Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Updated: December 28, 10:37 AM ET
Buddy Hancken, 1914-2007
By Jeff Pearlman
Special to Page 2
Thanks to "Field of Dreams," nearly everyone knows Archibald (Moonlight) Graham.
Just scan the Internet. There are Moonlight Graham T-shirts, Moonlight Graham hats, a Moonlight Graham Scholarship Fund and, based out of Cincinnati, a two-piece bluegrass band named, of all things, "Moonlight Graham."
Yet while Graham certainly warrants his place in baseball folklore, the man was a wizened major league veteran compared to good ol' Buddy Hancken, who died in February at age 92.
Though much has been made of Graham's all-too-brief big league career, at least he played two whole innings for the New York Giants. Hancken, on the other hand, found himself on a major league diamond for exactly half that time. His debut came on May 14, 1940, when Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, pinch ran for catcher Frank Hayes in the ninth inning of a 9-7 victory at Cleveland. Hancken, a 25-year-old Alabaman, caught the final three outs.
Career stats: 0 ABs, 0 hits, 0 runs, --- batting average.
"I got to play one inning as a catcher, make one putout, meet Connie Mack and shake hands with Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb." Hancken once said. "I wasn't a very good player. But for a guy who was average, I never missed a payday from 1934 to 1990. There aren't many guys who can say that."
What truly made Graham's mystique was that after reaching the bigs, he vanished, leaving the game two years later to focus on a medical career. Hancken, on the other hand, spent seven decades in professional baseball, bounding joyfully through the dugouts and batting cages and grass fields as a player, manager, coach, scout and executive.
Though mediocre as a catcher, Hancken goes down as one of the game's elite storytellers. In the early 1980s, he was the Houston Astros' one-man speakers bureau, hopping from Rotary Club banquet to Babe Ruth League dinner to Cub Scout convention armed with an ear-to-ear grin and a bushel of tall tales. "Some of Dad's stories were true, some were embellished, some were false," says Kaaren Kline, his daughter. "But he told all of them with great happiness."
Hancken's favorite yarn dates back to 1938, when his Seattle Rainiers traveled to California for a Triple-A matchup against the Hollywood Stars. Under manager Jack Lelivelt, players could sing in the showers after a win, but were required to cleanse silently should they lose.
Following one particularly joyful triumph, Hancken and his teammates crooned away, bellowing one off-key hymn after another. Suddenly, into the shower walked Bing Crosby, Lelivelt's close friend.
"Bing just stuck his head in to say hello, but the guys pulled him inside and wouldn't let him leave until he sang with them," says Kline. "So although my dad played in the major leagues, he used to say his claim to fame with singing with Bing Crosby.
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.