By Greg Klein
---- — Hughie Jennings died in 1928, but I feel like I know him well.
Jennings, the former Baltimore Oriole and manager of the Detroit Tigers, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945, will have another moment of glory on Sunday when Ozzie Smith reads his plaque. The 1945 induction didn’t take place because of war-time travel restrictions.
I stumbled upon the man they called Ee-yah – apparently based on his battle cry – when I became interested in the story of The Paper Tigers, which I have written up as a screenplay and am now adapting into a historical novel.
In 1912, Ty Cobb responded to a racist taunt by a “crank” in New York City by beating the fan bloody. The fan, Claude Luecker, had lost several fingers in a machine accident, and a friend of his pleaded with Cobb to show mercy because he had no hands. Cobb allegedly responded “I don’t care if he hasn’t any feet” and continued the beating. Several reports said Luecker was beaten close to death.
The president of the American League, the appropriately named Ban Johnson, suspended Cobb indefinitely. The Tigers moved on to play the world champion A’s in Philadelphia, but Jennings could sense that his team was on the verge of mutiny. He urged them to play the next game, but then encouraged them to issue Johnson an ultimatum to reinstate Cobb or they would go on strike.
Neither side would give in, and the Tigers went on strike. Johnson ordered the Tigers to field a team or else. Jennings was dispatched by Tiger owner Frank Navin to the streets of Philadelphia to find some scabs. Pro sports had its first player strike and scab team in one day.
The Paper Tigers got killed by the champs that day, 24-2, but rest assured that won’t be the focus of the movie. They were an interesting group, mostly college kids from St. Joseph’s, but a couple were ringers. One, a guy named Eddie Irwin, was a boxer; he apparently was a ringer and he hit two triples that day. His .667 lifetime batting average is a stat anomaly that will likely never be matched. Another ringer was Billy “Maharg” Graham. He would go on to help fix the World Series in 1919.
Then there was the pitcher, Al Travers. The rest of his life he would be known as Father Al, a Catholic priest, semi-famous in Pennsylvania for giving up 24 runs to the champs. You can imagine the conversation he had with God on the mound that day.
Jennings and his coaches also played that day. Jennings would keep playing occasionally until 1918.
The Paper Tigers were such an embarrassment that Cobb was soon reinstated, and the incident was mostly forgotten except for coining the term paper tigers. Even the Philadelphia reporter who helped Jennings find the scabs left that fact out of his story.
Jennings would continue on as Tigers manager until 1920, but his best seasons were behind him. The Tigers made the World Series three years in a row, ‘07-’09, but never won it. He would become known more for his “antics” than his wins. He once taunted a pitched he deemed “simple” with a toy to distract him. Fans of the show “The Simpsons” will even recognize a classic Ee-yah move that was imitated by Mr. Burns in the episode “Homer at the Bat.”
Jennings left the Tigers with 1,131 wins; it was 1992 that Sparky Anderson finally passed him as the team’s manager with the most wins. For a few years after that, Jennings coached for the New York Giants, helping out his Baltimore Oriole pal John McGraw. When McGraw got sick, Jennings returned as manager for part of the 1925 season, but it apparently left him run down and sick. He left baseball that year and died in 1928 at 58.
The veteran’s committee selected Jennings to the HOF based on his playing career. He hit .311 with 1,527 hits and 359 stolen bases and was part of a superb infield (at shortstop) that led Baltimore to three league titles in the 1890s. He also played for the Brooklyn Superbas when they won pennants in 1899 and 1900.
Jennings was also known for being hit by pitches. In fact, he holds the Major League record for being hit by a pitch, 287 times in all. When he would do his crazy antics, it was often whispered that he had taken too many bean balls to the head. It probably didn’t help when he cracked his skull open diving into a pool without water. Another time, he was in one of the first automobile accidents and nearly died.
Despite all of that, Jennings was a sharp guy. During off seasons, he studied law at Cornell. He never got his law degree, but he did practice law with his brother. And he comes off as shrewd on the diamond as well.
I first read about the story of the Paper Tigers when I was a teenager, so I have been living with Ee-yah and his strike team for more than half my life. When I started the screenplay, I figured I would take an acting role: Perhaps one of the players like Travers. But he was 19 at the time. So I thought maybe I’ll play one of the ringers. They were about 30.
I’m aging into the role of Ee-yah, which has only increased my interest in researching him.
My cousin – who once produced a famous baseball movie, “Eight Men Out” – likes to tell me how it is now impossible to make a baseball movie. I’m not listening. But if I age out of the Ee-yah role, I guess I can always play one of the old owners.
In the meantime, I’ll keep practicing my Hughie-like battle cry.
Greg Klein is a staff writer for the Cooperstown Crier.