When in your vaunted pride you hear
The roaring welcome of the stands,
The unleashed hero-tinted cheer,
The echo of applauding hands,
Lift up your head above all men –
Think how these thousand worship you –
Go to it – eat it – pal – and then
When headlines on the Printed Page
Rate you the Ruler of the Field –
The war god of a golden age
That reels before your lance and shield –
Take in the boost of voice and pen,
Say, “Here at last, I’ve drawn my due” –
Swell with the thrill of it – and then
What is there left to curb you now?
The world is at your steel shod feet,
The laurel grips your clammy brow
Where no man comes who might compete:
So lift your beaker up again,
Nor turn to Time’s remorseless cue –
Here’s how – Cobb, Matty, Walsh – and then
Drink one to Donahue.
— Grantland Rice, “Donahue Eulogy”1
As in many other baseball-crazy communities at the turn of the 20th century, the game in the central Ohio community of Springfield was dominated by sons of Ireland. Players named Dunn, Shay, Malarkey, Minahan, Mitchell, Harley, and Donahue, all sons of the Emerald Isle, went forth from the city’s ballfields to play professional baseball. The family that dominated the game locally was the Donahues: brothers John, Pat, Frank, and George. The first of them to make his mark on the professional baseball scene was John, better known as Jiggs.
John Augustus Donahue was born on July 13, 1879, the first son of John and Mary Donahue, who were parents of six other children. (In addition, Thomas Moore, a son from Mary’s first marriage, in Kentucky, grew up in the Donahue household.) John Augustus’s father, John, was a blacksmith and like Mary was born in Ireland. John died in the 1890s, meaning Mary was twice widowed with a large Irish Catholic family to raise. The eight siblings, seven boys and one girl (the youngest), were all expected to help out by working. Thomas Moore, the oldest, was a blacksmith, Martin a bartender, Edward a toolmaker, George, 19, an iron molder, and Patrick a clerk. Francis and Mary (named after her mother) did odd jobs.
As a young teen John worked at a cigar store in the downtown arcade. Never one to stay indoors, when the store wasn’t busy he stepped outside and did dance steps. Customers started calling him Jiggers, after the Chigoe flea, or jigger. The nickname was later shortened to Jiggs. The cigar store was also the headquarters for one of the local base ball teams and Jiggs became engrossed and began practicing. The local YMCA baseball club was in need of a catcher and Jiggs was given the position. The fact that he threw left-handed was not then a deterrent. Jiggs would say, “That is the game for me and I am going to learn it and follow it as a profession.”2 (A measure of his success is the fact that he played in 45 major-league games as a left-handed catcher.)
Donahue’s practice and skill paid off. In 1897, at the age of just 17, he was signed to catch for Marietta of the Ohio-West Virginia League. (Marietta also employed another Springfield Irish cigar-store veteran, Fred Shires.) Later in the season, Jiggs signed on and finished the season with Wheeling of the Interstate League. At Wheeling he played with another Springfield native and future big leaguer, Danny Shay.
In 1898 Donahue signed with Grand Rapids (Michigan) in the Interstate League but played just two games before returning to Ohio with the Dayton Old Soldiers of the same circuit. For Dayton he played in 91 games, most of them as a catcher, and hit a solid .278. (His manager in Dayton was Bill Armour, who later managed Cleveland and Detroit.) In 1899 Donahue again spent the season in Dayton but was on loan to Wheeling at season’s end.
It was back to Dayton in 1900 but not before Donahue and manager Armour had a contract dispute. Finally a contract was signed that included a handshake agreement. If Jiggs caught 120 games he would be paid a bonus. In August, after he had caught in 106 games with a .333 batting average, 51 extra-base hits, and 32 stolen bases, Donahue’s contract was purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Armour refused to pay the bonus, though Jiggs would certainly have earned it.
Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss said of Donahue, “Dayton wins the pennant and to my mind ‘Jiggs’ deserves a great portion of the credit for the victory.”3 Donahue made his major-league debut on September 10, 1900, not behind the plate, but in right field, replacing the injured Honus Wagner. He got into two more games the remainder of the season, with 10 at-bats.
Jiggs was back in Pittsburgh to begin 1901 but played in just two games. The Pirates demoted him to Minneapolis but instead he jumped his contract and on July 7 signed with the Milwaukee Brewers of the American League, managed by Hugh Duffy. He played in 37 games, 19 behind the plate and 13 at first base, and hit a respectable .318. After the season the franchise was transferred to St. Louis. After playing 30 games in 1902 (.236 batting average), Jiggs was shipped to Milwaukee, now a member of the American Association. He spent the remainder of the season and all of 1903 there.
Donahue’s second stay in Milwaukee had a profound effect on his career. Manager Duffy realized that Donahue was handicapped by throwing with his left hand when most hitters were right-handed, so he planted him in the lineup at first base. Donahue’s .342 batting average and 28 extra-base hits in 1903 were impressive but it was his defense that caught the eye of Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey. The Brewers sold his contract to the White Sox on August 13, effective at end of the season. (The White Sox outbid Washington for Donahue’s contract.)
After the season Donahue stayed in Milwaukee and took a job as a fireman for the Northwestern Railroad Company. (He held the job the following winter as well.) The big reason for his interest in Milwaukee was Alice Jane Harwick, a Syracuse, New York, native whose family had moved to Wisconsin. They were married on August 30, 1905.
Jiggs was popular wherever he played. The Minneapolis Journal in February 1904 reported, “‘Jiggs’ Donahue, the pride of the Milwaukee baseball fans, who put up a grand game at first base for the (B)rewers last season, has received his contract from the Chicago American League club. The terms were satisfactory.”4
Donahue spent the rest of his major-league career as a first baseman. His 45 games as a catcher were 35 more than any other left-handed-throwing catcher in the 20th century. (Jack Clements, a 17-year major leaguer mostly with Philadelphia from 1884 to 1900, holds the record with 1,076 games as a left-handed catcher.)
When Donahue arrived in Chicago, veteran Frank Isbell was entrenched at first base. It took only a few weeks for Jiggs to claim the position with his glove work, with Isbell being exiled to second base and the outfield. Donahue played in 102 games. His batting average was .248 with 17 of his 91 hits for extra bases. But it was his defense that kept him in the lineup.
The second year in Chicago added to Donahue’s reputation as the best defensive first baseman in the game. He led American League first basemen in fielding percentage (.988), putouts (1,645), assists (114), and double plays turned (77). He batted.287, his major-league best.
Jiggs and Alice spent the 1905-06 offseason in Chicago. For Chicago baseball fans, 1906 was a magical year. Donahue was late for spring training in New Orleans after a short contract holdout. As the team barnstormed north, it stopped for a two-game series in his hometown with the local Springfield Babes. The visit marked the opening of the city’s new baseball stadium. Jiggs got to play against his youngest brother, Frank, the Babes’ second baseman. After the first game of the series, city officials presented Jiggs with an engraved watch said to be valued at $50. He was moved to tears.
The White Sox of 1906 were dubbed the Hitless Wonders. By season’s end they had just three players hitting over .250, Jiggs among them at .257. At the end of July the White Sox were 7½ games behind the Philadelphia A’s in fourth place. They began August with a 19-game winning streak and finished in first place, 5½ games ahead of the second-place New York Highlanders. Their victory set up the only Windy City World Series, against the powerhouse and highly favored Chicago Cubs, who set a major-league record with 116 victories in 152 games. (The 2001 Seattle Mariners tied the record in a 162-game season.)
Financial agreements for the World Series called for the winners to get a 75 percent share of the Series receipts. In a pre-Series meeting the White Sox players discussed proposing a 50-50 split with the Cubs. Showing what a team leader he had become, Jiggs took the floor, and declaimed, “I want to knock that scheme with all my might. I think we ought to play the string out. … For my part, boys, if we go out and let these fellows beat us, I am in favor of pocketing our 25 percent and not saying a word. If they skin us that is all we deserve. But they can’t beat us. … I say play for the big money.”5
Donahue also led on the field, offensively and defensively, as the White Sox took the Cubs in six games. He batted .333 and recorded the only hit against the Cubs’ Ed Reulbach in Game Two. But again, it was his defense that stood out most.
The White Sox’ winner’s share of receipts was $1,875 apiece, the losing players’ share $440. Donahue’s teammates were happy they listened to him. Owner Charles Comiskey rewarded his team with a $15,000 bonus to be divided among the players. (As would become his practice, Comiskey made the gift not quite a gift. Little did the players realize that the money would be deducted from their 1907 salaries.)
Donahue again showed in 1906 why he was considered the best first sacker in baseball. He led American League first basemen in fielding percentage (.988), putouts (1,697), assists (118), and range factor (11.79, a retroactive statistic compiled many years later).
The world champions were in demand and Jiggs took charge, serving as player-manager of their barnstorming team that fall. He received an offer to have the team hit the theatrical circuit but many of the players had already left for their winter homes. If he could have organized them, they would have made $1,000 a week each for eight weeks.
Jiggs had gained a reputation as a freewheeling, fun-loving teammate who enjoyed regular nights on the town. Night life in Chicago fit his style. He liked fast cars, and also developed proficiency at bowling. However, maybe this lifestyle helped lead to an unfortunate beginning to 1907. Donahue was seriously injured in an auto accident in February, suffering severe facial lacerations when he hit the windshield.
Jiggs recovered and enjoyed a good year on the field in 1907, but the White Sox failed to repeat, finishing third as the Detroit Tigers won the pennant. He batted .259, but it was on defense where he entered the record books. He led the league in the same categories as the previous year, and set a record for putouts (1,846, or 12.65 per nine innings) that still stood in 2015. He set records with 21 putouts in a game and 140 assists for the season that have since been surpassed. In his 2008 book Baseball Ratings, The All-Time Best Players at Each Position, 1876 to the Present, author Charles Faber rated Donahue the best defensive first baseman of all time.
In 1907 someone with the Washington team found out that Donahue was terrorized by snakes, toads, worms, and bugs. Senators manager Joe Cantillon spent an early afternoon digging fishing worms and grubs, and sprinkled them around the first-base area. Jiggs did not notice until a tag play at first base. Reportedly he let out a yell and jumped a foot in the air. Unfortunately for Washington, Donahue was able to snag the throw anyway. The next day he appealed to the umpires to get the Senators to stop.6
After the 1907 season, Mike Fisher, a San Francisco businessman who ran barnstorming tours of the South Pacific and the Orient, asked Jiggs to organize and manage a team of big leaguers on a trip to Japan, Manila, and Honolulu. “I will go for sure,” said Jiggs. … “I do not know why Mike Fisher came to me to ask me to get up the team, for I do not know him. … I believe it will prove to be a grand trip.”7
Donahue’s last full season with the White Sox was 1908. His defense was still top-notch, but he lost his hitting stroke, batting only .204. Though he had led the American League in games played (157) and at-bats (609) in 1907, his games played were reduced to 97 in 1908 and his at-bats (304) were cut in half. His poor season could be attributed to several factors. Jiggs sustained an injury in Washington early in the season; he had become distracted by outside interests (he had purchased the Drexel, a Chicago Southside bowling resort); his love of nightlife led to speculation that he had contracted the venereal disease that would end his life prematurely.
That season Jiggs’s brother Pat made his major-league debut, as a catcher with the Boston Red Sox. Jiggs led another barnstorming tour, this time to play in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.
In order to regain his vitality, Jiggs and Alice traveled to Hot Springs, Arkansas, before spring training in 1909. It later became their retirement home and they became active members of the community, Alice especially.8 But for Jiggs the hot springs did not prove the elixir.
The 1909 season began just as the 1908 season had ended except that not only had Donahue’s hitting skills eroded but he had also slowed in the field. On May 16, having played in only two games, he was part of a trade to Washington, where he spent his last five months in the big leagues. The White Sox sent Donahue, Nick Altrock and Gavvy Cravath to the Senators for Sleepy Bill Burns, who would become part of the Black Sox Scandal in 1919.
Donahue batted .237 in 84 games for the Senators. He planned to procure his release after the season and return to Chicago to look after his bowling interests and play in the city’s semipro league to regain his skills. However the Senators sold Donahue and Altrock to the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. Jiggs did not report, so he was not eligible to play semipro ball as Minneapolis held his rights. He appealed to the National Commission. The commission rejected the appeal and Donahue decided to abide by its decision.9
The Dayton Veterans of the Central League tried to deal with Minneapolis for Donahue’s release so he could become their manager, but a deal could not be reached.10 Jiggs remained in Chicago in 1910 to look after his bowling alley and try to regain his baseball form. He purchased a Chicago League team but did not play. His plan was to try to come back in 1911.
Donahue spent the winter back in Hot Springs, where he bought a bowling alley and athletic resort. “I have given up the game insofar as playing the game is concerned, but if I find a franchise in the minors anywhere loose I may take it up,” he said.11 He brought some of his old friends to town and put together a series of games in February between National and American League stars.
Even though Donahue said his playing career was finished, he did try one more time, with the White Sox. But in a spring-training tryout it was obvious that his skills had continued to diminish and the White Sox did not sign him.
Still very popular in the baseball community and not quite ready to give up the game, Donahue headed to Texas and the Class D Texas-Oklahoma League to manage the Cleburne Railroaders in 1911. After modest success with a team lacking in talent, he was hired in midseason to manage the Galveston Sand Crabs of the Class B Texas League. He did play in his last 14 games. His batting average was .136. Ten months later he would be dead.
Donahue was quickly declining, the effects of syphilis beginning to ravage his mind and body. It was speculated that his time was shortened by his failed tryout with the White Sox and a deteriorating relationship with Alice. It was difficult to maintain her Hot Springs social standing with a husband suffering from a socially embarrassing disease, not to mention the prospect of his loss of income.
In the fall of 1911 Donahue, no longer able to manage his businesses, liquidated his assets. By November his condition had deteriorated to the point where his brother Pat brought him home to Springfield so his mother could care for him and help him regain some strength. His condition improved at the start and friends and relatives clung to the hope that he would recover.12
On December 23, 1912, Alice received a decree of divorce in Hot Springs and was given the family assets. She moved back to Milwaukee.
After his initial improvement, Donahue’s health again deteriorated. So serious became his condition that he was placed under the treatment of an expert and was sent to the state hospital for the insane in Columbus, Ohio. The dreaded disease refused to yield.13
A few weeks into the new year, Alice came for a visit. “Mrs. Jiggs Donahue, divorced wife of Jiggs Donahue, came here [Columbus] from Milwaukee, yesterday to be near her former husband who is in the insane asylum suffering from melancholy because his wife secured the divorce last winter and spent all his money,” a wire-service report said, adding, “The woman is filled with remorse and wants to get a position here to be near him and if possible secure his release and care for him. There is little hope of so doing, however for Donahue’s mind is near blank. He fails to recognize many of his friends.14
Three months before Donahue’s actual passing, his death was reported in the New York Tribune. Other newspapers around the country subsequently picked up the story. After further investigation it was determined that he was still alive, but Alice was trying to collect his life insurance a little early.
On July 19, 1913, Jiggs Donahue died. He had just turned 34 years old. It was front-page news in Springfield, including the Grantland Rice poem above. Ed Walsh and William Sullivan (Jiggs’s White Sox roommate) represented the White Sox at his funeral. (Although their train arrived too late for the Funeral Mass, they were in time for the graveside service.) Charles Comiskey sent an arrangement of roses.15 Donahue, considered by many baseball’s greatest defensive first baseman, was laid to rest in Springfield’s Calvary Cemetery in an unmarked grave.
Last revised: March 29, 2021 (ghw)
Faber, Charles F. Baseball Ratings: The All-Time Best Players at Each Position, 1876 to the Present, Third Edition (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Publishers, 2008).
Milwaukee Journal, June 17, 1907.
1910 US Census
1 Springfield (Ohio) Daily News, July 19, 1913: 5.
3 Sporting Life, October 6, 1900: 2.
4 Minneapolis Journal February 4, 1904: 6.
5 Sporting Life, November 3, 1906: 5.
6 Milwaukee Journal, June 17, 1907: 6
7 Pittsburgh Press, March 19, 1908: 8.
8 Sporting Life, January 13, 1912: 6.
9 Spokane Press, February 17, 1910: 17.
10 Bismarck (North Dakota) Daily Tribune, November 14, 1909: 6.
11 Sporting Life, September 17, 1910: 2.
12 Springfield Daily News, July 19, 1912: 1.
13 Springfield Daily News, July 23, 1912: 1.
14 Pittsburgh Post Gazette, August 3 1912: 9.
15 Springfield Daily News, July 23, 1912: 1.