They Called Him Unser Choe

This article was written by Eugene C. Murdock

This article was published in 1977 Baseball Research Journal

    The big fellow lit his cigar and leaned back in the couch. “Even though I was a Milwaukee boy playing for the Brewers,” he said, “I had my bad days and the fans got on me. You know, the best hitters have their bad days and since I didn’t hit homers or get three hits every game, some of the people began to give me the business. But I had my loyal followers, too, and they would get back at those who were riding

    “They’d say `don’t pick on him, he’s our Joe, he’s Unser Choe.  Lay off our boy, Unser Choe; he’s from here and he’ll win plenty of games’. That’s how it began. That’s how Unser Choe caught on. Soon Everyone in town was calling me that. It started my first year with the Brewers in 1920 and stuck. People would meet me in the street, `Hi-ya, Unser’, `Howya doing, Unser Choe’.” Joe Hauser (pronounced How-ser), brimming with health at 78, chuckled quietly and puffed contentedly as he recalled the early days.

    The man who was to set some mighty Minor League home run records was a second generation German in one of the largest German communities in the country. His parents migrated to the United States from Bavaria late in the 19th century, settling in Milwaukee where Joe was born January 12, 1899. It was a big family-six brothers and two sisters-so the future slugger was forced to leave school at the age of 14 in 1913 and go to work. He was employed for about three years in a mill which manufactured cement mixers. He hustled hot rivets to the welders, building up his forearms and wrists in the process. This helps explain why Hauser would later manufacture uncounted tape measure home runs long before anyone ever thought of a tape measure.

      Joe played his first baseball at the age of 13 while still attending parochial school. He “had the bat” from the beginning, but started out as a pitcher. One memorable Sunday afternoon he cut the weekly vesper services to pitch with a local club. He soothed his conscience somewhat by hurling a shutout. In the next few years while working in the mill he played sandlot ball, pitched regularly, and lost only one game in the entire time.

      In 1917 Joe played his first ball with professionals. The Central State Association, which included several Wisconsin towns, folded on August 7, and a number of players hooked on with semipro clubs. One such team was at Waupun, about 60 miles northwest of Milwaukee. Someone in his hometown had seen Joe play and recommended him to the Waupun club. He went over there, a mere 18-year-old among “grown men” of 24 and 25.   Waupun needed a pitcher so Hauser pitched, and in his first appearance he tossed a 2-0, two-hit `shutout, fanning 17 batters. He played in a few more games in the month or so remaining in the season, winning most of his outings, and averaging 12 to 15 strikeouts. “1 made myself famous at 18 in `17.”

     Connie Mack heard of Hauser’s exploits at Waupun and sent him a contract for 1918. But Florida that spring was a disaster for Joe. He was awed by the presence of all those big names-“I was scared to death”-but more important, he was wild. Since the youngster was obviously not ready, Connie gave him $100 plus travel money back to Milwaukee, and wished him well. The Brewers signed Joe, but he was not quite prepared for Double-A ball either, so they optioned him to Providence in the Class B Eastern League. Things began to fall in place at Providence, although as a pitcher-outfielder, Joe had problems. “I couldn’t find the plate as a pitcher, and was a lousy outfielder.”

    But he “had the bat,” and after two years at Providence-where he hit .271 in 1918 and .273 in 1919-Joe was recalled by the Brewers where he spent the 1920 and 1921 seasons. The average climbed steadily, reaching a respectable .316 in 1922 and the long ball began to appear (or disappear) with growing frequency. An important turning point in Hauser’s career came in spring training 1921 when Milwaukee was at Gulfport, Mississippi. Manager Jack Egan, unimpressed by Joe’s outfielding, but happy with his bat, told him “We’re gonna make afirst-baseman outta you, and Del Gainor will show you how to play the bag.” So the switch was made and with Gainor’s assistance Joe became a better than average first-sacker.

     Connie Mack’s interest in Hauser was rekindled by his work at Mil waukee and the Athletics manager paid out $25,000 plus four players for him after the 1921 season. “He turned me loose a couple of years before,” laughed Hauser, “and now he pays what amounts to $100,000 for me.” Connie knew, of course, what he was about. He could not use a wild young pitcher in 1918, but he needed a solid first-baseman in 1922, and Joe Hauser met his need.

     In his first year with the Athletics, he played 111 games and hit .323. In 1923, in 146 games he batted .307 with 16 round-trippers and 94 runs batted-in. In 1924, while his average dipped to .288, he upped both his home run and runs batted-in count to 27 and 115 respectively. He was second to Babe Ruth in homers. Then in the spring of 1925- but let Joe tell it.

     “It was in an exhibition game with the Phillies at Baker Bowl just before the opening of the season. I’m in the field running toward first base to take a throw from the shortstop. A routine play which I had made thousands of times. There was no base-runner, nothing in the way, no chance of a collision. I had taken about three steps toward the base when something snapped in my right knee and I fell in a heap to the ground. When they examined me at the hospital they found the kneecap had cracked into two pieces. You could lay a couple of fingers in the gap. The doctors told me that occasionally a quick tense muscular contraction caused such a fracture, but that it was not serious and would not lead to any permanent damage. They drilled holes in the two pieces of bone, sewed them together, and packed the joint in a plaster cast.”

    While it was true that there was no permanent injury-Joe hustles  around today with the agility of a man half his years-Hauser’s big  league career, for all real purposes, ended the day that kneecap cracked. One can only speculate to what heights he might have climbed had the momentum which had been developing in the previous three seasons not been interrupted. As it was, he missed the entire 1925 campaign, which among other things, may have cost the Athletics the pennant.   Jim Poole was brought in from Portland to fill the gap.

     After he left the hospital Joe was fitted with a metal brace and began a program of rehabilitation to strengthen the damaged joint. By the start of the 1926 season he felt the knee was as good as ever, except for a slight tendency to stiffen, and pronounced himself ready to go. But it was a disappointing year. “I couldn’t bend my knee. I hit .192 in 91 games. Connie stayed with me for a couple of months thinking I was going to come around, but when I didn’t he had to bench me.” That winter Mack shipped Hauser to Kansas City to regain his rhythm and confidence.

    Joe had a great season at Kansas City in 1927. He played in all the Blues’ games (169), clubbed out 218 hits, scored 145 runs, drove in 134, and hit .353. While his home run output dropped to 20, he led the league in. triples with 23, and tied for third in doubles with 49. Since Mack still had no regular first baseman, he brought Hauser back up in 1928, and it appeared that Unser Choe was ready to resume his interrupted rise to stardom. Instead, however, this proved to be his last hurrah in the big time. This was due to three factors: the after effects of the broken kneecap, Ty Cobb, and the emergence of Jimmie Foxx.

    Despite the knee problem, Joe began the year like a house afire.  “I had a fine spring training, and in the first month or so of the season was hitting over .370 and getting my share of home runs. Then Ty Cobb, who was playing his last year in baseball with the Athletics, decides to show me how to hit. Cobb was the greatest player of all time, but he was jealous of anybody hitting better than he did. I knew about his feuds with Harry Heilmann over in Detroit when Harry started outhitting him. Well, now I’m outhitting him and one day Ty tells me he’s going to help me with my hitting. He says I should stand closer to the plate and hit everything to right field. Me, I’m hitting straightaway and doing all right. Why should I change?”

     “But he keeps insisting and after all he is the greatest hitter in baseball. So I begin to do what he says, and that old batting average starts to drop. Soon I’m lucky if I’m in the game at all, as Ossie Orwoll and then Jimmie Foxx take over first base. Cobb probably didn’t want to help my hitting as much as to rattle me a bit so my hitting would fall off. If that’s what he was up to, it worked, because I didn’t play much in the last half of the season. Foxx came into his own and after the 1928 season was over Connie sold me to Cleveland.”

    Hauser played briefly with Cleveland in 1929-“I was hired to be Lew Fonseca’s caddy.” Since Fonseca led the American League in hitting that year, Joe had little opportunity to play and was sent down to Milwaukee. He had only mediocre success with the Brewers, hitting .238, and it seemed as though this might be the end of the line. But for the proud Joe Hauser it was only the hiatus linking a good major league career with an outstanding minor league career. Understandably troubled because his years in the big time were finished, he nevertheless resolved to do the best he could in the time remaining. He was now past 30 years of age and in the few years left to him he would make the most of his chances.

    A number of things happened in 1930 which made it the best year for Joe Hauser to date. Of course, 1930 was “the year the pitchers got murdered.” But Hauser does not attribute his new found power to a juiced-up ball, although he concedes that might have been a factor. “I did two things differently,” he says. “I just came to me by 1930 to pull the ball which I hadn’t done before, and it started going out of there.”  (Maybe Ty Cobb had been right after all.) In addition to using a new batting stance, however, Joe used a new bat. “When I reported to Baltimore that spring, Heinie Sand, the shortstop, suggested I use a lighter bat. `Try this one, Joe’, he said, handing me a thin, tapered bat, about 34 inches long. It was also an ounce or so lighter than the 32-ouncer I had been accustomed to. I found I could get around a little faster on outside pitches and pull them.”

    Well, the new stance and bat resulted in a sudden upsurge in Joe Hauser’s home run output. It was not long into the season before the newspapers began carrying charts which compared Joe’s progress with Babe Ruth’s record pace of 1927. The Orioles played an exhibition game with the Yankees that year and the Babe discussed with Joe during batting practice how many homers the first baseman was likely to hit. As it turned out, he hit 63, an all-time high. The major league record, of course was Ruth’s 60 in 1927, but the minor league mark had been Moose Clabaugh’s 62 in the East Texas League in 1926. In addition to breaking the home run record, however, it was a good year generally for Joe. In 168 games he collected 193 hits for a .313 average and drove in 175 runs.

    It appeared that a great new career was now underway for Unser Choe, home run king of the minors. While this was true, the injury jinx struck again midway through the 1931 season, his second year with Baltimore. While reaching for a throw, another routine maneuver, he overstretched and pulled a muscle on the left side. He missed about a month of action. The club wanted Hauser back in the lineup, but when he protested that he was not ready the Orioles concluded he was finished and at the close of the season let him go. Despite being out for a considerable period of time, he still hit 31 homers, but his average went down to .259.

    Catching on with the Minneapolis Millers in 1932 Hauser experienced his most prolific period both as hitter and slugger. But injuries still plagued him. After a blistering start-he had 49 homers and 129 runs-batted-in with still a month of the season to go-he was forced again to the sidelines. He hit .303. But Unser Choe was back with all his power for his greatest year in 1933. All he did was belt out 69 homers and drive in 182 runs while hitting a nifty .332. He thus became the only player in history to hit more than 60 homers in two different seasons. The record high of 69 was equaled in 1948 by Bob Crues in the West Texas-New Mexico League, while the only player to exceed the mark was Joe Bauman in 1954 with 72 while playing with Roswell in the Longhorn circuit. But Hauser performed in Double-A competition while Clabaugh, Crues and Bauman were in lower classifications.

     “But you know,” Joe commented, “about all those home runs up in Minneapolis at old Nicollet Park. Some people insisted they weren’t really homers because of the short fence there-286 feet at the foul line in right field. I gave a talk in Milwaukee a few years ago where I was introduced as the guy who hit 63 homers in Baltimore and 69 in Minneapolis. Some wiseacre in the audience yells out that wasn’t such a great feat in Minneapolis because of the bandbox of a ball park they had there. I called back to him, `When I was hitting, they were all bandboxes’. That about tore the house down. Seriously, though, my manager at Minneapolis, Davy Bancroft, used to say that the distance in right field there was misleading as far as my home runs were concerned.  There was a 30 foot screen and most of my drives were well above the screen on the rooftops of houses across the street.”

    “Speaking about bandboxes,” Unser Choe was warming to his subject, “let me tell you about that `bandbox’ in Kansas City, Muhlebach Field. The right field fence there was about 450 feet from home plate at the foul line and got deeper out into right-center. There was also an embankment in medium right field which sloped rather sharply up to the wall and an eight foot fence on top of the embankment. The fence was probably 30 to 35 feet above the level of the field. Prior to my coming to the Blues in 1927 no one had ever hit one over that fence. We were playing the Brewers one Saturday afternoon and Henry Johnson was pitching. I got hold of one real good and as it rises I say to myself `it has a chance’. It went over the wall with room to spare. It was estimated at about 550 feet. There were around 5000 at the park that day and they took up a collection for me. I got $400. They never expected to see anything like that again.”

    “Well, the next day was Sunday and there was a full house, about 17,000 fans on hand. Little Danny Gearin was pitching for the Brewers.  I nail another one, a line drive this time, which clears that wall 450 feet away on the line. No one had ever hit over the fence before and I do it twice in two days. There wasn’t any collection for that second one, however. I guess they figured it wasn’t so unusual after all. But, you know, after that only two other balls were ever hit over the wall. So much for bandbox ball parks.”

    Kansas City was the scene of another impressive Hauser feat at the outset of the 1934 season. By this time the fence in right field had been moved in to the foot of the embankment and was “only” 375 feet from home plate. Minneapolis opened in Kansas City that year. In the first two games Joe hit no less than five home runs over the fence, an accomplishment unmatched before or after. This started him off on what looked like an even greater year than his record-breaking previous season of 1933. “There was some talk that I might belt out 100 homers that year. As it is I had 21 in my first 20 games.”  Although he was unable to maintain such a torrid pace, he was still on his way to another fine season. Then his left knee-the right one had snapped in 1925-went out, and he was sidelined for about a month. He had been hitting around .390 when forced out of action. But the Millers needed “the bat” and Joe came back probably sooner than he should have. His knee did not feel right and his average slumped sharply. In a series at Milwaukee in mid-July he confided to teammates that the knee would not last much longer.

    He was right. In the next series in Kansas City-it was now July 20, 1934, “I’ll never forget the date”-Unser was on first base with Pinky Hargrave at bat. Hargrave singled to right-center and Joe rounded second and headed for third. He turned third, pulled up short, and went down with a broken left kneecap. That ended the season for him. He finished with a .348 average, 33 home runs, and 88 runs-batted-in. He played two more years with Minneapolis (1935 and 1936), and while his slugging statistics were still good, his averages were down and the legs were giving out. But in those five great years (1930-34), although missing nearly a full season, he had belted out 245 homers (an average of 49 per year) and driven in 672 runs (an average of 134 per year).

    Joe Hauser has always taken pride in himself and in his work. One need only look at him today-note his fine physical condition in these his sunset years-to recognize this. It is reflected also in the neat and stylish grooming and dress: the fashionable dark blue slacks, long- sleeved white shirt, red vest and tie, shiny black shoes, the thin gray clipped closely on all sides; the ruddy complexion. If Sport Illustrated ever needs a fashion plate to model senior citizens wearing apparel, here is their man. Joe kept himself in good shape throughout his career. He was fortunate in that he never had a weight problem-his playing weight averaged between 175 and 185 pounds-but he never took any chances. He ate well, but in moderation, always got his rest, never caroused, and reported ready to go every spring. Now and then he would have a beer, or even two, with the players, but no more. “Once when I was with Baltimore,” he reminisced, “I told Fritz Maisel I was going out on a binge. He said, `Yeah Joe, I know, you’ll go out and have your two beers and that’ll be your binge’.”

     Hauser’s pride is also apparent in his attitude toward the game. He loved baseball and gave the full 100 percent at all times. “You didn’t have to tell the players to hustle in my day. When I hit a homer I didn’t stop and watch and grandstand like some of these guys today. I took off running and ran all the way around. One day with the Athletics Bing Miller was on first base when I hit one out. I galloped around first and nearly ran Bing down. `Get going, Bing’, I yelled. `Don’t rush me, Joe’, he called back, `I just wanted to see how far that one was gonna go’. I had to push him around the bases in front of me.”

     He worked hard at his fielding and while he never could quite match Hal Chase’s fancy footwork, he could make all the plays. He studied George Sisler’s moves in particular. From Sisler he learned how to make what he considered the first-baseman’s most difficult play-taking a throw on the inside of the base in the face of the onrushing runner. “I learned to do everything a first-baseman should do. I figured that for my entire career I fielded over .990.”

     Respect for managers and umpires was ingrained in the Hauser credo. “I played for my managers and never tried to second guess them. You do what the manager wants you to do-he’s being paid to make those decisions-and that’s the way baseball should be played.”  Connie Mack, not surprisingly, was the greatest manager in Joe’s experience. “If you couldn’t play for him you couldn’t play for anybody.”  As for the men in blue, Unser Choe is an umpire-supporter. “I always got along well with them. I liked them and they liked me. Sure, they miss one now and then, but who doesn’t. Once when I slid into second base Dick Nallin called me out. I dusted myself off and said, `Dick, you missed that one’. `Maybe I did, Joe’, he replied, maybe I did’. What could I say,” chuckled Hauser. “He had me whipped. On another occasion I made a great catch at first and put the runner out, but the umpire called him safe. `How could you call him safe’? I shouted. `I never thought you’d catch the ball, Joe’, was his answer. Sure, they miss them once in awhile, but they have a tough job and they do it well.”

    Dedicated, hard-working, and fair-minded, Joe Hauser also has a soft side. In a Kansas City-Toledo game in 1927 he was on second base with Everett Scott playing shortstop for the Mudhens. The batter hit a ground ball to Scott who moved in front of the oncoming Hauser to make the play. Joe trampled Scott into the ground as he made his way to third. When he reached the base he looked around to see Scott flat on his back. The Toledo manager, Casey Stengel, came rushing out of the third base dugout to attend to his fallen star. “Whatcha trying to do,” he yelled at Hauser as he passed third base, “wreck my ball club.” Joe talked back to Casey in strong tones: he was a ballplayer trying to do his job, he had to get to third, Scott was in his way, it was unintentional. “Maybe I cussed Casey a bit, too; I was hot and really let him have it.”

    But Hauser regretted the outburst the moment it was over. “I looked up to Casey. I respected him. Here I had been just a little guy in the big time and he had really been somebody. I was sorry for what I said and wish I had apologized at the time, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. This bothered me for years. At games and meetings I always avoided Casey because I was embarrassed about what he might say to me. But I couldn’t avoid him forever. It happened at the winter meetings in Phoenix in 1937. I was in the hotel lobby and all the old players were gathered around honoring me, letting me have the floor as we talked about the good old days. Who walks in the lobby, but Casey and he heads straight for me. I couldn’t escape, although I would have liked to. But Casey comes right up to me, grabs me, clasps my hand. `How’re ya, Joe, ya big lummox’. He was great. Told me how great I would have been if it hadn’t been for those injuries. Here he had forgotten all about that day in Toledo, while I’d been brooding about it for ten years.” Big, tough-and sentimental Joe Hauser.

    Among the more memorable events in Joe’s career-aside from his homers and broken kneecaps was a game on April 20, 1920, when he was playing his first week with Milwaukee. The contest began in 32 degree temperature and a light snowfall, which developed into a blizzard by the fifth inning. The umpires considered calling the game each half inning, but as the lead kept changing hands they let it continue. Hauser came up to bat in the sixth inning as the blizzard swirled about. “How long we gonna play?” he asked the plate umpire. “We started this thing and we’re going to finish it,” was the reply.

    They finished it all right with nearly four inches of snow on the ground. The Brewers won the slugfest, 15-14. Joe got five hits including a home run. “A least we all thought it was a home run,” he smiled.  “Once it got up in the snow no one ever saw it again. It was fun out in the field, too. I got two guys out who should have been safe. They reached first base before I did, but couldn’t find the bag. I kicked around and finally found it before they did. The shortstop rolled the ball over to me once and by the time it got to me it was a snowball nearly a foot around.”

     He has a bittersweet memory of a game against Columbus when he was with Minneapolis. In the abbreviated second part of a twinbill he hit the longest home run of his career off Bill Lee, only to lose credit for it and the victory it would have produced when the Red Birds stalled and the game was called before it became official.

    What would be the biggest thrill for a fellow with a career full of thrills? Maybe it was those three homers and double in a game with Cleveland in the early `twenties. Maybe it was those back-to-back Herculean clouts in Kansas City. Maybe it was those 69 round-trippers in 1933. Or maybe it was the first time he faced Carl Mays. “Here’s the great Carl Mays, I said to myself. I’m going to see what I can do with him. Here comes that first pitch, the famous underarm sinker. Wow, what a drop! But now I think I know what that ball does, and I think I can hit it. On the next pitch I triple off the scoreboard. That made me feel real good, hitting a long triple in my first at bat against Carl Mays.  That was a real thrill.”

    But the biggest thrill of all for Joe Hauser was something else, something you could not measure, something you cannot describe. It was the feeling only Joe himself-and all other players who had seen their boyhood hopes and dreams realized-could experience.  The thrill of playing ball in the big leagues.

    “When I first went up I just couldn’t imagine I was going to make it with all those stars of the game. Fellows I had read about and worshipped from afar; now I was one of them. I was really awestruck. I had to fight that hero worship attitude and establish myself, of course.  Once I did that I was all right. But I never lost that wonderful feeling, that satisfaction of having made it to the top. It was great.”