Peter Morris asked some years back: “Who on earth is Con Yannigan? I have long been seeking the exact origins of the term ‘yannigan,’ used to describe a player on an inexperienced side (usually during spring training). I have narrowed down the period of its origin and have found some interesting accounts about it, but nothing on the exact etymology. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary goes so far as to say ‘there is no clear link between this word and a word in another language or an earlier form of English or an English dialect.’ This seems promising; can you elucidate?”
Peter had spotted what stands as a first usage to date: Sporting News, July 22, 1893, “Baltimore’s Yannigan Treadway with the hoarse laugh and the round tanned face made a hit in Chicago.” (By this was meant merely that Treadway was, in 1893, a newcomer to the big leagues.) Today I found an earlier citation, a suggestive one that tends to support a story I have been telling for three decades. On May 23, 1893, the New York Herald‘s O.P. Caylor reported on a National League game played between Washington and Brooklyn:
Pfingst Monday [a.k.a Whit Monday or Pentecost Monday, observed by many Christians in Germany] was appropriately celebrated at Eastern Park yesterday afternoon. In honor of the occasion George Schoch, David Foutz, Karl Farrell, Teddy Larkin, Jim O’Rourke, Connie Yannigan Daily, and the other Germans on the two teams each wore a small Prussian flag pinned to the bosom of his shirt front.
Some thirty-five years ago I found an undated news clip from the 1898 New York World titled “Armless, Legless Pitchers,” in the Cy Seymour Scrapbooks in the National Baseball Library. After a preamble on Charlie Bennett (famous catcher who lost his legs in a rail-station accident), Hugh Daily (the one-armed star of Baltimore and Buffalo), and Tom Deasley, who wound up in an insane asylum, the story focused on Herbert Van Cleef –a remarkable legless pitcher from Trenton, NJ who in the following year managed a basketball team of one-legged players. I included the piece in my second Armchair Book of Baseball (1987), and one day may publish it here at Our Game, too.
In my introductory remarks to the 1898 tale I wrote that the clip was “replete with unexpected pleasures” that included “the stunningly offhand solution to one of game’s most perplexing mysteries–the origin of the epithet ‘yannigan,’ reserved for scrub or second-rate players.” Here, from the World:
Another cripple who was famous as a ballpayer was “Con” Yannigan, who made a big reputation around Hartford, Connecticut, several years ago. He was a first baseman and had a cork leg. Yannigan was brought out by “Steve” Brady, of the “Old Mets.” “Steve'” considered him one of the best first basemen he ever saw. A great play of his was to block off base runners with his game leg. Opposing players could sharpen their spikes to a razor edge, but “Con” didn’t scare for a cent.
Is this a Davy Crockett sort of yarn? Maybe. But there it is, a legend in 1898 but rooted in September 1880, when Brady played for the original Metropolitan club–along with Daily and Deasley–years before they joined the American Association and “before he made a big reputation.” How was Cornelius “Con” Daily, a veteran big-league catcher connected with Con Yannigan? Perhaps only in the nickname of Con, shared by so many named Cornelius who have played baseball. Caylor may have recalled a real player who went by the name of Con Yannigan, or made sly reference to an emergingly legendary one.
This may not be the final answer as to how yannigans came to be called yannigans, but it moves us in that direction.