That meant that not only was Crues used to facing pitchers who threw the ball all over the place, but where other batters would lay off a bad pitch, Crues hunted them down and sent them flying. As Eddie Carnett, former major league pitcher and Borger's manager in 1948 exclaimed: "he hits everything from his shoe-tops to his cap-bill!"

That first summer in Amarillo Bob Crues hit .341 and sent 29 balls into the stands, including three in one brutal payback game against Lamesa. As stated earlier, the West Texas-New Mexico League was a hitter’s loop, so Crues’ 29 paled in comparison with Gold Sox teammate Joe Bauman’s 48 home runs. The next season Crues came into his own, slugging 52 home runs with a .380 average. In that hitter’s league, it still wasn’t tops – future Chicago Cub Bill Serena hit 57 – but it did earn Crues a promotion to the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association. After doing well in spring training, Crues abruptly left the Travelers before the 1948 season began.

When he reappeared in Amarillo, Crues told reporters that he was homesick for his Texas home. Truth be told, his wife Billie had convinced her husband that dragging young children around the lower rungs of organized baseball was no way to raise a family. That, and Crues’ “advanced” age of 30 made it more than a long shot that he’d ever rise above AA level ball. So, Bob Crues suited up again for the Amarillo Gold Sox.

Right from the start, Crues was on fire. He sent ball after ball over the outfield wall. As Crues averaged a homer every other game, the fans were whipped up in a home run frenzy. As was the custom in the low minors and semi-pro baseball, fans would poke money through the chicken wire fence to show their gratitude after a home run, and that summer Bob Crues made a nice bundle from happy customers. His bank balance got a boost in August when he given an extra $200 after being voted the team’s most popular player.

On Friday, August 28, it was “Bob Crues Night” at Gold Sox Park. The slugger had just hit his 60th home run, tying the great Babe Ruth’s 1927 mark. Plus, the night before had seen the birth of the Crues’ second child, a son. Before the game, fans and local businesses showered the popular slugger with piles of gifts and cash. Even his Gold Sox teammates dipped into their own meager salaries and passed Crues a wad of cash. For his special night, the Amarillo News-Globe newspaper offered Crues a special bounty for hits during the game: $25 for a single, $50 for a double, $75 for a triple and $100 for a homer.

That evening Crues hit number 61, which along with a single earned him $125 from the Globe-News bounty. The slugger then rushed from the ballpark to the hospital where he spent time with Billie and his newborn son.

Lost in the long ball excitement was the tremendous number of RBIs Crues was wracking up during the 1948 season. The old pro-baseball record was 222 set by Tony Lazzeri in 1925. Lazzeri’s home ballpark in Salt Lake City was a notorious hitter’s paradise and the Pacific Coast League’s 200 game season played a part in the bloated RBI tally. On the other hand, while playing in cozy-sized parks with inexperienced pitching, the West Texas-New Mexico League played a modest 140 game schedule, a full 60 games less than Lazzeri had. Of course, a home run record is more respected than an RBI record. However, it is those runs batted in that win ball games, and it speaks highly of Crues’ hitting when it counted that made his performance in 1948 even more impressive. By the time Crues suited up for the final day of the season, he had completely obliterated Lazzeri’s record by more than 30 runs.

On Thursday, September 5, Crues hit home runs 68 and 69 off George Payte of the Pampa Sockers to tie Joe Hauser’s 1933 mark. That left only two games left to play, a Labor Day double header against the Lubbock Hubbers at home. Before the game, many thought that the record should already be recorded as being broken. Back in June, while on the road in Abilene, Crues smashed a ball that careened off the scoreboard mounted above the outfield wall and bounced back onto the field. Everyone, including the Abilene fans and players, saw that the ball had hit the scoreboard, which meant it was a home run. Everyone that is, except umpire Frank Secory who insisted it hit the wall below the scoreboard and ruled it a ground rule double. Since this was back in June when the home run record was still a distant dream, it is odd that the Abilene outfielders and the official scorer went out of their way after the game to convince Secory to change the ruling, which he did refused to do. Maybe it was just their sense of fair play that made the Abilene players try to give a home run to an opposing player, but in eerie hindsight, the ruling would have a huge effect on events that occurred more than two months later.

Atmospheric conditions in Amarillo were not ideal for Crues on the night of September 6. The local newspaper reported that a strong wind off the Texas prairie came from a northerly direction, blowing directly towards home plate. For his part, Bob Crues was confident in his chances that night. After an injury to his side slowed him down for three weeks after reaching number 61, he was on fire of late, especially after hammering two homers in the previous day’s game. So, with two games left in the season and fame just a swing away, Bob Crues was ready.

In his first time at the plate, he almost did it, the ball carrying all the way to the far corner of left field, only to hit the top of the fence and fall back in for a single. He then walked and hit another single in the 3-2 Gold Sox win. Crues was still in good shape, he had the nightcap left to hit one out of the park. As was common back then, the second game of the double header would be only seven innings. Going into the bottom of the 6th, Crues had managed nothing more than a single and several long balls that landed foul. With Lubbock up 3-1, the Hubbers decided to give Crues a final chance at the plate. Pitcher Red Ramsey walked a pair of Gold Sox before retiring the side. This made sure Crues would get a chance to bat in the final frame. In the bottom of the 7th, Crues was due up second. Lubbock put Don Moore on the mound and he walked the first batter. Now with Crues in the box, Moore had trouble getting the ball anywhere near the strike zone, and his control issues were even too much for a bad ball hitter like Crues. When he was finally able to get a handle on one, all it produced was a single. None-the-less, the single sparked a Gold Sox rally and Amarillo plated three runs to win 4-3.

By the time the game ended, Gold Sox Park had long emptied out. The Look Magazine crew packed up their equipment and the Wheaties man folded the unsigned contract and headed for the parking lot. Sure, 69 homers were something special, but Joe Hauser had already hit that number fifteen years earlier. Then there was the new RBI total, but RBIs are, well, RBIs, not home runs.

Bob Crues was Clarence Chamberlined.

There was, of course, the West Texas-New Mexico League Playoffs. Lost in the home run frenzy was the fact that the Gold Sox had finished first in the loop. In the ensuing four team “Shaughnessy” playoffs, Crues hit three more home runs, bringing his 1948 total to 73. But the playoffs were not regular season.

The headlines generated by Crues’ chase of the home run record led to his being drafted by the Jackson Senators, a Boston Braves farm team in the Southeastern League. However, the $250 a month being offered was unacceptable as Crues had a family to take care of. When the Braves didn’t didn’t improve their offer, he accepted a contract to play semi-pro ball for the Armour Chicken Processing Plant in Elk City, Oklahoma. When Armour didn’t honor their promised terms, Crues accepted a $500 contract to be player-manager of the Roswell Rockets of the Longhorn League. In his last solid season, the 30 year-old hit for a .365 average with 28 home runs. Crues’ playing skills deteriorated rapidly and he spent the next four summers bouncing from San Angelo to Lubbock, back to Amarillo and finally Borger, where he had his first good season in 1940.

By now the Crues family had grown to four boys. The old slugger did everything he could to bring home the best salary, jumping around from one promising job to another, mostly in the oil industry. For a time he and old Gold Sox teammate Joe Bauman owned competing gas stations in Roswell, and the friendly competitors sometimes played catch together on the street. Then, just as before, something better came along and the Crues family moved on. This nomadic life chasing the best opportunity lasted until 1965 when Bob Crues suffered a stroke. He was only 47.
The stroke left the old ballplayer needing to use a cane to get around. His son Ronnie told Toby Smith in Bush League Boys: The Postwar Legendsof Baseball in the American Southwest that his father fell apart after the stroke. He withdrew into his shell and considered himself a has-been. With his mobility cut down, Crues drank and smoked more heavily. The idle time on his hands pushed Crues into depression, troubled by his orphan heritage and convinced he hadn’t lived up to the potential he showed as a Red Sox prospect back before the war. In the years since 1948, the home run record he once shared with Joe Hauser had been not just equaled but eclipsed. No one remembered the RBI record.

Crues was rescued from the clutches of melancholy in 1975 when he was elected to the Panhandle Sports Hall of Fame. The old slugger was touched by being honored by the region in which he spent almost his entire life, and brought some renewed interest in his 1948 season.
Bob Crues retired in 1977 and returned to Amarillo, living out his final years in the town where he almost made history. He and Billie were watching TV on the night of December 26, 1986 when the 67 year-old ballplayer silently slumped forward in his easy chair and passed away.
Go ahead, take a minute and look it up. When you page past all the home run records you come to the Runs Batted In section. There, at the top of the list you can still find “Bob Crues, 254, Amarillo, 1948.”
For the record, this was one heck of a tough illustration to do! Even though Bob Crues made the record books back in '48, being second sure didn't ensure there would be any photographs for posterity. I was able to locate only one decent and clear photo, a shot basically one step better than a mugshot. If you look up the name "Bob Crues" on the internet, it will pop up multiple times. Being one whom always tries to be a bit different, I didn't want to just use that same over used photo. Going through 1946-1950 Texas sports pages, I was able to find a pair of semi-useable action shots that not only helped me get an idea of what Crues' batting stance and follow through looked like, but also aid me with the uniform details. In the photos I found it became obvious that the common mugshot photo made Crues look like he had a long, flat face. In the shots I found he actually had a well-shaped jaw and chin which you can't see in the usual headshot. Anyway, check back late next week and I'll bring out the final story of this Home Run Triptych.

Friday, November 3, 2017

234. Joe Hauser: Leave him alone, he's Our Joe!

For my next several posts, I thought I'd try something different. Ever since I began this blog back in 2010, I consciously made an effort to not have any rhyme or reason to the order in which I presented my stories. One week would bring the story of Negro League legend Leon Day and the next could be turn of the century Federal League player Guy Zinn or a 1930's Japanese baseball player. I like the freedom to present whomever I am interested in at the time, and I think those of you who keep checking back here, or have purchased my books, do as well.

However, while working on this most recent story, I thought it would be interesting to do a series of three (or, to draw on my fancy art school background: a "triptych"), focusing on the trio who held the professional baseball single-season record for most home runs before it was broken by the steroid-addled Barry Bonds in 2001. I wanted to go back to a time when home runs and their records actually meant something. When the numbers 60, 61, 714 and 755 evoked a sort of hushed reverence, a marker that was seemingly unattainable. In the years before the Major Leagues expanded exponentially, dozens of star-quality ballplayers were stranded in the high minors, trapped in second and third rate cities where they tallied seemingly impossible records for most wins, hits or home runs. Because they were achieved in the minor leagues, their names are mostly a footnote today, but if one looks under the blankets and in the deep recesses of baseball history, you'll find guys like Joe Hauser waiting to tell their story.

In the five and a half decades after he retired in 1942, Joe Hauser was the go-to man for "what if", "hard-luck" and "where is he now" baseball stories. Hauser's career stretched from the Deadball Era of Ty Cobb through the Roarin' Twenties of Babe Ruth and on into the hardscrabble Depression Era 1930's. That he lived to be 98 years old made him one of the most interviewed ballplayers and a direct and priceless link back to the game’s Golden Age.

Joe Hauser was born on January 12, 1899 to blacksmith Andreas Hauser and his wife Mary, also called “Mamie.” The couple had emigrated from Austria to Milwaukee’s German-speaking 19th Ward in the 1880’s, and Joe was the fourth of an eventual six children that made up the Hauser family. With a large amount of mouths to feed, Joe quit school at the age of 14 and began working in a mill that built cement mixers. Hauling the heavy machine parts strengthened his wrists and forearms, inadvertently giving Hauser the attributes that would later make him a power hitter. Like all kids in his Milwaukee neighborhood, Hauser grew up playing baseball on any available vacant lot. He eventually graduated from the sandlots to a semi-pro team in one of the city’s saloon leagues where he became a pitcher with a blazing fastball. Known for high strikeout games, Hauser became known as “Zep” or “Zip” for the velocity of his fastball. 

When he reached the age of 18, Hauser was recruited for a town team in Waupun, Wisconsin, where he played with and against men much older than him, many of which had previous minor league experience. When he began regularly striking out more than a dozen batters each game, he attracted the attention of Philadelphia Athletics owner and manager Connie Mack. Mack invited Hauser to the Athletics spring training in 1918, but the teenager proved to be too wild and raw to be any use for the Athletics. The kindly Mack paid for Hauser’s train ticket back to Milwaukee and $100 for his time, something that was rarely, if ever, done for failed prospects at the time.

When Joe got back to Milwaukee, his hometown Brewers signed him up. The Brewers played in the American Association, rated by organized baseball as an AA league, one level below the majors. Hauser was still too inexperienced for the AA level and he was optioned to the Providence Grays of the Eastern League. When he was unimpressive in his only outing on the mound, the Grays switched him to the outfield where he began hitting. After spending 1918 and 1919 in Providence where he batted .271 and .273 respectively, Hauser was recalled back to Milwaukee by the Brewers. While his average stayed well over .300, his fielding left much to be desired. At this time, Hauser acquired the curious nickname he’d have for the rest of his long life: “Unser Choe.” When fans at Milwaukee’s Borchert Field heckled or ridiculed Hauser’s play, the local German-American’s in the grandstand would yell back “leave him alone, das ist unser Choe!” “Unser Choe” was German for “Our Joe,” pronounced in the dialect particular to Milwaukee. 

Though his batting average was going up each season, his lackluster fielding threatened to keep him a bush league ballplayer for all eternity. Fortunately, Brewer’s manager Jack Egan came up with the brilliant idea to move the budding slugger to first base, and just like that, everything came together for Joe Hauser. When the Athletics came to Chicago to play the White Sox, Connie Mack traveled to Milwaukee to see Hauser play. Tipped off that the great man was in the stands, Unser Choe banged out four hits including a home run. The notoriously budget-conscious Mack shelled out a reported $50,000 and four players to obtain Hauser’s services for 1922. When his contract came in the mail early in 1922, Hauser sent it back to Mack, telling the Athletics owner he would have to boost the pay. It seems that the Brewers had promised a bonus to any player who hit a home run in Milwaukee, and Hauser wanted his money. Mack tried playing hardball with the brash rookie, telling him that his beef was with the Brewers and not the Athletics, but Unser Choe wouldn’t budge. Finally, with the Athletics headed to Fort Myers for spring training, Mack appealed to Henry Killilea, Brewers owner, to convince Hauser to sign. After fruitlessly chasing Hauser’s shadow all over Milwaukee, Killilea finally got the kid’s signature on a Philadelphia contract when he told him to either sign or be out of organized baseball. It worked, and Killilea bundled Hauser onto that evening’s train south to Florida.

Though he was untried at the big league level and lacked the polish of a veteran, Hauser had confidence in his talent. When he made mistakes, he listened intently to the advise of his teammates and Connie Mack, firm in his belief that he would never make the same mistake again. Won over by his positive attitude, the veterans on the Athletics took to the friendly Midwesterner, dubbing him “Dutch” for his German accented phrases.

Unser Choe played 111 games for the 1922 Athletics and hit big league pitching at a .323 clip. He recorded only 15 extra base hits, but 9 of them were home runs. When the Athletics came to Milwaukee to play an exhibition game, it was “Joe Hauser Day” at the Borchert Field, and the hometown hero was showered with gifts including a bowling ball and shoes to go with it. The next season his average dipped a bit, but he almost doubled his home run production, thus solidifying his place as the Athletics starting first baseman for the foreseeable future.

With baseball as his only profession, Hauser was careful to ensure that he was in top condition to practice his trade. He ate heartily - but in moderation, and kept himself to only a single beer when out with teammates - two when he really wanted to cut loose. He had also gotten married to Irene Kaye, lovingly called “Mama” by her husband. The couple set up house in Philadelphia where they lived in serene domesticity during the regular season. Mama would be by his side for the next 62 years as he traveled the country playing baseball. Back in Wisconsin during the off-season, Hauser played indoor baseball with Athletics teammate and fellow Milwaukeean Al Simmons to keep in shape. This strict regimen, plus his natural talent, combined to make 1924 Unser Choe’s breakout season.

Today, when one looks at the list of home run totals for 1924, Babe Ruth’s name appears at the number one spot, and just below him at number two is Joe Hauser. His 27 home runs that year was something of a feat, especially since the next highest total was 19. In fact, Unser Choe hit more home runs by himself that year than the entire Boston Braves (25) and Washington Senators (22) did collectively as a team. All those teenage years spent working in the cement mixer factory had made Hauser’s wrists into home run hitting machines. At just 25, Unser Choe looked like he had a long, successful big league career ahead of him, following in the wake of Babe Ruth as one of the game’s first power hitters.

Just before the 1925 season, the Athletics played their traditional “City Series” against the Phillies for the championship of Philadelphia. With no one on the bases, a Phillies batter hit a ground ball to the shortstop. As the fielder retrieved the ball, Hauser ran towards first to receive the throw and touch the base for the out. A simple, textbook play, one Hauser had executed hundreds of times – only this time something unexpected happened. For no apparent reason, Hauser’s right kneecap snapped in two pieces. Surgeons operated and managed to secure the two broken pieces with gold wire, then covered the whole leg with a cast to begin the long recovery process. With a long recuperation on the horizon and no guarantee he’d ever play ball again, Hauser was voluntarily retired from professional baseball and he and Irene returned to Milwaukee. When the cast was removed, Hauser tried to stay active, even appearing in exhibition games with the Athletics when they played close to Milwaukee. Mack sent him to farm team in Federalsburg, Maryland for a short time to work with young players. Hauser would draw on this brief experience many years later when he would become a minor league manager.

After sitting out the entire 1925 season, Hauser was pleased to report that by Christmas he was able to walk and move the knee with no perceivable side effects. That spring Hauser worked with Kid Gleason, former manager of the 1919 White Sox, now Connie Mack’s right hand man on the Athletics. Gleason had Hauser walk backwards, to strengthen the muscles. The walking evolved to running, and soon Gleason deemed Hauser ready for The Show again.

Unfortunately, the year off had played havoc with his batting eye, and Hauser was mentally not ready to subject his broken knee to rigors required of a big league first baseman. With his knee still stiff and bothered by the discomfort caused by the wires holding it together, Hauser batted a disappointing .192 after 91 games. For 1927, Mack sent him to the Kansas City Blues in exchange for their first baseman, Dud Branom. While in K.C., Unser Choe regained his home run swing and cemented his reputation as a long-ball prodigy. Kansas City’s Muehlebach Field was a home run hitter’s worst nightmare, with a right field wall some 400 feet from home plate, surmounted with a 30-foot fence. No one hit home runs out there – until Unser Choe came to play. When his blast cleared the wall, fans collected over $250 dollars to give to Hauser in recognition of his achievement. The next afternoon, Hauser repeated the feat, again raking in a couple hundred dollars from grateful fans.

That summer, Hauser really murdered the ball, bashing 49 doubles and 22 triples to go with his 20 home runs and gaudy .353 batting average. Dud Branom proved worthy of his nickname, Mack brought Hauser back to Philly in 1928, but by this time the Athletics were a much different ball club. With Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx, Joe Boley, Al Simmons, Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw, Mack had assembled what may have been the greatest dynasty in baseball history, winning three pennants and two World Championships from 1929 to 1931. The 1928 team featured the great Ty Cobb, now wrapping up his Hall of Fame career with Mack’s club. Hauser started the first month of the season hitting .375 with 7 homers, then he began to slump. Hauser later blamed his plummeting average on none other than Ty Cobb, who he claimed sabotaged his batting style with bad advice because he was jealous of being out-hit by Unser Choe. Cobb reportedly advised Hauser to crowd the plate, which just resulted in him fighting off pitches and robbing him of his greatest asset, those strong wrists and forearms. Why did Hauser listen to Cobb? Maybe because he was the greatest hitter ever to play the game and even at the age of 41 he would hit .323 that season.

With Hauser’s average sliding backwards and Jimmie Foxx moving from catcher to first baseman, Mack sold Unser Choe to the Cleveland Indians. Unfortunately, with future batting crown winner Lew Fonseca already ensconced at first base, Cleveland had no use for Hauser besides as an occasional pinch hitter. When all he could manage was .250 off the bench, Cleveland sold the now 30 year-old to the Baltimore Orioles.

Baltimore played in the International League, one of the three AA leagues that, like the American Association, were right below the majors. While many ballplayers would have been discouraged by the demotion, Unser Choe resigned himself to a minor league career. Part of his contentedness might have been that because of his major league contract, he was still drawing his big league paycheck. As the country slipped deeper into the Great Depression, the $6,500 salary took the sting out of being back in the minors. When he arrived in Charm City, Hauser took the advice of the team’s shortstop, Heine Sand, and switched to a slightly lighter bat. The lightened stick enabled Hauser to get around quicker on the ball, bringing to bear all the power of his wrists. That summer Unser Choe pounded home run after home run as he chased the professional baseball single-season home run record. While Babe Ruth set the major league record with 60 in 1927, several minor leaguers surpassed that total, the most recent being 62, set in 1926 by Moose Clabaugh. Aided a little by some of the league’s short fences, Hauser closed in on the magic number and bested it by a single round tripper, setting the bar at 63.

The next year when the Orioles were in New Orleans for a spring training exhibition game, a local radio station invited the new home run king to come into the studio and give a little talk over the airwaves. Since Joe was a school dropout at 14, he felt more comfortable having his wife Irene write a 16 sentence speech for him to read. More concerned with baseball than broadcasting, Unser Choe read the entire 16 sentences without pausing for any comma or period, finishing the speech in one mad dash. When asked about his breakneck reading after it aired, Unser Choe simply replied that it “wasn’t any use to stop and tag all the bases during the exhibition season.” It’s peculiar eccentricities like this that makes it a shame that Unser Choe wasn’t more of a success in the big leagues. With a vocabulary punctuated with phases like “gin!” and “yaaaaah!” when excited and “grab me?” to ask if one understood what he was trying to say, Hauser really was a sports writer’s dream come true.

Hauser finished the 1931 season again at the top of the home run leader’s list, though this time with a more human 31 homers. Troubled by a nagging groin injury, his average also buckled to a low .259. With his age now at the elderly 32 mark, Baltimore figured Unser Choe was on the downside of his career and put him up for sale. The Minneapolis Millers of the American Association snapped him up, a move that quickly paid off when he hit 49 home runs and brought his average back up to .303. His bat helped win the Millers win the 1932 pennant, where they faced the Newark Bears in the Junior World Series. In the 6-game loss to Newark, Hauser managed only 5 hits, but three of those were home runs.

1933 began with a crushing disappointment when Hauser received his new contract. Instead of the $6,500 salary his former big league contract ensured him, Unser Choe was now required to accept a standard minor league contract. The $2,400 number was quite a comedown, but with the country engulfed by unemployment, Hauser had no choice but to sign.

Perhaps smarting from the pay cut, Hauser began 1933 in a tough slump. No home run came off his bat in the team’s first nine games, all played on the road. In the Millers’ home opener, Unser Choe finally connected for a long-awaited home run, a three-run shot over the left field wall. The next afternoon Hauser pounded out three homers, including a grand slam, and never looked back. In June he had more than 30 to his credit; in July he homered in seven straight games and in early August broke the old American Association home run record of 54 - and the home runs kept coming. On August 20 he hit number 60, becoming the only man in the history of the game to record two seasons of sixty or more home runs. He ended the season with 69, the new single-season record for home runs. He also set the league record for total bases with 439 and led the league with 182 RBIs.

Now the Home Run King of the Minor Leagues, great things were expected from Joe Hauser in 1934, and from the start, he delivered. He hammered 17 home runs in the month of April, then injured his left knee - his good one, and sat out three weeks. Still, Hauser came roaring back and with 33 homers going into the last week of July, looked to be on a pace to eclipse his own record. Then, havoc struck. Rounding third and headed for home trying to score, Hauser collapsed in a heap, his left kneecap shattered into three pieces.

Unser Choe’s baseball career was effectively over.

When the knee healed enough to think about resuming some kind of baseball career, Unser Choe was in his late 30’s, ancient by baseball standards. His name and reputation was still potent enough that several low-level minor league teams offered him contracts, but the money was a far cry from his Minneapolis salary and not enough to support he and Irene. Then, the semi-pro Sheboygan Chairmakers offered Hauser a $300 a month contract to be their player/manager in 1938. The team soon joined the Wisconsin State League, and Hauser piloted the team to back-to-back pennants in 1940 and 1941. The war shut down the league and Hauser went to work outside baseball for the first time since he was a teen. After the war, Sheboygan became part of the Dodgers organization and Unser Choe managed his team to pennants in 1947, 48 and 51. By this time, another player had matched Unser Choe’s magic number of 69, and in 1954 his hallowed record would be broken. After a short stint with another Brooklyn farm club, Unser Choe and Irene returned to Sheboygan and opened up the Joe Hauser Sports Shop.

The Home Run King retired in 1984, and his beloved Irene passed away in 1986. The couple had made the decision early on not to have children because they did not want to subject them to the transient life of a ballplayer, so Hauser spent his twilight years more or less alone, with baseball fans and historians as his only company. And that seemed to be alright with Unser Choe, spending the last decade of his long life as one of the most entertaining bards of the old game, never tiring of telling the story of his unique place in baseball history to anyone who sought him out. 

Like most old time ballplayers, Unser Choe was both bemused and disgusted by the modern player. He never understood how players from opposing teams engaged in friendly interaction during games. In his time, when one had the other uniform on, you were the enemy. He found it silly when young fans asked him about Babe Ruth, implying that he must have been on great terms with the Yankees slugger. Hauser always insisted that that wasn’t the case. Sure, he said hello to the Bambino when he ended up at first base, but that was the extent of it. The Babe played for the Yankees and Unser Choe was an Athletic. It was as simple as that. Watching the prolonged curtain calls, fist-pumps and backslapping that now went on after every single major league home run, Hauser reflected on how in his time, there was none of that. One just ran around the bases and returned to the dugout, waiting and hoping to do it again.

This story was partially built from several very good interviews Unser Choe gave during the last few decades of his life, in particular the one included in Tony Salin’s terrific book Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes: One Fan’s Search for the Game’s Most Interesting Overlooked Players. Also, Norman Macht’s Connie Mack: The Turbulent and Triumphant Years, 1915-1931 contains some great material on Joe Hauser and how well respected he was by the Athletics’ manager. Both those books are must have’s for any baseball library. Of course, the life’s blood of any great baseball history story are the original newspaper articles written during the time the events took place. Since Joe Hauser and his minor league home runs were such great news back in the 1930’s there are many detail-packed feature stories on the ball player to be found in Milwaukee, Baltimore and Minneapolis papers.

Stop back late next week when I bring you the second of this three part feature on the single-season home run kings of yesteryear…