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.

After 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…

 

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