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The year Hugh Jennings filled big shoes

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

No question about it. John McGraw, fierce third baseman of the 1896 Baltimore Orioles who’d already led his baseball team to two pennants, drove the club through force of will … his will to win.

So, when McGraw came down with typhoid fever, things started looking grim for Baltimore. Playing a minor league team in Virginia with officiating provided by their opponents, the Orioles suffered through outrageously biased umpire calls for seven innings before boiling over and having three players put on a boat back to Baltimore for fighting. Against the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers, the Orioles choked.

The team needed a leader. Taken individually, McGraw’s teammates were too easy-going, eccentric, dumb or unreliable to fill the bill. Except for one guy, Hughey Jennings.

The popular shortstop became a different man without McGraw on the field. Always self-confident and ambitious, he took charge, making sure that nobody was slacking.

Suddenly, the Orioles arose from their slump. Against Connie Mack’s Pirates, the team performed heroics, with “Wee Willie” Keeler scoring the first run, saving another and making a diving catch at the fence. Jennings twice made it from first to third on weak singles to left. In the 11th inning, Keeler singled, stole second and scored on Jennings’ hit.

By the time McGraw recovered and rejoined them, the Orioles had seized first place. Jennings had settled down their wild behavior and started them winning. On Labor Day, the Orioles swept a triple-header from Louisville and a double-header the next day, locking up their third straight pennant.

That September, 20,000 citizens of Baltimore showed up in the rain to hear William Jennings Bryan, a young orator who’d also played baseball.

“Three cheers for Hughey Jennings Bryan!” someone shouted. The crowd obliged.

—Adapted from Where They Ain’t, Burt Solomon, The Free Press.

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