DiMaggio and a Rams pitcher

Ralph Hamner

It was in March 1951, in the final spring training of Joe DiMaggio‘s illustrious career, when he dug in during the third inning of a New York Yankees game at Wrigley Field — in Los Angeles, not Chicago — against the minor-league Angels. More than 22,000 fans had sardined into the park, forcing several hundred to sit in hastily arranged on-field “corrals” and allow umpires to rule hit after hit as ground-rule doubles because they disappeared amid the congregated masses.

DiMaggio, then 36 years old, didn’t disappoint or waste time. He whacked the first pitch over the left-field wall for a home run. Irrelevant spring blast as it was, DiMaggio’s solo shot was nevertheless memorialized in a prominent photograph the next morning in The Los Angeles Times. An aged DiMaggio and the post-war Yankees sold papers.

Ralph Hamner

The Times also didn’t spare Ralph Hamner, the luckless pitcher who gave up DiMaggio’s home run, by omitting his name from the account. An occasional Major Leaguer who 11 years prior had been banished to what was then one of the minor leagues’ less-enjoyable outposts — Johnston Field, home of the Southeastern League’s Anniston Rams — Hamner figured prominently, and without mercy, in The Times’ coverage: “The folks got to see exactly what they came to see — a home run by Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.” The Associated Press described the Yankees’ 13-4 win as a “murderous assault” on Hamner, who took the loss after giving up eight runs (four earned), nine hits and four walks in five innings. Eighteen years later, The Times recounted Hamner’s pain from that spring afternoon: “Ralph Hamner teetered into his windup, threw a triple-A curve, and Joe drove the ball over 41st Street into infinity.”

Joe DiMaggio hits a Ralph Hamner pitch for a home run in this 1951 clipping from The Los Angeles Times.

It’s likely unfair to judge Hamner’s baseball abilities by that single day in Los Angeles in ’51. In parts of four Major League seasons, the Louisiana native won a combined eight games with Chicago’s Cubs and White Sox and won 10 or more games for five different minor-league teams, including the Rams. With the White Sox he allowed two hits and a run in his MLB debut against the St. Louis Browns in 1946. A month later he won his first big-league game, throwing five shutout innings in relief in a 4-0 victory over Cleveland. With the Cubs in 1948 he threw a complete-game six-hitter in a win over the New York Giants, beat the Giants with another complete-game gem two weeks later, and then toppled a St. Louis Cardinals lineup featuring Stan Musial, Marty Marion, Enos Slaughter and Joe Garagiola, giving him three straight victories as a starting pitcher, an undeniable career highlight.

It’s impossible to know how different Hamner’s career would have been had it not been interrupted by World War II. (As was DiMaggio’s, though the Hall of Famer returned largely to form after the war.) He was 25 when he entered the U.S. Navy Reserves in December 1942. In his three previous seasons — in Anniston and Shreveport — he’d won 12, 14 and 19 games, a trend that caught scouts’ attention. Pitching for stateside military teams may have kept his arm in shape, but it certainly wasn’t the same as preparing for a potential MLB call-up.

“Baseball is strictly for morale purposes for the armed forces here,” Hamner told The Shreveport Journal in 1943. “In some of our exhibition games we had more than 5,000 men in uniform present.” His health, though, a persistent problem before the war, didn’t improve in the Navy. He spent 20 days in the hospital with the mumps. He tore a muscle in his back when he tried to pitch too soon after his hospital stay. The Shreveport paper called him “frail,” a “thin man” and a “skinny chap” who suffered from a “perpetual stomach ache.” But he stayed in the Navy as a chief specialist and pitched when he could. Baseball remained on his radar.

A 1942 clipping from The Pasadena Post.

Though the ’40 Rams were pathetic — they finished 61-82 in the SEL’s basement and nearly folded — the three-plus months Hamner spent in Anniston gave him his first real taste of professional success. He’d bounced around the game’s lowest levels in the late 1930s, and a collection of higher-level teams — Newark, Nashville, Knoxville — had given him a shot in 1940’s spring. But he never stuck. The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that May that the Knoxville Vols returned Hamner to his previous team because he “did not impress the skipper in his workouts.” Throughout their existence, the Rams rarely shied away from another team’s castoffs, especially young ones with live arms. Hamner was worth the risk.

A 1940 clipping from The Anniston Star.

But the Rams had no idea what they were getting.

“Ralph Hamner, a lanky right-hander, reported to Larry Gilbert Jr. at the business office today expecting an early chance on the mound,” The Anniston Star reported May 13. “Little information was immediately available upon him, expect that he was sent from Nashville after being with Newark earlier in the season. He tops the timber at six feet and weighs in the neighborhood of 175 pounds.” The Star didn’t report, perhaps because it didn’t know, on the chronic stomach ailment that often sapped the skinny pitcher’s strength and kept him from gaining weight.

Right on cue, Hamner disappointed in his Rams debut, a 14-12 loss to Pensacola in which he gave up 13 hits and 10 runs in five innings. But then he started winning.

He beat Jackson, 6-1, in July by scattering four hits over nine innings. In August he ran off a three-game winning streak — beating Mobile twice and Pensacola — that helped the moribund Rams win 11 times in a two-week stretch. When the season ended, pitcher Frank Papish, who won 20 games, and Hamner had combined to win half of Anniston’s victories that season.

A 1950 clipping from The Los Angeles Times.

Hamner never again pitched for the Rams. Two seasons in Shreveport, three years in the Navy Reserves, and four partial seasons in the big leagues turned the former Ram into a mid-30s journeyman who pitched three seasons in the early 1950s with Pacific Coast League’s Angels. He made headlines in 1949 with Shreveport when he fought the manager of Dallas’ minor-league team on consecutive nights — including one fistifcuff during batting practice. He would have played a fourth season in Los Angeles in 1953, but that spring he told the Angels he wanted to play instead with Shreveport so he could oversee his family’s farm implement business in Bradley, Arkansas — pitching at night in Shreveport and working during the day at the family store, his chores separated by a 50-mile commute. The Angels obliged.

A 1953 clipping from The Shreveport Journal.

Hamner won just four times in 14 decisions that summer and then retired from baseball, spending his later years selling John Deere tractors and insurance policies. A baseball field in Bradley, where he was instrumental in amateur and Little League baseball, is named in his honor. He died in 2001 at age 84 and is buried in Walnut Hill Cemetery in Bradley.

Ralph Hamner’s World War II draft registration card. (Ancestry.com)
Ralph Hamner’s 1945 baseball questionnaire. (Ancestry.com)

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