SABR

Joe Connolly

This article was written by Dennis Auger.

Joey Connolly (Total Baseball lists him as "Joe," but local newspapers and family members confirm that he went by "Joey") was the offensive star of the Boston Braves during their most successful period of the Deadball Era. A left-handed batter who played predominantly against right-handed pitching, Connolly usually batted third in the order and compiled a .288 average over his four seasons in the major leagues. As for his defense in left field, the BostonSunday Post wrote that he "is fairly fast, the possessor of a strong wing and he covers a good extent of territory." Though Napoleon Lajoie is the greatest baseball player ever born in Rhode Island, Connolly probably had a greater impact on the social and cultural fabric of "Little Rhody" than any other ex-big leaguer.

The ninth of 11 children of Irish immigrants, Connolly was born on his family's farm in the Sayles Hill section of North Smithfield, Rhode Island, but disagreement exists over his middle name and his exact date of birth. Total Baseball lists his full name as Joseph Aloysius Connolly and his birth date as February 12, 1886, but records in the North Smithfield Town Hall indicate that his middle name was Francis and he was born on February 1, 1884, which is consistent with records at the state archives. To add a little more confusion, his baptismal record at St. James Church in Manville, a section of Lincoln, Rhode Island, lists his date of birth as February 2, 1884 (he was baptized eight days later). Given Connolly's Roman Catholic background, the most plausible explanation for Aloysius is that he accepted that name when he received the sacrament of Confirmation on September 21, 1902. As for the birth-date controversy, Connolly's children admit that he lied about his age in order to advance his baseball career, but even they thought his actual birth date was February 12, 1886.

Joey was a quiet young man who didn't smoke, chew tobacco, or drink alcohol, possibly because some of his older brothers suffered from alcoholism. He began his baseball career as a right-handed pitcher for a number of independent clubs, making his debut in Organized Baseball with Putnam, Connecticut, of the New England League in 1906. The following year the "Manville Boy" (also known as the "Sayles Hill Boy") impressed Frank Rudderham, a major-league umpire from Providence, who considered Connolly's curveball the best he had ever seen. Rudderham recommended the young pitcher to Little Rock manager Michael Finn, whose team included another player who was destined to make his mark as a Boston outfielder: Tris Speaker. Finn started Joey in a 1908 spring-training contest against the New York Giants and the new pitcher hurled a complete game in a 4-0 loss to Christy Mathewson.

After Connolly spent two months in the Class-A Southern Association, Little Rock demoted him to Zanesville of the Class-B Central League where he hit .333 in 78 at-bats—the first hint that his future lay in hitting baseballs instead of pitching them. In 1909 Joey pitched briefly again at Little Rock before returning to Zanesville, where Central Leaguers nicknamed him "Ole Herkey Jerkey" because of his unusual delivery. He compiled a 23-8 record and played some outfield when he wasn't pitching, hitting .308 for the season. The following year, pitching for a sixth-place club that finished 16 games below .500, Connolly went 16-17, hurling a no-hitter, a one-hitter, a two-hitter, and four three-hitters. One reporter wrote that a "fine assortment of speed and curves made him a cracker jack hurler," but two factors were hindering his progress: scouts thought he was too small (he stood only 5' 7.5"), and he was beginning to experience arm trouble.

His major-league ambitions in jeopardy, Joey returned to Zanesville in 1911 and insisted on playing the outfield fulltime -- —a dramatic change at age 27. Manager Joe Raidy resisted the request and limited his playing time, but financial problems forced Zanesville to send Connolly to Central League rival Terre Haute. In his first few games there he "misjudged flies and booted grounders like a rank amateur." Joey persevered and won the batting crown with a .355 average, adding 27 stolen bases. It proved to be his big break. The Chicago Cubs signed Connolly and then traded him to Montreal of the International League, where he hit .316 in 1912. Clark Griffith drafted him for the Washington Senators, with whom he had an impressive training camp in 1913. Griff was set in the outfield with Clyde Milan, Danny Moeller, and Howard Shanks, so he sold Connolly to the Boston Braves.

Joining the Braves was a sort of homecoming for Connolly. On Sundays, when professional baseball was banned in Massachusetts, teammates often joined him on his Rhode Island farm. Manager George Stallings made Joey his regular left fielder in 1913. Though his season ended prematurely when he broke his ankle sliding, the 29-year-old rookie led all Braves regulars with 79 runs, 57 RBIs, 11 triples, a .281 batting average, and a .410 slugging percentage. He also showed an ability to adapt to a pitcher's style. If a hurler threw a spitball, Joey would chop down at the pitch. When he first faced Pete Alexander, he was outmatched by the great pitcher's "baffling hooks." Connolly adapted by rushing forward and swinging before the ball broke, prompting Pete to yell, "Listen, kid, if this ball isn't coming at you fast enough, just let me know." From that day on Alexander threw him only fastballs, which Connolly preferred.

The 1914 Miracle Braves owed much of their success to Joey Connolly, the only regular to hit over .300. He was also the team leader in doubles (28), home runs (9), and slugging average (third in the NL at .494). Stallings held Joey in such high regard that he reportedly made several bets that Connolly would hit better than Home Run Baker in the World Series. That didn't happen (Connolly went one-for-nine, while Baker went four-for-16), but the Braves swept the Athletics in four games. As a member of the World Champions, Joey was feted with banquets throughout Rhode Island. "Joey Connolly Day" in Manville was the apex of his victory tour, with state dignitaries including Congressman Ambrose Kennedy in attendance.

The Braves challenged for the pennant in 1915 and Connolly hit .298, only eight points lower than his average of the previous season, but his slugging percentage dropped nearly 100 points to .387. The following year his production and playing time decreased even more significantly; he batted .227 in just 110 at-bats. Boston's contract offer to Connolly for 1917 slashed his salary in half. When the outfielder refused to sign, the Braves sold him to Indianapolis of the American Association. Realizing that his combined income from farming and playing semipro ball locally would exceed his salary under his professional contract, he decided to retire.

On October 25, 1916, Joey began a new phase in life, marrying Manville resident Mary Delaney at St. James Church. The couple had three children: Doris, Joseph, and Edward. Besides farming, Connolly played semipro baseball in the Blackstone Valley League until 1928. He also coached baseball on the sandlot, semipro, and college levels and was active in Catholic Youth Organizations. An ardent sportsman, Joey became the founder and first president of the Sayles Hill Rod & Gun Club. On the political front, even though North Smithfield was a Republican enclave, Connolly nevertheless won election to the town council and then to the state legislature in 1933-34 as a Democrat. He also served as a state senator in 1935-36. After his term in office, Joey worked as an investigator for the Rhode Island Board of Milk Control.

On September 1, 1943, the lifelong Sayles Hill resident was stricken suddenly by a heart attack and died at his home. "Joey Connolly Called Out By 'Great Umpire,'" was the headline in the local newspaper. The local Carney Sandlot Baseball League, which Connolly had helped to found, suspended play for several days in his honor. Only recently Joey had attended a league game in which his son, Joseph Jr., had lashed three hits. Connolly was buried at St. Charles Cemetery in Woonsocket. When the family was going through his belongings, Joseph Jr. relates that they found a bunch of their father's hunting licenses. He then said, smiling, "And you know, his age on those licenses never changed—he never got older!"


Note: A slightly different version of this biography appeared in Tom Simon, ed., Deadball Stars of the National League (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, Inc., 2004).

Sources

In preparing this article, the author relied on the following sources: the Woonsocket (RI) Call, the Evening Times (RI), a taped interview with Edward and Joseph Connolly, Jr. (sons of Joseph Connolly) on 7-21-01, Total Baseball (6th edition), Bill James' Stats All-Time Major League Records (2nd edition), Rhode Island State Archives; North Smithfield, RI, Town Hall Records (the State Archives and Town records are two different sources/places), and the Providence College Archives.

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.