I first learned about a pitcher named Johnny Lanning back in the early 1990s when I started “managing” a fantasy team of old-time baseball players in something called “Bill James Classic Baseball” as a hobby my buddy Steve got me into when we were both working in the front office of the Albuquerque Dukes, then the Triple A affiliate to the Los Angeles Dodgers. This was before the internet, and long before social media. Like with current fantasy baseball leagues, we had a salary cap and we drafted a full roster of players. The difference was that these players were all old-timers…players dating back to the very start of Major League Baseball in the 1800s. The games were played by some computer in Illinois, and we anxiously awaited printouts in the mail each week of the prior week’s box scores and stats.
It seems archaic now, and kind of bizarre, but it actually was great fun for a couple of guys fresh out of school, lifelong baseball fans working 80–hour weeks at the ballpark. We studied the history of the game regularly, learning about players and ballparks and historical comparisons between players from different eras. We were in a league facing off against each other and 10 other “owners” from all over the country, people who I came to know distantly through later generations of the game as it eventually moved to a web site and message boards, and in more recent years we started to find each other on other platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn.
While I haven’t gotten into a league in several years now (a different version of that same game still exists today, run by another company built by former BJCB players), I gained a lot more from that experience than a couple of mythical league championships (although as a lifelong Giants fan I do love the old-school fitted New York Giants cap I won as the league champion one year). I also gained greater appreciation for tons of players I knew little about in my childhood, including one who shared my last name: Johnny Lanning.
I grabbed Johnny Lanning in that mythical league the first time I spotted him listed among the available pitchers. He was the definition of a journeyman, a guy who spent nearly a decade in the big leagues as a spot starter, long reliever, jack of all trades type who finished with a career record just under .500 (58-60), with 13 saves. He pitched for the old Boston Bees (before they were the Braves), then the Pittsburgh Pirates, and then finished up back in Boston with the Braves. His career would have been longer, and no doubt more notable in terms of statistics, had he not also spent nearly three years of his prime, in mid-career, away from the game serving as a GI in World War II from 1943-45.
Johnny (full name John Young Lanning) was apparently a colorful character. He came from a family of tobacco farmers in Asheville, North Carolina, and he was known by the nicknames of “Tobacco Chewin’ Johnny” and “Johnny Tabaccy.” You just don’t see monikers like that these days.
Coinciding with my great interest in baseball history, something I’ve had since I can remember, is a similar interest in genealogy. That all started at a young age too, but it really took off with a term paper assignment in an ethnic studies course in college in 1986. Long before the amazing technology tools of today, I had to do real research with primary sources. I interviewed relatives, connected with family I’d never met, communicated by mail with distant cousins who were the keepers of family records. I learned some fascinating stories and hungered for more.
Every few years since, I’ve dived back into my genealogy research. The beauty of it is that it never goes away, and there is always more to learn, find, discover.
A few years ago I took it upon myself to dig into Johnny Lanning, to see if by some random chance I could connect myself to this farmboy from North Carolina who I’d read so much about, and who had been in my bullpen for that virtual team that won me that baseball cap way back in 1993 or so. Turns out Johnny had an older brother, Tom, who also appeared in the big leagues. He just got a cup of coffee with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1938, about the time Johnny was establishing himself during his first tour in Boston. Tom pitched all of seven innings in the majors, just in that one season.
After some years of trying to find a connection (I knew that one branch of Lannings had migrated to North Carolina WAY back in the 1700s, but I didn’t know if there was a connection to Tom and Johnny), I eventually uncovered the lineage that leads straight back to the Lannings of New Jersey – the same Lannings from which I have descended. Eureka! It’s not a close connection, not by any stretch. But it’s pretty cool for a lifelong baseball nut who spent time playing the game, working in the game, following the game to find that in fact there’s a connection to these two old-time ballplayers. And for an amateur genealogist, all the more fun.
Johnny passed away in 1989, before I ever knew about him. Tom died relatively early, in 1967. Over the years I’ve collected photos of Johnny, and even found a couple of his autographs. All I’ve found of Tom is one grainy old photo of him from his time in the South Atlantic League in the early 1930s. But I maintain a very personal connection to these guys, and one day hope to visit their roots in North Carolina to learn more about these distant cousins of mine.
As a postscript, while I was looking up the careers of the Lanning boys I also found that another Lanning, Lester Alfred Lanning – known as ‘Red’ – had also appeared in the bigs. An Illinois native, he was an outfielder and pitcher who made it the majors with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1916. Like Tom, Red didn’t stick. He appeared in nine games as a left fielder, six as a pitcher, and he pinch hit a couple of times. Career batting average, .182. Career ERA, 8.14. No wonder Red wasn’t brought back. But he’s another Lanning. And sure enough, with more digging through census records, family trees, and more, I found that he too was a relation – with a little climbing up the Lanning tree I can get directly to Johnny, Tom (both sixth cousins, three times removed), AND Red (sixth cousin, twice removed).
I’ve never found a photo of Red, but the search continues. As does my search for a better photo of Tom. But my personal connection to the game of baseball…and to my family history…has never been stronger, thanks to a little research and some virtual baseball GM game my buddy Steve and I started playing by mail during our time in Albuquerque way back in 1991. And I still have that New York Giants cap.