SABR

Norris O'Neill

This article was written by Brian McKenna.

Norris O’Neill, one of three 19th century baseball figures nicknamed Tip, made a name for himself on the West Coast, where he captained the Oakland squad for several years. He played and managed in the minors from 1886 to 1899. In his youth, O’Neill was an acclaimed catcher, but after turning pro he tired of the demands of the position and switched to the infield, where he was far less effective, making many fielding and throwing errors. O’Neill had a contentious personality and numerous run-ins with the media, fans, opponents, and even his own teammates. Many believed, though, that as a team leader and captain few were his superior.

After hanging up his spikes, O’Neill became president of the Western League, serving for over a decade beginning in 1905 while constantly antagonizing team owners, not least for maintaining league headquarters in Chicago, far from any league city. O’Neill became one of White Sox owner Charles Comiskey’s top advisers and intimate friends. He played a minor role in the aftermath of the Black Sox affair. Outside of baseball, he became wealthy in the oil-drilling business.

Norris Lawrence O’Neill was born on February 1, 1867, in Rouseville, Pennsylvania, to Irish-born parents Dennis and Ellen O’Neill. He was the sixth of seven children. His parents had immigrated to the United States in 1855, first settling in South Paterson, New Jersey. They moved to Pennsylvania in the mid-1860s just before Norris’ birth, settling in Rouseville and then Cornplanter, both in Venango County, in the oil region of northwestern Pennsylvania. Dennis supported the family as a night watchman. Ellen was listed as an invalid in the 1870 U.S. Census, just a few years after giving birth to Norris.

After his father died, Norris went to work at the age of 15 to help support his mother. He was hard-working and frugal. By the age of 22, when he moved to California, O’Neill had $4,000 in the bank and owned his own house, all the while continuing to send money to his mother. He found time to play ball, first as an amateur and then as a semipro player in and around Venango County. He was a strongly-built, 5-foot-9-inch-tall catcher. He attended and played ball at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, in the mid-1880s. Two decades later, he was still recognized as the finest catcher in the school’s history. One of his favorite tricks was to throw pebbles at the umpire to distract him during certain plays and to buy time for a tired pitcher.

O’Neill, a right-hander, entered professional baseball in 1885. He played seven games as a catcher for Wilmington-Atlantic City in the Eastern League and five games for Columbus in the Southern League. In 1886 he caught for the Bradford, Pennsylvania, semipro club much of the year. He also played three games behind the plate that season for Charleston in the Southern League. In 1887 he played in 27 games for Allentown in the Pennsylvania State Association, hitting .374. He also appeared in 35 games for Shamokin in the Central Pennsylvania League, batting .356. That was the season O’Neill started to move away from catching, filling in at second and third base and in the outfield. In 1888 he caught, captained, and managed the Kalamazoo, Michigan, squad in the Tri-State League. In 86 games, O’Neill batted .328 and smacked 24 doubles. O’Neill then returned to the Allentown lineup with the club now in the Central League. He appeared in 24 games at shortstop and in the outfield. By this time, he was nicknamed Tip, presumably after Tip O’Neill the hard-hitting outfielder for St. Louis. (The third Tip O’Neill was Fred, who played in six games for the New York Metropolitans of the American Association in 1887.)

O’Neill followed a friend, Charlie Dooley, a former Bradford teammate with family ties to Paterson, to California in 1889. They joined the Oakland Colonels of the California League. O’Neill became the shortstop for a $1,000 salary, permanently leaving his catching days behind. Oakland was owned and managed by Col. Tom Robinson. Robinson and O’Neill became close friends, and Robinson named O’Neill the team captain. Baseball team captains in those days had important roles, making many of the decisions a manager or a general manager does today. The manager performed mostly business functions.

O’Neill had a contentious time throughout his stay on the West Coast. First, he didn’t transition well from catcher to middle infielder. His fielding was poor. Second, he didn’t hit well. For his part, O’Neill was quick to anger and was combative by nature. He had a poor relationship with sportswriters and fans. The Oakland Tribune wrote of him, “O’Neill is considered by some to be the poorest player in the league. As a shortstop he is a dismal failure but as a coacher he is somewhat of a success.” Another press report called him the “man with the large mouth.” He was roundly hissed by fans in Stockton and Sacramento. The San Francisco newspapers oozed contempt for O’Neill. He even had run-ins with teammates, who by the end of the year threatened mass desertion if he was retained for 1890. He was; Robinson held O’Neill in high regard for his on-the-field presence and his absolute loyalty.

One thing everyone agreed on was that O’Neill was a leader. The Oakland Tribune said, “O’Neill is without doubt the best captain in the California League. His method of handling his men, both on and off the field, is superior to any ever seen in the coast. Not only does he pay close attention to the baseball work of the players, but they are obliged to indulge in such athletic exercises as will keep them in proper trim. In fact, one cause of his frequent errors is his neglect of his own practice in order that he may devote more time to superintending his subordinates.” Oakland won the pennant that year, and O’Neill got much of the credit, even though his players led the league in nearly all the major batting and pitching categories. It was a close race, with Oakland topping San Francisco by a mere game. Toward the end of the season, O’Neill picked up San Francisco catcher Pop Swett’s signs. That may have swung the pennant race.

The field was new in Oakland in 1889 and hadn’t settled. As a result, groundballs bounced to and fro. More than once O’Neill took a ball to the face. He eventually donned a mask that season while in the field to protect his features. During the season, O’Neill switched from shortstop to third base for a few weeks after Will Smalley was injured. One newspaper sarcastically noted that third base offered fewer opportunities to boot the ball. The Oakland Tribune jeered, “Tip O’Neill never did know how to play shortstop.” Downstate, the Los Angeles Times claimed, “O’Neill has the reputation of being the best catcher in the state, as well as one of the heaviest hitters.” It must have been on reputation only, as O’Neill virtually quit catching before joining Oakland. In 93 games on the left side of the infield in 1889, he hit .258.

O’Neill returned to Oakland from his Pennsylvania home on March 11, 1890. He quickly renewed his up-and-down relationship with teammates and fans. On May 4 he was taunted by the Sacramento crowd for unleashing an errant throw to first base. O’Neill fired obscenities back at the crowd; all could hear such banter in this era of cozy ballparks. Umpire Clay Chipman fined him $5. Later in the game, O’Neill interfered with a ball in play while he was coaching at third base. Chipman fined him another $5, which sparked an argument that ended with a punch to the umpire’s face. O’Neill was arrested. The Sacramento manager asked the league to permanently ban the Oakland captain. San Francisco manager Mike Finn, a staunch O’Neill basher, fired off similar sentiments.

O’Neill continued to spar with opponents and even the local press and his teammates. He lived in a hotel apart from the rest of the club, one of only two men on the club who didn’t share one rented house. In November, Sacramento’s management gave O’Neill $50 as a reward for Oakland’s efforts against certain Sacramento rivals. The rest of the Oakland roster felt the money was a gift to the entire squad; Tip didn’t see it that way and pocketed the money. Perhaps his teammates also didn’t like the fact that O’Neill wore a $250 ring, an extravagance that probably none of them could afford. In August he was blasted by the press and teammates for falling out of shape. He left the club and worked himself back into condition at Byron Hot Springs in nearby Contra Costa County, a retreat that would become famous in the 20th century for its clientele, movie stars and athletes.

If anything, O’Neill sparked polarizing opinions. In June the Oakland Tribune commented, “Norris O’Neill played the game of his life last Sunday and won over many of his enemies. Tip can play ball when he gets right down to business and forgets the grand stand.” In another article a Tribune writer noted, “When he makes a clever play, and Tip does make a clever play once in a while, I venture to say that O’Neill is the speediest man in the league in making the double play, and always knows just where to throw the ball without stopping to debate on the subject.” He even received his share of applause on the road in 1890. In October O’Neill topped the list for most popular player on the club in an Oakland Tribune poll, with David Levy finishing a distant second. As always, O’Neill had the backing of Tom Robinson, who told the Sporting Life that O’Neill “suits me exactly. He handles my business and my team better than any other man I could employ. I do not consider him the best ballplayer in the world, but he is a man who is always working in the interest of his team, never shirks responsibility, is possessed with fine executive ability in the ball field.”

In October 1890, O’Neill and teammate Joe Cantillon were suspended by league directors for rough play. O’Neill had purposely tripped a runner. Robinson fought hard and had them reinstated. In early December, Tip tangled with teammate Kid Carsey. They started arguing in the clubhouse after the game, trekked onto the field, and went at it. They battled to an acknowledged draw. The next day, Carsey was seen about town with two black eyes and a swollen face. O’Neill didn’t emerge from his hotel room for three days.

In 97 games with Oakland in 1890 O’Neill batted a miserable .183. The following year was hardly better, as he posted a .212 average in 139 games. On April 30, 1891, Oakland lost 8-3 to San Jose. The San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin said, “The baseball general O’Neill lost his head and contributed five of the errors himself and only extraordinary playing on the part of the infielders prevented him from having four more on skyrocket throws.” The paper added a few additional shots that season, writing, for instance, that Tip “has a reputation of playing better ball with his mouth than with his hands” and “Noisy O’Neil (sic) is going to the spring as he is out of condition. The question arises is he ever in condition to play ball?”

On June 22, 1891, Robinson released O’Neill amid pressure from fans, the press, and teammates. But he brought O’Neill back a week later, maintaining that he had been inundated with pleas by the fans to reinstate the team captain. O’Neill soon left the club again. Robinson gave him a management position in one of his warehouses in San Francisco. O’Neill worked there throughout the winter. Robinson couldn’t do without O’Neill on his club, though. He brought him back as a ticket taker in April 1892. O’Neill then acted as the club’s road manager en route to Los Angeles. On May 8, O’Neill returned to the field and was soon reinstated as captain, replacing Fred Carroll. That team included quite a few who made their mark in the majors, including Joe Cantillon, Charlie Irwin, Bill Lange, Charlie Sweeney, and George Van Haltren. In September, O’Neill was officially given the title of field manager. In 135 games for the club he hit a so-so .233.

In 1893 the California League suffered financial difficulties from the start. On May 2, the Oakland players, now including the forceful personality of Clark Griffith, rebelled over lack of pay. They refused to board a train for Los Angeles. Robinson quickly came up with some cash and the players headed out the following day. The players spoke up again on May 18; they were not being paid again. The next day, Robinson sold out. The new owners released O’Neill. Stockton owner Mike Finn wanted to make O’Neill captain of his team, but the players would have none of it, perfectly happy with the popular Kid Peeples as head of the club. The players vowed to rebel, and Finn threatened to fine them $100 each. if they followed through. Finn said O’Neill “may not be the most desirable man to work under but his ability as a captain is unquestioned.” Unhappy in the league anyway, Finn soon departed and the club relocated to Sacramento without him; he had been a member of the California League since its inception in 1886. The league itself soon collapsed, failing to operate from 1894 through 1897. O’Neill never did join Stockton. Instead, he went east and joined New Orleans in the Southern League for 27 games.

O’Neill slipped out of organized baseball in 1894. The following year he joined Montgomery in the Southern League to kick off the season, as the club’s new second baseman and captain. He took the field in 49 games for the club, hitting .269. The Montgomery roster included longtime baseball men Fritz Clausen, Tacks Latimer, Kid Peeples, and Tully Sparks. After the season, O’Neill captained a barnstorming team that traveled through the South and West. It included George Harper, Billy Hulen, Billy Nash, and Jack McCarthy. Many assumed O’Neill was Montgomery’s manager, but in January 1896, the ownership formally announced that he was not. Some of the players apparently carried a beef against him. In February O’Neill was announced as the new captain of San Antonio. The Galveston Daily News wrote, “Having been captain of every team he ever played with, he has the competitive spirit, quick wit and generalship that goes to make up an able commander. He is a great coacher and one of the most original ‘heady’ players in the business today.” O’Neill headed to San Antonio in April but it’s unclear if he appeared in a regular-season game with the club. Instead, he left Texas and joined Oakland in two leagues, a new California League for four games, and in the San Francisco City League. He also played in two games for Victoria, British Columbia, in the New Pacific League.

In 1897 O’Neill tried his hand at umpiring on the West Coast. The next season he joined the renewed California League, once again landing with Oakland for seven games in April and May. Oakland switched to the Pacific Coast League, where O’Neill hit .185 in 40 games. In 1899 he managed and played second base for San Francisco in the California League, appearing in 55 games and batting .213. In 1900, O’Neill was listed in the U.S. Census as living in Oakland and working as a watchman. In 1902 he umpired in the American Association.

On January 13, 1905, O’Neill was elected president of the five-year-old Class A Western League, and ran the league for the next decade. He immediately established his office in Chicago, which wasn’t a member of the league, in fact was far from any league city. He struck up a strong friendship with White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, eventually moving the league office into Comiskey Park. League owners tolerated the situation until 1914, when they pressured him to relocate. Defiant, O’Neill declared, “I shall live any place I damn please.” He carried his defiance even further by driving to Des Moines, a league city, and purchasing a mailbox at the corner of Seventh and Locust Streets. Very publicly, he gathered up the city’s mayor, police chief, and several politicians and walked them to his new purchase, where he announced, “I want you to bear witness, gentlemen, that I, as president of the Western League, am establishing my office in this mailbox. However, I shall live in Chicago or any other place I please. I have no desire to live in the league.” Perhaps this was the last straw; the league owners fired O’Neill at the end of 1915.

The frugal O’Neill never married and guarded his money carefully. In November 1901, he purchased an established oil field in Bradford, Pennsylvania, with his brother Charles and oilman D.W. Daley for $20,000. At the time, the six wells, spread over 37 acres, were producing 14 barrels a day. The men added more wells, which provided them with a steady stream of income. In September 1917, they sold the oil field for a reported $100,000 to $200,000. O’Neill also went into business with Joe Cantillon and Clark Griffith in late 1907 to raise sheep in Montana. O’Neill accepted responsibility for overseeing the venture while the other two tended to their teams during the baseball season.

O’Neill and Charles Comiskey developed a close relationship. Working at Comiskey Park, O’Neill became an adviser and business manager for the White Sox owner. O’Neill often oversaw spring training, traveling with the White Sox to training camps, arranging transportation and exhibition contests, and performing other duties. He also did the same for the Boston Red Sox in 1911 as they rode to California, near owner John I. Taylor’s winter home in Redondo Beach. For Comiskey, O’Neill was the business manager for the White Sox’ international barnstorming tours in 1913 and 1924. It was said that no one was closer to Comiskey, especially after the Black Sox mess. O’Neill was one of his most sympathetic advisers as the White Sox franchise fought off collapse. He maintained an office at Comiskey Park for three decades, trekking to work every day even after Comiskey died in 1931.

In wake of the Black Sox scandal, O’Neill handled several duties for the White Sox boss. According to Comiskey’s testimony in the 1924 Milwaukee trial, he received a call from Chicago gambler Mont Tennes the day after Game One of the 1919 World Series. Tennes claimed to have information about the fix. Comiskey sent O’Neill to meet Tennes. O’Neill obtained the information and reported back. He then alerted National League president John Heydler about the concerns. Heydler later told the Washington Post, “Tip O’Neill, former Western League president, came to me after the first World Series game last fall and told me Comiskey and Gleason (Kid Gleason, field manager) felt that something was wrong, but that they did not want to go to Ban Johnson because of the bad feeling between him and Comiskey at the time. I considered the matter preposterous at first, but after Gleason and I had analyzed the games, I went to Johnson.” O’Neill testified at the initial grand jury hearings on October 5, 1920, concerning the fix.

O’Neill retired in the early 1930s, not long after Comiskey’s death. O’Neill himself died of heart trouble in Alexian Brothers Hospital in Chicago on November 16, 1937, after a long illness. He was 70 years old and had been a patient at the hospital the last couple of years of his life. He was buried in Paterson, New Jersey, near his mother. Among the kind words, one of his obituaries noted, “He was a gabby, witty Irishman with a gracious smile and natty attire, always ready to talk baseball as long as anybody would listen.”


Sources

Special thanks to Ray Nemec for providing O’Neill’s statistics and other essential information.

Ancestry.com

Atlanta Constitution

Carney, Gene, Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown blog

Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

Chicago Tribune

Christian Science Monitor

Daily Era, Bradford, Pennsylvania

Daily Evening Bulletin, San Francisco

Daily News, Galveston, Texas

Hartford Courant

Lange, Fred W. History of Baseball in California and Pacific Coast Leagues. Oakland: Fred Lange, 1938.

Daily Star, Lincoln, Nebraska

Los Angeles Times

Morris, Peter. A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball, The Game on the Field. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006.

New York Times

Oakland Tribune

Sabrwebs.com

San Antonio Gazette

Spalding, John E. Always on Sunday: The California Baseball League, 1886 to 1915.         Manhattan, Kansas: Ag Press, 1992.

Titusville Herald, Titusville, Pennsylvania

Washington Post

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