Wednesday, December 8, 2004
Au Revoir, Harry Danning
Harry Danning died last week, and all The New York Times could muster was a dry, unbylined, six-paragraph obituary that somehow managed to overlook Danning's Jewishness - not a small thing when one considers that Danning played for the old New York Giants from 1933 to 1942, was selected four times to the National League All Star team, and until his death at age 93 had been the oldest living Jewish major leaguer.
The Times's paltry obit put one to mind of that paper's late, great Alden Whitman, whose stylish biographical essays on the lives of the newly deceased elevated obituary writing to something approaching an art form.
In recent years the Times's obituaries have rarely risen to the standard set by Whitman, who no doubt would have celebrated Danning as a minor New York folk hero whose exploits and achievements had fallen into obscurity with the passing of years, generations, and the Giants team itself, which moved to San Francisco following the 1957 baseball season.
Danning, whose Polish immigrant father sold used furniture, grew up in Los Angeles where he played semi-pro ball. Signed by the Giants - who were always on the lookout for Jewish ballplayers to spark interest among New York City's large Jewish population - Danning, a catcher, began his big-league career as a back up but soon developed into a solid everyday player and perennial All Star.
Nicknamed 'Harry the Horse' after a Damon Runyon character, Danning experienced a fair amount of anti-Semitism from opposing players and fans. In an interview with the Baltimore Sun just a few months before his death, he said that one of the ethnic catcalls he remembered hearing was 'Pitch under his nose, he can't see the ball.'
Even so, Danning told the Sun that the Jew-baiting usually didn't faze him, and that what he went through was nothing compared with the treatment accorded the first black major leaguers.
The taunts and slurs that did come his way were no doubt hurtful, but playing on the Giants provided something of a protective atmosphere. At one point the team boasted four Jews on its roster, and one year during spring training when a Florida hotel refused entry to Danning and Jewish teammate Phil Weintraub, Giants manager Bill Terry threatened to take the entire team to another hotel unless his Jewish players were given lodging. The hotel's management quickly backed down.
Danning's brother Ike was also a major league catcher - albeit for a relatively brief period and for one of baseball's most woeful franchises, the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles). Ike, who died in 1983, plays a starring role in one of the more famous anecdotes involving Jewish baseball players. As David Spaner tells it in his essay 'From Greenberg to Green: Jewish Ballplayers,' which appeared in the 1997 edition of Total Baseball - The Official Encyclopedia of Major league Baseball:
When Jimmie Reese [who at one point in his career was Babe Ruth's roommate] was playing in the Pacific Coast League, he appeared in a celebrity game in which the other team had a Jewish battery of pitcher-songwriter Harry Ruby and catcher Ike Danning....Instead of using signals, Danning called the game in Yiddish, figuring none of the opposing players would understand. Reese slammed four hits, and after the game Ruby said to him, 'I didn't know you were that good a hitter, Jimmie.'
'You also didn't know,' Reese said, 'that my name was Hymie Solomon.'
The Baseball Hall of Fame held a ceremony honoring Jewish major leaguers last August, but Harry Danning wasn't up to making the trip.
Danning, who worked a variety of jobs after leaving baseball in 1942, was still receiving fan mail in the months before he died. 'I take things as they are,' he told the Baltimore Sun. 'I beat the rap anyway - I'll be 93 next month. How many people are that old in the world?'Jason Maoz can be reached at email@example.com