“The Moment he got a Glove on his Hand he was Another Man”

3 Feb

In 1911, 66-year old John Curtis “Jack” Chapman, “Death to Flying Things,” wrote an article in “Baseball Magazine” about his “discovery” of Hughie Jennings 20 years earlier:

Jack Chapman

Jack Chapman

“I had taken my Louisville team of the American Association to Philadelphia when Jack Ryan of our club was hurt and had to be taken from behind the bat.  We were hard up for a substitute and had pressed into service Tommy Cahill.  I was put to it for a catcher and began skirmishing around for a man who would fit into place.

“Casually reading the paper the evening of my trouble I noticed an account of a game between the Lehightons and some other team, in which a young man named Jennings, who caught, seemed to be the whole show.”

Jennings had played with a local semi-pro team in Lehighton, Pennsylvania in 1889, and returned to the town to play for a semi-pro club in 1891, after playing in the Atlantic Association and Eastern Interstate League in 1890.

Hughie Jennings

Hughie Jennings

Chapman said of Jennings’ performance for Lehighton:

“He had fifteen putouts and four or five base hits, a home run among them.  I rushed to a telegraph office and sent a hurry-up call to his home in Moosic, a little mining town six miles from Scranton, asking him if he would not join my Louisville team.

“It did not take long for his affirmative to get back.

“I wired him in return that I would give him $175 a month if he proved satisfactory, and directed him to answer me at Boston and for him to report at Louisville.  When we got back to Louisville this young man reported to me at the Fifth Avenue Hotel.

“I will have to admit that I was disappointed with his looks, for his general appearance was somewhat verdant.  It was with fear and trembling that I watched him at his first tryout, for I had begun to think that I had invested in a salted mine.

“But the moment he got a glove on his hand he was another man.  A simple mitt worked wonders with him.  I had no chance to work him out behind the bat…First baseman (Harry) Taylor was injured.  Here was an opportunity for my new man to show the stuff he was made of.

“’Jennings,’ I said to him, ‘you will have to go out to first, as there is no one else who can play the bag.’

“’Mr. Chapman,’ he answered, ‘I have never played the position in my life, and fear that I cannot fill the bill.’

Chapman said, despite Jennings’ protestations, he told him again “I have no one else at all,” and installed him at first base:

“’All right; I’ll do the best I can.’

“Things began to happen.  He tickled the crowd by the way he pulled down high sailers, reached for wild ones, and dug balls out of the dirt.  His best was amply good.  I might add that I was tickled, too.

“He covered the base for a week.  When Taylor recovered, though, Jennings had to be relegated to the bench.”

At that point, Chapman said, Tommy Cahill, who had been pressed into duty behind the plate, but was the club’s best shortstop, became ill.  Although he played at least one game at the position the previous season in the minor leagues, Chapman claimed Jennings told him he had never played there when he was asked to fill in at shortstop:

“’Do what you can.’ I urged.

“’I’ll do my best,’ replied he.

“Again the crowd was tickled.  He covered more ground than any man I ever saw in my life.  He went after everything; errors never troubled him; he seemed born for the place…From the very first leap he has been a topnotcher. “

After Chapman left Louisville in 1892, Jennings struggled and was hitting just .136 in June of 1893 when he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles.  After finishing the 1893 season with a .255 average in Baltimore, Jennings hit .335, .386, .401, .355, and .328, the next five seasons, and the Orioles won three National League championships.

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