This annotated week in baseball history: March 27-April 2, 1869

On April 2, 1869, Hugh Jennings was born. Through his life, he would be known as Hughie, Ee-Yah and finally as a Hall of Famer. Richard looks back on his career.

Like a lot of people—maybe even most people—I have a number of stories that I think would make a pretty good movie. But I have to admit that the life of Hughie Jennings might not be one. This isn’t because Jennings life isn’t a good story; as we’ll see, it’s a tremendous story. Rather, it is because his life’s story is practically unbelievable.

The son of a coal miner, Jennings escaped the mines (as the cliché goes) to put together an outstanding career as a player, multiple-pennant winning manager and a World Series-winning coach. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.

While accomplishing all that, Jennings attended Cornell University Law School, bartering his services as a head coach for the school’s baseball team in exchange for classes. He would fail to graduate but earned enough credits to take and pass the Maryland and Pennsylvania state bar exams, and he would practice law for many years. Jennings became an attorney of sufficient respect that he would represent defendants charged with murder.

Meanwhile, Jennings did all this despite a bizarre proclivity for nearly fatal mishaps, twice fracturing his skull, including once when he blindly dove into a darkened swimming pool, only to discover—too late—that it has been emptied out for maintenance. (No, really.)

And of course, all of this while Jennings ran a veritable side industry posing for photographs in a one-legged-arms-up pose he would strike during games while shouting “Ee-Yah!” at the accomplishments of teammates. I know all of this is true, at least insofar as anything I research is true, and yet it seems improbable even to me.

Like Bucky Harris, Jennings worked as a breaker boy in the coal mines during his youth. Coal mining was an enormously dangerous profession at the time—in 1907, 3,200 miners would die in accidents, an astonishingly high number in a country of less than 90 million people—and Jennings quickly decided such work was not for him.

Derek Jeter’s fist pump, a well known celebration, but still no “Ee-yah!” (Icon/SMI)

After some early struggles, when he must have no doubt seen the specter of the mines looming large, Jennings broke out while hitting .335 for the Orioles.

The next season he did even better, batting .386 and joining with John McGraw, Willie Keeler and Joe Kelley to be known as Baltimore’s “Little Big Four.” Playing for manager Ned Hanlon, the Orioles would win three National League championships.

For his part, Jennings posted a .931 OPS during his four-year peak, including batting .401 in 1896. He remains the only shortstop to hit .400.

But even without hitting .400, he was excellent at reaching base, thanks in large part to his ability to be hit by pitches. Even today he remains the career leader in HBP, despite fewer than 5700 plate appearances.

By contract, Craig Biggio is only two HBP behind Jennings, but came to the plate 6,855 addition times.

Unfortunately, while reaching base thanks to the HBP was good, it was often to the detriment of Jennings’ health.

In 1897—when he was hit by a pitch in almost ten percent of his trips to the plate—he was “quick-pitched” by Amos Rusie. Struck in the head by a fastball from “The Hoosier Thunderbolt,” Jennings suffered a serious head injury. Exact details are sketchy, but most versions of the story note a fractured skull, and some stories report he was knocked unconscious for four days.

After suffering an arm injury that ended his time as a regular at shortstop, Jennings bounced around the league, contributing to National League-winning teams in 1899 and 1900 in Brooklyn. By 1903, he was largely finished as a major league player, excluding a series of novelty appearances in his 40s for the Tigers.

Despite continued bad luck—including his second skull fracture, suffered in the ill-fated swimming attempt at Cornell—Jennings continued to play in the minors and transitioned to managing. In 1907, he took over the reigns of the Detroit Tigers, a team which had finished 71-78 the season before.

The “R” in WAR
How a person can be a hero by being a zero.

Thanks in large part to a breakout season by Ty Cobb, the Tigers zoomed to 92 wins, taking the American League pennant. They would repeat the feat the next season, and again in 1909. Just turning 40, Jennings already had three pennants under his belt and was more than a hundred games over .500 after only three seasons at the helm of a major league club. Only Ralph Houk has ever matched Jennings’ pennant-winning debut streak.

Unfortunately for Jennings, that would be the peak of his managerial career, as he was never again to guide a pennant-winning club. (A similar fate befell “The Major,” incidentally.) Furthermore, a pennant would remain his highest accomplishment as a skipper, as the Tigers went a collective 4-12 in their three World Series appearances.

Jennings was not without success out of uniform, however. Coaching on the Giants staff of former teammate McGraw, Jennings was part of the 1921 and 1922 championship teams. Close to McGraw personally—Jennings was best man at his wedding—he was also adequately trusted to manage the Giants in the Little Napoleon’s absence.

But despite all his other accomplishments, in his day Jennings was probably most famous for his behavior on the field. A boisterous player, his trademark rallying cry of “Ee-yah!” and the pose that went with it—both arms in the air, one leg raised—was well-known. Even today, a Google image search reveals multiple pictures, drawings and baseball cards of Jennings in mid “Ee-yah!”

The war cry was, in truth, just a small part of his extensive list of mannerisms, which included plucking the grass around his coaching box and a constant stream of chatter. Jennings would sometimes claim to be the originator of the “Atta boy!” phrase to celebrate a good play.

Jennings died in 1928, the victim of continued ill health. He was elected, as a player, to the Hall of Fame in 1945.

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