The Gamer | A CENTURY AGO, HUGHIE JENNINGS MADE CORNELL BASEBALL MAJOR LEAGUE
HUGHIE JENNINGS TOOK A LOT of hits. When he arrived at Cornell in the winter of 1899 to coach varsity baseball, he already had a Hall of Fame career as a shortstop under his belt and a major-league record that still stands--in 1896, en route to a .401 season, he was struck by fifty-one pitches. He finished his playing days with 287 plunkings, also a record. After one skull-rattling blow in Philadelphia, he finished the game and fell unconscious for three days. But the hardest knock might have been one he got in Ithaca, when he dove into an empty swimming pool. The feat became campus legend when he not only survived but attended class the next day.
The tale of the indomitable Jennings, the most celebrated Cornellian in baseball, shows how much the sport and the school have changed in the century since Hughie left the Hill. A scrappy Irish kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania, Jennings escaped the coal mines to play semi-pro ball, working his way up to the National League's Louisville and then Baltimore franchises. The powerhouse Orioles were the most feared team of the deadball era, with six future Hall of Famers in the everyday lineup and a reputation for aggressive baserunning. Here Jennings and equally fiery teammate John McGraw perfected the formula for "inside baseball"--with its emphasis on bunting, stealing, and the hit-and-run--and also acquired an education: the pair attended St. Bonaventure University during the offseason, trading tuition for coaching the school team.
Professional baseball was an unruly avocation in those days, and even a star needed an honest job to pay the winter bills. Cornell hired Jennings to coach before the pro season began--he left early every spring to take to the diamond for the Orioles, Phillies, and Brooklyn Superbas. According to an 1899 account in the Alumni News, the veteran shortstop brought big-league hustle to the varsity nine, noting that "Coach Jennings has been successful in instilling . . . the spirit that makes a snappy game." In 1901, he also enrolled in the law school, planning a legal career after his playing days ended. Jennings kept up this scholar-athlete act until the spring of 1904, when he left campus early to manage the Orioles, never finishing the degree. In 1905 he passed the Maryland bar and started a legal practice in Baltimore.
Jennings went on to greater fame, not as a barrister but as the longtime manager of the Detroit Tigers, where his "Eee-Yah!" cry and other coaching antics (in 1907, he was suspended for taunting opponents with a tin whistle) made him a fan favorite. Behind the clowning, Jennings was a canny motivator who led the Tigers to three straight pennants and kept the famously mean Ty Cobb under a modicum of control for fourteen years.
But a drinking problem, a losing team, and a difficult star took their toll on Jennings --all those cracks to the head probably didn't help--and he quit the Tigers in 1920, finishing his baseball years as an assistant coach on his friend McGraw's New York Giants. In 1925, a nervous breakdown chased him from the game for good, and he returned to Scranton to practice law. He died three years later of meningitis. Billy Evans 1905, a former Cornell player and later a major-league umpire, speculated in the Alumni News that Hughie's enthusiasm had done him in. "It is not reasonable to suppose that any human being could, day after day, start yelling in the first inning and continue it throughout the game over a season of six months," he said in 1928,"without paying the penalty." Jennings was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945.