From Cloughbane to Chicago - John K Tener, Tyrone’s greatest sporting export

Tener left Ireland aged 10 and became White Sox pitcher then governor of Pennsylvania

Governor of Pennsylvania John Kinley Tener (1863-1946), throwing out the first ball in the first game of the season at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, April 14th 1914. Photograph: New York Times

Governor of Pennsylvania John Kinley Tener (1863-1946), throwing out the first ball in the first game of the season at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, April 14th 1914. Photograph: New York Times

 

When the Chicago White Sox world tour swung through London in the spring of 1889, the travelling party was granted an audience with the Prince of Wales. Ahead of fixtures at Lord’s and The Oval, John K Tener was charged with the task of explaining the ins and outs of the American pastime to the future king. As the pitching ace prepared to give a tutorial, a palace flunky suddenly insisted the player take off his baseball cap, adhere to royal protocol and show proper deference to his highness.

“I’ll play this game out,” said Tener. “But after this I’m going into something honest. If a ball player has to take off his hat like a monkey, I’m going to become a banker and stay in America.”

Decades later, when Tener was Governor of Pennsylvania, three major pieces of legislation were on his desk waiting to be signed into law. The civil servants urged him to get his pen out and make a little bit of history. This, he was assured, would be the crowning achievement of his entire life. At which point, he looked askance and reprimanded the bureaucrats, “I would have you know, gentlemen, I once shut out the New York Giants”.

In the All-Ireland final week that’s in it, John Kinley Tener can lay claim to being arguably Tyrone’s greatest sporting export. Certainly, few others from the county can boast of having played at Lord’s, Lansdowne Road, the MCG and the Polo Grounds.

A pioneer in the nascent players’ trade union known as the Brotherhood, he confronted the triple threat of umpire-baiting, gambling, and “rowdyism” in the stands during his stint as president of the National League, and later became a director of the Philadelphia Phillies. A resume all the more remarkable considering the tumult of his formative years.

The Irish Aristocrats

Having spent the first 10 years of his life knocking around the rural idyll of a sprawling family farm in Cloughbane, his recently widowed, pregnant mother Susan brought him to Pittsburgh in 1873. She died very soon after, orphaning 10 children, and leaving George, the oldest son, and Maud, the eldest daughter, to raise the rest of the brood.

They did such a fine job that neighbours in the Uptown district called the Teners “The Irish Aristocrats.” Even though they were in reduced circumstances, they still carried themselves with the haughty bearing of Ulster’s moneyed class.

On young John’s second day in the new country, somebody pressed a baseball into his bemused hand as a welcome gift and franked his entry to an epic life. The kid learned the intricacies of the game on the unforgiving sandlots of western Pennsylvania and grew into an imposing six foot four, 14 stone pitcher. After the obligatory spell working in a steel factory while honing his talents in the minor leagues, he eventually caught the eye of Cap Anson, manager of the White Sox.

He signed for the Sox just before Albert Spalding, the renowned sports promoter, decided to send the team and a squad of American All-Stars traversing the globe to try to grow the game. In Egypt, Tener participated in a competition that involved trying to hit the Sphinx with a baseball. In France, he caught the eye of a different type of talent scout and was offered $2,000 to stay on and work for two months as a male model. A lucrative temptation that would have cost him the opportunity to revisit his homeland on the last leg of the 32,000-mile odyssey.

When the Americans fetched up at the North of Ireland Cricket Club on Belfast’s Ormeau Road no mention was made in the local press of the fact Tener spent his first decade just 40 miles down the road.

The travelling party next decamped to Morrison’s Hotel in Dublin, and, on March 27th, 4,000 people paid one shilling each to watch him pitch in an exhibition at Lansdowne Road. Afterwards, the visitors caught the train to Cork and found time to visit Blarney Castle before setting sail for home from Queenstown.

New career

True to his word, Tener walked off the pitcher’s mound at the end of the following season, started a new career with the First National Bank of Charleroi as a cashier and ended up as president of the company.

A career trajectory that precipitous caught the attention of the local Republican Party. He was elected to the United States Congress in 1908, where, among other things, he instituted the annual Congressional Baseball Game, a bipartisan charitable tradition in DC, the latest iteration of which takes place on September 29th.

Tener wasn’t long for Washington. Within two years of taking his seat, the character known alternatively as “Popular John” or “Honest John” was elected Governor of Pennsylvania. The first holder of that office to support women’s suffrage, he instituted a pension for widows, improved the public school system that made him, and invested hugely in roads.

While some laud him as a “mild progressive” who worked to get black children educated and was outspoken against racist crimes, he was also among those denouncing Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, for marrying a white woman in 1912.

“When I was given an actual black and white contract by the old Chicago club, my chief aim in life was reached,” said Tener, reflecting on his career. “Anything I may have done since that time has been purely incidental.”

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