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John Tener rode the local rails on his way to the governorship

Published September 18. 2010 09:00AM


If local residents wanted to catch a glimpse of John Tener, the Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, during whistle stops in Tamaqua and Mauch Chunk in mid-September of 1910, they didn't have to strain to pick him out.

At 6-foot-4, Tener stood out in any crowd. During a five-year professional baseball career in the 1880s, he was the tallest major leaguer.

But Tener was more than just a one-hit wonder who relied on his sports fame as a steppingstone to political office. Tener proved to be a success at every level of life, whether on the baseball diamond, in business or in the political arena.

As a big league baseball player, Tener pitched for the Chicago White Stockings (later the Cubs) of the National League and the Baltimore Orioles of the American Association. After his playing days ended, he applied his skills of the game to the front office serving as president of the National League, and later became a director of the Philadelphia Phillies. The players saw his leadership skills and chose him to represent them as secretary of the Brotherhood of Baseball Players in their quest for better salaries in 1890.

In the world of business, Tener became an accomplished accountant and a successful banker.

And in the political arena, he served in Congress, and finally as governor of Pennsylvania. Shortly after the 1910 gubernatorial election, journalist Alfred H. Spink wrote in his classic "The National Game" that Tener "has climbed higher than any other baseball player."

In 1910, Tener's family values and hometown roots struck a chord with many voters. Born in Ireland, he came to the U.S. with his family at the age of 9, and grew up near Pittsburgh.

Shortly before his whistle stop tour through this area a century ago, the Tamaqua Courier reprinted an article about Tener that appeared in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. It described a parade organized in his honor in his home town of Charleroi, about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh. It was there that Tener developed his business skills, working his way up from cashier to president of the First National Bank, and then organizing the Charleroi Savings and Trust Company.

Walking down the streets, the writer observed how Tener was respected by townspeople.

"In the windows of little parlors, in the festoons on the modest porches, in whatever conspicuous places were available, could be seen the pictures of the candidate," the writer said. "Regardless of racial, religious or political predictions, the homes of the people bore this bit of testimony to the deep regard for him who is known and loved by every man, woman and child here.

"Here and there, an aproned matron, industrious daughter or some other member of the household was engaged in displaying the lithograph, thus showing that John Tener has a place in the homes as well as the hearts of all the people of this town."

During his brief stop in Tamaqua, Tener was greeted at the train station by the party faithful.

"While Mr. Tener's trip to Tamaqua was not generally known, nevertheless the station platform was crowded with Republicans eager to shake hands with Pennsylvania's next governor," the Courier reporter stated.

The candidate and his party then took the New Jersey Central train to Mauch Chunk for a noon reception before riding to Hazleton for an evening reception.

In 1910, the Pennsylvania Republican machine was still reeling from a series of scandals, including the cost overruns of the new State Capitol in Harrisburg, which had sent five men to jail. The capitol building cost $13 million to build, of which $9 million went for furnishings, a staggering amount a century ago.

To prevent the Democrats or reform Republicans from winning the governor's office in the upcoming election, Pennsylvania's U.S. Senator and Republican state boss Boies Penrose picked Tener, with whom he had become friends while living in the same hotel in Washington.

The Democrats pinned their hopes on state treasurer William Berry who had exposed the costly capitol construction tab, but Penrose gained control of the Democratic convention which nominated State Senator Webster Grimm.

The Pennsylvania gubernatorial election of 1910 was held on Nov. 8, 1910. Tener won the election, gathering 41 percent of the vote to 38 percent for Berry, 13 percent for Grimm, and 5 percent for socialist John Slayton.

Under Tener's leadership, Pennsylvania enacted a host of state reforms. Since he was a child of immigrants educated in the public schools of Pittsburgh, Tener was a key proponent of public education.

While he was governor, the State Board of Education was established, and children between the ages of 8 to 16 were required to attend school. He also helped establish a minimum wage for teachers, set state standards for curriculum, and created state vocational schools.

With the popularity of the automobile, Tener saw the need for better roads and along with former governor James Beaver, supported passage of the Sproul Bill, through which the state Department of Highways took over maintenance of 9,000 miles of roads from local governments.

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