Sing One for the Cowboy Catcher

On opening day of the Los Angeles Angels’ 1956 season Joe Hannah caught both games of a day-night doubleheader and became the father of a baby boy – Lon.  The season concluded with Joe singing and strumming “Empty Saddles in the Oat Bin” as part of an impromptu show the Angels players staged for fans.

The Sons of the San Joaquin: left to right, Lon, Jack and Joe Hannah

The Sons of the San Joaquin: left to right, Lon, Jack and Joe Hannah

The significance of these two seemingly unrelated events is that Joe, his younger brother, Jack, and Lon formed a popular singing group, The Sons of the San Joaquin, harmonizing beautifully on cowboy songs written by Jack, once a top pitching prospect for the Milwaukee Braves. The trio has recorded a saddlebag full of CDs and attracted a devoted following for their music inspired by The Sons of the Pioneers. “Jack and I just sang for fun,” Joe said. “Lon talked us into giving it a try professionally.”

Dwight “Red” Adams, a journeyman pitcher for the ’56 Angels, recalled Joe singing on the bus when the team traveled to nearby San Diego and back. “We knew he could sing a little, but, I at least, had no idea he had this exceptional talent.”

Early in the ‘56 season, Joe, then 24, was L.A.’s starting catcher. He was batting around .300 and doing a solid job defensively when the Angels acquired veteran Elvin Tappe from the Chicago Cubs in late May and immediately put him in the lineup. “It came as a jolt to me because I was one of these guys that had this impression that a person had to win his job,” Joe said. “Don’t get me wrong. I was never angry about it. But I was hurt. I was doing well. The pitchers were pitching good to me. The team was winning. And all of a sudden, I’m playing the second game of doubleheaders. I really was brokenhearted.”

Joe didn’t show his disappointment. “I can picture him now,” Adams said. “Every time you looked at him, he was grinning.  He saw the humor in everything. You couldn’t find a better guy for the role he played.”

Joe played in 93 of the Angels’ 168 games, batting .272 with one home run and 33 RBIs.

Except for a spring training trial with the Cubs in 1955, Joe never made it to the big leagues. In 1963, at age 31, he quit baseball to get a degree in music and education at Fresno State University. He went on to teach music and coach baseball in Visalia, California, for 21 years before retiring in 1987.

Enter The Sons of the San Joaquin.  At a family gathering to celebrate their father’s 85th birthday, Joe and Jack teamed with Lon to sing Sons of the Pioneers favorites. “We just loved their songs,” Joe recalled. “They were of the outdoors. They were of cowboys. Our early years in California, we lived up against the Sierra Nevada mountain range east of Visalia. I went to school in a little town called Elderwood. Cowboys would drive cattle in front of my school there.  Shoot, we were just cowboys.”

The family songfest led to the creation of The Sons of the San Joaquin and the blending of two great American traditions – cowboys and baseball. “It was baseball and cowboys,” Jack said of their childhood. “And there’s a great parallel there.”

The Hannah brothers were fans of the famous baseball players and cowboys of their time – from Bob Feller and brothers Mort and Walker Cooper in baseball to cowboys such as Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger.  “It had to do with a way of life and the character that was built in me through playing the game and mimicking these guys, impersonating them,” added Jack.

Joe Hannah, right, with veteran catcher Clyde McCullough at Cubs spring training camp in 1956

Joe Hannah, right, with veteran catcher Clyde McCullough at Cubs spring training camp in 1956

Joe and Jack were talking with Rich “Goose” Gossage, the Hall of Fame pitcher, in the lobby bar of a downtown Fort Worth, Texas, hotel after a baseball banquet honoring the brothers with an award for their community work as well as their baseball careers. Gossage was a guest speaker.

“We dream of being musicians,” Gossage quipped, adding he liked to sing in the shower. “You all dream of being baseball players.”

 

Carroll Berringer, a minor-league pitcher for 13 years before he coached 18 years in the majors, once asked Jack: “Anybody throw harder than you?”

“Nobody,” he replied.

Jack taught Charley Pride, the country music singer, how to play the guitar when they were at spring training with the major-league Angels in 1961. Pride pitched in the Negro Leagues and briefly in the lower minors. “He wanted to play my guitar but I wasn’t going to let him borrow my Martin,” Jack told Gossage. “I taught him the C chord.”

Jack was still bothered by a sore throwing arm; Charley had other problems. “You couldn’t hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle,” Steve Bilko chided Charley playfully.

Gossage pitched against Henry Aaron, Al Kaline and other baseball greats in a career that spanned from 1972-1994. He takes pride in being a throwback to the golden era of the 1950s when Joe and Jack played. “The innocence of the game is gone,” Goose said. “A lot of guys are playing for the money and they are playing for the wrong reason.”

The Hannah boys and Rich “Goose” Gossage – left to right, Lon; Jack; Goose; and Joe.

The Hannah boys and Rich “Goose” Gossage – left to right, Lon; Jack; Goose; and Joe.

The Hannah brothers played for the love of the game. Free agency and the big bucks didn’t come until 1975, long after their careers were over.

“I didn’t hit all that well except the last two years and nobody remembers it except me,” Joe said.

After hitting .298 with eight home runs and 56 RBIs for Hawaii in 1962, Joe fantasized calling Gene Mauch, second baseman for the ’56 Angels, to tell him, “I can hit now.”

Joe never called. “All I ever wanted to do was play in the major leagues. When I didn’t get a chance, I lost all interest in baseball.”

There’s a song there somewhere. Perhaps Jack can tweak a song he wrote, adding a word to the end of the title: “Sing One for the Cowboy Catcher.”

Visit the Sons of the San Joaquin website

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

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