Donald Wayne Hankins, a tall, lanky right-hander who suffered a broken elbow as a teenager, enjoyed an 11-year professional baseball career — including ten seasons in the minors — during the 1920s. Hankins finished with a lifetime minor league record of 75-87. But during the four seasons he hurled in the Double-A (the highest classification of the time) International League plus another with St. Paul of the American Association, Hankins often pitched well, producing a 53-55 ledger at the Double-A level. His best season came in 1926 with the International League’s Newark club, where he fashioned a 16-7 record and helped lead the Bears to a third-place season. Sold to the Detroit Tigers for 1927, Don contributed to the Motor City ball club with a 2-1 record and two saves in 20 games.
Born February 9, 1902, in Pendleton, Indiana, a farming community northeast of Indianapolis, Don was one of four children of Ora and Mary Hankins. The couple had one daughter, Mildred, who was followed by three sons: Newell, Don, and Maurice. Ora, principled and pleasant, held a degree in civil engineering from DePauw University. He also attended divinity school. Although never ordained, he took an active role in the local Methodist congregation. When Don was four, the family moved to Brooksville, Florida, north of Tampa, where his father was head of the water department. Like many housewives, Mary Hankins, a stern mother, spent her life raising children, taking care of the household, and supporting her husband.
Growing up in a region where several major league clubs trained during the spring, Don was fascinated with baseball by the time the Great War began in 1914. But he suffered a bad accident. Climbing in a grape arbor on the family’s farm, the teenager fell and broke his right elbow. Knowing he would be punished by his mother, Don covered up the fall. A couple of days later, in severe pain, he confessed the accident. A local doctor set the joint on the Hankins’ kitchen table, but Don’s elbow never healed correctly. Although unknown at the time, he had bone chips in the joint — his pitching arm — until he had surgery during the late 1930s to repair the damage. In fact, the remarkable point about Hankins’ baseball career is that he was able to pitch well, including at the major league level, despite suffering from an ongoing sore elbow. Whenever the right-hander threw for any extended period, bone chips could work loose in the elbow, and he would experience numbness and pain in the index and middle fingers of his pitching hand — a circumstance that affected his strength, speed, and control. The injury also caused him to avoid throwing a curve, since the twisting motion of the arm and wrist made his elbow sore.
As a teenager Don worked on the family’s truck farm, which produced vegetables that were sold in Brooksville or shipped to New York City. But when major league spring training began, Hankins sometimes slipped away to a nearby ballpark and watched the players. Training camps were more informal and less publicized in that era, and youths like Don often helped by shagging flies in the outfield –a fun duty that got them into the ballpark. According to Don’s son, Bob Hankins, speaking in a 2007 interview, his father — who often pitched sandlot ball in nearby Brooksville — got to throw batting practice for at least one major league team training in the Tampa region. Tall and slender at 6’3″ and 180 pounds in his prime, Don was strong, physically fit, and displayed a good fastball and change-of-pace. Talented, hard-working, and persistent, the young man with sharp gray eyes and jet black hair developed a lifelong passion for baseball. Fortunately for him, Tampa fielded one of six teams in the Class C Florida State League. Based on Don’s reputation for pitching, Tampa signed the 19-year-old late in the 1921 season. Thus, the Indiana native took the first step toward fulfilling his boyhood baseball dream.
In 1921 Tampa compiled a 60-54 record in the Florida State League. Managed by Tommy Leach, the Smokers finished second, 8.5 games behind first-place Orlando. Minor league records for the 1920s are often incomplete, and first names are not always stated. Available information indicates Hankins posted a record of 1-1, pitching 22 innings, striking out nine batters, and issuing six bases on balls.
In 1922 Tampa slipped, posting a 54-60 record and dropping to fourth place, 15 games behind first-place St. Petersburg. Again piloted by Tommy Leach, Tampa had three pitchers who won at least 14 games. Cesar Alvarez, who led the league in strikeouts with 151, produced a 14-15 record. Jim Black led the Smokers with an 18-11 mark, and Frank Riel was 16-18. Hankins finished at 7-14 in his first full pro season. The tall right-hander pitched 206 innings in 34 games, mostly starts, fanned 105, and walked 95 batsmen. Tampa’s club again featured good hitting, but with little power. Baseball was still dominated by teams that produced base hits, stolen bases, bunts, hit-and-run plays, and good fielding. But the game was changing, thanks notably to the prodigious home run slugging of Babe Ruth. When Hankins pitched for the Tigers in 1927, Ruth set baseball’s most famous record of 60 home runs — and one came off the Brooksville right-hander.
In 1923, after working on the farm during the offseason, Hankins signed for $350 a month with the Lakeland Highlanders, also of the Florida State League. His former skipper, Tommy Leach, also came to Lakeland and managed the club to a third place finish with a 60-55 mark, 17½ games behind first-place Orlando. John Luther paced the pitching staff with a 19-8 record, Roy Craig compiled a 13-15 mark, and Hankins was next at 11-5, marking his first winning season. Walt Ammons was the team’s best hitter with a .369 mark and five home runs, Tom Gulley batted .349 with four homers, and three other batsmen surpassed the .300 mark.
Hankins often pitched in pain due to periodic problems with his elbow. Still, his competitive attitude, obvious talent, and gritty determination launched him on a solid pro career. But when his contract was assigned to Class A Chattanooga of the eight-team Southern Association in 1924, Don was overmatched on the mound, including by many of his teammates. Chattanooga took sixth place with a 63-89 season, and Manager Les Nunamaker‘s staff was led by George Cunningham, who was 17-13, Ted Wingfield, who went 11-6, and Duke Sedgwick at 10-14. Bothered by periodic elbow pain, Hankins ended up with a 3-10 record. His three wins were hardly big news.
Still, the Brooksville hurler showed enough promise for Wichita of the Class A Western League to purchase his contract for 1925. But in late April, after two appearances totaling 2.1 innings, Hankins was traded to Reading, Pennsylvania, of the Double-A International League. The eight-team International would be Don’s league for five of the next six seasons — and Reading the town where he later met his future wife. In 1925 Hankins started strong for Reading, but when the season was over, his record was 10-13. He logged a 5.37 ERA, working 176 innings in 36 games. The Keystones, or Keys, fielded an improved ball club. In the end, Reading ranked fifth with a 78-90 record, 28 games behind the league-leading Baltimore Orioles.
The Keys flashed bright spots. Shortstop Moe Berg, the future big league catcher playing his third minor league season before embarking on a 15-year major league career, averaged .311, hit nine home runs, and paced the club with 124 RBI. The good hitters included Chick Shorten (later playing manager), who hit .339 with two home runs and 58 RBI, and Polly McLarry, who averaged .308 with 14 homers and 95 RBI. Reading featured solid hurlers. Tex Wilson posted a record of 16-15, Clyde Schroeder was 14-12, and Tim McNamara went 11-17.
On Thursday, May 7, Hankins started at Syracuse and “received his International League baptism in defeat,” according to the Reading Eagle. Don worked seven innings, gave up a pair of clutch home runs, and lost to the Stars, 6-1. Five days later he appeared in relief in a game at Buffalo, where he pitched 1.2 innings and blanked the Bisons, but Reading lost, 6-1. Later, pitching in a Sunday doubleheader at Jersey City on May 17, southpaw Clyde Schroeder and Hankins led Reading to a pair of victories. Don hurled the second tilt and lasted 6.2 innings (IL rules then limited the second game of a twin bill to seven innings), gaining credit for the 6-4 victory and improving his IL mark to 1-1. The “Deacon,” as local sportswriters and teammates often called the straitlaced Indiana native, then won four straight games and six of his next seven decisions.
Hankins’ second win, by a 4-2 margin, came on Thursday, May 21, in Reading when he tossed a six-hitter against Jersey City. William T. Reedy, sports editor of the Reading Eagle, said Hankins showed good form and could have pitched a shutout save for a “fluke” two-run home run by Lew Malone in the third inning. Don gave up only two more hits, but his control was “wobbly” near the end. “The new pitcher was inclined toward wildness throughout the game,” Reedy observed, “passing seven batsmen to first on balls, but he was invincible in the pinches.” Hankins continued to win, despite control problems that caused him to walk 88 batters while fanning 48 for the season. Six days later, on Wednesday, May 27, the right-hander hurled a complete game and spaced seven hits, defeating Providence, 2-1, in the opener of a doubleheader.
Four days later Don won again, this time stopping Jack Dunn‘s Baltimore Orioles, 5-3, and Reading climbed into fourth place. Hankins pitched well, spacing six hits, walking five, and striking out three, until his control “wobbled” in the seventh. Good relief work by Gomer Wilson, who allowed the final run, saved Hankins’ victory. On June 4, in the sweltering heat of early summer, Don won his fifth straight contest, 8-5, tossing a complete game at Providence. While he gave up only five hits, the Grays scored five times, thanks to eight Reading errors mixed with Hankins’ three bases on balls. Still, the Keys claimed their eighth straight victory and Don earned his fifth straight win.
But on Saturday, June 6, Hankins slipped, losing in relief to Toronto, another league powerhouse. Playing at Toronto, Tim McNamara worked nine innings, leaving with a 2-2 score. In the tenth frame Hankins, who came out of the pen with one out, gave up one hit and two runs. Two days later in Toronto, Hankins started the second game of a doubleheader, working 2.2 innings and allowing eight hits. Reading went on to win, 10-6, but he got no decision.
Hankins, a tough competitor, rebounded by winning three of his next four outings. On June 22 he fell to Baltimore, 11-4, lasting only 4.2 innings, surrendering 10 hits and six walks. But in the second game of a twin bill on Friday, June 26, he pitched a complete game, winning 7-4 over Jersey City. With the Keys trailing 4-3 after the visitors scored three times in the top of the fifth, Reading’s Heinie Scheer unloaded a two-run triple to right field in the bottom of the inning to cap a four-run rally. Hankins pitched shutout ball for the final two innings to earn victory number eight.
For the remainder of the season, however, Hankins struggled. He won only twice while losing ten times, giving him a final record of 10-13. On April 24, 1926, sports editor Frank J. Fagan’s story in the Newark Star-Eagle said once the right-hander won seven straight for Reading in 1925, the manager “began throwing him in whenever a pitcher got wobbly. The result was Hankins’ arm went lame.” Actually, the reference probably indicates Don aggravated his elbow in July, and it lasted for the rest of the IL campaign.
Hankins returned to Brooksville after baseball ended, as he did throughout the 1920s, helping out on the family’s farm. For 1926 he finally signed with Newark, also of the International League, on April 6. Don reported to the Bears, worked hard in spring camp, and pitched in three exhibition games, the last a 9-7 win over the Philadelphia Phillies on April 11.
As the regular season developed, Newark’s staff featured five top flingers, to borrow a term then current with sportswriters. Hankins was among the top three, producing a 16-7 season and a career-best 3.73 ERA. The Indiana Deacon, as the Reading papers would dub him, appeared in 37 games, mostly starts, pitched 210 innings, issued 73 bases on balls, struck out 68 batters, and saved three games with clutch relief work. His top pitching partners, also right-handers, included Al Mamaux, who finished at 19-7 with a 2.22 ERA, Roy Chesterfield, who was 13-12 with a 3.76 ERA, Art Decatur, who went 13-6 with a 4.28 ERA, and Joe Zubris, who posted marks of 11-10 and 4.30.
In 1926 the Bears excited the fans with good hitting. The big gun was Lew Fonseca, who topped the club with a .381 average, 21 homers, and 126 RBI. But the 5’10½” right-handed batter had already played five seasons in the majors. After his hiatus with Newark, Fonseca returned to the big leagues and played seven more seasons. Other good batsmen included Chick Shorten, the former Key, who averaged .332; Joe Brown, who hit .306 with 10 homers and 95 RBI; Nelson “Chicken” Hawks, who batted .297 with five circuit clouts and 97 RBI; and Wes Kingdon, who hit .298 with 13 home runs and 70 RBI. The club had a shot at the pennant. But the pitching staff was overworked in the long season, and Newark finished third with a 99-66 record, 9.5 games behind first-place Toronto.
Hankins started the regular season slowly, picking up two no-decisions and three losses in his first five appearances for Newark. His first stint came in relief in the team’s second game, played on a chilly day at Newark City Stadium, when the Bears won an 18-10 slugfest over Buffalo. When Hankins strolled out of the bullpen to relieve Walt Smallwood with two outs in the top of the third, the home team led, 8-7. Newark scored seven more times in the third, taking a 15-7 lead. Don stopped the Bison rally, finished the game, and saved the victory. Smallwood got credit for the win, and Hankins went 2-for-4 on the afternoon, hitting his only home run of the year.
After working four innings in relief of starter Al Mamaux in a 10-inning 7-6 home loss to Toronto on April 21, the Deacon lost his next three games, all starts. On May 4 he pitched well in a 2-1 defeat, losing on an error in the tenth. Newark couldn’t get a clutch hit in several scoring tries to support his “wonderful pitching,” said Frank J. Fagan of the Newark Star-Eagle. “Hankins, save the third inning, had everything, speed, control and a change of pace that was baffling.”
After new Davids Stadium opened in Newark, Hankins boosted Bears by tossing four straight wins, starting with a complete-game victory at Reading on May 22. Scattering six hits and pitching tough with runners aboard (he issued five free passes), Hankins’ performance led the Bears to victory, 6-1. Five days later, pitching at home, Hankins cruised to his second win, 13-5. The Bears rapped 16 hits, including two doubles by Chicken Hawks and two singles by Hankins. Pitching at Jersey City on June 1, Hankins won again, 5-3. After wobbling during a three-run fourth, he blanked the home club, and the Bears battled back from a 3-1 deficit to win.
On Sunday, June 6, Hankins won (under the scoring rules of the day) his fourth game by dropping the Orioles in Baltimore, 6-4. Newark trailed in the top of the ninth, and Ed Tomlin, batting for Hankins, walked. George Burns hit his third double of the day, tying the score at 4-4, and the Bears, buoyed by the relief work of Roy Chesterfield, won with a two-run rally in the tenth. But against visiting Toronto four days later, Hankins lost, 8-2, being “walloped” for four runs in the first inning.
From that point forward, Hankins was the anchor of Newark’s staff. The tall right-hander, who always said he would start or pitch in relief at a moment’s notice, won five in a row. Beginning on June 15, Don pitched well, whipping Rochester at Davids Stadium, 5-1, on three hits. Displaying “perfect control and speed,” said the Star-Eagle, Hankins no-hit the visitors for seven frames, allowed a pop fly single down the right field line in the eighth, and surrendered a solo run in the last inning. The Bears, meanwhile, parlayed nine hits into a pair of two-run innings for the victory.
The Deacon finally faltered on July 7, starting and working only three rounds in an 8-6 win over visiting Jersey City. He allowed six hits, three bases on balls, and four runs. But Lew Fonseca paced Newark with a homer and triple as the Bears’ batsmen combined for 16 hits and won behind the relief pitching of Cy Twombley. But the next day, after Joe Zubris started and lasted just one-third of an inning, Hankins came on in relief and saw his hard stuff pounded for seven hits and four runs in two-thirds of a frame. Syracuse won, 11-5, but not before manager Fred Burchell sent three more hurlers to the mound in a vain effort to stop the damage. But Frank J. Fagan wrote, “One thing about Hankins. He is always wiling to respond to action no matter what the situation, although he would like to take his turn in the box every four days like Mamaux and Tomlin.”
Given rest, the stellar right-hander came back with another remarkable string, collecting two saves and seven wins in fourteen outings — before dropping a 3-2 heart-breaker at Rochester on September 5. One of his best highlights came with a four-hit 3-0 shutout at Buffalo on July 14. On August 1, before a record 18,663 fans in the opener of a twin bill against Baltimore, Hankins gave up two scratch singles in an “airtight” performance to win his twelfth contest, 4-1.
Finally, on September 15, after dropping two games and hurling a 2-2 tie, Hankins claimed his sixteenth victory at home against Reading . Meanwhile, the newspaper reported Don had been sold to the Detroit Tigers. Allowing the Keys seven hits, the “$30,000 beauty” (the contract purchase price) won easily, 8-2. Regardless, by then Newark’s pitching staff had worn thin, and the Bears slid into third place behind Toronto and Baltimore. Still, Hankins, who long dreamed of making the big leagues, felt deep personal satisfaction as he enjoyed the train ride home to Brooksville. After pitching six seasons, his best record, 16-7, caused a big league team to spend a princely sum for his services. When well-paid workers of the Ford Motor Company earned about $1,800 annually, the Tigers signed Hankins for $750 a month.
After spring training in San Antonio, Hankins arrived in the booming Motor City at the peak of the Twenties, a decade with a lifestyle characterized, wrote historian George E. Mowry, by “Fords, flappers, and fanatics.” Detroit made two big changes for 1927, notably trading Ty Cobb, now forty, to the Philadelphia Athletics. No longer a regular, Cobb remained widely popular in Michigan. On Tuesday, May 10, 1927, designated as Ty Cobb Day in Detroit, an overflow crowd of 30,000 saw him play right field and contribute a first-inning double in Philadelphia’s 6-3 victory. The game marked Cobb’s first appearance in other than a Tiger uniform at the city’s Navin Field.
Also, Detroit hired former big leaguer George Moriarty as the new manager. Moriarty spent the years 1909 through 1915 playing various positions for the Tigers, hitting a peak of .273 in 1909, and batting the same .273 when the Tigers lost the 1909 World Series in seven games to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Starting in 1917, George found his niche and spent 22 seasons as one of the American League’s top umpires. However, as Detroit’s pilot, the fiery, temperamental Moriarty came to believe Hankins, a 25-year-old rookie, offered little help to his club.
In 1926, with Cobb as manager and part-time player, Detroit finished in sixth place, thanks in large part to mediocre pitching, but the hard-hitting Tigers returned virtually the same lineup in 1927. Switch-hitting Lu Blue, the first sacker, batted .260 with one home run and 42 RBI. Charlie Gehringer, who went on to a 19-year Hall of Fame career as a second baseman, averaged .317 with four homers and 61 RBI. Jackie Tavener, a left-handed batting shortstop, enjoyed a .274 season. Young Jack Warner handled the hot corner, hitting .267 with 45 RBI. In the outer gardens the Tigers featured Heinie Manush, another future Hall of Famer, who averaged .298 and performed nicely in center. Slugging Harry Heilmann, who won AL batting titles in 1921, 1923, 1925, and 1927, and who would also make the Hall of Fame, led the circuit with his .398 mark. Heilmann, later a popular Tiger broadcaster, also topped the Bengals with 14 homers and 120 RBI. Burly Bob Fothergill, the 5’10½” 230-pounder who averaged .325 lifetime in a 12-year big league career, played left field and batted .359. Catcher Larry Woodall–the main change from 1926 among position players–handled much of the receiving duties while batting .280 with 39 RBI.
Moriarty’s top mound veteran was Earl Whitehill, a rugged southpaw with a 16-14 mark. Other double digit winners, all right-handers, were Harry “Rip” Collins, the tall Texan who had a 13-7 record; Ken Holloway and Sam Gibson, both of whom finished at 11-12; Ownie Carroll, with a 10-6 mark; and “Lil” Stoner, who was 10-13. Three others won games for Detroit. Haskell Billings, a 19-year-old recruit, had a 5-4 record in nine starts out of ten appearances. George Smith went 4-1 in 29 games–all in relief. Hankins made one start, which he lost, but he won twice in relief, and he saved two games.
Don first appeared for Detroit against the Browns on April 23, a bitterly cold Saturday in Detroit. Nervous in his major league debut, Don, one of six Tigers hurlers, pitched the seventh inning of an error-marred 15-10 loss. Sam Gibson worked four innings, leaving on the short end of a 6-2 score. Jess Doyle, Rip Collins, Hankins, Ed Wells, and Augie Johns each hurled one inning, to no avail. Hankins, who allowed two hits and two runs, left with Detroit behind, 14-7. In the end, the Tigers finished fourth with an 82-71 record, 27.5 games behind the mighty Yankees. Detroit ranked third in the league with a .289 team average, but the club’s ERA of 4.14 placed fifth.
Four days later, at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Sam Gibson started, but the White Sox drove him from the box in the second frame with three runs. Jess Doyle stopped the rally, George Smith hurled three rounds, and Hankins finished the contest. He walked four batters, surrendering one unearned run in the seventh on a hit, a free pass, and Lu Blue’s fumble, but Chicago won, 7-2. Perhaps because of his wildness against Chicago, Hankins did not get a summons for a month. On May 23, in the opener of a doubleheader in Cleveland, Rip Collins pitched poorly, giving up 11 hits in four-plus innings. George Moriarty yanked him during a seven-run burst in the fifth, with Gibson, Smith, and Hankins all parading to the mound. But the Indians hit freely and amassed 18 safeties to win, 9-4. Hankins hurled the last 3.2 innings, allowing four hits but only one score.
Two days later in Cleveland, Hankins started against recruit right-hander Willis Hudlin, who went 18-12 in 1927. Don lasted 5.2 innings, giving up two runs in the second and two more in the fifth. In Cleveland’s sixth, George Burns led off with a triple, but Joe Sewell, the shortstop, popped out. Catcher Luke Sewell doubled, scoring a run. Pat McNulty walked, and both runners advanced on an infield out. Hankins induced the pitcher to ground to shortstop, but Jackie Tavener booted an easy chance, Sewell scored, and McNulty raced to third. Charlie Jamieson then won the game with a triple, scoring two more runs. Ed Wells relieved Hankins and recorded the third out. Detroit scored three runs in the top of the seventh, but Hudlin, who scattered 11 safeties, hurled Cleveland to a 9-6 victory. Hankins, who allowed eight runs on eight hits and three walks, lost his first decision. Worse, he may have lost his only real shot at starting. H.G. Salsinger, sports editor of the Detroit News, began his game story on May 26 with the line, “Donald Hankins’ major league future depends upon whether a fast ball is enough to win games in this base ball age.”
“When Hankins reported to the Tigers this spring,” Salsinger observed, “he had nothing but a fast ball. The Tiger coaches have tried to teach him how to throw a curve ball. Hankins is learning to pitch the curve, but at present it is not enough of a curve to do him any good. He depended almost entirely on the fast ball yesterday and the fast ball did not stop Cleveland, a team that is by no means the hardest hitting organization in the American League, nor noted as a fast ball hitting club.” Newspaper stories featuring Hankins’ successes for Reading in 1925 or Newark in 1926 did not indicate he threw a curve. But sportswriters often commented the Deacon had “good stuff,” or a good fastball, or a good change, or he “looked sharp.” But, as Salsinger opined, the lack of a good breaking pitch may have doomed Hankins’ chances in the majors.
In retrospect, Don Hankins later recounted his intense dislike of manager George Moriarty. The ill will between them grew when Moriarty pulled Hankins out of the Cleveland game before the sixth inning ended. According to the elder Hankins, the manager told him on the mound, “I could pitch a catcher out there and he would do better!” Don retorted, “My, God! I’ve been pitching batting practice every day, and I pitched just two days ago. What do you want?” Reflecting on those memories in 2007, Bob Hankins said his father never talked about Moriarty without expressing his disgust. The Indiana Deacon, a straight-arrow type, considered Detroit’s pilot to be an abusive, unsavory character. The two men had little respect for each other.
Regardless, on Friday, May 27, at home in Navin Field, the Tigers lost to the White Sox, 3-1. Rip Collins started and lost, allowing five hits and all three runs in 4.2 innings. Ownie Carroll finished the fifth and pitched three more scoreless frames. Hankins came on in the ninth with Detroit trailing, 3-1. He gave up a single and retired the side, but it was too late.
Hankins enjoyed another good outing on Sunday May 29, but Detroit fell before Chicago’s batsmen, 8-6. Earl Whitehill started but was removed with no outs in the third, giving up four runs and leaving two runners on the sacks. Hankins, who gave up one run on a sacrifice bunt, completed the inning with Chicago ahead, 5-1. Don stymied the White Sox for four more innings, but Sam Gibson yielded three runs in the eighth, allowing Chicago starter Ted Lyons to win his eighth game.
On June 1, in Detroit, Hankins, after looking good twice in the previous five days, fell flat against Cleveland. Again Gibson started and proved ineffective, leaving with no outs during a seven-run third. Hankins shook his manager’s confidence, pitching to six batters, retiring two, but allowing a single, two doubles, a triple, and a sacrifice fly. Wells ended the inning, but the Tribe blistered four Detroit hurlers for 20 safeties and won easily, 14-1.
Hankins waited eight days, getting another chance against Boston at Fenway Park. Trailing 3-2 in the top of the ninth, Detroit’s Johnny Bassler singled. Johnny Neun, pinch-hitting for pitcher Ken Holloway, sacrificed. Jack Warner singled to right, tying the score at 3-3. On a hit-and-run play, Gehringer singled off the second baseman’s glove. Heinie Manush then drove a shot off the second sacker’s shin, and when the ball rolled past the right fielder, Warner and Gehringer scored and Manush advanced to third. Bob Fothergill, whose four hits on the day included a solo homer, plated the sixth run with a sacrifice fly to deep center. In the end, even though Hankins kept things exciting by allowing two hits and a run, he pitched out of the jam and saved Holloway’s 6-4 victory.
Nine days later, on June 18, Hankins appeared again in relief, this time in a 6-4 loss at Washington’s Griffith Stadium. In that contest General Alvin Crowder no-hit Detroit for six innings, then hung on as the Tigers scored four times in the last three frames. In the end, Hankins tossed a hitless, scoreless eighth, but his performance came too late.
Hankins got his next turns during both ends of an Independence Day doubleheader in sweltering St. Louis. In the morning game on Monday, he took over for Lil Stoner in the eighth inning with the score Browns 8, Tigers 4. Don faced three hitters and retired them all, but the Tigers could not tally in the ninth, and Stoner suffered the defeat. In the second contest, Hankins relieved Ken Holloway in the fifth with two outs, runners on second and third, and Detroit leading, 8-6. The lanky twirler retired the side and finished the game. He did yield two runs in the bottom of the seventh on four singles, but thereafter he blanked the Brownies. Under scoring rules in play by the 1940s, Hankins would have been credited with the victory, since the starter did not complete five innings. Still, the Tigers scored single runs in the seventh and eighth frames for a final of 10-8, so he did save the victory. Wrote H.G. Salsinger, “Kenneth Holloway pitched badly in the second game but the Tigers won, 10 to 8, by the grace of some fine relief pitching by the tall and slender, [sic] Donald Hankins.” Celebrating the holiday, Hankins hurled 5.1 innings, allowing five hits and two runs. He struck out a hitter in each game, plus he rapped his only major league hit, a single. Afterward, relaxing in the humid confines of the visitors’ locker room, the hard-throwing reliever knew his day’s work helped the Tigers improve to 37-32 and keep a one-game lead over the fifth-place Philadelphia Athletics.
On July 6, again working in relief at Sportsman’s Park, Hankins won his first major league game, although he pitched “somewhat ineffectually,” noted Bert Walker of the Detroit Times. Don entered the contest in the bottom of the seventh with Detroit ahead, 6-5. After he walked the leadoff hitter, the Browns bunched a double, two singles, and an infield out to regain the lead, 8-6. In their next at-bat, the Tigers scored three runs on two hits, two errors, and two walks. When Hankins gave up a two-out triple in the bottom of the eighth, Lil Stoner relieved, got the third out, and pitched a scoreless ninth. Stoner’s save allowed Hankins to record the victory and even his record at 1-1.
In a doubleheader at Navin Field on Friday, July 8, Hankins threw a pitch he preferred to forget. Facing the Yankees, the Tigers split, winning the opener, 11-8, but losing the afternoon contest, 10-8. Earl Whitehill started the second game, but he gave up one run in the first and put the first three Yankees aboard in the second, one of whom had scored. Hankins entered the game and gave up a double and a Babe Ruth home run that upped New York’s lead to 6-2. The Bambino drove the ball over Heinie Manush’s head into deep center field for a three-run inside-the-park homer. Ruth scored standing up, recording his only four-bagger in 1927 that did not clear the fences. “Hankins is strictly a fast ball pitcher and the Yankees dote on fast ball pitching,” wrote H.G. Salsinger of the Detroit News. “Because of this it seemed bad judgment to use Hankins but Hankins was the only Tiger pitcher who showed anything in relief work in St. Louis, where he was used three times, and he was therefore the logical man to use.” But, as Salsinger noted, the plan didn’t work.
Three days later Hankins pitched well against the visiting Yankees, hurling a hitless, scoreless eighth inning. New York hammered Stoner for 11 hits and all eight runs in the first seven innings. Following Hankins, Holloway pitched a scoreless ninth. But the Yankees won, 8-5, behind the moundwork of Waite Hoyt and Bob Shawkey as well as solo homers by Pat Collins and Lou Gehrig — who tied Ruth for the AL lead with his 29th four-bagger.
On July 13 in Detroit, Hankins pitched five innings in relief of Rip Collins in the second half of a twin bill against the Washington Nationals. Don yielded five hits and five runs — two in the second, another in the fifth, and two in the sixth — and departed the contest with the Nats ahead, 9-7. But Tiger batsmen, paced by Harry Heilmann’s 5-for-5 day, scored four times in the seventh and twice in the eighth for a 13-9 verdict. George Smith, pitching three scoreless frames, earned the win.
On July 19 the Tigers moved into third place with a thrilling 10-9 come-from-behind victory over the Athletics, and Hankins, who hurled two scoreless innings in relief, won for the second time. Ken Holloway started, but Philadelphia scored eight times in the third. Stoner replaced Holloway, and, later, Smith worked two frames, giving up a run in the seventh. When Hankins took his warmup tosses in the top of the eighth, Detroit faced a 9-2 deficit and seemed done for the afternoon. But he blanked the A’s, allowing one hit in two innings, and his teammates rewarded him with a victory. Bob Fothergill opened Detroit’s scoring with a two-run homer in the first inning, but the Tigers trailed 9-3 heading to the bottom of the ninth. Batting with the sacks loaded and one run home, Fothergill unloaded a triple. Harry Heilmann doubled to score the “fat boy,” wrote Sam Greene of the Detroit News. Lefty Joe Pate came in to stop the rally, but failed, walking Marty McManus and Larry Woodall. Pinch-hitting, Johnny Bassler shot a two-run single over the shortstop’s head to complete the dramatic comeback. Hankins, who finished the game “very creditably,” wrote Bert Walker of the Detroit Times, now owned a pair of victories.
Hankins’ success was short-lived. He didn’t emerge from the bullpen again until July 30, when Detroit fell to Washington, 10-1. The Nationals’ hitters enjoyed a field day, hammering Rip Collins for four runs in 3.2 innings and scoring another pair off George Smith. Hankins, who joined the fray in the seventh, retired the first two batters. But his control wavered, and he yielded three runs on two singles and two doubles. He gave up another run in the eighth on two singles and a stolen base.
The Deacon’s next appearance didn’t occur until August 25. At home against the Yankees, the Tigers couldn’t solve the slants of southpaw Herb Pennock and lost, 8-2. Earl Whitehill started but faded, allowing four runs in the fifth inning. Smith finished the inning, and Hankins hurled the sixth and seventh. He gave up two runs in the sixth on a double by Pennock, a single by Mark Koenig, a walk to Ruth, and a two-run single by Gehrig — who once again tied the Bambino for the AL home run lead, hitting number 40 in the second.
On Saturday, September 3, in a slugfest against the Browns in St. Louis, Hankins made what turned out to be his final major league performance. Rip Collins gave up one run in the first on a double-play error and one in the fourth on Ken Williams’ homer. But in the fifth, after a pair of singles, a double, and a hit batsman, St. Louis scored one run and still had the bases loaded. George Moriarty called for Hankins, who, not having appeared in a game for more than a week, endured one of his worst days as a Tiger. Harry Rice hit the right-hander’s fastball for a three-run double, and when reserve center fielder Al Wingo muffed George Sisler’s short fly, Rice moved to third. Williams singled to right field for another run, and Moriarty jerked Hankins. Don failed to display good control or good speed, and he failed to retire any of the three batters he faced — thanks in part to Wingo’s error. Detroit’s big hitters rallied for six runs in the eighth, keyed by Charlie Gehringer’s two-run single that tied the contest at 10-10. But St. Louis won, 11-10, scoring the game winner off Haskell Billings in the bottom of the ninth.
Overall, Hankins was disappointed with the 1927 season (2-1, 6.33, in 42 2/3 innings). He had contributed to his club, but he felt like an outsider in Detroit. For him, the Tigers lacked the camaraderie he had known in Reading and in Newark. But he was a recruit, and big leaguers seldom took well to new players who could take away their jobs. Still, Don was determined to prove his value as a hurler. When Detroit sold his contract to the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 18, 1928, he got a new lease on life. In 1928 the International League’s first division was well balanced. While Toronto fought all year for the pennant, the Rochester Red Wings won it on the season’s final day with a 90-74 mark. Toronto, with new pilot Bill O’Hara, compiled an 86-80 ledger and placed third behind Buffalo. Rip Collins, the former Tiger right-hander, made a comeback with the Maple Leafs, posting a 17-9 record and making the IL All-Star team. Tall right-hander Augie Prudhomme topped Toronto in wins, fashioning a 19-15 record, while Hankins placed third among starters with a 12-16 slate.
Hankins worked a career-high 217 frames in 40 games for Toronto in 1928, but his ERA rose to 4.02, a mark slightly above his 3.73 average for Newark. He experienced an up-and-down season, losing four more times than he won. The right-hander could throw a curve, but he relied mainly on his fastball and changeup, pitches that placed less strain on his right elbow. When Don felt strong and could hit his groove, he was among the league’s top flingers. Other times he was likely to lose.
For example, in a contest at Maple Leaf Stadium on May 8, Hankins defeated Baltimore, 5-2. He gave up 12 hits, but 10 Toronto safeties and two Oriole errors helped the Leafs win. Four days later in Toronto, Don hurled eight innings against last-place Jersey City. He gave up four runs on eight hits. Jersey City won, 8-5, with a three-run burst in the twelfth, and Hankins got no decision. But on May 16, he threw a five-hitter in a ten-inning performance at Reading to win the second game of a doubleheader, 3-2. Two weeks later, on May 29, he gave up ten hits at Buffalo but proved tough in the pinches, and Toronto won, 10-3.
On occasion Hankins pitched great ball but lost. On June 17 former teammate Newark ace Al Mamaux handcuffed Toronto on seven hits and won, 1-0. The Indiana Deacon gave up only five hits, but Mamaux made a second-inning run stand up for the victory. But in the first game of a twin bill in Toronto on July 2, Don blanked Rochester with a four-hitter, and the Leafs won, 5-0. Six days later, at Davids Stadium in Newark, Hankins won, 4-1, tossing a five-hitter. Pitching in familiar territory at Reading on July 14, he led his club to a 4-0 win while spacing seven Keys’ hits.
By the first week of August, Don’s record was 10-10. His next outing came against his old club in Newark on August 7. Called “the star pitcher of the Newark Bears a few years ago,” Don twirled a five-hitter and won, 6-1, boosting his record to 11-10. But then he lost six of his final seven games. Pitching in Toronto on August 22, he allowed six hits and three walks while defeating Jersey City, 6-3, in the first game of a doubleheader. But the right-hander didn’t win again. On September 16 before a record crowd of 23,000 in Buffalo, Don surrendered three runs on nine hits, but the Maple Leafs scored only twice and lost, 3-2. Six days later, in a game that could have tied Toronto for first place, Hankins lost to Buffalo, 9-2, as the Bisons drove him from the mound with a 12-hit attack.
Despite the late-season slump, Toronto brought Hankins back in 1929. But Steve O’Neill, the new pilot, gave Don just one start before trading him to Reading in mid-July. Don’s start came on June 19 at Jersey City, when he won a five-inning rain-shortened tilt. The lanky right-hander spaced eight hits, issued two free passes, fanned three, and won, 10-2. On July 21 he won his first game for Reading at Buffalo, 6-5. In the second game of a twin bill, he allowed seven hits and all five Bison runs in 4.1 innings, but Bob Osborn saved the game. On August 5 Hankins hurled a 4-3 win over Jersey City. His last win came at Jersey City on September 7, when he won the second of two games in ten innings, 3-2. The Brooksville-bred hurler finished with an overall record of 5-8 and a hefty 6.38 ERA. With the stock market’s “Great Crash” only a month away, Reading ended a disappointing year in seventh place.
Discouraged after the season, Hankins at first decided to call it quits. Yet when Reading offered a contract on April 8, 1930, he signed and began working out. But the right-hander flopped in May and June, losing three times in five appearances. His last IL loss, 8-6, came against Newark on May 25, when he gave up two runs on four hits in 4.2 innings of relief. Reading released Don on June 2, but four weeks later, on June 29, he received an offer from St. Paul of the American Association.
Packing his bags, Hankins rode the train to the upper Midwest, stepping off on the east bank of the Mississippi River to another lease on his baseball life. For the Saints in 1930, he pitched 103 innings in 23 games and fashioned an 8-4 record with a 4.28 ERA. Joining the type of close-knit club he enjoyed and living in a city he liked, Don worked mostly in relief, but he made six starts — and won four. After pitching well twice, he won his first game in a St. Paul uniform August 4 at Columbus, finishing the last 8.2 innings in relief as the Saints came from behind to win, 12-9. Six days later he gave one of his best performances, spacing four hits to whitewash Louisville, 4-0. In a tough Double-A league where the hitters didn’t know his stuff, the journeyman right-hander proved to be a valuable addition to a strong second-place team.On September 20, 1930, Don hung on to outlast Kansas City, 7-6, giving up the sixth run in the ninth.
Also, Hankins, a clean-living, modest athlete who didn’t smoke, drink, or chase women, married Dorothy Gundry, a Reading girl, on June 11, 1930. The couple had two children, Lois, born in 1931, and Bob, born five years later. The Hankins kept their home in Reading, and Don lived in a hotel in St. Paul during much of the 1930 season. In early 1931 he signed with Kansas City, also of the American Association. The club trained in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and played exhibitions against Texas League teams. Again Don lived at hotels. His daughter still has two love letters her father wrote to her mom at home in Reading on March 27-28, 1931.
A seasoned hurler at 29, Don made the Kansas City club, but he was not very successful. By the time the team optioned him to Mobile of the Class A Southern Association in late June, the right-hander had posted a 2-4 record, walking 29 batters while fanning 10. His gave his best performance for Kansas City, and final career win, came on May 6 when he tossed a six-hitter to defeat Toledo, 6-3. Reported “out with injuries” by The Sporting News on June 25, he had a painful elbow when he arrived in Mobile in late June. On the 29th he started but surrendered five runs and 12 hits to New Orleans, losing 8-1. An item in The Sporting News of July 9 called Hankins’ first appearance with Mobile a “flop.” That same day Don lost his final decision, starting the second game of a twin bill at Memphis and allowing all six runs on 10 hits in a 6-5 loss. When the club moved to Knoxville on July 22 and the manager began rebuilding for next year, Hankins was through.
Hankins, famous in Reading, worked as a marketer for Wilson Products, a firm that manufactured industrial eye safety equipment. He traveled around calling on businesses and schools, opening the door for salesmen to follow. He covered a region ranging west to the Mississippi and south to Texas. In 1946, after World War II ended, Don moved his family to Houston, where Lois graduated from high school. Later, business took the Hankinses to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where Bob graduated from high school. Don formed a real estate development partnership at which he worked until he retired in 1960. He passed away in 1963, survived by his widow, daughter, and son.
Baseball remained Hankins’ passion. On sales trips he would look up a former teammate, like Reading’s “Rabbit” Whitman. In the Houston years Don would visit the local Texas League club and chat with players. Bob cannot remember going to a baseball game with his father, but he does recall the elder Hankins watching baseball on TV and carefully noting the pitcher’s mechanics and delivery. Lois recalls her father pitching for the Shriners team in Reading and helping local high school players learn baseball fundamentals. As Dorothy recounted to her grown children, Don often dreamed about baseball. Her husband would awaken at night saying phrases like, “That’s a strike!”
A career minor leaguer who earned a season in the majors during a baseball decade made famous by the slugging exploits of the legendary Babe Ruth, Hankins was one of thousands of young men who aspired to play the game. But unlike the large majority of his peers, he possessed the talent, attitude, determination, persistence, and the good fortune to distinguish himself in the high minors, and even play a season in the majors — an unlikely accomplishment given his elbow injury. The Indiana Deacon was motivated by the baseball dream. The way the dream played out in life sometimes caused heartbreak, but it remained with him — even though he seldom spoke of his own experiences to family members. Still, as former hurler Jim Bouton concluded in his classic baseball memoir Ball Four (1970), you spend years thinking you held the baseball only to learn in the end the ball gripped you. The game had changed in the decades since the 1920s, but Don Hankins knew well the feelings Bouton expressed so succinctly to a later generation of baseball fans.
Major league statistics for this essay about the baseball career of Don Hankins are derived from The Baseball Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 9th edition, 1993). For minor league stats I used Pat Doyle’s Professional Baseball Player Database, version 6. I obtained a few items from the Hankins file in the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Library. For stories about the Detroit Tigers of 1927 in the Detroit News and the Detroit Times, I received help from researcher Karan Zucal. For stories about the Reading Keys in 1925, 1929, and 1930, I wish to thank Joe Harring, who has done in-depth research on the Reading club’s history. For additional data on Hankins’ career, I thank SABR members Gary Fink and Ray Nemec. I also obtained numerous minor and major league stories with box scores from the ProQuest database, which I accessed through the web resources of the Carnegie-Stout Public Library in Dubuque, Iowa, and from The Sporting News, courtesy of SABR’s Lending Library. Finally, I profited from interviews in 2007 with Hankins’ son and daughter, Bob Hankins, of Brevard, North Carolina, and Lois Welfare, of Roanoke, Virginia.