Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Philography: Granny Hamner

The Philadelphia Phillies have a rich history in the National League dating back to the 1883 season.

Since the fall of 2014, I’ve been running an off-season series titled “Philography” in which I present a brief biography of the important players in the Phillies’ past, both recent and distant. 
In this series, I try to mostly key on their playing careers, but also like to toss in a few personal tidbits to frame each player's background.
In two chapters of the series earlier in this current off-season, I covered a pair of shortstops who were vital to National League pennant-winning Phillies teams of the past. 
Larry Bowa was the starting shortstop with the NL pennant winners who also won the World Series in 1980, and Kevin Stocker solidified the position during the magical 1993 summer of Macho Row.
This current chapter continues that shortstop theme as we take a look into the life and career of “Whiz Kids” shortstop Granny Hamner, the 9th player selected to the Phillies Wall of Fame back in 1987.
Hamner was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, and was first signed by the Phillies as an amateur free agent out of high school back in 1944 as a 17-year old. 
His older brother, Garvin, was already in affiliated ball, playing with the New York Giants’ B-level Richmond minor league club.
But despite being three years older and further along in his development, Garvin Hamner didn’t beat his kid brother to the Major Leagues. 
After signing, Granny went straight to the shorthanded Phillies, appearing in 21 games during that summer of ’44, when baseball and the rest of the country was still embroiled in World War II.
The following year, Hamner started out back in the big leagues. In fact, Garvin had signed with the Phillies as well, and joined him on the roster for Opening Day. 
The two brothers played together for the entire month of April and into May.
including as the starting middle infield combo, with Garvin at 2nd and Granny at short.
Neither would last the season. Granny was just 18 years old and hitting for just a .171 average when he was sent to the minor leagues in mid-May. 
Garvin lasted with the Phillies through back-to-back doubleheaders on June 6th and 7th, but that was it – for his big league career. At age 21, he would be sent to the minors as well, never to get another shot.
Garvin did play on, lasting through the 1953 season in the minor leagues when, at age 29, he decided to hang it up. 
The younger Granny meanwhile hit .258 with 18 extra-base hits in the minors at A-level Utica over 104 games during that summer of 1945. He also fielded the shortstop position flawlessly.
After spending most of 1946 serving in the post-War military, Granny returned in time for a pair of late September games against the Giants. He was sent back to Utica in 1947 as the starting shortstop once again.
Now 20 years old and beginning to mature physically, Hamner hit .291 with 36 extra-base hits, and was knocking on the door for a return to the big leagues. 
He received a cup of coffee at the end of September, starting the final two games, once again against those Giants.
In 1948, Hamner won the shortstop job at the start of the season. Hitting just .212 by late May, manager Ben Chapman began to bounce him in and out of the lineup, and use him at both 2nd and 3rd base.
By May, Eddie Miller, in his first Phillies season but an 11-year veteran who had played with both Cincinnati and the Boston Braves, had taken over the full-time shortstop duties. 
At the end of May, Hamner seized the starting job next to him as the starting 2nd baseman. The two would form the Phillies’ middle infield combo for the rest of that summer.
By spring training of the following 1949 season, the Miller and Hamner roles were completely reversed under new manager Eddie Sawyer, who had taken over for Chapman the previous season. 
Miller was made the 2nd baseman, while Hamner returned to shortstop, the position that he would man for the Phillies for the next eight seasons.
The 1949 Phillies under Sawyer were a young, exciting ball club. They finished in 3rd place in the National League with an 81-73 record, the first winning season for the franchise since 1932. 
It was just the 2nd winning campaign since 1917, after which much of the remnant of the 1915 pennant winners had been dealt or faded away.
Hamner was right in the middle of that excitement, literally. He was the 22-year old starting shortstop for what appeared to be an up-and-coming contender. 
Among those joining Hamner in that group were 22-year old center fielder Richie Ashburn, 24-year old left fielder Del Ennis, 23-year old 3rd baseman Willie Jones, 22-year old starting pitcher Robin Roberts, and 20-year old pitcher Curt Simmons.
By 1950 these “Whiz Kids” were putting serious pressure on the established powers in the National League. 
On the season’s final day, a 9th inning tremendous throw by Ashburn nailed the winning run at the plate, and kept the Phillies in the decisive game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Then a 3-run 10th inning home run by Sisler clinched the pennant.
The Phillies had won the 1950 National League pennant, but would go on to be swept out of the World Series in four straight games by the New York Yankees. 
Though they were swept, the first three losses were all by a single run. Hamner was nearly flawless in the field, as usual, during that Fall Classic. He made one error – but it would prove pivotal.
As reported back in 1993 by Joe Berkery of the Philadelphia Daily News
in the third game, he bobbled Bobby Brown‘s grounder in the eighth inning with the Phillies leading, 2-1. Hamner had scored the go-ahead run. A run scored on the error and the Yankees went on to score in the ninth and win, 3-2.
Hamner finished 6th in the National League MVP voting in the following weeks after a season in which he hit .270 with 11 homers, 82 RBI, 78 runs scored and played tremendous defense at shortstop for the NL champions.
Though the Phillies dropped to 73-81 in the 1951 season, they were not a one or two-year flash in the pan. The winning returned with records of 87-67 in 1952 and 83-71 in 1953. 
But those records were only good for 4th and 3rd place finishes. In two of the next four seasons, the club would finish with identical 77-77 records.
Hamner continued his strong play, especially defensively. He was the National League starting shortstop in the 1952 All-Star Game, and was an NL All-Star in three straight seasons from 1952-54. 
His best offensive season was in 1953 when he hit .276 with 21 homers and 92 RBI. The following year he hit .299 with 13 homers and 89 RBI.
Hamner and the Whiz Kids were never able to get back to the World Series. By 1958 at age 31, Hamner had lost his starting job. 
In the 1959 season he was traded to Cleveland and had one final shot at winning a pennant, but the Tribe fell short.
I was through with baseball the day they traded me,” said Hamner in a 1972 interview with Duke DeLuca of the Reading Eagle
I didn’t like it in Cleveland, but the Phillies actually did me a favor. They weren’t going anywhere and Cleveland was battling the White Sox for first place. We lost the pennant in the last two weeks. I really didn’t have any reason to beef about the trade. I just hated to leave the (Phillies) organization. I was raised in the organization.
Late in his career with the team, the Phillies had actually used Hamner on the mound in four games. 
At the end of his career, Hamner tried to hang on as a knuckleball pitcher in the minor leagues, found some success in the minors in that role, and actually returned to the big leagues in 1962 with the Kansas City Athletics as a pitcher.
During that 1962 season, Hamner appeared in three games for the Athletics, and he was bashed around. The knuckleball that had confounded minor leaguers was roped around or waited out by the big leaguers. 
In that brief return to the Major Leagues as a pitcher, Hamner allowed 10 hits over four innings and had a 9.00 ERA with no strikeouts and six walks. Needless to say, he didn’t last.
Over parts of 17 seasons in Major League Baseball, having worn a Phillies uniform in 16 of those, Hamner put together a career .262/.303/.383 slash line. He produced 104 homers, 708 RBI, 711 runs scored. 
Hamner was a 3x NL All-Star, received MVP votes in a half-dozen seasons, and was one of the top defensive shortstops of his time.
Following his retirement, Granny worked for the Phillies as a scout and a coach in the farm system during the 1970’s and 80’s, and was a regular at spring training down in Clearwater, Florida.
His installment into the Phillies Wall of Fame in 1987 made him the fourth Whiz Kid in the prestigious group, joining Roberts, Ashburn, and Ennis. They have since been joined by Simmons and Jones from that 1950 NL championship team in being so honored.
Hamner is currently 8th on the Phillies all-time career franchise 'Games played' list, 9th in At-Bats, 11th in Hits and Doubles, and 19th in Runs scored. 
When he died of a heart attack on September 12th, 1993 Hamner was just aged 66 years. His brother, Garvin, lived on for another decade, passing himself in December of 2003 at age 79.
Just four nights before his death, Hamner had stopped by the Phillies broadcast booth and visited with old friend and teammate Ashburn, who said that the old shortstop appeared fine. 
It would be the last time that the two friends, who could trace their relationship back 50 years to their starts in minor league baseball, would see one another.
Hamner played for many years for the Phillies during a period when the game underwent significant changes. 
Most of them are gone now, those Whiz Kids. Simmons is still alive, now aged 86. Fellow pitchers Bob Miller (89) and Paul Stuffel (88), and infielder Putsy Caballero (88) – that’s it. 
Four remain alive from a season in which, as young 20-somethings, they thrilled the Philly baseball world.

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