SABR

Truck Hannah

This article was written by Terry Bohn.

Right-handed-hitting catcher Truck Hannah was one of only a handful of players to record a hit in five separate decades of professional baseball. He broke in with Tacoma in 1909 and got his last hit in Organized Ball with Memphis in 1940. Hannah was the New York Yankees’ regular catcher in 1920, and had a ringside seat as teammate Babe Ruth smashed his own American League home-run record. Ringside in another sense as well: It was said that in several of the now famous altercations between the Babe and manager Miller Huggins, Hannah often interceded and acted as peacemaker.

Long after his retirement, Hannah was such a celebrity in Southern California that he was asked to catch the ceremonial first pitch on April 27, 1961, when the Los Angeles Angels franchise played its first home game. Hannah also caught the attention of at least one U.S. president. In a 1983 interview, Richard Nixon commented, “I remember Truck Hannah. He was a great catcher and could hit.” As a youngster, Nixon watched him play and manage the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. Nixon and Truck’s daughter, Helen, were classmates at Whittier (California) High School.

Hannah’s daughter may have led a more interesting life than her ballplaying father. Helen Lorraine (Hannah) Campbell was one of the first women in Los Angeles to enlist in the Marine Corps during World War II, and retired from the Marine Corps Reserve in 1975 after 32 years of service. She was also a chaperone for several years with the Muskegon and Kalamazoo teams in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, the league that inspired the 1992 movie A League of Their Own. At the age of 75 she went parasailing for the first time and at 78 sailed over Africa's Serengeti plains in a hot-air balloon. She died in 2013 at the age of 97.i

James Harrison Hannah Jr. was born on June 5, 1889, in Larimore, North Dakota, a small community in the northeastern part of the state near Grand Forks. His parents were James J. and Elizabeth (Dougherty) Hannah. To avoid confusion with his father, James was given the nickname Harry. At about the time of his second birthday, the Hannahs moved to Seattle, Washington. The 1900 US Census shows that Elizabeth was alone in raising Harry and two younger sisters, Margaret and Marion. No further information could be found about Harry’s father.

Many theories were put forward as to how Hannah acquired the nickname Truck. Some said it was because of the way he blocked the plate. Other explanations were that “he’s built like one and is made for endurance” and “he’s large and strong, able to work like a truckhorse.”ii Still another possibility was that he drove a truck for a dray business during one offseason. Regardless of origin, it was an apt name for the 6-foot-1 inch, 190-pound receiver.

At the age of 20, Hannah was spotted by “Honest John” McCloskey, then one of the best judges of baseball talent in the country. He began his professional career in 1909 with the Tacoma Tigers in the Northwestern League. He started out as a third baseman, but when Tacoma needed an emergency catcher, Truck gave it a try and took to the new position naturally. After a year at Calgary in the Western Canada League, he had a brief tryout with the Detroit Tigers in 1911, but was thought not yet ready for the major leagues.

Hannah was recruited by McCloskey in 1911 to play for the Butte (Montana) Miners of the Union Association. McCloskey was named manager of this new franchise, and he helped Hannah blossom as a player. Hannah batted .307 and was promoted to the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association for the next season. After 86 games with the Lookouts, he was transferred to the Spokane Indians.

In 1914 Hannah began the first of 20 years he would play in the PCL, considered by many at the time to be a third major league. Salaries were comparable to those in the major leagues, and many star players chose to stay with their PCL teams rather than play in the majors.

After playing with Sacramento and Mission (San Francisco) in 1914, Hannah was recruited by a new franchise in the league, the Salt Lake City Bees, in 1915. In an exhibition game against the Chicago White Sox on March 8, he batted against future Hall of Famer Ed Walsh in the sixth inning with the bases loaded and the Bees down by a run. Hannah cleared the bases with a double and the Bees won. Near the conclusion of that season, on September 15, 1915, Truck’s wife, Helen (they had been married on November 27, 1912, in Seattle), gave birth to their daughter, Helen, the Hannahs’ only child.

Hannah caught the attention of major-league scouts as early as 1916; one scout, Dad Meek, rated him the best catching prospect in the PCL. In August Philadelphia Phillies owner William Baker offered to trade his slugging outfielder, Gavvy Cravath, to the Bees for Hannah. Salt Lake City manager Cliff Blankenship insisted that cash be included in the deal. Baker refused and the trade was never made. Hannah stayed with the Bees for four seasons (1914-1917), catching an amazing 185 games in his final season, including 102 in a row at one point.iii

Salt Lake City had an agreement with the St. Louis Browns under which the Browns were to have first choice of the Bees’ players. Salt Lake City management didn’t think Browns general manager Branch Rickey’s offer for Hannah was high enough, and a clause in the agreement made the Bees free to negotiate with other organizations. After the 1917 season, the Yankees offered $4,000 for Hannah, and the Bees accepted.iv

Hannah was invited to the Yankees’ 1918 spring training camp in Macon, Georgia. Originally he was slated to battle with another rookie catcher, Muddy Ruel, for the backup role to incumbent Al Walters. However, Walters was injured and began the season on the disabled list. Hannah was the Yankees’ Opening Day catcher and worked in ten of the team’s first 12 games. He was batting over .300 and was described as “the best catcher that has come into the American League in two years.”v But he cooled off considerably, and finished the season batting just .220 in 90 games.

Although he had little foot speed, Hannah had a reputation as a smart baserunner. However, in a game in June 1919, he was victimized by a clever play by Cleveland center fielder Tris Speaker. Truck had reached second base in the third inning. When the shortstop and second baseman took their regular positions, he took his lead off the bag. Meanwhile, Speaker sneaked in behind him from center field, took a pickoff throw from the pitcher, and tagged Hannah out.vi For the 1919 season, Hannah batted .238 in 75 games for the Yankees.

The big news during the 1919-1920 offseason was the Yankees’ acquisition of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox. The Yankees now considered themselves favorites for the American League pennant, and Huggins, lacking confidence in both Ruel and Hannah, tried to add a more seasoned catcher during the winter. A multiplayer deal with the Red Sox that would have sent Boston’s receiver, Wally Schang, to New York, with Hannah going to Boston, was turned down by the Red Sox. Huggins also considered trading Hannah for an outfielder in an attempt to improve the team’s speed. When no deal could be made, Hannah had a bit of leverage over the club and briefly held out for an increase in salary in the spring of 1920. But he and California Winter League teammate Bob Meusel finally arrived at camp in Jacksonville on March 6 (the train trip from the West Coast to Florida took five days) and signed his contract.

During the first part of the season, Hannah was the Yankees’ regular catcher, with Ruel in a backup role. In a 14-8 Yankee win over Chicago on May 12, Hannah and pitcher Bob Shawkey each got two hits in the seven-run sixth inning, the first time in the major leagues that a pitcher and catcher had each got two hits in the same inning. In early August Hannah was suspended by American League President Ban Johnson for arguing with home-plate umpire Bill Dineen. Ruel took over behind the plate and played more than Hannah the rest of the season, as the Yankees tried unsuccessfully to overtake Cleveland for the AL pennant. Hannah hit .247 in 79 games in 1920, which turned out to be his last season in the majors. In January 1921 the Yankees traded Hannah, pitcher Ernie Shore, and two minor leaguers to Vernon (a small town next to Los Angeles) of the PCL for a hot shortstop prospect named Johnny Mitchell. Hannah actually welcomed the trade, because he could now live near his home in Southern California year-round.

Hannah hit just .235 with a disappointing five home runs in his three major-league seasons with New York. Some said the high altitude in many of the PCL ball parks had artificially inflated his minor-league batting statistics. More likely, right-handed hitters like Hannah were victimized by Yankee Stadium. Truck hit .262 on the road, compared with .207 in his home ballpark. His slugging percentage was 100 points higher on the road (.349) than at home (.249).

It was Hannah’s work behind the plate that is most remembered. He had a strong throwing arm, studied opposing batters’ tendencies, and was considered a good handler of pitchers. During his time in the minors, Truck caught future major-league pitchers Harry and Stan Coveleski, Burleigh Grimes, Claude “Lefty” Williams, and Dutch Reuther.vii

Hannah also tried to get into the head of opposing batters and often succeeded. He constantly talked to the batter, trying to take his concentration off the pitcher. When this did not work, he would tip the bat just as the pitch was being delivered, toss pebbles onto the batter’s shoes, or spit tobacco juice on his feet.

Ty Cobb was one player who didn’t appreciate Hannah’s constant chatter. When Truck was a rookie, Cobb said, “This fellow Hannah of the New York club keeps me busier at the plate than any other catcher in the league. I don’t like letting a recruit outtalk me, and in my effort to keep my end of the conversation, I had my work cut out for me making base hits off those Yankee pitchers.”viii

Hannah also played baseball year-round. One winter he worked in the California oilfields and played on the company team, the Standard Murphys. He also played in the California Winter League in several offseasons.ix (It was the only integrated league in the country.)

Hannah played in Vernon from 1921 through August of 1925, when he was purchased by Portland. A few weeks after he arrived in Portland, the last-place Beavers fired their manager, Duffy Lewis, and Hannah replaced him. His managerial debut was short-lived as that offseason Truck was on the move again, traded to the Los Angeles Angels, with whom he spent the next 13 years.

Besides working as the Angels regular catcher, Hannah was named assistant to Los Angeles manager Marty Krug. When Jack Lelivelt was named manager of the Angels in 1929, Hannah became his player-coach. By 1932, now over 40 years old, Truck found his catching days mostly behind him, and instead he concentrated on his coaching duties, working with the Angels’ pitchers, and scouting. Although still on the active roster, he was put in charge of uncovering new players for a minor-league team the Angels hoped to start.

Hannah also kept busy away from the ball field. In 1925 he and a number of other West Coast players organized the Association of Professional Ball Players of America, whose stated mission was to “provide a home for the crippled and aged players.”x While living in Los Angeles, he became friends with many people in the movie industry and played himself in two film comedies, Warming Up in 1928 (one of Paramount’s first talkies) and Fast Company in 1929.

In November 1935 Dizzy Dean’s Major League All-Stars came to Los Angeles on a barnstorming tour. Dizzy would not pitch to a major-league catcher (perhaps for competitive reasons), so Hannah was coaxed into catching Dean. He stroked an RBI single in the ninth inning to lead the All-Stars to a 5-4 win over the Royal Colored Giants.

Truck had the chance to sign a young outfielder just out of high school named Ted Williams. But Hannah and Williams’s father, Sam, couldn’t come to terms, and Ted signed with San Diego instead. Had the two been able to agree on a deal, Williams might have played his career in Chicago (Los Angeles was an affiliate of the Cubs) instead of in Boston.

During his time in Los Angeles, Hannah had the opportunity to watch a young Joe DiMaggio get his start with the San Francisco Seals. Truck predicted stardom for DiMaggio, saying, “They’ll be comparing him to Speaker and Hooper and those fellows in a year or two.”xi

In 1937 Hannah replaced Jack Lelivelt as manager of the Angels, and during his three seasons as skipper (1937-1939), the team finished fifth, first, and third. His 1939 team tied a league record by winning 19 games in a row in April. But the Angels slumped badly after that, and by August it was rumored that Hannah would not be invited back the next year. The Cubs organization was displeased with the way he was developing young players, particularly his shortstop, Dick Bartell. The rumors proved true; Hannah was let go by the Angels after the season.

In 1940 Hannah was hired as manager of the Memphis Chicks in the Southern Association. On May 19, 1940, just short of 51 years old, he put himself in the lineup and caught both ends of a doubleheader against Nashville. He went 1-for-6 in the two games, collecting his last hit as an active player. Under his direction, the Chicks finished in third place. They slipped to seventh in 1941, and Hannah was let go after the season. In 1942 he became the manager of the St. Paul Saints in the American Association. The Saints had good players, but never seemed to jell as a team. In midseason, after the team had lost 15 straight games, 11 of them by one run, Hannah resigned. He said he “did not feel justified in accepting my salary with the team in last place and losing money.”xii He said he “couldn’t sleep” as he replayed games over and over in his head.

Hannah retired to his ranch in Pico Rivera, near Whittier in Southern California. In 1943 he was named one of the charter members of the PCL Hall of Fame. At the time, he was the league’s career leader among catchers in putouts, assists, and chances accepted. In his later years he participated in old-timer’s games and in reunions with friends from his time as a player and manager with Los Angeles.

Hannah died on April 27, 1982, from a chronic urinary infection and heart disease at Valley Convalescent Hospital in Huntington Beach, California. He was 92 years old. He was cremated.xiii Six months later, in October 1982, his wife, Helen died.

In an interview in 1938, when his catching days were mostly over, Hannah estimated that he had caught 2,700 professional games and that he had broken every finger on his right hand at least twice, but said, “What the hell, that was all part of the game.” He went on to say “Well, it sure was fun while it lasted. Even with busted hands and fingers and everything else, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”xiv

 

Sources

Unless otherwise noted, most of the information in this biography was taken from a column written by Curt Eriksmoen in the Bismarck (North Dakota) Tribune. A reprint can be found at http://bismarckbaseballboosters.com/?id=41.

McNeil, William, The California Winter League: America’s First Integrated Professional Baseball League (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2011).

Bismarck (North Dakota) Tribune

Lawrence (Kansas) Journal World

Lima (Ohio) Sunday News

New York Evening World

New York Sun

New York Times

Oakland Tribune

Orange County Register (Santa Ana, California)

Portland Oregonian

Syracuse Herald

Ancestry.com

Baseball-reference.com

Familysearch.com

 

Notes

i Helen Hannah Campbell obituary, published in the Orange County Register, March 30, 2013.

ii New York Times, June 3, 1918.

iii New York Sun, March 17, 1918.

iv New York Sun, February, 2, 1918.

v Portland Oregonian, May 12, 1919.

vi New York Evening World, June 21, 1919.

vii New York Sun, February 2, 1918.

viii Lima (Ohio) Sunday News, January 12, 1919.

ix William McNeil, The California Winter League: America’s First Integrated Professional Baseball League (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2011).

x Oakland Tribune, July 21, 1925.

xi Syracuse Herald, March 31, 1936.

xii Lawrence (Kansas) Journal World, July 6, 1942

xiv Oakland Tribune, July 11, 1938.

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