As a teenager in Milwaukee, Joseph “Zep” Hauser was a sandlot baseball star, excelling as a hard-throwing left-handed pitcher. He played for the Zunker Comers, a semi-pro team coached by tavern owner Gillie Zunker. When he wasn’t pitching, Hauser filled in as catcher and in the outfield. He drew attention with the bat as well, belting a homer in Saukville that soared out of the park and smashed the window of a nearby bank.
While leading his team to the state’s amateur baseball championship in 1917, he was discovered by Connie Mack, who had previously managed Milwaukee’s minor league team and was now owner and manager of the American League’s Philadelphia Athletics. Mack invited the 18-year-old to Spring Training but quickly realized that Hauser’s control issues were too great to overcome and sent the youngster home.
Hauser ended up signing with the Providence Grays of the Eastern League. After two seasons as a steady-hitting outfielder there, he was purchased by Otto Borchert’s Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. Back in his hometown, Hauser flourished, peaking with 20 home runs and a .316 batting average in 1921. Wildly popular with the Brewers’ German-American fans, Hauser earned the nickname “Unser Choe,” German for “Our Joe.”
Before the 1922 season, he was purchased by Mack’s Athletics and offered a Major League contract. But Hauser didn’t feel that the notoriously frugal Mack’s offer was rich enough. Holding out for “Major League Money,” Hauser mailed back the unsigned contract back to Philadelphia. Numerous efforts by Mack to contact Hauser were fruitless, as he always seemed to be out playing sheepshead at a nearby tavern when Mack associates called at his Westside home.
Hauser eventually signed and emerged a top rookie of 1922. In 1923, he was one of the few stand-outs on a lousy A’s team. In 1924, he slugged 27 homers (more than all but Babe Ruth in league) and placed seventh in American League Most Valuable Player voting. Hauser seemed destined for stardom when, running out a grounder in Spring Training in 1925, he broke his kneecap. He missed the entire year and, after three more injury-plagued seasons in Philadelphia and Cleveland, washed out of the Majors for good at just 30 years old.
For 1930, Hauser – who had only played one full season since ’24 – signed on with the Baltimore Orioles of the International League. In a 168-game season, Hauser set a professional record by slugging 63 homers. After another 31 homers in 1931, he was sold to the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. With the Millers in 1932, he hit 49 homers and in 1933, playing in just 153 games, he hit an incredible 69 round-trippers to go with 189 RBI and a .332 batting average.
The local press fawned over the man they called “Milwaukee’s Own Babe Ruth,” even running a serialized biography of the “Duke of the Wooden Shoes” in the final weeks of the season. Hauser was on his way to another historic season in 1934, smacking 33 homers through 82 games, when he broke his other kneecap while running the bases. The injury ended his season and – at age 35 – he would never quite regain the stroke that made him a minor league legend.
Hauser played two more years in Minneapolis before retiring to Wisconsin to manage the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm team in Sheboygan. He managed the club for 11 seasons and won five league pennants. He turned down offers of managing higher up in the Dodgers system to remain at home, where he ran a sporting goods store in the off-season. Joe Hauser died in Sheboygan in 1997 at age 98.