Hughie Jennings’ Fascinating 1896 Season

In 1896, Hall of Fame shortstop Hughie Jennings batted .401 and scored 125 runs while driving in 121. That’s a pretty great season, of course, but not that unusual, particularly during the era when hitting .400 was reasonably feasible. In fact, there were 17 seasons–all between 1887 and 1941–in which a player batted .400 or better with more than 100 RBI and runs scored. Rogers Hornsby and George Sisler did it twice, Ed Delahanty three times.

What I find so fascinating about Jennings’ 1896 is he’s the only player in history to both score and drive in more than 100 in a season without hitting a single home run. 35 players have done so hitting five homers or less, but Jennings is the only guy on the list who didn’t go yard once during the season in question.

He’s not the only player to bat .400 without a round-tripper, though. Willie Keeler did that in 1897, Davy Force and Cap Anson in 1872, and Cal McVey and Ross Barnes in 1871. Those last four were all in the National Association during seasons when the schedule length was significantly shorter, but they all qualified for the batting title.

The other fascinating thing about Jennings in 1896 was he only walked 19 times in 602 plate appearances, yet his OBP was 71 points higher than his batting average. That’s because he was hit by a pitch 51 times.

Using the B-R Play Index–as I did for some of the previous statistical distinctions in this post–I also discovered Jennings is the only player in baseball history to have a 2.5-to-1 HBP-to-BB ratio, with a minimum of 10 BB in a single year.

Of course, that’s not surprising to those who remember Craig Biggio’s run at Jennings’ career HBP mark that fell two short when he was hit just three times–the second-lowest total of his career–in his final season in 2007. Apparently the pressure was just too much for Craig.

Looking at the rest Hughie’s career, he’s considered a bit of a borderline Hall of Fame selection. Not a completely undeserving player like Tommy McCarthy, but not as much of a slam dunk as his 1945 election would suggest.

His tremendous 1896 season lands right in the middle of an exceptional five-year peak. Take a gander at these numbers:

[table id=138 /]

That’s definitely a Hall-worthy five-year stretch. Unfortunately, outside of those years, Jennings was worth just 6.9 WAR and -2 WAA. Not surprisingly, as is the case with many players of his era–or any era, for that matter–whose skills faded at a young age, an injury had something to do with his downfall.  He threw out his arm in 1899, forcing a move from shortstop to first base, and was never the same player after that.

Although inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player, perhaps his time spent as a manager was a factor in his election. He led the Detroit Tigers to AL pennants in his first three seasons as skipper, although a pair of outfielders named Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford probably had something to do with the team’s success.

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Ken
Ken
9 years ago

One area I don’t see discussed much – how did the old-timers manage to have such high batting averages? I would submit that the pitching has become much better. That would also explain the tidal wave of pitching injuries now compared to previously. The old guys didn’t have strength and conditioning programs to allow them to throw 100 mph. They didn’t experiment with exotic pitches that added severe stress to their arms. There were only the elementary pitches thrown, compared today. So the hitters had a much easier time hitting the ball, and had higher averages. And if your arm… Read more »

Lawrence Azrin
Lawrence Azrin
9 years ago
Reply to  Ken

Expecting the pitcher to go the distance played a role, too. In 1896, 82.5 % of starts were complete games. Many batters probably fattened up their BA’s the 4th/5th/6th through the batting order, against a tiring starter.

Hartvig
Hartvig
9 years ago
Reply to  Lawrence Azrin

I remember reading somewhere about Christy Mathewson telling a young pitcher “to save your best stuff” for when you need it, something you might be able to get away with at a time when it often took 3 hits to score a run.

Now if you groove a few pitches you’re likely heading for the showers after giving up 3 home runs in an inning.

Lawrence Azrin
Lawrence Azrin
9 years ago
Reply to  Ken

@3/ Dan,

Yes, batting average was the THE dominant method of evaluating a batter’s offensive production until relatively recently. In 1945, observers were certainly aware of Runs Scored and RBI, hits and toa lesser degree 2Bs, 3Bs and HRs, and SBs (not so much walks or OBA or SB, but BA still ruled the day.

The pioneering 1951 baseball encyclopedia by Turkin N. Thompson listed only two categories for batters: Games Played, and BA. No wonder that’s the only stat that many people referred to.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
9 years ago
Reply to  Lawrence Azrin

That encyclopedia was written by Hy Turkin (NY Daily News reporter) and Sherley C.Thompson. I know because that was my parents’ Bar Mitzvah present to me. And it did have very limited data compared to later books.

Lawrence Azrin
Lawrence Azrin
9 years ago
Reply to  Lawrence Azrin

@7/ Richard,

Sorry; I only remembered that the name “Turkin” was in there somewhere, googled it, and got the name “Turkin N. Thompson” (short for “Turkin and Thompson?”).

I actually have the original, and was amazed at how bare-bones it was for a player reference. It did have some several nice addendums, as I recall (I’m typing this from work now).

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
9 years ago
Reply to  Lawrence Azrin

I think it had a list of all players with 300 lifetime HR. I memorized them, all 10 of them.

PP
PP
9 years ago

There was a time, in 90s and earlier, when I could name almost everyone with over 300 homers, and definitely those with over 400 (Duke was at the end of that list). Not anymore. Not even close.

no statistician but
no statistician but
9 years ago
Reply to  Ken

Actually, those old-time high batting averages weren’t consistent, not at all, but fluctuated considerably both before and after the 1893 rules change. Just to point out two seasons, in 1882 the NL average BA was .252, the AA average BA was .244; in 1907 the NL was .242, the AL was .247. Rules changes, styles of play, pitcher vs. batter dominance—I think these things had far more to do with what went on than fielding, grounds conditions, physical conditioning, pitcher arm stress, or types of pitches thrown. When Old Hoss Radbourn pitched 678.2 innings in 1884 with an ERA of… Read more »

no statistician but
no statistician but
9 years ago
Reply to  Dan McCloskey

Actually, the question was rhetorical.

Mike
Mike
9 years ago

What you say about pitching, but I think fielding also has to factor in. I just can’t imagine they could catch the ball in those mitts at the extremes of their range the way guys today can. At 550 ABs, the difference between .320 & .400 is 50 extra hits, or 1 every 3 games.

topper009
topper009
9 years ago

You already gave away the hard answer, but who are the only 3 players to hit .400 3 times? Recently I was in Philly for the Brewers series, dressed up very stylishly in ’80s Brewers garb, and no one could get the answer mentioned in this post, even though all 3 season were with the Phillies. I wouldnt expect an average fan anywhere to even be able to name one 1800s player so it’s not too much of a surprise. An even better question which is even harder: Name the 1894 Phillies outfield, the only set to ever all hit… Read more »

Lawrence Azrin
Lawrence Azrin
9 years ago
Reply to  topper009

1894 Phillies OFers, all>.400 BA: Ed Delahanty, Billy Hamilton, Sam Thompson Actually, there were _four_ Phillies OFs with a .400 BA, if you count Tuck Turner and his .418 BA. Problem is, it’s in only 82 games/ 382 PA. Should he qualify? B-R does list him 2nd in BA, behind Hugh Duffy. In the 1894 NL, 57 of the 77 qualifying batters were (at or) over a .300 BA, and 22 over a .350 BA. Only six players were below .270, and only one below .250. Contrast that with the 1968 AL, with only one player above .300 (Yaz, .301),… Read more »

no statistician but
no statistician but
9 years ago
Reply to  topper009

Before this goes too far afield, let’s identify the three players who batted .400 three times: Cobb, Hornsby, and Delahanty. Hornsby is the only one of the three to win three batting titles with his efforts, however.

John Autin
Editor
9 years ago
Reply to  topper009

topper, welcome back! Missed ya.

And, by the way, I can’t let a Hughie Jennings post go by without a single “Ee-Yah!”

Brent
Brent
9 years ago

So why no HRs? You would think as fast as Jennings was (70 Stolen bases that year), that he would have at least legged out some Inside the parkers. My theory is that might be a ground rules reason. From the attached picture of Union Park in Baltimore (where the Orioles played) (I hope that works as an attachment), it appears that there was no outfield wall and that the fans instead ringed the outfield, probably held back by a rope or something similar. If you hit the ball over the rope into the crowd, that would be a HR,… Read more »

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
9 years ago
Reply to  Brent

I could be wrong but it’s my understanding that balls hit into an on-field crowd were ground-rule doubles (and occasionally triples). Those on-field crowds did not occur often. And it looks to me like there is an outfield fence behind the crowd in that picture. Here are other factors which affected the game then: Balls were infrequently replaces resulting in beat-up balls being used. There were two umpires. There must have been blown calls all over the place. Modern drainage systems were non-existent. This resulted in many games that were played on fields that were wet, slippery, muddied and ponded.… Read more »

Doug
Doug
9 years ago

And, yet, balls that bounced into the seats were ruled home runs as late as 1930. OTOH, balls that wrapped around the foul pole were NOT homers, and those that hit the foul pole were homers ONLY if they ricocheted fair.

I always found it suspicious (and amusing) at the insistence that none of the Babe’s homers ever bounced. No doubt, he lost more homers from the foul rules than he ever may have gained from bounces.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
9 years ago
Reply to  Doug

By 1936 balls that hit the foul pole and ricocheted into the stands on the foul side of the pole were home runs in the NL and doubles in the AL. That variance in rules caused a controversy in the 1936 All-Star game. Augie Galan hit such a ball, the NL claimed it to be a homer and the AL claimed it to be a double. The final ruling was that because the game was played in an NL park it was a home run. It provided the margin of victory for the NL. I don’t know when the AL… Read more »

Lawrence Azrin
Lawrence Azrin
9 years ago
Reply to  Brent

@11/ Richard, Actually, there was usually only ONE umpire till the twentieth century – {from the article ‘Umpire History’: http://www.sdabu.com/history_main.htm,no author credited}: ” Although the Players League of 1890 employed two umpires and in 1898 the two-umpire system was sanctioned in the rules, club owners continued to resist the expense of a second arbiter. After Johnson added a fifth umpire in 1902, the use of two arbiters became frequent, common, and then standard–an umpire-in-chief to call balls and strikes and a field umpire to make decisions on the bases. Again, the National League followed apace and in 1912 both leagues… Read more »

Brent
Brent
9 years ago
Reply to  Lawrence Azrin

With regard to the last statement, at least one arbiter had a good solution (at least according to legend):

“At some point in his career famed gambler/lawman Wild Bill Hickok reportedly rooted for the Kansas City Antelopes. Legend has it he even umpired one of their games while wearing a pair of six-shooters.”

– See more at: http://www.historynet.com/baseball-in-the-west-2.htm#sthash.IFhYZ8WG.dpuf

Doug
Doug
9 years ago
Reply to  Lawrence Azrin

I can understand why they would be subject to the abuse. Many fans would doubtless have as good a view (or better) of the pitches as the poor ump trying to call balls and strikes from 70 feet or so away.

David Stinson
9 years ago
Reply to  Brent

Hello Brent

Actually, the outfield was surrounded entirely by a fence and I am certain that during most games the spectators were not allowed on the field. It just so happens that this picture of Union Park was taken during the Temple Cup series between the Orioles and the Boston Beaneaters (1897). There are over 30,000 fans in attendance that day and up to that point in time this was the largest crowd ever to attend a baseball game.

Lawrence Azrin
Lawrence Azrin
9 years ago

“… he’s considered a bit of a borderline Hall of Fame selection. Not a completely undeserving player like Tommy McCarthy… ” Well, JAWS (Jay Jaffe’s HOF evaluation system) on B-R would seem to bear that out. Jennings is rated 28th at SS, behind 17 HOFers, but ahead of: – George Wright/ 89th (to be fair, he’s in more as a “pioneer”, as most of his career was pre-NL) – Rabbit Maranville/ 37th – Travis Jackson/29th Interesting that two of his contemporaries, Bill Dahlen and George Davis ,are in the JAWS Top-10, well ahead of Jennings. One took forever to get… Read more »

Doug
Editor
9 years ago

One tidbit I recall reading about Jennings’ managerial career was that when mentally-challenged Rube Waddell was pitching against the Tigers, Jennings would wait for a critical time during the game to place an assortment of children’s toys on the field in front of his team’s dugout. Waddell’s teammates would have to intercept him as he abandoned the mound en route to the beckoning diversions.

Might be something to the story. Here are his teams’ records in games Waddell started against Jennings’ Tigers:

1907 Athletics - 2-4
1908 Browns    - 2-5
1909 Browns    - 1-4-1
Timmy Pea
Timmy Pea
9 years ago

Wahoo Sam Crawford drove in over a 100 twice while hitting 5 or less homers. In 1910 he had 120 RBIs on only 5 homers.

Timmy Pea
Timmy Pea
9 years ago

Speaking of old timers, I thought of a great way to honor guys that played before uniform numbers like Cobb. Cobb has his uniform retired or something like that, but obviously no number on the uniform. There are guys that should have a uniform retired like Sam Crawford or Nap LaJoie but they probably get lost in the shuffle because they didn’t have numbers. I think the clubs should assign a number to these old guys and have a ceromony and such with the next of kin or descendants. It looks like Honus Wagner was assigned 33 for whatever reason… Read more »

Hartvig
Hartvig
9 years ago
Reply to  Timmy Pea

Wagner was a coach for the Pirates until the early 50’s- I’m not sure at what point coaches got numbers on their uniforms as well as the players but I know it was well before that.

Timmy Pea
Timmy Pea
9 years ago
Reply to  Hartvig

I think that’s gotta be it Hartvig. Looks like he managed a bit but way before numbers were on the uniforms. I imagine just about every player that played without a uniform number has passed. Would have been nice that when these guys were alive, the teams could have assigned the fellas worthy, a jersey number, like the Angels did with Gene Autry even though he was only an owner.

Dan McCloskey
9 years ago

^^ I really like this idea, Timmy. I doubt it will ever happen, but I think it’s a good idea.