Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Nine Lives of Hughie Jennings

Hughie Jennings is remembered as one of the game's most lively characters--and one of the luckiest. A lifetime .312 hitter, he escaped debilitating injury and death on numerous occasions. His major league career began in 1891 with the Lousville Colonels of the American Association. He put up pedestrian numbers until a trade sent him to Baltimore at the end of the 1893 slate. It was there that his career really took off. Serving primarily as a shortstop, he led the Orioles to three NL pennants and was eventually named team captain. In 1896, he collected 121 RBI's without the benefit of a single homer--a highly unusual major league record.

Jennings would move onto a long and prosperous managerial career, guiding the Tigers to three straight AL championships beginning in 1907. He displayed a host of odd behaviors on the diamond. When his players were at bat, he would stand in the coaching box and needle opposing pitchers with an ongoing dialog punctuated by piercing shouts and whistles. A famous photo shows him standing on one leg with his fists in the air and his mouth agape. His nickname "EE-YAH!" is derived from the sound he would make when one of his players did something that pleased him. According to a 1910 article in Outing magazine, Jennings was fond of plucking large patches of turf and stuffing them into his mouth. "During the course of the season, he eats enough grass to stuff a mattress," wrote C.E. Van Loan. "He is a thorn in the side of all greenskeepers. Some of them say they are going to sprinkle Paris Green (a toxic insecticide) around the coaching lines to discourage Hughie's appetite."

Jennings' career was marred by critical injuries. He tempted the fates time and again by leaning into pitches. Between 1894 and 1898, he was beaned more than 200 times. He didn't always get off so easily as his skull was fractured on three separate occasions. In 1897, he was unconscious for four days after being hit by an offering from Giants ace Amos Rusie. His career continued nevertheless. In 1904, Jennings was seriously hurt again when he dove into Cornell University's pool after it had been drained of water. Players often reminded him of this whenever he scolded them for boneheaded plays.

The resilient Detroit pilot suffered yet another perilous mishap in 1911, when his car plummeted ten feet from a bridge over the Lehigh River. He narrowly escaped drowning and was left with two broken legs and a broken arm. A few years later, serious health problems began to surface. In 1925, he was afflicted with tuberculosis. The illness ended his baseball career, but he hung on until a bout of meningitis finally claimed his life at the age of fifty-eight. He was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945. 

No comments:

Post a Comment