Jesse Danna was a boxing champion at 15, but it was ultimately in baseball that he made his mark. He was a champion in a lightweight boxing division, but when it came to throwing a baseball, he was a real heavyweight.
The little southpaw was his team’s top pitcher at every level of competition, including high school, American Legion, college and the pro ranks.
Danna first appeared in the 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 into the state tournament. The scrappy freshman won 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 transferring to Jesuit High School, Danna played for their Legion team in 1934, becoming the go-to pitcher in coach Gernon Brown’s critical games. Danna was the winning pitcher in the City, South Louisiana, and State playoff games as the Jesuits won the state Legion title.
The Blue Jays moved through the Sixth Regional Tournament in Little Rock, followed by the Western Division where Danna beat Wichita and Seattle. Jesuit earned a spot in the Legion World Series in Chicago. After defeating Cumberland, Maryland, in the first contest for the Jesuits’ 18th straight win of the season, Danna lost a 13-inning heartbreaker in Game 2. Cumberland defeated Jesuit in the deciding championship match.
Danna was a second-team All-Prep player for Jesuit High in 1935, when the Blue Jays won the city and state championships.
The Jesuit went undefeated in 1936 and won both city and state prep titles. The team featured eleven players who earned All-Prep honors, including Danna and seven other first-team members. 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 Timetable-Picayune in 2003.
Danna enrolled at LSU in 1937 and played a freshman ball season followed by three-year lettering on the varsity team. He quickly established himself in trainer Harry Rabenhorst’s starting rotation.
As a junior in 1939, the little southpaw 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 wins. During his senior season, the Timetable-Picayune called Danna “one of the greatest pitchers in Louisiana State college baseball history.”
Danna enrolled in medical school in the fall of 1940, a promise he made to his father. 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 for six weeks but never signed a contract with the Dodgers. .
After convincing his father to try professional baseball, Danna signed with the New York Giants in 1942 and was first assigned to their Jersey City branch of the International League. His contract included a $5,000 bonus if he stayed with the team before July 1. However, the Giants released him before then. He signed with the Atlanta Crackers mid-season but broke his left hand when hit by a line drive. When Atlanta wanted to send him to a lower ranking to rehabilitate, he exercised an option in his contract to have him released if he did not play for Atlanta. Danna returned home to New Orleans where he signed with the Pelicans, then affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals, for the remainder of the season. He won just two of 11 decisions for the entire season.
The New Orleans Pelicans, an affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943, offered Danna a comeback contract. He had a stellar year with a 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 her former Jesuit teammate “Fats” Dantonio. The Pelicans finished in second place, four games behind the Nashville Vols. It was their best result since 1935. The Pelicans lost the playoffs in five games against 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 was not as favorable as the previous year, as he finished with an 11-18 record for the last-placed Pelicans.
Danna won 17 games for fourth-place New Orleans in 1945. The Pelicans advanced to the playoffs and upset the league-leading Atlanta Crackers in the first round, with Danna earning two of the wins. But the Pels ended up losing to Mobile in the final round.
The Pelicans repeated their fourth-place finish in 1946, with Danna leading the team with 15 wins. The Pelicans, who had become an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, pushed regular-season champion Mobile to seven games in the first round of the playoffs, but ended up losing. Danna received votes for MVP honors from the Southern Association.
After starting the 1947 season with the Pelicans with a 4-4 record, Danna was released to lead the Class D Valley Rebels (Georgia) in the Georgia-Alabama League. He was also on the list as a player. He finished with an 18-6 record and led the league with a 2.15 ERA in about half a season. Valley finished in third place and went on to win the playoffs against Opelika. Danna’s brother, Charlie, was the team’s catcher. They were both named to the league’s post-season all-star team.
A well-respected coach in the Georgia-Alabama League, Danna was offered another contract as Valley’s skipper in 1948. He was credited with turning young, inexperienced pitchers into winners. He had no problem inserting his own name into the roster, as he posted a 22-6 record and a 2.06 ERA. He was the winning pitcher at both ends of a doubleheader three times. The team finished in first place in 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 Georgia foes.
Following her success over the previous two years with Valley, Danna had ambitions to rise through the ranks as a manager in the professional ranks. Valley President Fob James had nothing but praise for Danna, “Jesse is a good discipliner and a smart baseball man. His 1948 club was made up largely of rookies sent to the club by the Boston Red Sox. Big league scouts and other former baseball men say Danna did a great job teaching these rookies baseball like you would find at any professional baseball club.
However, with Valley in last place in mid-May 1949, Danna was released as manager, ending his hope of managing at higher levels. For the rest of the season, he was able to become 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 minor league career record was 113-81, including 69 wins with the Pelicans.
New Orleans native George Strickland, Danna’s teammate 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. . It was a type of control. I think he might trap you. He might throw it next to you if you looked at enough junk.
Danna used his managerial experience to coach the NORD-DH Holmes team to National Rookie League national championships in 1954 and 1955. He was inducted into the Diamond Club Hall of Fame in 1975.
In 2005, Danna died at age 87.