Irish alum Jim Hannan made his mark in major leagues

Jim Hannan, a Notre Dame baseball player in the late 1950s and a longtime major league pitcher, died earlier this week at the age of 85. He was living in Annandale, Virginia.

He had had a disappointing senior year with the Irish and did not get much of a look from big league scouts. So he went home and played in the Essex County (New Jersey) League.

While there, Hannan caught the attention of the Boston Red Sox and signed for a $10,000 bonus, with the promise of an additional $20,000 when he signed a major league contract with the Red Sox.  Hannan burned up the New York Penn League, for Olean.  He led in wins (17) and strikeouts (254).  When the Red Sox did not protect him on their big league roster, the expansion Washington Senators picked him up for $12,500. 

Washington Manager Mickey Vernon predicted stardom for Jim.  “I know it’s asking a lot from a 21-year old kid to make the Majors after one year in the game, but he has what it takes.  He’s going to make it big.”  Vernon was right, as Hannan made the jump from D Ball to the Majors in one year. 

As Hannan pointed out, he was the last player to make that jump, because the following year baseball reorganized its classifications — no more B, C, or D ball but A, AA and AAA.  Hannan was Vernon’s “short man” out of the bullpen, at one point pitching 23 consecutive scoreless innings over nine appearances.

In 1965, Jim pitched what he called “my greatest memory.”  He beat the Kansas City Athletics with a complete game three-hitter.  What made the game special, he said was “my father was dying of cancer … and managed to pick up the game on radio … he was, without a doubt, my greatest fan … he died two weeks later.” 

Jim’s best Major League season was 1968.  He had a 10-6 record, for a Senators’ team that was only 55-90 without him.  “I stopped every losing streak that season,” said Hannan, in a 1982 interview.

 He said the key game for his career occurred in Cleveland.  There was a big crowd, because of a promotion, even though it was a weeknight game.  “The first batter hit a double and the second a homer.  The next three all hit gargantuan blasts — all caught — one over the fence!”  Manager Jim Lemon told Hannan, “You’re coming out.”  Fortunately, Barry Moore was unable to find his control in the bullpen and Jim stayed in the game to retire 26 consecutive batters, before a single with two outs in the ninth.  Hannan won the game, 9-3. 

Hannan pitched for some big hitters-turned-managers during his time with the Senators.  Vernon was followed by Gil Hodges (“the best baseball man I ever played for … a perfectionist”); Jim Lemon (“he put me in the rotation and stayed with me longer in a game’’); and Ted Williams (“he wanted his pitchers to get the first pitch over on the belief that the batter will not swing” and “He also felt that the greatest pitch in baseball was a slider, and since it was the toughest to hit, he wanted his pitchers to throw it more.”) 

In 1969, Hannan had a brush with immortality, pitching a one-hitter, with the only hit being a drive by Kansas City’s Paul Schaal, which barely eluded the fielding-challenged Frank Howard.  Hannan was traded to the Detroit Tigers during the Denny McLain deal, prior to the 1971 season.

 He made only seven relief appearances for Billy Martin, but made him happy by defeating the Yankees in Yankee Stadium — “he loved to beat the Yankees, especially at the Stadium.” Hannan later said of Martin:  “I don’t think he handles pitchers as well as someone like Hodges, but there is no one who can think as quickly.” 

Despite a successful, 10-year major league career, Hannan’s major impact was off the field.  He wrote his Master’s Thesis, at NYU. on the Major League Baseball Pension Plan.  Larry Ritter (compiler of Glory of Their Times, one of the greatest baseball books ever written) was his faculty advisor.  When Marvin Miller was hired by the Major League Players’ Association, he arrived with little knowledge about baseball.  One of the first documents he received was Hannan’s thesis.

Later, Jim was put on the pension committee, which was made up of one player and one owner from each league.  Hannan was the founding President of the Major League Baseball Players’ Alumni Association.  This group has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity.

He may have had a 10-year career in major league baseball, but his impact in the game obviously went far beyond that.

Rest ye well, Jim.