SABR

Hal O'Hagan

This article was written by David Nemec.

Harry O’Hagan owns two distinctions that will never be equaled. The lesser of the two is that he had the longest stretch between his first and second major-league appearances of any position player who debuted in the nineteenth century.

Born in Washington, D.C., on September 30, 1869, O’Hagan was catching for a Washington YMCA team prior to his one-game initiation with the local major-league club, the Nationals of the American Association, at age 22. It came about in a manner that tells a lot about how close to the bone some of the poorer major-league outfits faced even after the National League and the American Association had sidestepped the problems they had trying to co-exist once the Players League folded by consolidating into one loop after the 1891 season. On Friday, September 23, 1892, Washington’s Jo Meekin easily topped Brooklyn 9-2 in his home park. The game was without incident and there was no mention of any injuries in the Washington Post’s report on the affair the following day. Hence Nationals owner J. Earle Wagner was caught by surprise when he received a cable on the morning of September 24 from his catcher, Deacon McGuire, informing the club that he had hurt his leg in the previous day’s game and could not play in the scheduled doubleheader against Brooklyn that afternoon. Wagner found it odd that McGuire had told none of his fellow team members he’d hurt himself, especially since McGuire was the only healthy catcher Washington had on its roster at the moment after having released Jack Milligan a few days earlier.

Given that the end of the second half of the split season—the first of its kind in ML history—was only some three weeks away, Wagner clearly was hoping to scrape by in the remaining games with only one bona fide catcher. He summoned player-manager Danny Richardson and ordered him to tell McGuire in no uncertain terms that he had to play, injury or no injury, because the club had no one to replace him. Grumbling all the while, McGuire reported to the park, climbed into his uniform and then lugged his catching gear out to the field and limped his way through the first game of the twin bill, a 5-2 loss to Brooklyn’s George Haddock. Meanwhile Wagner had prepared for the possibility that his catcher truly might be ailing by wiring veteran receiver Tom Dowse, who was a free agent at the moment, to join the club as soon as he could. Upon learning Dowse was unable to report until Monday, Wagner then scouted around during the first game of the September 24 double bill for a decent amateur catcher. Whether O’Hagan was summoned from his home or happened to be at the park that day will probably never be known, but the Post’s account of his ML debut the following day suggests the former: “Harry O’Hagan of the Young Men’s Christian Association of this city had been sent for, and he caught (Bert) Abbey in the second contest. He did well, but Abbey was not confident and failed to do as well as usual.” O’Hagan actually did quite well. He played an errorless game in which he had three assists, took part in a double play and led off Washington’s half of the seventh inning with a single and eventually came around to score the Nationals’ second run in a 9-3 loss to the Bridegrooms’ Ed Stein that was stopped by umpire Bob Emslie at the end of the eighth inning due to darkness.

O’Hagan’s performance should not have been unexpected, for his YMCA team was a good one, strong enough to tackle professional teams in exhibition games. Just a few days before his initiation to big league competition he had caught future MLer Harry Colliflower in a game against a Lynchburg nine that featured pitcher Kit McKenna, also a future MLer. It would seem that Earle Wagner, who knew he would need a catcher to back up McGuire the following year, had nothing to lose by giving the 22-year-old novice a full trial before the 1892 season expired, but instead, after his lone afternoon in a Washington uniform, O’Hagan disappeared from the professional baseball arena until the May 28, 1894, Sporting Life posted notice that he was one of the 12 players the Roanoke club in the Virginia League had signed in time for its opening game of the season against Petersburg. O’Hagan thereupon spent most of his maiden pro season with the Magicians and even managed the club for a while at age 24 before joining the Norfolk Clam Eaters, also members of the Virginia League, for a time. How many games O’Hagan played with each VL club that year and what he hit or fielded are still unknown, but what has been established is that he appeared in box scores not only that year but also for his entire career by his correct surname. Yet at an unknown moment he suddenly became not O’Hagan but O’Hagen, and until recently that is the way his name has been carried in all reference works ever since. What’s more, his nickname at some point became “Hal” in reference works rather than Harry, a derivative of his middle name that he was called throughout his baseball career. When and why these name changes occurred is also still unknown. Indeed, a considerable amount about him is still unknown. Which is not unusual when it comes to investigating a player who took part in only one ML game in the nineteenth century and less than half a season in the early part of the twentieth century. What makes this case unusual—more than unusual—is that in mid-career the six-foot, 173-pound O’Hagan perpetrated something on the diamond that had never been seen before in Organized Baseball history.

But in 1894 that was still eight years away. O’Hagan returned to the Virginia League in 1895 and then apprenticed in the Atlantic League for the next two seasons, hitting a respective .328 and .322 while splitting his time between the outfield and first base. Because he threw right-handed, O’Hagan could also fill in capably at both middle infield positions as well as behind the plate, although he does not appear to have ever caught professionally after his inaugural game with Washington. Which way he batted is still a mystery, but it may have been from the left side of the plate based on the following. In December 1897, after tallying 150 runs and 59 steals with Newark of the Atlantic League, O’Hagan was drafted by manager Bill Watkins of the Pittsburgh National League club on the recommendation of Tom McNamara, an Atlantic League umpire who compared him to Patsy Donovan, the Pirates’ left fielder and leadoff hitter, in speed and build. Since Donovan was a lefty hitter, it seems reasonable to suspect O’Hagan might have been too. Tenuous evidence to be sure--but it’s all there is at the moment, and may always be all there is. The January 1, 1898, Sporting Life offered this assessment of him from a Pittsburgh observer: “Those who have watched O’Hagan’s playing closely say he will give (Harry) Davis a lively race for the position on first. He is tall, aggressive and nervy, and his consistent batting in the minor leagues speaks for itself. Ted Sullivan only recently had the following to tell the writer in response to an inquiry concerning O’Hagan as a third baseman: ’I don’t think Harry is a third baseman; his position is on first. I think he will make one of the best first basemen in the country. He has more of the old Mike Kelly tricks and go in him than any player I have handled in years.’”

Coming from Sullivan, a scout who knew how to judge talent, if not always how to use it when he assumed his other familiar baseball role as a manager, the comparison to Mike “King” Kelly is a fair indication that O’Hagan was both a good player and a particularly heady one. Yet, even though he showed up well in all facets of his game during spring training in 1898, O’Hagan failed to make the Pirates, apparently running afoul of the mercurial Watkins at some point. Instead he was sold on the eve of the season to Kansas City of the Western League. Just six weeks after joining the Blues he was given leave, according to the June 11, 1898, Sporting Life, which chirped: “Harry O’Hagan has gone and done it. He made the hit of his life last Sunday in marrying one of Newark’s lovely women. Mrs. O’Hagan that now is was formerly Miss Mary E. Healey, of Bank Street. Tom Delehanty {sic}, now with Allentown, and late with Newark, was the best man, and Miss Mamie Turner, of this city, acted as bridesmaid.” Despite having a decent year with the stick (.281) and even captaining the flag-winning Blues, O’Hagan discovered his first-base job was his to hold for only the 1898 campaign while Jack Rothfuss (also a first baseman and his teammate at Newark the previous year until Rothfuss joined Pittsburgh toward the end of the season) spent the summer in the hospital regaining his health.

O’Hagan seemed about to suffer the same fate the next season after signing with the Rochester Bronchos of the Eastern League. In July doddering Dan Brothers, who could play nowhere but first base, joined the Broncs, forcing him to move to center field. But Brouthers’s advanced years rendered the Eastern League pace too fast for him and he was jettisoned after just 10 games. Restored to the gateway position, O’Hagan held it through 1901. That year, after he hit .319, his best showing since 1897, he was picked up by the Chicago NL club, then called the Remnants. On March 8, 1902, Sporting Life, in discussing the demise of Jack Doyle as a Remnant, had this to say about his expected replacement: “Doyle’s first base successor will be Harry O’Hagan, who is alleged to be better now than ever, and fit to hold his own in any company. With the present weakened class of the National League, he will have to be pretty punk if he cannot hold up his end.”

Alas, punk was the word for O’Hagan’s play in the 1902 NL, especially with a bat in his hand, when he received his second and final major-league opportunity. Although he did well enough in spring training to open the season as the Remnants’ regular first baseman, he was released after he hit only .191 in 33 games. He then joined the New York Giants for four games but jumped briefly to Cleveland in the American League before returning to the New York National League club in July. In his three games with Cleveland, O’Hagan hit .385; for the rest of his ML career he hit just .172. Had it not been for his fleeting sojourn with Cleveland, O’Hagan would hold the record for the lowest career batting average by a first baseman with a minimum of 200 career at-bats, since he finished at .185, a mere one point better than Herman Dehlman. As it was, if O’Hagan had not collected a hit in his ML finale on July 17 at Cincinnati in the Giants’ 6-3 win over the Reds’ Henry Thielman, he would have finished at .181 and surpassed Dehlman.

Something of a miracle then happened. O’Hagan caught one of his few breaks during his pro career. Upon drawing his release from the Giants, he not only found his old job awaiting him in Rochester but landed in the driver’s seat as the Bronchos’ player-manager when ex-Cleveland shortstop Ed McKean, who had been piloting the club from the bench, was fired on August 17. The following day, when O’Hagan took the field in the bottom of the second inning at Jersey City, the sparse Monday afternoon crowd in West Side Park could have had no inkling they were about to see something that had never happened before on an Organized Baseball diamond. With none out, Jersey City right fielder George Shoch was on second base while second baseman Mickey Doolan occupied first. O’Hagan charged the plate, anticipating catcher John Butler would sacrifice. When Butler popped up his bunt attempt between the mound and the first-base line, O’Hagan snatched it off his shoe tops and then raced to first base, beating Doolan to the bag. He then turned and upon seeing Shoch on third base in the belief that O’Hagan had dashed to first to retire Butler, he sprinted toward second since no one was covering it and reached the base a few steps ahead of Shoch. It is the first known unassisted triple play in professional baseball history. The chief beneficiary of the play, somewhat ironically, was Bronchos pitcher Jake Thielman, the brother of Henry Thielman, who had surrendered O’Hagan’s last hit in the majors. For a complete description of the play, along with a diagram of it and its overall ramifications, see the story under the headline “THE GREATEST PLAY EVER MADE IN BASEBALL” in the New York Times of August 24, 1902.

O’Hagan continued to play in the minors until 1908, ending his career on a low note both in performance and behavior. On June 3, while playing for Lynn, Massachusetts, of the New England League, he suffered a damaged eye according to Sporting Life in a game at Brockton, Massachusetts, in an on-the-field fist fight with an umpire named O’Brien. Released soon afterward, he latched on with Waterbury of the Connecticut League. Despite hitting a composite .214, he was offered a contract by Waterbury for 1909. That winter, however, he had an emergency appendectomy, which may have given Waterbury pause, for it withdrew its contract offer and Sporting Life reported that the matter ended up in the hands of league secretary Farrell, where it rested for so long that O’Hagan appears to have given up trying to pursue the issue.

Unlike many players in his day, O’Hagan had an alternate skill—two of them actually. Earlier in life he had worked as a plumber, but upon leaving the professional ranks he took a job in Washington as an electrician. On January 14, 1913, he came home from work early and told his wife Mary that a co-worker had given him a mixture of vinegar and soda when he’d complained of the same sort of stomach distress that had bothered him over the Christmas holidays. Two hours later, as per the January 17 Washington Post, O’Hagan was seized with violent stomach pains and died before a doctor could be summoned, leaving his wife and five children. His death at first was attributed to heart failure, but it was so sudden and unexpected that an autopsy was performed. The cause was then changed to acute gastritis, but a court physician was appointed to examine the stomach contents to rule out poisoning. The results of that examination seemingly did so, as O’Hagan’s death never became a police matter. His body was buried in the O’Hagan family plot at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in East Orange, New Jersey, on January 16, 1913.

 

Sources

This biography is an expanded version of one that appeared in David Nemec's Major League Baseball Profiles: 1871-1900, Volume 2 (Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Books, 2011).

In assembling this biography I made extensive use of the Washington Post, the Washington Star, the New York Times, Find a Grave on the Internet, Sporting Life, and The Sporting News throughout O’Hagan’s professional baseball career, 1892 through 1909. O’Hagan’s major- and minor-league statistics came from www.baseball-reference.com.

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