Hughie Jennings and Hack Wilson

               W-L   PCT  RS  RA
Start to 5/20 16-13 .552 148 119
5/21 to 7/6   32-12 .727 238 163
7/8 to finish 45-35 .563 471 359

The 1924 Giants won the pennant by a mere 1.5 games, and you can point to that midsection as the biggest reason why they won. But the odd thing is that the middle period is while John McGraw was away from the team. That 32-12 belongs to Hughie Jennings, and while it’s a slightly lucky record, it still stands out.

So what was different in that stretch? The Giants started out 11-2 but tanked by the time Jennings took over. The only changes McGraw had made were to move Heinie Groh from second in the order to seventh, moving everyone else up, and to swap Billy Southworth to third and Ross Youngs to leadoff. Groh eventually worked out in the seven-hole, but the Youngs-Southworth swap didn’t make much sense. Southworth was the centerpiece of a deal that sent Dave Bancroft to play-manage the Braves, and in his playing days he was sort of a souped-up Randy Winn—solid complementary bat, vague leadoff skills, and a glove, the last being important both to McGraw and to playing center field in the Polo Grounds. But by the time Jennings took over, Southworth’s line was .234/.344/.308—not what your third hitter ought to be producing. (Youngs was at .317/.415/.436, so it’s not like he was dragging the lineup down.)

When Jennings took over, nothing changed initially. He found more starts for Hugh McQuillan and Mule Watson, which worked great (ERAs of 2.85 and 1.93, respectively), put Rosy Ryan permanently in the bullpen, and over 25.2 innings got a ridiculous 0.71 ERA out of reliever Claude Jonnard. But the move that saved the Giants season was one that would have repercussions on many National League seasons to come: He put rookie Hack Wilson in center field.

To be fair, Jennings didn’t do this all on his own; based on usage patterns, it appears to be a response to a Southworth injury that I can’t dig up. On June 11, Southworth started his last game of the Jennings period, allowing Wilson to take over center. If nothing else, Jennings knew potent bats, and what Wilson did in his time was striking. In chart form:

               AB  BB  R 2B 3B HR RBI  AVG  OBP  SLG
Start to 5/20   6   1  1  1  0  0   0 .333 .429 .500
5/21 to 7/6   111  11 20  7  8  2  28 .378 .434 .631
7/8 to finish 268  33 41 12  4  8  33 .257 .339 .422

In what was basically a month’s worth of starts, and without even a week’s worth of major league experience, Wilson had one of the best hitting stretches of his or anyone’s career. That rookie month was better in his triple-slash line than any of his full seasons save 1930, and all three marks led the Giants lineup in the interim period (Youngs’ .357/.424/.582 was second across the board). When McGraw came back, Wilson struggled mightily, whether for sample size, having a second time around the league, or chafing under McGraw, and with Wilson’s 1925 season looking eerily like the last third of 1924 (even down to the same slugging percentage), McGraw sent him to Toledo for Earl Webb.

Under Joe McCarthy the next year, Wilson racked up numbers similar to his Jennings phase, and continued to do so through 1930. This split may say a number of things about Jennings, McGraw, and Wilson. We now know that McGraw did not give Wilson his initial shot, as the fourth outfielder slot prior to May 21 was second-year Jimmy O’Connell‘s (15 at-bats and a pinch-running appearance), not Wilson’s. We also know that McGraw never saw firsthand what Jennings saw, that Wilson could carry a team if you gave him the chance.

Wilson wasn’t going to be a great center fielder, and certainly not in the Polo Grounds. When Wilson slumped, McGraw sent him to left field for Irish Meusel and stuck O’Connell and normal first baseman George Kelly in center (letting rookie Bill Terry fill in at first). Given experience levels, player profiles, and subsequent history, my conclusion is that McGraw would have turned to O’Connell and not Wilson when Southworth got hurt. O’Connell started on June 14, so he was available for Jennings’s decision making.

O’Connell also had an offensive profile resembling Southworth’s, or at least more than Wilson’s did, and O’Connell had been one of McGraw’s center fielders for 1923. It doesn’t seem to be a stretch to say that McGraw would have played O’Connell when Southworth went down and never given Wilson a chance. It was Jennings who gave that chance to Wilson, and it was only Jennings who saw what Wilson was capable of in his Giants stint.

Would the Cubs have Rule 5ed Wilson had his major league resume been pedestrian? I have no idea, but his run of dominance under Jennings may have given the Cubs enough sample to know that his hitting was truly major-league-caliber, and if that’s what did it, then it’s owed to Jennings and not McGraw. Besides Wilson’s Hall of Fame career, the more immediate matter of a narrowly won pennant goes in part to Jennings’ decision as well; it’s safe to say that slugging .631 for any stretch was not part of the Jimmy O’Connell skill set, and although Southworth’s usual stat line was one in the McGraw mold, he wouldn’t have been this good either. Of the many things Hughie Jennings could have done after the Southworth injury, he chose the best one, and they won enough games off it to win McGraw’s last pennant.

I don’t know how many times the interim manager can be credited for something so momentous, but it seems safe to say that installing Hack Wilson was Jennings’ choice, not McGraw’s, and led to a pennant and a Hall of Fame career. Pretty heady stuff for a few weeks in 1924.

References & Resources
Retrosheet drove this article the whole way. All OBPs are approximate, as I can’t do more than deal with at-bats, hits, and walks due to the current limits of the 1924 box scores. Also thanks to Steve Treder for talking it out with me. Nice bloke.

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  1. Geoff Young said...

    Good stuff, Brandon. I dug around a little for info on Southworth’s removal from the lineup and found only two vague references in the New York Times:

    June 11: “McGraw seems to have decided that Southworth won’t do against southpaws.”

    June 17: “On the attack the headliner was Hack Wilson, who has been holding down centrefield in the absence of the injured Billy Southworth.”

  2. Brandon Isleib said...

    That 6/11 one ought to be interesting, given that he’s not considered to be managing then.  Maybe the media had no idea what was going on…so much speculation, so little time,  Thank you for the input.

  3. Phil Coffin said...

    From a 6/12/24 New York Times article, which sheds only a little more light on Southworth’s injury:

    “Southworth made a sensational tumbling catch of Maranville’s fly in the eighth and shook himself up so vigorously that before the Giants left the field he was relieved by Hack Wilson. It is believed that Billy landed on little else but his face.”

  4. Paul Moehringer said...

    Hack’s one of those Hall of Fame inductees that always struck me as a little odd.

    He does answer my first Hall of Fame question, in that he does have at least five years where he is a dominating player.

    But I don’t see much beyond those five years, and fails to answer yes to the second question of did he have a decent career outside of those five years.  He has one year, 1932 that is good.  Beyond that it’s either average or worse.

    Of course had he not drank himself out of baseball, I wouldn’t even be bringing this up.

    He’s not the worst guy in, but I don’t think he belongs, and I definately don’t think would have a shot at getting in if he played today.

  5. Red Nichols said...

    McGraw probably had a prejudicial aversion to Hack from the start. Simply not his kind of player – a barrel-chested garden gnome with little speed and a concrete glove. Give credit to Old Eee-yah Jennings for looking past the deficiencies, spotting raw talent and presumably encouraging the youngster, getting the most from him. Fascinating stuff.  .  .

  6. Brandon Isleib said...

    Great comments, all.

    Paul, I agree that Hack is a bantamweight Hall of Famer.  Maybe he was “feared” in his day.  grin  That being said, he of course had Hall of Fame talent at his peak, and Jennings seemed to find a massive amount of similar slugging talent when he managed Detroit.  It’s just sort of apparent on the surface that Jennings would like Wilson more than McGraw would, and that seems to be the story of 1924.

    And Geoff again and Phil, thank you for the NY Times info.  One of the beautiful things about ‘20s box scores and player usage is that they’re transparent to revealing injuries and the like, but it’s always highly important to have confirmation.  It’s so fun to dig this stuff up.

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