RIP to Jay Hankins, an outfielder for two years in the majors and a minor-league manager, scout and scouting director after that. He died on January 20 at the age of 84. Hankins played for the Kansas City Athletics in 1961 and 1963.
Jay Hankins was born in St. Louis County, Mo., on November 7, 1935. His father, Leroy, was an integral part of the amateur baseball scene in St. Louis County for decades. He later worked with his son in running scouting camps in Kansas City and St. Louis. Jay attended Ritenour High School in St. Louis, where he played baseball, football and was a state wrestling champ, too. During the summers in high school, he played for an amateur team in Mason City, Iowa. He placed fourth in the Iowa State League in hitting in 1953 and then won the batting title in 1954, with a .412 average. He went to the University of Missouri and was a surprise addition to the football team as a freshman halfback. Why was it a surprise? He was attending training camp as a student aide in the training room! In his third day of practice, he was pitched the ball and ran 70 yards for a touchdown.
Hankins was named captain of the 1957 Tigers baseball team. He hit .379 as a junior in 1956, when Missouri went 14-6. He hit .353 in his senior year, was a first-team NCAA District 5 All-Star and signed a contract with the Kansas City A’s.
“I chose the A’s because they offered the best opportunity to move up fast,” he said at the time, and that ended up being a pretty accurate statement.
Hankins spent the rest of 1957 playing for the Columbia Gems of the South Atlantic League, where he hit .272. He then batted at or over .300 for each of the next three seasons, advancing to the AA Shreveport Sports in the process. While he wasn’t known for his power to that point, he hit 12 homers while driving in 61 runs for the Sports in 1960, making the Southern Association All-Star team. Speed, though, was the main attraction with Hankins.
“The little guy reminds us for all the world of the roadrunner in the animated cartoons, legs churning so fast that you see nothing but a blur as he passes,” wrote columnist Jack Fiser of The Times (Shreveport, La.).
Hankins had a great spring with the A’s in the 1961 training camp and made the Opening Day Roster. He was given chances to start in both right and center field early on. His first MLB hit came on April 25 against the Twins’ Fred Bruckbauer, driving in a run in a 20-2 beatdown. That was Bruckbrauer’s only MLB appearance. He faced 4 batters, gave up 3 hits and a walk and left the game with an ERA of infinity. Hankins’ first home run came a couple of days later, as he broke up an Early Wynn shutout in a 9-1 loss to the White Sox.
Hankins hit 3 home runs with Kansas City in his initial stay with the team, but his average was in the .160s. He was optioned to AAA Honolulu on June 14 and recalled on July 2. In that span, he played 19 games for the Islanders — and never once actually got to see Hawaii, since the team was on a road trip the whole time. He ended the season with a .185 average with the A’s, with 3 triples and 3 home runs in 76 games.
He spent all of 1963 with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League, the A’s new AAA team. Again, he hit well, with a .309 average, 17 stolen bases and 8 home runs. And he finally made it to Honolulu, but as a visiting player. Hankins stayed hot in 1963, hitting .357 in 41 games with the Beavers. He was called up to the majors again in June, stuck around to play 10 games and hit .176, and he was returned to the minors a couple weeks later. At least, that was what was supposed to happen.
Hankins said he would not report to the minor leagues again. That refusal essentially ended his playing career, but not his tenure with the Athletics. Rather than leave Kansas City, he stayed in the front office as the ticket manager.
“Hankins is an intelligent and energetic young man and will be a valuable asset to our club,” said A’s owner Charlie Finley.
Hankins was a career .303 hitter in the minors. In 86 games in the majors, he slashed .184/.218/.280 with 38 hits, including 4 triples and 4 home runs — no doubles, oddly enough.
“When I first went up with the A’s, there were only two pitchers I couldn’t hit, righthanders and southpaws,” he later quipped.
By 1965, he was the team’s traveling secretary. He also had the duty of public relations manager when needed, such as when a mule wandered out into the field during an Athletics-White Sox game in October 2, 1965. He denied that it was Charlie O., the club’s four-legged mascot. “I don’t know where this mule came from,” Hankins said, meaning that some fan snuck a MULE into a major league ballpark. (Ken “Hawk” Harrelson eventually corralled the mule and led it off the field.)
Hankins stayed with the team until January 1967, when he took a scouting role with the Cleveland Indians. He held that position for two years before taking a similar position with the Kansas City Royals in 1969. He covered Missouri, Illinois and Iowa from his home in Raytown, Mo. He ran tryout camps, which were designed to put into practice what Royals owner Ewing Kauffman believed — somewhere out there, there were excellent athletes who could be turned into excellent baseball players if they were given the opportunity and the instruction.
“Mr. Kauffman wants to have at least two try-out camps in each state,” he explained. One such camp Hankins ran in Iowa in 1970 attracted 54 would-be baseball players, many of whom were college ballplayers hoping to get on the team’s radar.
Hankins returned to the field on a full-time basis to become the manager of the Kingsport Royals, the team’s rookie-level team, in 1972. The team had the best record in the Appalachian League in the first half but slumped at the end of the season, costing them the championship. Still, he was named the league’s Manager of the Year, guiding the Royals to a 38-32 record. The only player on the team who made the majors was pitcher Dennis Leonard, who was in his first pro season. Hankins returned to his scouting duties in 1973 and later joined the Major League Scouting Bureau, working as a Midwest supervisor and later as a national cross-checker.
In his career, Hankins also served as the director of scouting for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1988-92 and a special assignment scout for the team from 1992-1994. He signed players like Mike Lieberthal, Mike Williams, Kevin Stocker and Tyler Green, but it was the move he didn’t make that haunted his time with the Phillies. In the 1989 draft, he chose a highly regarded outfielder named Jeff Jackson with the seventh overall pick, leaving first baseman Frank Thomas to be claimed by the White Sox three picks later.
It’s not like Hankins was the only person in baseball who missed Thomas. The Orioles, Braves, Mariners, Rangers and Cardinals all passed on the future Hall of Famer too, and the White Sox settled for Thomas only because Jackson was off the board. But Hankins admitted that the pick set the tone for his time with the Phillies. “At the time, Ricky Jordan was coming off a year in which he came up and hit .308. So I didn’t think first base was a priority,” he said. “But hindsight is 20-20.”
The Angels hired Hankins as a scout in 1995, and he stayed with the team until his retirement. All total, he spent 48 years in professional baseball, including three decades as a scout.
Shortly before taking the Phillies scouting job in 1988, Hankins endured a five-bypass heart surgery. It didn’t slow him down long, as he was soon flying across the country, scouting players in the Phillies’ system. “Something like that does change your outlook on life a little bit,” he said at the time. “But the heart’s fine. It was the pumping that needed a little work.”
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