For St. Patrick’s Day: From coal mines to Cooperstown

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In 1869, Hughie Jennings became the ninth of 12 children born into a Pittston, Pa., coal mining family.

At age 12, Jennings dropped out of school to work as a breaker boy in the mines near Scranton, Pa., where he picked slate from coal for 90 cents a day. Amid clouds of coal dust and the machinery’s rushing roar, breaker boys bent over backless wooden benches to perform their 10-hour-a-day tasks. A 1900 Bureau of Mines report found that colliery accidents killed 411, injured 1,057, and made 230 widows and 524 orphans.

But from those hardscrabble days, Jennings eventually entered the Baseball Hall of Fame based on his sterling career as a ball player and manager. The Irish-American also became an admired trial lawyer.

In his book “EE-YAH,” Society for American Baseball Research historian Jack Smiles tracked Jennings’ career all the way back to when he was a 90-pound catcher for hometown ball clubs like the Moosic Anthracites. In 1889 Hughie signed for $5 a game with a Lehighton, Pa., semi-pro team, and left the mines behind for good. Jennings always said that what most motivated him throughout his career was to play so skillfully that he’d never return to the pits.

Jennings’ first contract called for $50 monthly, a fortune compared to his miner wages. By 1894, Jennings landed with the old National League Baltimore Orioles, where he teamed up with Irish-American players still revered today. Under manager Ned Hanlon’s guidance, John J. McGraw, Wee Willie Keeler, Joe Kelley, Dan Brouthers, Wilbert Robinson and Jennings – Hall of Famers all – the Orioles won three straight pennants. Jennings emerged as baseball’s top shortstop, both offensively and defensively.

During the Orioles’ championship years, Jennings had some of the best-ever seasons by a major league shortstop. To get on base, the fearless Jennings would do anything. His 1896 hit-by-pitch total, 51, is a still-standing major league record. The Orioles’ winning formula was old-fashioned, inside baseball – the bunt, the hit-and-run, the stolen base and the Baltimore chop. The Orioles cheated, too, like tripping opposing players as they rounded third and headed for home.

After a chaotic period where various teams bid for his services, during autumn 1899 Jennings attended the Cornell Law School in the off-season. Obtaining a law school diploma was a high enough priority that Jennings refused to report to the Brooklyn Superbas until June so he could complete his spring term.

In exchange for his tuition, Jennings coached the Cornell baseball team. Jennings fell two semesters short of graduating from Cornell, but he passed enough classes to take the bar exam, and was admitted to practice in Maryland and in Pennsylvania.

After a four-year stint piloting the Orioles, in 1907, Jennings took over the Detroit Tigers and young Ty Cobb. The Tigers won three straight pennants, but won only one World Series. The firebrand Cobb, however, blossomed. He won 12 batting titles in 13 years and set stolen base records. Jennings stayed with Detroit until 1920, and then took over the New York Giants for parts of 1924 and 1925 seasons.

Sportswriters called the firebrand Jennings “Ee-yah” for his third base coaching box antics, “Hustling Hughie” for his aggressive infield play and “Big Daddy,” not for his 5’8” stature, but because he served as a role model for the 100 other men who followed him from the Northeastern coal mines to the major leagues.

In the final three winters of his life, Jennings contracted tuberculosis and meningitis before, at age 58, passing away in 1928 at his Scranton home.

Copyright 2023 Joe Guzzardi, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers’ Association member. Contact him at [email protected].

Joe Guzzardi writes for the Washington, D.C.-based Progressives for Immigration Reform. A newspaper columnist for 30 years, Joe writes about immigration and related social issues.