This is the grave of Hughie Jennings.
Born in 1869 in Pittston, Pennsylvania, Jennings grew up in an Irish family. His parents had immigrated to the U.S. and his father was working in coal. Jennings was headed for a lifetime in the mines too. As a child, he was working separating coal from slate–a breaker boy. But he had a hobby: baseball. And he was really great at it. In 1890, he was playing shortstop for a semipro team in Leighton, Pennsylvania when scouts signed him. The Louisville Colonels signed him in 1891. The next year, they joined the National League and he came with them.
At this point, he was a good glove-no hit infielder. Before the 1893 season, he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles. But he turned the corner in Baltimore and had a series of outstanding seasons in the mid-1890s. This was the deadball era so there were few homers, but he hit a lot of doubles and triples. In 1896, he hit .401/472/488 with 70 stolen bases. That’s a fantastic year right there. That was the best of his great years between 1894 and 1898. Each of those years, he also led the league in being hit by a pitch. That same great 1896 year, he was hit 51 times! He is still the all-time leader in this category. Craig Biggio is the modern leader, but even though he was happy to sacrifice his body to get on base (with the benefit of modern armor), he could not get plunked as often as Higgins. According to Baseball Reference’s WAR stats, his best year was indeed 1896, when he had an 8.3 WAR, but he was over 7 in 1895, 1897, and 1898. This was also helped by him being an outstanding defensive shortstop, perhaps the best of the 1890s.
In 1898, Jennings threw his arm out in the field. He was never the same. He went to the Brooklyn Superbas with his manager Ned Hanlon in 1899, but he couldn’t play short anymore. He was moved to first base, but had entered his decline phase. He got hurt a lot and didn’t hit as well either. He was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1901 and played two injury filled years. He went back to the Superbas in 1903 for six at-bats. But he wasn’t quite done.
Now, Jennings was an interesting guy. In the offseason during his Orioles years, he and his teammate John McGraw went to St. Bonaventure College to attend his classes. Jennings graduated from college and then went to Cornell Law. He never actually finished there, but still passed the bar in Maryland in 1905. He practiced law in the offseason in Baltimore and then Scranton for years.
But during the season, Jennings became a successful manager. He started that while at Cornell, where he took over the school’s baseball team. He realized he liked it. So in 1907, the Detroit Tigers hired him as their manager. This was a good team that included Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford. They went to the World Series each of his first three years, but lost all three times. He remained manager through the 1920 season. What he became known for was being a lunatic. He would manage from the third-base coaching box where he would scream and shout and wave his arms. His famous catchphrase was to shout “Ee-Yah!” over and over. I imagine other teams must have hated this guy. He also occasionally put himself into the game. Once, the team went on strike when Ty Cobb was suspended for a game after he went into the stands to beat up a fan. So he took an at-bat. In fact, he batted 9 times during these years and got an additional three hits to add to his career total. He was 49 years old the last time he did this, in 1918.
After the Tigers finally moved on from Jennings, he became his old buddy’s John McGraw’s assistant with the Giants from 1921-1925. McGraw was sick for parts of 1924 and 1925 and Jennings took over the helm during his absences. He went 32-12 in 1924 and 21-11 in 1925 so you can’t argue with the results, though of course he was working with good teams.
But Jennings also started having mental problems. Some of this was no doubt related to all the beanings. Once he was knocked unconscious for three days after being hit in the head. He had other head injuries as well, one when he thought there was water in a pool when he was at Cornell. There, uh, was not water in the pool, as he discovered when he dove head first. He also nearly died in a car accident in 1911. Anyway, after the 1925 season, Jennings suffered some kind of nervous breakdown and had to leave baseball. He was never healthy after this and died of meningitis in 1928, at the age of 58.
In 1945, Jennings was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is something of a questionable, although not completely unconscionable, decision. He really did only have about 5 good years. They were very good years, but still. According to Baseball Reference, he is the 29th greatest shortstop of all time. If you want to place him in comparison to people who have played since I started watching baseball in the 80s, he comes in a bit behind Troy Tulowitzki and Miguel Tejada and slightly ahead of Jimmy Rollins and Tony Fernandez. In other words, not quite up to par for the Hall.
Hughie Jennings is buried in St. Catherine’s Cemetery, Scranton, Pennsylvania.
This post was sponsored by LGM reader donations. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other shortstops, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Art Fletcher, who played for the Giants in the 1910s and is ranked 28th in WAR, is in Collinsville, Illinois, and Vern Stephens, the excellent shortstop for the Browns in the 40s and is ranked 31st in WAR, is in Long Beach, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.