John Shea's parents came to the United States from Ireland and met in the Boston area. John J. Shea immigrated in 1890 and his future wife, Bridget Kearney, did so in 1894, marrying John shortly afterward. They had five children—Annie, Mary, James, John, and Roger. John J. Shea worked as a letter carrier for the US Post Office. Two days after Christmas in 1904, John Michael Joseph Shea was born.
He was left-handed, and at the time he pitched for the Boston Red Sox in 1928, had grown to 5-feet-10 and was listed as weighing 171 pounds. He grew up in the Greater Boston suburb of Malden and attended the Maplewood School, Boston College High School, and Boston College itself.
He didn't pitch for long. In fact, he only threw one inning for the Red Sox, his sole appearance in the major leagues. He didn't stick, even in the pitching-deprived teams of the Red Sox of the 1920s. This was a team, though, that featured a 19-game winner in Big Ed Morris (19-15). Jack Russell won 11 (he lost 14), and Red Ruffing won 10—but lost 25! The Red Sox were on their way to a 57-96 last-place American League finish.
Shea was discovered pitching for Boston College. Beating Notre Dame for the Eagles, 8-1, on June 7, 1928, he may have caught the eye of Red Sox scouts. Shea was signed on June 15, less than 24 hours after graduating college.1 He'd not been a stranger to fans of baseball in Boston, however, as a four-year stalwart on the BC pitching staff. By 1927, he was already considered the "ace" of the staff.2 There were a lot of athletes on the BC squad. As it happened, every one of the baseball players was a member of the college football team, save one—Lefty Shea.3
At BC, his coach through the 1927 season had been John Slattery, who had pitched on the 1901 Boston Americans, the first year of the franchise. He had managed the 1928 Boston Braves for the first 31 games of the season (11-20), but departed before Shea graduated and signed with the Red Sox. Hugh Duffy coached the Eagles in their 1928 baseball season.
A large crowd, some 25,000 fans, came out to Fenway Park for the June 30 doubleheader with the Yankees. Even five pitchers couldn’t stop New York from piling up an 11-4 win in the first game. Boston's Jack Russell started that first game and kept it close; it was 4-3 in New York’s favor after six innings. Removed for a pinch-hitter, Pat Simmons was asked to pitch, but after he walked the number eight and nine batters in the Yankees lineup, he was pulled. Ed Morris came in, but he’d not had time to warm up and got pounded. Three hits, three runs, and Herb Bradley got the call. Manager Bill Carrigan, a former catcher with the team who had in an earlier stint skippered the Red Sox to back-to-back World Series wins in 1915 and 1916, had to be getting frustrated. The score was 9-3 after eight innings. There was little to lose at this point so he figured he'd give John Shea a shot.
Shea, whom the New York Times called “a late scholar at Boston College,” pitched the ninth inning, facing five batters and allowing one hit, one walk, but two runs. It was Lou Gehrig he walked. Bob Meusel then doubled, sending Gehrig to third base. Shea buckled down and got the next three batters out, but a run scored on each of the first two outs.
He did have one chance in the field, and earned an assist, helping record one of the three outs. Shea was left with an ERA of 18.00 and a fielding percentage of 1.000. He did not have a plate appearance. He never allowed another run in major-league ball, but that was because he never had the opportunity.
Russell took the loss in the first game on June 30. The Red Sox made the second game more of a contest, scoring twice in the bottom of the eighth and twice more in the bottom of the ninth, but still came up short by a run and lost, 7-6.
On July 12, he was optioned to the minors.4 "Lefty" Shea pitched for the Eastern League's Pittsfield Hillies (Class A) for the rest of 1928 and put up a record of 8-4 in 17 games. He worked 96 innings with a 4.22 earned run average. Under manager Shano Collins, Pittsfield finished second, 4½ games behind the New Haven Profs. The Hillies, still under Collins, dropped to fourth place in 1929.
Shea was not on the official roster of the Red Sox in 1929, but was invited to work out with the team in Bradenton.
He was with Pittsfield for a while, appearing in 10 games, but with a record of 0-3 and a 6.58 ERA in 26 innings. They were his last in Organized Baseball. He did keep playing ball, however, and by August is seen pitching in semipro ball in the Boston area, working for the Roslindale team. He settled in with his hometown Malden Twilight League team. The Malden Evening News said he was "tired of the traveling" in the minors, but in the Twilight League was "one of the most successful southpaw hurlers in that circle and was an idol here for several seasons."5
Shano Collins later managed the Red Sox in 1931 and 1932.
Shea worked in the brokerage business in Boston for several years, but spent the last 12 years working as a night foreman at the General Electric plant in Everett, Massachusetts. He died in his sleep of a heart attack on November 30, 1956.6 He'd gone to sleep and asked that he be awakened at 4:30 PM so that he could report to work on the evening shift. His wife Helen (McCabe) Shea was unable to wake him, and summoned a doctor who pronounced him dead. He had suffered from a heart ailment earlier, but it was thought he had put that behind him. Only two weeks earlier, he had lost his older brother James, who had been the general manager of a local bus line.
In addition to his widow, Shea left three children – two daughters and a son, John, and three grandchildren. His mother and three siblings survived him as well. He was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden. He was a member of the Eagles, the Knights of Columbus, and the Elks.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Shea's player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Springfield Republican, June 16, 1928.
2 See, for instance, the Boston Herald, May 3, 1927.
3 The Plain Dealer (Cleveland), September 8, 1927.
4 Boston Herald, July 13, 1927.
5 Malden Evening News, December 3, 1956.
6 Bill Lee, The Baseball Necrology (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2003), 361.