John K. Tener: Pitcher, Governor and League President

John Kinley Tener's baseball card

Horatio Alger has come under fire in the last century or so. His stories of ragamuffin boys rising to greatness were never really true. Oh, it did happen, but not as frequently as Alger’s strories implied. One of the men it happened to was John Kinley Tener.

Tener was born in Ireland in 1863. His widowed mother brought the family to the US. She died the same year leaving Tener an orphan. He managed to complete his schooling and started work in a steel factory in Pittsburgh, where he played for the local ball team. He spent the years 1885-1888 pitching for semi-pro and local teams. He was good enough to come to the attention of Chicago manager Cap Anson. He played for the second place White Stockings, going 11-7 with more strikeouts than walks and an ERA of 2.74 in 12 games. The season ended with a world tour to promote baseball. Tener went along, was chosen the team treasurer, and came to the attention of John Montgomery Ward. Ward made him Secretary of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players and he followed the union to the Player’s League in 1890. He left baseball following the collapse of the Brotherhood’s league with a record of 25-31 and 174 strikeouts in 506 innings.

Governor John Kenley Tener

He tried banking and was successful. He became a major civic leader, serving on the board of a bridging company and a railway line. In 1908 he ran for election as a Republican to the US House of Representatives from the 24th Congressional District of Pennsylvania. He ousted seven term congressman Ernest F. Acheson. In Washington his chief claim to fame was the creation of the Congressional baseball game which is still held. In 1911 he was elected Governor of Pennsylvania with 42% of the vote (there were three candidates), becoming the first Governor of Pennsylvania born outside the US since the 18th Century.

As Governor, Tener was a mild Progressive, supporting road improvement, regulation of public utilities, and public school reform. He set up an old age pension program for widows, one of the first in the nation. This made him popular and somewhat polarizing. In 1913, baseball came calling again.

The National League was having severe problems in the middle of the decade. The American League was outstripping them in both attendance and in playing skill. Much of the problem was supposed to be a lack of firm leadership at the top. In 1913 the league moguls decided not to renew the term of league President (Thomas Lynch). They offered the job to Tener. He accepted, but refused to take salary ($25,000 per year) while also receiving his salary as Governor of Pennsylvania. He held both jobs until April, 1915.

As NL President, Tener had to face the growing clout of the AL and the 1914 challenge of the newly formed Federal League. He did better against the Feds than against the AL. He attacked the Feds at every opportunity, and was instrumental in pushing through the settlement that led to the collapse of the new league in 1915. He vigorously opposed gambling and issued stringent rules againt umpire-baiting by players and managers. This led inevitably to a confrontation with Giants manager John J. McGraw. In June 1917 he suspended McGraw for striking an umpire. McGraw drew a 16 day suspension and a $500 fine. McGraw, being McGraw, told anyone who would listen, including the newspapers, what he thought of Tener and where Tener and all his relations could go. Tener responded by upping the fine to $1500 (this is more or less equivalent to Judge Landis suspending Babe Ruth in the 1920s).  That helped him get a one year contract extension as NL President. He served the year and retired in 1918, one year before the Black Sox scandal occurred and two years before it exploded into the headlines. His worries about gambling seemed to be true.

In retirement he returned to his business interests, ran again for Governor of Pennsylvania (he lost, coming in third), and ultimately becoming a director of the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1930s. He died in 1946, aged 82.

Tener led an interesting and involved life. He moves from baseball to banking to politics and back to baseball with ease. His Horatio Alger story is true. But more importantly,  as far as I can tell he’s the only state Governor to have a baseball card (an 1880s cigarette card). Now that’s worth celebrating.


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