Without Joe Hatten, the connection between Jackie Robinson and the Anniston Rams would exist somewhere between fanciful and inconceivable. Robinson didn’t play for the Rams, or in Anniston, or for one of the other teams in the Southeastern League. His Georgia birthplace tickled the Florida state line, not Johnston Field. Nevertheless, the man who broke baseball’s color barrier is permanently, if not inconsequentially, linked to the Rams by an Iowan who fizzled in Anniston, spent three years in the Navy and still managed to become one of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ better post-war pitchers.
Robinson debuted for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, at Ebbets Field against the Milwaukee Braves. The Dodgers won, 5-3; Robinson, playing first base and hitting second, went 0 for 3 and scored once. And on the mound for Brooklyn was Joseph Hilarian Hatten, a curve-balling lefty who in 1940 dropped 18 games for an abysmal Rams team that lost 82 times.
Though far from the Major Leagues, Anniston’s SEL team fielded players who’d been teammates of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, pitched against Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, and played for Connie Mack, Casey Stengel and Leo Durocher. Officially, the Rams sit along the fringes of Dodgers lore because of their years as a Brooklyn farm team. Unofficially, they’re a miniscule note in one of the most significant days in baseball history. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Hatten’s assignment that afternoon — a former Rams pitcher starting the first integrated MLB game since 1884 — represents the team’s apex among the sport’s most memorable moments, a tantalizing trivia question regarding baseball in the Model City that rivals the few months Ty Cobb moonlighted in Anniston in 1904.
The quirk in Hatten’s resume is that his underwhelming summer spent with the Rams was a mild abnormality. In the four seasons before World War II stalled his career, the Bankston, Iowa, native went 14-14 with 300-plus strikeouts with Class D Crookston, Minnesota, and threw decently for Minneapolis and Montreal on his way through Brooklyn’s farm system. In the spring of 1941, Stengel gushed over the young pitcher in comments to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “I liked Hatten especially well,” Stengel said after watching Hatten pitch. “He’s got a heck of a curve and is plenty fast. His drop curve breaks down sharply about a foot as it reaches the plate. It’s a tough ball to hit squarely. He’s really got something. A left-hander with his stuff is a cinch to go places.” Two explanations formed around Hatten’s 7-18 performance in Anniston. One, the Rams were godawful. Two, Alabama’s sweltering summer zapped Hatten’s strength, a theory Minneapolis’ newspaper pushed after that city’s American Association team signed him for 1941. The justification seemed as good as any. “Unaccustomed to Southern heat,” the paper wrote, “he was in ill health for a good part of the season.” The Iowan won Anniston’s season-opener against Gadsden, throwing a complete game and scattering 11 hits in a 7-3 victory, and then won only six times the rest of the season. Losses were more common. In his season review, The Anniston Star’s Lynne Brannen Jr. tried to soothe the pain. “Joe Hatten showed a great deal of promise and toward the season’s end was getting sufficient confidence in himself to come out of tight spots and hold a lead for his team through late innings.”
The war, the bugaboo in so many Rams’ careers, didn’t derail Hatten’s as much as it delayed it.
Though he served 10 months overseas, Hatten was fortunate: the Navy, more interested in his left arm than his military value, allowed him to spend a majority of his service time at stateside postings playing for military teams. In Minneapolis, writer George Barton didn’t let the global hostilities stop him from writing about Brooklyn scout Ted McGrew’s thoughts on the young pitcher. “Hatten may develop into as great a southpaw as Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell or Herb Pennock, if he comes out of the war okay,” McGrew said. In February 1943, the Chicago Tribune took note of Hatten’s performance with the Oakland Naval Air Base team, which whom he’d won 21 of 22 starts and pitched 44 consecutive scoreless innings. In May, the Oakland Tribune described Hatten as “service baseball’s most discussed performer.” In June, the Los Angeles Times reported that Hatten had won 33 of his 38 starts. When he came out of the war — okay, of course — there was little doubt that he’d get an opportunity to make the Dodgers’ roster. Charlie Dressen, a Brooklyn coach, said as much when he spoke with the (New York) Daily News in January 1946. “I saw him out on the coast,” Dressen said. “He can’t miss. He has the best curveball I ever saw.”
Dressen wasn’t wrong; Hatten didn’t miss. He made a splash in his Major League debut, tossing a complete-game gem against the rival New York Giants and winning, 2-1. He finished his rookie season 14-11, and along with his Dodger teammates became overshadowed the following spring by the appearance of Branch Rickey’s hand-picked selection to integrate the National League.
The Dodgers chose Hatten to start the 1947 season-opener against Milwaukee, though he missed a splendid opportunity to earn the win in Robinson’s debut. With the game tied 1-1 through five innings, Hatten hit the leadoff batter in the sixth, an error and a sacrifice bunt put runners on second and third, and a single scored two unearned runs, inching Milwaukee ahead, 3-1. Nevertheless, Hatten’s respectable pitching line — one earned run and six hits allowed in six innings — played a role in Brooklyn’s come-from-behind victory. “Joe Hatten started on the mound and didn’t do badly,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s Tommy Holmes wrote the next morning. Robinson, not Hatten or the Dodgers’ rally, was the obvious story.
“We all knew it was coming. As a matter of fact, we thought we should have had him the year before,” Hatten told the Des Moines Register in 1993. “When he first came up, I read all this stuff about dissension in the clubhouse — about Eddie Stankey and Dixie Walker, guys from the South — but I never saw any conflict in the clubhouse or anyplace else. The other teams were different. They’d hit him, throw at him, and say things to hurt him and try to agitate him. But I liked him. He made me some money.”
It’s no small sidebar that Robinson’s first year in the Major Leagues coincided with Hatten’s career year and the Dodgers’ appearance in the World Series against the crosstown New York Yankees. Hatten made 32 starts in 1947, threw 11 complete games and posted a 17-8 record. In September he did the unusual — winning both games of a doubleheader at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field and three games in a six-game Dodger span. That consistency disappeared in October, however. He started only once in the Yankees’ seven-game World Series victory and made three other relief appearances, allowing seven earned runs in nine innings overall. Two more competent seasons — 13 wins in 1948, 11 in 1949 and another World Series matchup against the Yankees — couldn’t prevent the erosion of Hatten’s tenure in the Major Leagues. It didn’t help that Burt Shotton, the Dodgers’ manager for part of Hatten’s time in Brooklyn, was impatient with the left-hander’s wildness, a failing Durocher didn’t have.
Brooklyn traded Hatten in 1951 to the Chicago Cubs, with whom he made 36 appearances and won just six games in parts of two seasons. The rest of his prolonged pitching career would be spent in the minor leagues, first in Los Angeles and Havana, later in Vancouver and Bakersfield. When he retired in 1960, Hatten had played 19 seasons, seven in MLB, and posted a 65-49 combined record with the Dodgers and Cubs. At age 43 he agreed to leave Vancouver, where he pitched for most of three seasons, and become a player-coach in Bakersfield with the promise of a coaching job with the Philadelphia Phillies’ farm system. That winter, while waiting for a call, Hatten worked as a mail carrier in Redding, California.
Dennis Morefield, a Redding sports writer, detailed Hatten’s new reality in the spring of 1961. “Time is weighing heavily on Joe Hatten these days as he sweats out his immediate future,” Morefield wrote. “If a baseball opening fails to develop in the next three or four weeks, Hatten will be facing the most difficult spring of his life — his first on the sidelines in more than 20 years.”
That job never came.
Hatten kept delivering mail in Redding but never abandoned the game. He coached American Legion teams and occasionally joined other former Major Leaguers at baseball clinics, where he’d teach young pitchers how to throw his trademark curve. In 1983 he joined eight other former Dodgers who returned to Brooklyn for a night of reminiscing. When the one-time Anniston Ram died in 1988 at the age of 72, his family buried him in Inwood Ogburn Cemetery in Shingletown, California. His gravestone notes that he played for Brooklyn and Chicago and includes a photograph of him in a Dodgers uniform and his nickname, “Lefty.”
Five years later, in 1993, Hatten was inducted into the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame. The baseball field in his hometown — Bancroft Memorial Park — sits at the intersection of two roads, East Ramsey Street and Joe Hatten Drive.