Lou's Last Pitch

Nearly anyone can make it to the major leagues. All you need is a little talent and a lot of faith.

Some men are born into baseball. Their fathers played the game, perhaps, and laid an infielder's glove in the crib. Lou Haneles is a baseball man of the self-made variety. His father showed no interest in the sport, yet Haneles still swooned over its subtle complexity. Once he discovered an aptitude, well, that was it.

"I guess ever since he's been a little boy Lou has dreamed of becoming a major leaguer," says Evelyn. "It's the second love of his life; I'd like to think I'm the first, but that's being a little presumptuous. Really, baseball is the first. Baseball was in his mind before he ever met me. It's always been the love of his life."

He floundered on his team at the Bronx's James Monroe High, the alma mater of Hall of Fame slugger Hank Greenberg. A fine arm, they said of Haneles, but not very fast and no bat whatsoever. His coach at the City College of New York solved that last problem, pointing out that Haneles gripped the bat in an awkward, cross-handed manner that prevented him from swinging with any power. "All through high school nobody told me this," Haneles recalls bitterly. "I had no guidance." As soon as he uncrossed his hands he unleashed his power. Good power. Good enough to make him a star.

While still in college, Haneles signed with the Boston Braves, reporting to their top minor league team in Scranton, Pennsylvania. (To retain his college eligibility, he played under a pseudonym, Lou Barron.) He earned a release from the organization by improbably holding out for more money on his contract, an absolute no-no in organized baseball circa 1938. After he finished college, the New York Giants picked him up, then cut him. He went on to play for a farm team affiliated with the Washington Senators. Looking back, he describes his playing career as a succession of bad breaks, some literal: A busted finger blocked a late-season promotion he'd been expecting from the Senators. What-ifs and almosts still haunt Haneles 60 years later.

What separates him from the legion of other baseball also-rans is his determination to channel his frustrations into quixotic crusades. And these crusades include more than just the championing of 59-year-old pitchers. A few years ago he tried to organize a minor league players' union. No players dared join, in part for fear of offending the major league clubs that control their fate. Last year he endeavored to end what he considers baseball's greatest remaining discrimination: the blacklisting of left-handed catchers.

Not surprisingly, Haneles played catcher left-handed. When injuries felled the two catchers on his CCNY team, Haneles's coach ordered him to abandon first base and crouch behind the plate.

These days almost every catcher throws with his right hand and catches with his left. So few lefties catch that it's almost impossible to find a glove designed for the right hand, which further shrinks the potential pool. But Haneles insists left-handers are better equipped as backstops. Most pitchers, he notes, are right-handed, and their curve ball spins toward a left-hander's mitt rather than away. A lefty also has an easier time throwing to first base, though most catchers in the major leagues (all right-handers) have little problem with this transaction. And if the batter is right-handed (most are), a lefty catcher might be obstructed when throwing to second, which is the most important play a catcher makes.

Haneles doesn't see things this way.
"High School, College, Major and Minor League Managers: I can't believe you're so stupid you cannot see the advantage of a left-handed catcher," he scolded in a homemade press release distributed to sports writers at every major paper in America. "Before I die (as we all must), I want every left-handed thrower in the world who loves to catch to get that chance," he continued. "As my last contribution to baseball, I'd be willing to demonstrate for anybody that the left-handed catcher was made for baseball.... I hope baseball obliterates this shameful left-hander discrimination willingly rather than the way they reluctantly allowed blacks in baseball."

Counting printing and mailing costs, Haneles spent more than $2000 to disseminate his message, he says. For all that cash he didn't exactly let loose the shackles on persecuted left-handers everywhere. A columnist for an Atlanta paper spent three sentences on Haneles's campaign. A reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise in Texas wrote a story that ran on the front page of his sports section, illustrated with a picture of New York Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, who is right-handed. The article quoted scouts and coaches who seem unconcerned that right-handers have a monopoly on the catcher's position. A left-handed athlete with a good arm, goes the conventional wisdom, is more valuable on the mound than behind the plate.

Haneles smiles when reminded of the Beaumont article. His straight teeth meet at an odd angle, making his jaw appear out of joint. "It's something," he says of the writeup. "It's progress." The press release was supposed to be Haneles's final crusade before he died. "MY LAST HURRAH AT 81!" shouts the boldface headline at the top of the release. Thinking about it, he smiles again. Then he laughs. "I just turned 82 last month," he says.

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