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July 25, 2013

Getting to know a man called 'Ee-yah'

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.

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