Jesuit, LSU and Pelicans baseball star Jesse Danna was a winner at every level

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Jesse Danna
Jesse Danna with a baseball from LSU’s 1939 SEC championship.

Jesse Danna was a boxing standout at age 15, but it was ultimately in baseball where he made his mark. He was a champion in a lightweight boxing division, yet when it came to pitching a baseball, he was a genuine “heavyweight.”

The diminutive left-hander was the leading pitcher for his team at every level of competition, including high school, American Legion, college and the professional ranks.

Danna first appeared in New Orleans sports pages in 1933 as a competitive boxer at St. Aloysius High School. The 15-year-old fought in the 112-pound class, recording four knockouts in ten winning decisions leading up to the state tournament. The scrappy freshman claimed the state title with five wins in his weight classification.

Danna swapped his boxing gloves for a baseball glove in the summer of 1933 when he was an outfielder for the St. Aloysius-based American Legion team.

After he transferred to Jesuit High School, Danna played for their Legion team in 1934, becoming the go-to pitcher in critical games for coach Gernon Brown. Danna was the winning pitcher in city, South Louisiana, and state playoff games, as Jesuit captured the state Legion title.

The Blue Jays breezed through the Sixth Regional tournament in Little Rock, followed by the Western Sectional where Danna defeated Wichita and Seattle. Jesuit earned a berth in the Legion World Series in Chicago. After defeating Cumberland, Maryland, in the first contest for Jesuit’s 18th consecutive win of the season, Danna lost a heartbreaker in 13 innings in the second game. Cumberland defeated Jesuit in the deciding championship game.

Danna was a second-team All-Prep player for Jesuit High in 1935, when the Blue Jays won the city and state championships.

Jesuit went undefeated in 1936 and captured the city and state prep titles. The team featured eleven players who earned All-Prep honors, including Danna and seven others on the first team. The Blue Jays had seven future professional players, including major leaguers Charlie Gilbert, “Fats” Dantonio, and Connie Ryan, as well as future major-league scout George Digby. The 1936 team was ranked the best high school team of all-time in the New Orleans area by the Times-Picayune in 2003.

Danna enrolled at LSU in 1937and played one season of freshman ball followed by lettering in three years on the varsity squad. He quickly established himself in the starting rotation for coach Harry Rabenhorst.

As a junior in 1939, the little lefthander helped the Tigers win their first SEC baseball championship with a 10-2 conference record. Danna was credited with five of the wins. He posted fifteen strikeouts in one of his victories. During his senior season, the Times-Picayune called Danna “one of Louisiana State’s greatest pitchers in university baseball history.”

Danna enrolled in medical school in the fall of 1940, a promise he had made to his dad. After seeing a scouting report, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher asked Danna to join the team at the end of the 1941 season. He stayed six weeks but never signed a contract with the Dodgers.

After convincing his father to give pro baseball a try, Danna signed with the New York Giants in 1942 and was initially assigned to their Jersey City affiliate in the International League. His contract called for a $5,000 bonus if he remained with the team by July 1. However, the Giants released him before that date. He signed with the Atlanta Crackers at mid-season but suffered a broken left hand when he was hit by a line drive. When Atlanta wanted to send him to a lower classification to rehabilitate, he exercised an option in his contract to gain his release if he didn’t play for Atlanta. Danna went home to New Orleans where he signed with the Pelicans, then a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate, for the remainder of the season. He won only two of 11 decisions for the entire season.

The New Orleans Pelicans, a Brooklyn Dodgers affiliate in 1943, offered Danna a contract to return. He had a breakout year with league-leading 22 wins and only 7 losses. He posted a 3.16 ERA, slightly behind Ed Lopat’s league-leading 3.05. He was the last Pelicans pitcher to win 20 or more games. Danna’s catcher with the Pelicans was his former Jesuit teammate “Fats” Dantonio. The Pelicans finished in second place, four games behind the Nashville Vols. It was their highest finish since 1935. The Pelicans lost the playoff in five games to Nashville.

Over the winter Danna took a job with Pendleton Shipyards in New Orleans where he also played for their semi-pro team. In late April 1944 he signed with the Pelicans, but his season wasn’t as favorable as the previous year, since he finished with an 11-18 record for the last-place Pelicans.

Danna won 17 games for fourth-place New Orleans in 1945. The Pelicans qualified for the playoffs and upset the league-leading Atlanta Crackers in the first round, with Danna earning two of the wins. But the Pels wound up losing to Mobile in the final round.

The Pelicans repeated its fourth-place finish again in 1946, with Danna leading the team with 15 victories. The Pelicans, which had become a Boston Red Sox affiliate, pressed regular-season champion Mobile to seven games in the first round of playoffs but wound up losing. Danna received votes for the Southern Association’s MVP honors.

After starting the 1947 season with the Pelicans with a 4-4 record, Danna was released to manage the Class D Valley Rebels (Georgia) in the Georgia-Alabama League. He was also on the roster as a player. He finished with an 18-6 record and led the league with a 2.15 ERA, in roughly half of a season. Valley finished in third place and then won the playoffs over Opelika. Danna’s brother Charlie was the catcher on the team. They were both named to the league’s post-season all-star team.

A well-respected manager in the Georgia-Alabama League, Danna was offered another contract as the skipper for Valley in 1948. He was credited with developing young, inexperienced pitchers into winners. He had no problem inserting his own name into the lineup, as he posted a 22-6 record and 2.06 ERA. He was the winning pitcher on both ends of a doubleheader on three occasions. The team finished in first place during the regular season and won the playoffs by defeating Newnan in the first round and sweeping Carrollton in four games in the finals. The Danna brothers appeared in a mid-season all-star game pitting Alabama players against their Georgian foes.

Following his success in the previous two years with Valley, Danna had ambitions to move up the ladder as a manager in the pro ranks. Valley president Fob James had nothing but praise for Danna, “Jesse is a fine disciplinarian and a smart baseball man. His 1948 club was composed largely of rookies sent to the club by the Boston Red Sox. Big league scouts and other old baseball men say that Danna did as fine a job in teaching these rookies inside baseball as could be found on any professional ball club.”

However, with Valley in last place in mid-May 1949, Danna was released as manager, ending his hope to manage at higher levels. During the remainder of the season, he was able to catch on as a player with Class C Thibodaux in the Evangeline League and then Class C Helena in the Cotton States League. It was the last season of his career.

Danna’s career minor-league record was 113-81, including 69 wins with the Pelicans.

New Orleans native George Strickland, a teammate of Danna’s with the Pelicans and later a major-league player and manager with the Cleveland Indians, had the following assessment of Danna: “He didn’t throw particularly hard. He was a control guy. I think he could set you up. He could throw it by you if you looked at enough junk.”

Danna used his managerial experience to coach the NORD-D. H. Holmes team to national championships in the National Rookie League in 1954 and 1955. He was inducted into the Diamond Club Hall of Fame in 1975.

In 2005, Danna died at age 87.

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Richard Cuicchi

New Orleans baseball historian

Richard Cuicchi, Founder of the Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database and a New Orleans area baseball historian, maintains TheTenthInning.com website. He also authored the book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives. He has contributed to numerous SABR-sponsored Bio Project and Games Project books.

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