SABR

John O'Rourke

This article was written by Bill Lamb.

Although obscured by the exploits of his Hall of Fame brother Orator Jim, John O’Rourke had a respectable, if short, major-league playing career. As a 30-year-old rookie for the 1879 Boston Red Caps, John batted .341, with a National League-leading 62 RBIs. But age, injuries, and the security of employment by the railroad cut short the time that he devoted to the diamond. By 1884, he was gone from the baseball scene, spending the remainder of his life as a railway baggage handler.

This now long-forgotten ballplayer was born John William O’Rourke in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on August 23, 1849.[1] He was the oldest of three children surviving to adulthood born to Hugh O’Rourke and his wife, the former Catherine O’Donnell, Irish Catholic immigrants from County Mayo who settled in Bridgeport around 1845.[2] John’s youth was divided between school, attending to chores on the small O’Rourke family farm, and playing baseball, often with younger brother Jim. Endowed with athletic ability and a “robust physique”[3] – he was 6-feet tall and weighed 190 pounds in his major-league prime – the left-handed John O’Rourke began his playing career as a teenager with the Pembrokes, a neighborhood amateur nine. Meanwhile, Jim, a year younger and only 5-feet-8-inches tall, took the field for the Unions, a local boys team. The untimely death of their father in late December 1868[4] put a damper on the baseball ambitions of the O’Rourke brothers, particularly John. As the oldest son, maintenance of the family farm and provision for his widowed mother and sister, Sarah, fell primarily to him.

In April 1872 Jim O’Rourke commenced his major-league career by signing with the Middletown Mansfields of the fledgling National Association. A month later Jim married sweetheart Annie Kehoe and soon thereafter began raising a family of his own. His older brother, however, remained rooted at home, interspersing domestic responsibilities with ballplaying for the Bridgeport TBs, a crack semipro club. During colder months John supplemented the family’s farm income by working as a spring maker for local carriage manufacturers. A fervent Democrat, he dabbled in Bridgeport politics, cultivating in the process the friendship of local powerbrokers like former probate judge Morris Beardsley and Colonel William H. Stevenson, a railroad bigwig. In early 1875 O’Rourke, “a clever politician (and) a believer in Jeffersonian politics,”[5] was elected to the Bridgeport City Council as alderman for the Sixth Ward. Assuming his seat in April, John spent his one-year council term in opposition to the policies of Republican Mayor P.T. Barnum, the celebrated American showman who periodically doubled as a Connecticut officeholder.

In 1877, 27-year-old John O’Rourke made a belated debut in baseball’s professional ranks, joining the Manchester (New Hampshire) team in the newly formed International Association.[6] Playing in 17 of the 19 Manchester league games, O’Rourke posted unimpressive offensive numbers, including a .246 batting average, with only three of his 16 hits going for extra bases.[7] But he must have shined in other departments, for 1878 saw John back with the Manchester club, playing in company fast enough for the New York Clipper  to deem the International Association a major league that season.[8] The current unavailability of player statistics for the league’s 1878 season makes O’Rourke’s performance impossible to gauge. Yet whatever its caliber, John was ticketed for the National League, his promotion occasioned, in at least some measure, by the conduct of brother Jim.

As John had struggled to get his professional career moving, his younger sibling’s had flourished. Signing with Boston in 1873, Jim had been a key member of league championship teams in both the National Association and its successor, the National League. By the close of the 1878 season Jim O’Rourke was a bona fide major-league star. He had also become an unhappy one, particularly after command of the Boston franchise had been assumed by Arthur Soden in December 1876. Clashes with the tough, tight-fisted Soden eventually prompted Jim to abandon Boston and sign with the Providence Grays for the 1879 season. Soden, however, quickly secured a promising replacement for his departing centerfielder: a seasoned minor-league fly chaser named John O’Rourke. 

 John would prove a more than acceptable stand-in, posting offensive numbers for the 1879 season on a par with those of his renowned brother. In Providence, for example, Jim batted .348, accumulating 166 total bases. But back in Boston, John hit .341, with 165 total bases. Such marks placed both O’Rourke brothers in the league’s top five. Jim was also the league leader in on-base percentage (.371) and in the top five in hits (126 – second) and OPS (.829 – fifth). But John was even better, the league’s standard bearer in slugging percentage (.521) and OPS (.877) while tying Red Caps teammate Charley Jones for the RBI title with 62, a new National League record. John was also in the top five in home runs (6 –second) and on-base percentage (.359 – fifth). And this despite missing Boston’s last dozen games due to a left-hand injury suffered in a September 19 game in Cleveland. John’s production was doubtless gratifying to Arthur Soden. But Jim enjoyed the ultimate satisfaction. Behind the leadership of shortstop-manager George Wright, the batting of Jim and Paul Hines (.357), and stellar pitching by John Montgomery Ward (47-19), the Orator’s new team had dethroned Boston as National League champion, Providence’s 59-25 mark placing it five games clear of the runner-up Red Caps in the 1879 pennant chase.

At the December 1879 meeting of team owners, Boston’s Soden, still smarting from the defection of George Wright and Jim O’Rourke, spearheaded efforts to curtail the player mobility that had enabled Providence to capture the past season’s flag. By the conclave’s end, the magnates had adopted the reserve clause, the bane of player existence for the next century. In its original form, the reserve clause was a contractual restraint that bound five designated players from each team to their employers for the coming season. Among those reserved by Boston was John O’Rourke, the Red Caps’ prized new center fielder. Providence, however, chose not to reserve Jim O’Rourke, freeing him to seek employment elsewhere. Notwithstanding previous unpleasantries with team boss Soden, Jim was anxious to play alongside his older brother in Boston. He also looked forward to being reunited with friend and mentor Harry Wright, the Red Caps’ manager. For his part, Soden was willing to take Jim back but was soon chagrined by the united front erected by the O’Rourke brothers in contract negotiations for the 1880 season. After much wrangling, the parties came to terms, once the reserve clause was deleted from the O’Rourke contracts.

That Jim and John O’Rourke had acted in concert would not have surprised their intimates. The two were very close. In Bridgeport they lived only doors apart on Pembroke Street, bachelor John residing with mother O’Rourke in the old family home[9] while Jim and Annie housed their ever expanding brood a few steps away.[10] The O’Rourke brothers were also men of similar character – sober, intelligent, and earnest, infused with progressive sentiments, particularly regarding the rights of labor. They even sported like mustaches, although John’s was no match in flamboyance for the giant handlebar of Jim O’Rourke. Nor was John given to the display of the orotund declamation that gained his brother the moniker Orator. More important from a baseball perspective, John lacked the durability and drive that sustained the long playing career of his brother. These last-mentioned shortcomings would manifest themselves in the coming season.

The O’Rourkes, with righty Jim and lefty John batting second and third in the Red Caps lineup and forming the first outfield brother combo in major-league history, got off to a good start in 1880. But on May 24 John was the loser in a collision with the outfield fence in Troy: He was knocked unconscious and carried off the field. His injuries included a five-inch gash across the throat, chest lacerations, and suspected internal damage.[11] Nevertheless, John returned to the lineup within days. And on June 19 he hit a long home run off the formidable Will White of Cincinnati. But soon thereafter John required hospitalization for additional treatment of the injuries he had suffered in the Troy game. Still, he managed to appear in 81 of Boston’s 86 games. John’s 1880 production, however, was far below his standout performance of the previous season. He hit only .275, with significant reductions in hits, runs, RBIs, slugging, and on-base percentage. Brother Jim also had a disappointing campaign, matching his brother’s lackluster .275 batting average (although Jim did pace the league in homers with six). Of more concern to team owner Soden was the dreary sixth-place finish of the Red Caps and the diminution in gate receipts that accompanied the team’s poor play.

Among other places, Soden’s displeasure with the team’s 1880 performance was reflected in the termination of player salaries on October 1 rather than the October 15 date specified by contract. John O’Rourke, for one, was not having it. He detailed a long list of player grievances with Boston brass for the Cincinnati Enquirer and then filed a breach-of-contract action against team officials.[12] That signaled the end of the O’Rourke brothers’ tenure in a Boston uniform. Unfettered by reserve-clause constraints (and no longer tolerable to Arthur Soden anyway), the O’Rourke brothers entertained 1881 contract offers from a variety of suitors. In time Jim opted for the post of player-manager in Buffalo. But John had become ambivalent about continuing his playing career. Via his connection to Bridgeport’s Colonel Stevenson, a Democratic Party bedfellow and now superintendent of the Shore Line subsidiary of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, John had secured a job as a railway baggage handler.[13] Preferring the security of a railroad paycheck to the vagaries of major-league employment, he opted out of baseball, a choice reaffirmed in August 1881 when he rejected an offer from Cleveland to play the remainder of the season for that National League franchise. But John did not give up the game entirely. According to Baseball-reference.com, he made at least a few appearances for the Philadelphia Athletics of the minor league Eastern Championship Association during the 1881 season. (No statistics from his sojourn with the A’s survive.)

In October 1881 John received an offer for the following season from the Worcester Ruby Legs of the National League. And in February 1882, it was reported that John had signed with the team.[14] But he would never don a Worchester uniform. Or that of any other professional team in 1882. Despite the standing grant of a leave of absence from his railroad job whenever he wanted to play ball, John O’Rourke sat out the entire 1882 season.[15]

A two-year absence from the diamond did not discourage major-league teams from the continued pursuit of John O’Rourke. For the 1883 season, he received contract proposals from National League teams in Cincinnati and Cleveland, as well as from the New York Metropolitans, a new entry in the American Association, a rival to the National League about to begin its second year of play.[16] John signed with the Mets and was immediately slotted for first base. Three fielding errors on Opening Day, however, dictated his swift removal to his natural position in the outfield. At times John showed the Mets flashes of his old form, even hitting the longest home run reportedly observed at the original Polo Grounds.[17] But age, injuries, and the two-year layoff had taken their toll on O’Rourke’s skills. He was batting .270 with reduced power numbers when a head-first slide on September 10 and a resultant hand injury put an end to his 1883 season. And his baseball playing career. Although interest in O’Rourke for the 1884 season was rumored among followers of the National League New York Gothams and the Boston Reds of the upstart Union Association, nothing came of it. More substantial were reports of negotiations between John and the Washington Nationals of the American Association, but agreement foundered on John’s unrealistic $2,800 salary demand.[18] In the view of O’Rourke authority Mike Roer, John largely priced himself out of baseball.[19] As a result, his playing days were over. He departed the diamond with a .295 lifetime batting average in 230 major-league games, a respectable record but one redolent of missed fortune, a hint of what might have been had opportunity come sooner or baseball fate been kinder to the older of the O’Rourke brothers.

Fortunately for John, he was not dependent upon baseball for a livelihood. In addition to a steady salary from his railroad job, he had income from Bridgeport real-estate investments, a portfolio that he would enlarge in 1885 by erecting a rental tenement across from Waterville Elementary School, the O’Rourke family alma mater.[20] And the passion that he had once felt for baseball was transferred to a larger cause: the rights of workingmen and unionization. In 1890 John O’Rourke, now master baggage handler on the Shore Line, was appointed one of four trustees of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen, a protective organization representing some 20,000 railroad employees. A year later he became embroiled in a controversy that centered on control of a members’ bank account by union grand master Stephen E. Wilkinson. When Wilkinson prevailed in a showdown with the trustees at the Brotherhood convention of October 1891, O’Rourke withdrew from oversight of the affairs of the national union. For the remainder of his life John would focus his energies on the welfare of his local and its members.[21]

Although he retained a Bridgeport address – likely for voting purposes – John lived in New York and Boston during most of his railroad years. On June 23, 1911, he was officially a resident of Dorchester when stricken by a heart attack while loading baggage on a South Boston railway platform. John died before medical help could be summoned, aged 61.[22] News of his passing was received sadly in his old hometown. One locally published obituary noted that he “was beloved by his relatives and looked upon as a brother by railroad men.”[23] Harkening back to his baseball-playing days, another Bridgeport newspaper recalled that O’Rourke “was always a splendid specimen of muscular strength … tall and well-proportioned, and remarkably agile for a man who carried close to 200 pounds when in fine athletic trim.”[24] After a wake at Jim’s house and a funeral Mass at St. Mary’s Church, John was buried in the O’Rourke family plot at St. Michael’s Cemetery in nearby Stratford. Never married, he was survived by his brother Jim, sister Sarah O’Rourke Grant, six nieces, and ballplaying nephew Queenie. John left an estate estimated at a then considerable $50,000.[25]

In 1945 the memory of Jim O’Rourke was perpetuated by his enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Few then or now recall that he had an older brother named John O’Rourke, himself a talented ballplayer and one who might have attained similar recognition had the baseball gods smiled more favorably upon him.

November 8, 2011

Sources

In addition to the sources specifically cited in the notes below, the following works were consulted during the preparation of this profile:

Christopher Devine, Harry Wright: The Father of Professional Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003).

David Nemec, The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball (New York: David I. Fine Books, 1997).

Samuel Orcutt, A History of the Old Town of Stratford and the City of Bridgeport, Connecticut, (Bridgeport: Press of Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor, 1886).

Various SABR BioProject profiles.






[1] Biographical information for this profile was derived from various US censuses, John O’Rourke’s obituaries in the Bridgeport Farmer and Bridgeport Evening Press, and especially from Mike Roer’s comprehensive biography of brother Jim, Orator O’Rourke: The Life of a Baseball Radical, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005. Additional information was gleaned from the the O’Rourke family genealogical chart accessible at www.MikeRoer.com and e-mails to the writer from O’Rourke authority Bernard Crowley.


[2] Those siblings were brother James (1850-1919) and sister Sarah (1854-1931). An older brother named Patrick (1837-1852) died when John was a small boy and other O’Rourke children, now unknown, may not have survived infancy.


[3] A descriptive employed in the John O’Rourke obituary published by the Bridgeport Farmer, June 24, 1911.


[4] Hugh O’Rourke died from tetanus on December 31, 1868. He was about 56 years old.


[5] Bridgeport Farmer, June 24, 1911


[6] The 9-10 Manchester club of the 1877 International Association is to be distinguished from the Manchester Reds of the New England League, a lower-classification minor-league nine that went 29-11 that season. John O’Rourke played for the International Association team.


[7] The statistics cited in this profile are from www.Baseball-reference.com.


[9] Sister Sarah now resided with her husband, a widower named William Grant. Thomas Grant, William’s son by his first wife, later married Jim O’Rourke’s eldest daughter, Sarah. This gave John both a sister and a niece named Sarah O’Rourke Grant. For more on the somewhat complicated O’Rourke family tree, consult the genealogical chart accessible on the Mike Roer website.


[10] In time Jim and Annie O’Rourke would have eight children. The lone boy, Queenie (James Stephen) O’Rourke was a career minor leaguer who played briefly for the New York Highlanders in 1908.


[11] As reported in the New York Times, the Troy Daily Times and the Washington Post, May 25, 1880.


[12] As recounted in Roer, 86-87. In December 1882 a Boston jury returned a $185 verdict with $20 court costs in John’s favor.


[13] Former Bridgeport Alderman John W. O’Rourke had campaigned for Stevenson in the latter’s bid for the 1879 mayoral nomination of the Democratic Party. The wealthy Stevenson lost the nomination fight but would be beneficent to supporters like O’Rourke.


[14] New York Clipper, February 18, 1882.


[15] Roer, 88.


[16] Ibid., 106. John’s opposition to the reserve clause now standard in major-league contracts remained steadfast. He played the 1883 season under a verbal no-reserve-clause agreement with Mets management and via a leave of absence granted by his Shore Line employers.


[17] New York Clipper, September 18, 1883. The site of the O’Rourke blast was the first incarnation of the Polo Grounds at 110th Street, a ballpark razed in 1889.


[18] Sporting Life, May 7, 1884


[19] Roer, 115-116


[20] When they were young, the value of an education had been stressed to the O’Rourke children by their parents. In addition to Waterville School, John had attended private schools run by the Rev. Guy B. Day and Warren Selleck, noted Connecticut educators. Brother Jim was an 1887 graduate of Yale Law School and practiced law until his death in January 1919. And sister Sarah became a schoolteacher, instructing students at the same Waterville School that she and her brothers had once attended.


[21] Roer, 184-186


[22] The death certificate listed chronic myocarditis as probably the underlying cause of John’s demise.


[23] Bridgeport Farmer, June 24, 1911


[24] Bridgeport Evening Press, June 24, 1911


[25] Bridgeport Farmer, June 24, 1911
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