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John O'Neill

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

The statistical record would seem to indicate that John (or perhaps Jack – numerous articles called him Jack and in all the research for this biography, we never once found him called Bill) O’Neill played for two major-league teams before he went to the minor leagues. He started his professional baseball career with the Boston Americans on May 7, 1904, then played for the Washington Senators, logging 112 big-league games and only the following year playing in the minors.

O’Neill apparently played a number of years for other teams – typically playing second base – before making it to the majors.i In fact, he played for Worcester as far back as 1899. Sporting Life noted, “The O'Neill who is to try for a place on the Boston Americans got a trial with Worcester in ’99 and did not make good. He is a St. John boy.”ii He was under contract to Boston’s National League club, but never played for them.iii

How did O’Neill earn a trial with the Boston Americans? He’d played for Hugh Duffy’s Milwaukee Creams in the Western League in 1903, and hit for a .330 average, good for third in the league.iv And Duffy had his ties to the Boston team, among other things helping them lease the land on which the team’s ballpark was built.

O’Neill was a native New Brunswicker, born in St. John on January 22, 1880. His parents both came from Ireland – Daniel and Ellen (Elston) O’Neill. Daniel worked as an inspector for the Board of Health in St. John.v Baseball-reference.com gives his full name as William John O’Neill, but all three of his obituaries published in St. John newspapers referred to him as John. The one in The New Freeman said he was well-known because of the “active work he participated in during many years in the baseball parks of the city. In this connection his name was regarded as a household word.” O’Neill was apparently noted as a runner as well, “defeating many fast sprinters.”

William John O’Neill lived to be just 40 years old, but played professional baseball for seven of them. He was on Boston’s roster from early in 1904; Jimmy Collins’s team had won the 1903 pennant and then the first World Series ever played, defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates. They weren’t inclined to change much in the way of personnel for ’04. The “new men” were only O’Neill and infielder Bob Unglaub, both of them already signed for the season by late January.vi

An observation just after the end of spring training declared, “Jack O’Neill, the new utility man of the Boston Americans, is making good in every department of the game. He hails from St. John, N.B., and was once with Worcester for a brief period.”vii

O’Neill’s debut, on May 7, was inauspicious. After scoring one more run off Bill Dinneen in the top of the ninth, the visiting New York Highlanders held a 6-2 lead. In the bottom of the inning, Boston’s Hobe Ferris grounded out to second. O’Neill pinch hit for Lou Criger and struck out. Boston did score a run after that, but lost the game, 6-3. Tim Murnane, writing in the next day’s Boston Globe, called him “Tip O’Neill” – which one might think was a rare gaffe, since there was no indication of any attempt at humor or witty reference. There had been another Canadian ballplayer (from Ontario) named Tip O’Neill who had played ten years in the majors, three of those years overlapping Murnane’s own playing career.

Pinch-hitting again for Criger on May 11, O’Neill scored the winning run in the bottom of the 15th inning in a 1-0 win over Detroit, which gave Cy Young another victory. It didn’t develop entirely as envisioned, though. Ferris had singled to right field, and it was O’Neill’s job to sacrifice him to second, but O’Neill bunted too hard back to the pitcher and Ferris was thrown out at second base. Duke Farrell singled, sending O’Neill to second base, and then “the curly haired boy” (Patsy Dougherty) shot a single between left and center, driving in O’Neill.viii Cy Young had thrown no-hit ball for the first six innings. Following the perfect game he had thrown on May 5, and the last six innings he’d thrown in a prior game, Young had thrown 21 consecutive no-hit innings, and with his 15-inning shutout he was in the midst of a stretch of 45 scoreless innings.

On June 17 Boston star Patsy Dougherty was traded to the New York Highlanders and it looked as though O’Neill was going to get more work. The only question in sportswriter Jake Morse’s mind was his hitting: “There is no doubt at all that O’Neill, who is to play left field in place of Dougherty, is a very fast man. He is exceedingly fast on his feet, but he is not in the class of Dougherty as a batsman.”ix

O’Neill was fast; he’d impressed in spring training, particularly in a game against Atlanta on March 29 when he bunted for a base hit, stole second base, and then scored from second on Chick Stahl’s bunt. His faith in his speed may have cost him in a game May 23 against the St. Louis Browns, though it may be difficult to fault O’Neill given the situation. He’d pinch hit for Freddy Parent with one out in the bottom of the ninth – Boston was down, 2-1 – and he singled down the line in left field. Jesse Burkett played the ball perfectly, however, and threw out O’Neill, who was trying to get himself into scoring position by stretching it to a double.

But Dougherty had led the Bostons in batting average in the world championship year of 1903 (.331) and led the American League in both base hits and runs scored, and was immensely popular in Boston. In 1904 he was scuffling at the plate but still hitting .270 at the time he was traded to New York straight up for Bob Unglaub, who had only four base hits in his entire major-league career. The trade was incomprehensible – unless one concludes that American League architect Ban Johnson was determined to create a more competitive New York team for the good of baseball rivalry (and ticket sales for the new league). Unglaub had been with Boston back in February, so in a sense it was a return trip to the Hub for him. He hit .154 for Boston in 1904; Dougherty hit .283, with power, for New York.

“The extra man” – O’Neill – was “considered a great outfielder by Collins,” but he wasn’t really capable in the infield, so Unglaub got the nod.x As an infielder, O’Neill had committed five errors in just 14 chances (a .643 fielding percentage), maybe every one of the errors in the May 21 game against the Browns. Box scores show him with six errors in the game, and newspaper accounts refer to his “ragged work” costing Boston the game, though it still ran to 13 innings.

O’Neill didn’t have a long time to prove himself as Dougherty’s replacement; less than two weeks later – on June 30 – O’Neill was traded to the Washington Senators for the more veteran left fielder Kip Selbach. The Selbach deal was seen as an attempt (presumably also orchestrated by Ban Johnson) to get Boston back some of what it had lost in shipping out Dougherty. Washington was giving up an experienced and productive player, and baseball observers in the Washington area saw it as an imbalanced trade, too. “What Washington got in the deal,” wrote Paul Eaton, “was outfielder O’Neill, and, presumably, some money. O’Neill is simply an unknown player, who may make good, as such new men do in about one case out of ten, and it is hoped he will; or he may not, and the indications, so far as his play with Boston is concerned, are that such will be the case.”xi

The Boston Globe reported that “Collins had Selbach in mind for some time, but was anxious to give young O’Neill a fair show. Feeling that the young man was not filling the bill, he set about closing up the trade for the Washington star. Collins tried to make the deal and hold onto O’Neill, but Washington manager Patsy Donovan was bound to have the player in exchange, and Collins finally consented.”xii In fact, Collins was said to have had Selbach in mind going way back to 1901 when Collins put together the first team for the Boston AL franchise.xiii

O’Neill made a good first impression. “Jack O’Neill, the new outfielder, has shown well in the recent games,” Paul Eaton wrote. “He is very fast to first and will beat out anything. While he is anything but a slugger, he works in many a timely single, and the fans will probably be surprised to learn that his batting average in the thirteen games he has played here to date is .298. He is a good ground coverer and gives considerable reason for hope that he may be a find.”xiv

Eaton noted Washington’s good fortune in landing O’Neill, whom he considered a real find “and a corking good one. In 25 games he has been 90 times at bat and made 28 hits, an average of .311. He is very fast and is improving rapidly as a fielder as he becomes accustomed to the field and the shift from left to centre. Two of his catches in the first game of Friday’s double header were beauties bright.”xv A later note on the same page said that O’Neill “reminds one of Tom Brown in his palmy days.” Readers more than a century later may be excused for not understanding the reference to Mr. Brown.

If it had been a gaffe of Tim Murnane to refer to O’Neill – Bill, or Jack – as Tip, he wasn’t the only one. Apparently, any old O’Neill coming along may have attracted the nickname. Sporting Life, in its September 10 issue, had a one-liner: “ ‘Tip’ O’Neill has become the Washington’s [sic] leading batter.” Even as far back as with Milwaukee in 1903, he’d sometimes been called Tip.xvi Whatever his name, he was far from the only O’Neill in baseball at the time. And Washington fans were happy enough to have the “unknown player” instead of Selbach.

For Boston O’Neill had appeared in 17 games, driven in five runs, and scored seven times. He had hit for a .196 average with a double and nine singles in 51 at-bats. He walked only twice and stole no bases. In the outfield he made one error in 15 chances. For Washington he hit .244 (89-for-365), with ten doubles, a triple, and a home run. He drove in 16 runs and scored 33, and took advantage of his speed to steal 22 bases. He committed an unusually high 18 errors in the outfield, in 168 chances, or more than one error in every ten chances.

O’Neill let it be known that in looking ahead to 1905, he was hoping to return to Washington and to play second base, the position he’d been most accustomed to playing before he came to Boston.xvii As it happened, he was “let out to Milwaukee” and played for the Brewers, hitting an impressive .322 with six homers in 99 games. Both Barry McCormick and O’Neill had been sent to Milwaukee “in consideration of the Brewers relinquishing their claim to [Frank] Huelsman.”xviii

In 1906 O’Neill played for Charles Comiskey’s Chicago White Sox, managed by Fielder Jones. Milwaukee expected him back but he showed so well in the spring exhibition season that Comiskey decided to bring him to Chicago. He didn’t have as good a year as might have been expected, hitting .248 in 94 games. In the estimation of Chicago sportswriter W.A. Phelon, the White Sox right fielder simply “petered out” as a batter. Phelon didn’t see it as necessarily a lack of talent. “O'Neill has been unlucky with the bat all season,” he wrote.xix He drove in 21 runs and scored 37. The White Sox went to the World Series and beat the Cubs four games to two, but O’Neill was used only once in the Series, entering Game Three as a pinch-runner in the top of the sixth inning and scoring on George Rohe’s three-run triple. He played the rest of the game, popping up to third base in his only at-bat.

In November O’Neill returned to St. John for the winter. “He was met at the station by hundreds of his friends, headed by a band, and was welcomed home” by a local judge, who presented him with a gold watch, chain, and locket. On the locket was the inscription “Tip.”xx

In 1907 O’Neill began the first of three seasons with the American Association’s Minneapolis Millers. He had been released to Minneapolis in April and didn’t get off to the best of starts; even before April was out, he was benched on the 28th by player-manager Gus Dundon for “insubordination and indifferent playing.”xxi Dundon said, “O’Neill thinks this league is not fast enough for him, so I just thought he needed a little disciplining.”xxii It wasn’t a one-game suspension; a full three weeks passed before O’Neill was permitted back on the promise that he’d abide by the club’s rules. He still had time to play in 146 games and hit for the third highest average on the team, .286. In 1908 the White Sox (who still held a string on O’Neill’s contract) let him play for the Millers again and he appeared in 151 games, batting .272 – ranking him second on the club. And then he got in a little more difficulty after the season was over, joining several other Minneapolis and Milwaukee players in “games with ineligible players.”xxiii He’d taken part in a game against Chicago’s Logan Squares team. This required an appeal for reinstatement to the National Commission, Organized Baseball’s governing body.

There was apparently further sense that O’Neill’s playing was not full-bore. In February 1909 Sporting Life looked ahead to the Millers’ spring training in Des Moines and wrote, “It is said that outfielder O’Neill is to be replaced because of last year’s indifference.” A second bout of indifference didn’t do him in, however, and he played a third season in Minneapolis, this time under his former manager in Boston, Jimmy Collins. O’Neill moved one more rung up the ladder and led the Millers in batting, with a .296 mark.

The Millers were prepared to have O’Neill back in 1910, but over the winter he contracted typhoid fever.xxiv For whatever reason, perhaps because of lingering effects of the illness, he refused to report to Minneapolis and at the beginning of June, Louisville purchased his contract. He appeared in 63 games and hit .234.

O’Neill attempted a comeback with the Millers in 1912, but on April 11 was given his release.

What he did after baseball, we do not know. A clue, at least in the earlier years, may have been offered by W.A. Phelon, who had written just before O’Neill’s final season that he believed he was running a hotel in Canada.xxv For a while after he finished playing baseball he “conducted a drug store” in Minneapolis.xxvi At the time of his death he worked as a watchman.xxvii O’Neill died ten years after leaving the game, at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Woodhaven, Queens, New York, on July 20, 1920, of pulmonary phthisis (tuberculosis).

His body was returned to St. John for burial, and one of the local newspapers reflected back on his time outside Canada: “Leaving St. John he became famous in many cities and towns of the neighboring republic.”xxviii

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed O’Neill’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

i Sporting Life, November 5, 1904, refers to his playing second base in the minor leagues.

ii Sporting Life, September 13, 1903.

iii New York Times, March 14, 1900.

iv Sporting Life, October 10, 1903.

v The New Freeman, St. John, July 31, 1920.

vi Boston Globe, February 2, 1904.

vii Sporting Life, April 23, 1904.

viii Boston Globe, May 12, 1904.

ix Sporting Life, July 2, 1904.

x Sporting Life, June 25, 1904.

xi Sporting Life, July 9, 1904.

xii Boston Globe, July 1, 1904.

xiii Sporting Life, July 9, 1904.

xiv Paul W. Eaton, writing for Sporting Life, July 23, 1904.

xv Sporting Life, August 6, 1904.

xvi Sporting Life, June 20, 1903.

xvii Sporting Life, November 5, 1904.

xviii The characterization of O’Neill being “let out” to the Brewers is from the Washington Post of March 23, 1906. The note about Huelsman comes from Sporting Life, February 25, 1905.

xix Sporting Life, July 21, 1906.

xx Sporting Life, November 17, 1906.

xxi Sporting Life, May 4, 1907. The April 11, 1907, Chicago Tribune reported the sending of O’Neill to the Millers.

xxii Chicago Tribune, April 29, 1907.

xxiii Sporting Life, December 5, 1908.

xxiv Sporting Life, April 23, 1910.

xxv Sporting Life, February 12, 1910.

xxvi The Sporting News, July 29, 1920.

xxvii Certificate of Death, Department of Health of the City of New York.

xxviii The New Freeman, St. John, July 31, 1920.

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