Luck o’ The Irish?
St. Patrick’s Day is a date on the baseball calendar that should get more attention. It signifies that Opening Day is just about two weeks away and most teams mix some green into their uniforms in an attempt to celebrate the day and provide more product for the MLB team store. You just had to have that James Loney green 2016 Mets St. Patrick’s Day jersey, didn’t you?
Last Sunday’s edition of The Story from BallNine’s Kevin Kernan highlighted the Irish American Baseball Society and some of the great players in the game’s history with Irish heritage. Even if you’ve been cracked in the temple with a shillelagh, you can still probably deduce that Irish Meusel and Irish McIlveen had heritage based in the Emerald Isle. But did you know Derek Jeter, Nolan Ryan and Wade Boggs did too? AMBS did.
Another Hall of Famer with roots as green as Jimmie Foxx nursing a hangover on March 18 is Hughie Jennings. The smiling, freckled pepperpot with red hair was just 5’8” and 165 pounds, but the little leprechaun made himself into a Dead Ball Era star. He also served in what would become the modern bench coach role to another legendary Irishman, John McGraw. The two were best friends and won the World Series together in 1921 and ’22.
To honor Jennings and all of the many ballplayers with Irish heritage, let’s run Jennings through the Card Vault ringer and take a look at the cardboard history of Hugh Ambrose Jennings.
Hughie Jennings had a tough life. He suffered a beaning so bad he was unconscious for days. He once dove into a pool he didn’t realize was empty and fractured his skull. He had a near fatal car accident on a bridge and spent days on the brink of death.
In a four-year period between 1894 and 1898, he was hit with 202 pitches. He was hit by a pitch 287 times in his career, the most in Major League history.
After his career, things somehow got worse. Jennings suffered a nervous breakdown that ended his involvement in baseball in 1925 and spent time in a sanatorium before dying of meningitis in 1928. Jennings was served one giant street taco of shit from the food truck of life.
There was a sliver of time though where Jennings was the happiest person on the planet. And the good baseball card people of the early 20th century memorialized that perfectly. You could take a handful of his cards and make a flipbook of Jennings dancing a jig.
A postcard from 1907 shows the happy manager wearing his Tigers sweater, arms outstretched, staring skyward and screaming in glee. There’s a card from Fatima Cigarettes from the 19-aughts where Jennings has one leg bent up while clapping like he’s dancing to Cotton Eye Joe. The back of the card tells me that this is part of a set of 100 famous “baseball players, athletic champions and photoplay stars.” Does that mean people like Hattie Williams? I can buy into that.
Hughie Jennings on the field 1913
On his 1917 Collins-McCarthy card, Jennings is a dancin’ fool again. In this edition, Jennings has his left leg bent up with his arms outstretched, but this time his left arm is raised in the air. His 1911 Turkey Red is the same thing, just facing the other way. Man, Hughie Jennings is loving life! Even back in 1909, Jennings was bursting with exuberance. The baseball card oil painting artist moved his focus in a little closer and we still get the raised fists, wide smile and a hint at a raised leg on his T206. Jennings actually earned two versions in this set. In the other card, you guessed it, Hughie just won a date with Mary Pickford! His wide smile and open mouth show him incredulously ecstatic.
One of the only cards from the era that doesn’t show Jennings dancing around like he has chiggers in his britches is a Piedmont edition that resembles a presidential portrait. Even on that card, Jennings looks like a young Mel Brooks. Everything’s coming up Hughie! Makes you temporarily forget the bad times of being Mr. Jennings.
Nobody knew anything about CTE back then, but that head-first dive into an empty swimming pool couldn’t have done him any favors. It’s sad to think that this person who was once considered among the 100 most famous baseball players, athletic champions and photoplay stars in America could have such a rotten ending. Maybe Jennings was always teetering on the edge of insanity and that made him dance and laugh his way into the funhouse. If that’s the truth, the portrait artists of the early baseball card world captured every hop, skip and jump along the way.
Hughie Jennings, coach New York Giants (NL), with Muddy Ruel, catcher, Washington Senators (AL) - Polo Grounds - October 7, 1924
A Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all and if you indulge in some green beer on this fine day, clap your hands, jump up and down and yell out a loud “eee-yah” just like Hughie used to do.