Rooney Sweeney

This article was written by David Nemec.

Remarkably little is known about Rooney Sweeney considering that he cut a wide swath during his short but eventful baseball career. We know that he was born in New York City on November 1, 1858, stood around 5’8” and weighed in the neighborhood of 155 but thus far have found no record of which way he batted or threw, how he got his nickname, or, most importantly, when and where he died. We also know that the March 23, 1879, edition of the Chicago Tribune reported that “John Sweeney, a Brooklyn player of some local fame, has gone to California, and will play in a San Francisco club.”

Legend has it that when he did indeed appear in San Francisco with the local Mutuals in 1879, he was the first catcher west of the Rockies to be witnessed wearing a mask. A 1910 article on the origin of catchers’ equipment in The Freeman magazine claimed that Sweeney was playing on the West Coast in Oakland for part of 1883 and was one of the first catchers to wear a mask. “The day he placed it on his head and went up behind the bat he was ‘Booed’ until he took it off in disgust.  Later the fans began to see the benefits of the wire covering.” Little of what The Freeman said is accurate. Following his 1879 stint with the Mutuals of San Francisco, Sweeney remained in California in 1880 and caught for the Bay Citys of San Francisco among other teams but was playing with Camden and Baltimore in 1883, and by then many catchers in the San Francisco Bay Area had begun wearing masks without drawing opprobrium.

In 1882, after spending most of the previous year with the Brooklyn Atlantics and the New York Metropolitans, both high profile independent teams that also participated in the loosely run Eastern Championship Association, Sweeney supposedly was slated to be part of the Pittsburgh entry in the fledgling American Association but never played in the Smoke City according to December 25, 1897, issue of The Sporting News, because he was “too much of a humorist for manager {Al} Pratt.” We have found no confirmation as yet where and how Sweeney actually did occupy himself during the 1882 campaign.

The following year, after starting the season with the powerful Camden Merritts of the Interstate Association, Sweeney joined the Baltimore American Association entry once the Merritts dissolved operations and marked his major league debut on July 25, 1883, by showcasing his exceptional arm in a remarkable double play on behalf of his pitcher, Bob Emslie, first snaring a foul tip off the bat of Pittsburgh’s Jackie Hayes with his bare hand (which at that time was an automatic out regardless of the count) and then snapping a throw to first baseman Dan Stearns that doubled off Buttercup Dickerson in the Orioles’ 13-9 win over the Allegheny club’s ace of the previous year, Denny Driscoll. The rookie catcher nonetheless spent most of his time as a member of the Orioles in Dutch with manager Billy Barnie over his drinking and addiction to poker, which prompted him to host raucous games in his hotel room behind a locked door every night when the team was on the road.

Jumping to the rebel Union Association the following season, Sweeney was expected to do most of the Baltimore Unions’ catching but instead shared the job with Ed Fusselbach when he failed to hit enough, batting just .226 in 48 games. His strong arm made him useful for emergency duty in the outfield, however, and that was where he appeared in his final major league game, playing center field for the National League St. Louis Black Pirates and batting leadoff on June 9, 1885, in a 6-1 loss to Chicago’s John Clarkson, the first game for both clubs after the “old pitching rule was restored,” once again allowing overhand pitching after it had been abolished at the start of the 1885 season It was Sweeney’s lone ML experience against overhand pitching, which had been legal the previous year but only in the NL, and he could not have drawn a more formidable opponent than Clarkson or been a less likely choice to be his team’s first batter of the game, especially since he went 0-for-4..

Sweeney for some reason was evidently kept by St. Louis owner Henry Lucas for another month or so after his finale before being handed his 10 days’ notice, for the July 29, 1885, Sporting Life recounted: “When Rooney Sweeney was recently released by {Lucas}, he had quite a roll. So, before leaving St. Louis, just to blow in a dollar or two, Rooney… hired a fine team of grays and a park wagon from a livery stable.  This was at ten o’clock Thursday morning.  At three o’clock Friday morning, eleven hours behind time, a messenger boy drove the team into the stable. Both the grays looked ready for the bone-yard and the owner at that moment would have sold them for a song. Their whole appearance showed that they had been driven nearly to death. Several men in the stable armed themselves with clubs and horsewhips and started out in search of Rooney. He must have been told of their coming, however, for before daybreak he took a train. It was lucky for him that the train started out before the livery men caught him.”

After obtaining his release from St. Louis, Sweeney never received another major league bid, although he did catch that fall for a New York barnstorming team that played the AA champion St. Louis Browns in New Orleans. Snubbed the following year throughout the professional ranks, he spent the season working as a New York fireman and playing for the fire department team. Was it because he had by then developed a reputation as a toxic influence to have on your club? Perhaps, but there is nothing in the standard research sources to support that suspicion. After he (or someone named Sweeney, a much too common name in baseball circles at the time for researchers to establish which was which) reputedly got into a couple of games with Haverhill of the New England League in 1887, that November Sweeney vowed he would return to the professional game on a fulltime basis in 1888 but admitted that he was still without an offer. The March 5, 1988, New York Times noted that he had attended the annual American Association meeting early that month at the Clarendon Hotel in New York in an unsuccessful bid to land a job, and four months later, in July, The Sporting News revealed that he’d been arrested for “kicking a woman in the eye.” The paper joshed that maybe he’d mistaken her for an umpire. Later that summer he appears to have played four games with Manchester of the New England League, although, as is the case with the Haverhill games the previous year, there is a distinct possibility the games belong to another Sweeney.

After placing an ad in the February 6, 1889, Sporting Life that he was as good as ever after ridding himself of “his former bad habits” and wanted to play ball again, Sweeney spent most of that year living at 44 Grand Street in Manhattan and circulating reports that he’d signed with or was about to sign with this team or that one. The following spring he at long last was telling the truth when he claimed he’d signed for the season. He joined London, Ontario, of the International Association under manager Wally Fessenden, but the May 12 Chicago Tribune reported that his first game back in harness was less than a resounding success, as he gave up nine stolen bases and committed three errors. After being released by Fessenden in late May without ever getting into another IA game, according to the June 18 Chicago Tribune Sweeney was sentenced a few weeks later to four months in the London, Ontario, workhouse for stealing $40 from Deacon McGuire while McGuire was visiting the Canadian city with his Rochester American Association team for an exhibition game. Upon being sentenced, “Sweeney wept copiously,” the June 14, 1890, Sporting Life reported. To while away his time in jail he wrote letters to his friends back in New York, one of which wound up in several newspapers. Explaining his alleged crime, Sweeney penned:  “We were all playing poker in a room up here and there was a big pot on the table.   Just then somebody flung a big black cat square on the table.  Of course the cat was scared and in her hurry to get away scattered the chips every which way and knocked down the stacks that were standing in front of the players.   Well, I just grabbed what I thought was my share, the same as any man would do, and it got me into jail, that’s all.”

Ever irrepressible, Sweeney took up residence soon after his release from custody at 5 Jay Street in Brooklyn and once again advertised for a job in the February 14, 1891, issue of The Sporting News, averring that he was the best catcher in the minors. No longer a fireman, he now was paying the rent by managing aspiring young pugilists. By 1893 Sweeney had become disgusted with the ring world. Meanwhile, the February 11, 1893, Sporting Life observed that both of his parents and his brother, New York City police officer Jeremiah Sweeney, had died, and he reportedly had inherited a large amount of rental property in New York and New Jersey, more than enough to keep him in clover. But he nonetheless admitted he’d prefer playing ball again to collecting rents from his many tenants.

In its next report on Sweeney’s doings on September 25, 1897, Sporting Life said under the headline A VETERAN DYING: “John Sweeny{sic}, a once famous base ball player, more popularly known as “Rooney” Sweeney is dying in the Hudson Street Hospital as the result of injuries sustained by a fall in Battery Park last night. For some past Sweeney has been assisting the boatmen at the Battery. About 9 o’clock last night, while seated on the excursion pier, he was seized with an epileptic fit, and fell heavily to the ground, sustaining a concussion of the brain. An ambulance was rung up, and he was hurried to the hospital.”

Not only was the obit premature, but so was the suggestion that Sweeney at the very least would forever be a near invalid. At what point he finally gave up any further baseball ambitions is unknown, as are what happened to his gigantic inheritance and, above all, his final disposition. Sweeney was sighted last in 1899 at a National League meeting according to the December 23, issue of The Sporting News, still looking for a baseball job and supporting himself in the meantime by working as a tug boat fireman, according to the Sporting Life edition on the same date.



An earlier form of this biography written by the author appeared in Major League Baseball Profiles: 1871-1900, Vol. 2. The sources used in its preparation were researcher Carlos Bauer’s records on the early California professional leagues, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Clipper, Sporting Life (1883-1899) and The Sporting News (1886-1899). Sweeney’s major and minor league statistics came from

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