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Sports stars' visit set Tamaqua abuzz

Published November 21. 2009 09:00AM


Imagine having Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel and star pitcher Cliff Lee make a stop in your town while motoring through the area.

That kind of electricity was generated on Nov. 27, 1909, when Detroit manager Hughie Jennings, a coal region native, and his star pitcher, "Wild Bill" Donovan made a stop in Tamaqua while on their way to Scranton, which was Jennings' hometown. The Detroit manager and his ace pitcher were fresh off consecutive appearances by Detroit in the baseball World Series. A month earlier, the Tigers lost the deciding seventh game to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

As the Thanksgiving holiday approached in 1909, many sports-minded Tamaqua citizens had a swagger in their step. The town fielded a football squad in 1909 that was the envy of the coal regions, if not the entire state.

Unbeaten and unscored on, it shut out Minersville, Allentown, Hazleton, Mount Carmel and Pottsville twice, staking a claim to a state championship. Team management tried to line up a Thanksgiving Day opponent to cap off the undefeated, unscored on season of 1909. One possible opponent being considered was the scrub team at the Carlisle Indian School.

"The local team is without a game for Thanksgiving Day, but an effort is being made to secure a team that will give the locals a fair test of their strength. The Carlisle scrubs would doubtless make the boys exert themselves," the Tamaqua Courier reported on Nov. 16.

A game with the Carlisle scrubs never materialized. Carlisle's varsity team, led by the great Jim Thorpe, was still a few years away from turning the college football establishment upside down. Thorpe began his Carlisle athletic career in 1907, but in 1909 he withdrew from school to play semi-pro baseball in North Carolina, a move which later caused him to relinquish his Olympic medals for violating his amateur status.

Although football was foremost on the minds of many Tamaqua citizens that fall, a visit by two baseball stars of the status of Jennings and "Wild Bill" Donovan was certainly eventful. Jennings was well-known to coal region fans having started his career as a sandlot player in the Wyoming Valley area before signing his first semi-pro contract to play catcher for Lehighton in 1890.

While playing for Lehighton and then Allentown, Jennings soon caught the eye of major league teams and quickly signed a pro contract with Baltimore, where he forged a Hall of Fame career. After Jennings ended his playing career, he managed the Tigers to three straight American League pennants (1907-09).

Jennings' stop in Tamaqua brought back fond memories of the region.

"Jennings was easily recognized and met many old-time friends of the days when he caught for Lehighton at the old 'Dutch Hill' ballpark," the Courier stated. "He made inquiries about quite a number of acquaintances and left word that they be given his best regards."

Jennings was also fresh off signing a $10,000 contract to manage Detroit for the upcoming year.

Philadelphia's immortal manager, Connie Mack, called Jennings one of the three greatest managers in history, along with John McGraw and Joe McCarthy. The American League champion Tigers featured the great Ty Cobb, who was a fierce competitor. One of Jennings' greatest coaching achievements was his ability to handle the fiery Cobb, a complicated individual, not unlike our present-day Manny Ramirez.

Jennings was a man of many talents. After the 1899 season, he went to Cornell Law School and although he never finished his law degree, he passed the Maryland bar exam in 1905 and started a law practice. He continued to work as a lawyer during the offseason through the remainder of his baseball career.

The Tamaqua Courier reported that after resuming their trip after the stop in Tamaqua, Jennings' automobile broke down near Hazleton. Jennings did not have good luck with automobiles. Two years later, Jennings was involved in an accident in Gouldsboro, Pa. The car he was driving - a gift from admirers - overturned while crossing a bridge. Jennings suffered a fractured skull and brain concussion, and his life hung in the balance for several days.

The severe head injuries which Jennings suffered from this accident and from an earlier diving accident while at Cornell, contributed to later problems. After managing the New York Giants through the 1925 season, Jennings suffered a nervous breakdown.

He was unable to report to spring training in 1926 and retired to a sanitarium in North Carolina. He later returned to his home in Northeastern Pennsylvania where he spent time recuperating in the mountains.

Jennings died of meningitis in Scranton in 1928 at the age of 58. He was elected to the Hall of Fame as a player in 1945.

Wild Bill Donovan, his traveling companion that day in Tamaqua in 1909, was involved in a fatal travel accident 14 years later. In June of 1923, Donovan managed the New Haven team and was on his way to baseball meetings when the train he was riding on wrecked in Forsyth, New York.

A short time before that fatal crash, New Haven president George Weiss had swapped berths with Donovan and escaped with a minor injury.

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