The first professional baseball team Jack O’Brien played for lasted only 14 games (they were 7-7) – the 1895 Troy Trojans of the New York State League. On May 22 Troy withdrew from the league, and the following day the Albany team was dropped from the league. The players dispersed, most of them, to other teams, and O’Brien went to the Eastern League’s Rochester Browns.i We don’t know his batting statistics in the short time he was with Troy, but he had already captured some attention: Sporting Life wrote: “John O'Brien, Troy's second baseman, is a regular Jack Pickett. His hitting is positively phenomenal and he is full of tricks.”ii
For Rochester, O’Brien mainly played third base. The move represented an increase in classification from Class B to Class A, but O’Brien performed well, hitting .318 in 106 games. In 1895 Class A was the highest classification; the Eastern League was the only Class A league, with only the 12-team National League above it – so this was top-level baseball. And O’Brien was attracting attention. When the team added Milt Whitehead, O’Brien moved to right field. Sporting Life noted, “This is a new position for him, but he is a first-class hitter … too valuable a man to be placed on the bench. … There are several clubs in the Eastern that would be glad to secure him.” The paper added, “O'Brien made the longest hit ever made on the Springfield grounds by knocking the ball over the fence into the river.”iii
John Joseph O’Brien was born on February 5, 1873, in what is now Watervliet, New York, not far from Albany. The town was known as West Troy at the time. His father, Patrick, was a butcher, an immigrant from Ireland. Patrick and his wife, Bridget, who had both come to the US from County Sligo, Ireland, in 1851, had six children at the time of the 1880 census, and eight in all. The oldest two boys were Frank, 20, and James, 19, both of whom were also working as butchers at the time of the census. Rose, Catherine, John, and Edward followed. John – who bore the nickname Jack – attended St. Brigid’s elementary school for eight years and then LaSalle Institute of Troy for four high-school years.
The Albany Times-Union reported that the O’Brien’s had opened a general store called O’Brien’s and started an ice business called O'Brien’s River Ice. Jack also worked in the ice business and played amateur ball in Troy before going pro.iv
Bridget O’Brien lost her husband in early 1898. The youngest four O’Briens still lived at home at the time of the 1900 census, including John, who was listed as a Base Ball Player.
O’Brien batted left-handed and threw right-handed. He was 6-feet-1 and listed with a playing weight of 165 pounds. Back in 1896, his second year in baseball, after just seven regular-season games, O’Brien moved again, leaving Rochester on June 11 and joining the last-place Scranton Miners on the 16th.
In between those two dates, on June 13 or 14, a bizarre incident occurred. O’Brien was arrested in Rochester. Another O’Brien, left fielder Thomas O’Brien of Toronto, had been arrested in New York City and brought to Rochester, charged with abducting Norah O’Neill, the 17-year-old daughter of a Toronto restaurateur. She had run away from home after an argument with her parents and turned up in Rochester, then disappeared from a home for young women. The authorities bought Thomas O’Brien’s story of innocence and so arrested Jack O’Brien. But on the 14th she turned up at the police station and said she’d been living elsewhere in the city.v
By midseason O’Brien was one of five former Rochester men on the Scranton team. He played second base, third base, right field, and center field, and perhaps other positions as well. Team records are difficult to locate for many teams of the day. He was seen as a utility man, and hit for a .298 average.vi
In 1897 O’Brien moved teams again – this time having been released by Scranton in early August and promptly signed by the first-place Syracuse Stars to take the place of left fielder Tom Bannon. Syracuse and second-place Toronto (the Maple Leafs finished 3½ games behind Syracuse) faced off in the playoffs for the Steinert Cup, but an unusual event occurred. Four games were played, with Toronto winning three of them. But the best-of-seven competition was “brought to an abrupt and unsatisfactory terminus here last week by the members of the Syracuse team refusing to play the fifth game on the Toronto grounds, and the local players declining the invitation to visit Syracuse for the game.”vii Sporting Life said that both teams lost money because of the impasse. Then, bizarrely, the publication said, “According to reports received from some of the local players Syracuse would have played the game, which would be on a Saturday, provided they were allowed to win the match, and then play the next game Sunday in Syracuse. On the Toronto players refusing to enter a deal of this kind the Syracuse team disbanded, leaving the local team winner of the Steinert Cup by the score of four to one [including a forfeited game]. Of course a Saturday game here and a Sunday game in Syracuse would have meant a barrel of money to the players, but as your efficient correspondent at Cleveland correctly remarked, ‘Baseball is an honest sport.’ ”
O’Brien wouldn’t have been able to play in later games, anyhow. He’d hurt his right foot late in the season and was hobbling about on crutches. The statistics we have combine his work for the two teams – he appeared in 110 games and hit for a .313 average, showing speed on the basepaths with 31 stolen bases.
Syracuse was O’Brien’s club for the full season of 1898, though he was claimed by both Kansas City and Providence before the season. He was team captain for Syracuse – though in June he was at one point released and re-signed “presumably at a lower salary.”viii And – confusing as some of the transactions are to historians a century later – in the meantime Montreal “picked up John J. O’Brien, the second baseman released by Syracuse to make room for Eagan.”ix The confusion relates to another player (also a second baseman) named John J. “Chewing Gum” O’Brien, who was also in the league at the same time. (Both played for Syracuse in 1898.) Further study could perhaps turn up some interesting stories here. John J. “Jack” O’Brien did play out the season for Syracuse, appearing in 113 games with a year-end average of only .241.
Nonetheless, he’d built a body of work. Pittsburgh found him an attractive player and signed him in July, though allowing him to continue to play for the Stars.
Then Pittsburgh traded O’Brien to the National League’s Washington Senators, early in January 1899.x After an injury to his left knee in spring training, O’Brien got off to a slow start with Washington and was ordered to report to Providence on May 7, but he “refused to go back to a minor league.”xi Two clubs were apparently willing to negotiate with the Senators, but in the end O’Brien stuck with Washington, got better with the bat as the season evolved and played in 127 games. Though a streaky hitter, he batted a solid .282 with six homers, drove in 51 runs, and scored 68 runs. His best single day was on June 20, when he was 5-for-5 with a homer, a triple, and three singles, helping Washington beat St. Louis, 5-3. It was noted that many Kansas City people were at the game.xii
In 1900 Washington cut O’Brien loose before the season began, selling him to Detroit on March 24. The Tigers made another deal and O’Brien wound up playing for the Kansas City Blues, in the one year of the first league named the American League. Again, he started off rather poorly, but he played in 140 games and hit for a .298 batting average.
Washington was home again for O’Brien when the 1901 season began, but after 51 plate appearances in 11 games, he was hitting only .178 and he was released on May 15. On the 24th O’Brien signed with the American League’s new Cleveland Blues, managed by Jimmy McAleer, and played in 92 games (mostly in right field), hitting a solid .283, driving in 39 runs, and scoring 54. He would have had 53, after American League czar Ban Johnson vacated the result of the July 23 game between Cleveland and Washington after Washington’s captain Boileryard Clarke called his men off the field. Johnson called it a forfeit and awarded Washington a 9-0 win. A couple of days later, after a personal investigation, Johnson announced that he had fined O’Brien $25 and restored the score at 4-4. “The game was [at first] thrown out because an attempt was made to win it by unfair means,” Johnson said. “I learned beyond question that O’Brien cut third base when he scored in the ninth inning. It was a contemptible piece of work, and he should be blacklisted by other teams. The fine I have imposed is hardly sufficient punishment. I would not have the record of such a game go on file in the American League, and for that reason [initially] threw it out.”xiii O’Brien had scored from second base on a bunt, not even attempting to run toward third base, but umpire Tom Connolly had not seen him cut the base. The Washington Post declared, “O’Brien’s play has long been discarded in the upper grades of base ball and there was surprise among the Clevelanders that he was allowed to get away with it.”xiv
On September 7, O’Brien played his last game for Cleveland. In 1902 he played for the Western League’s Milwaukee Creams, signed near the end of April to play under manager Hugh Duffy. He had an excellent year, batting .341 in 142 games.
Because there was another John J. O’Brien playing baseball at the time, some databases have confused matters and shown Jack O’Brien playing for Marion in 1901 and Newark in 1903, but neither was the case.
In 1903 manager Jimmy Collins of the Boston Americans was impressed by O’Brien during spring training but when it came to the regular season O’Brien was “a grievous disappointment as far as his batting is concerned” over the first month of the campaign.xv Circumstances – mainly a leg injury suffered by center fielder Chick Stahl in April – permitted O’Brien to play in 96 games. He never did excel, though his tenth-inning double did win a game on June 20 game at Cleveland, 5-4. He drove in 38 runs in all, scoring 44 times, with three homers, but just a .210 batting average. He’d been playing with a broken foot for almost the entire season “and at the close of the season went under an X-ray and it was found that one of the bones of his foot had been broken.”xvi
In the World Series – the first World Series – against Pittsburgh, O’Brien appeared just twice. In the bottom of the ninth inning in Game One, he pinch-hit with one out and two men on base, and struck out. He came up again in the ninth inning of Game Four, with Boston having scored three runs to pull to within one run of tying the game. There were two outs, and runners on first and second. He popped up to the second baseman. Jimmy Collins didn’t call on him again.
The Americans did win the World Series, however, so there was good feeling all the way around – and when a Boston sportswriter foresaw O’Brien not having his contract renewed, he wrote, “If O’Brien departs for new fields he leaves with the best wishes of everybody.”xvii On November 23 Collins announced that he had decided to bring back the entire 1903 team with the exception of Stahl and O’Brien, who had been given their releases. Thus ended O’Brien’s time in the major leagues.
O’Brien may have been playing with an injured foot for quite some time. In January 1905 he filed a lawsuit for $25,000 against the Troy Street Railway company for injuries to his left foot resulting from being struck by a car in 1902.xviii
But there was apparently a string kept on O’Brien at the time, and on February 9 the Milwaukee Daily News reported that Boston had dealt outfielders O’Brien and George Stone to Milwaukee for third baseman Bob Unglaub. After a year’s absence, O’Brien was back in Milwaukee – now an American Association team named the Brewers. He played in both the 1904 and 1905 seasons. The trade worked well for both parties, but mainly because of Stone and Unglaub. O’Brien got his chance to play. He appeared in 131 games in 1904, hitting .269, and in 133 games in 1905, batting .228. They were his last two years in Organized Baseball.
After baseball, O’Brien became a policeman in the city of Watervliet and in 1912 he was named chief of the department. But the lure of baseball brought him back to the game and he resigned his position upon taking a position as a scout for the Chicago Cubs in 1914. He held the job through 1916. His obituary in the New York Times said (perhaps quoting the understanding of surviving relatives rather than anything documented) he was involved with discovering Goose Goslin and Gabby Hartnett, and discovered Big Ed Walsh, but Walsh’s major-league career had begun in 1904 and SABR’s scouting records show both Goslin and Hartnett signed by others.xix It is nonetheless possible that he played some role in discovering all three players at one stage or another of his baseball career.
The obituary, not giving a date, also said that O’Brien had at some point purchased and managed the Troy baseball team. O’Brien rejoined the Troy Police Department and was again named chief, from some point in 1916, and held the post until 1918. O’Brien married Mary Treanor on April 10, 1928.
O’Brien died of a stroke at home in Watervliet on June 10, 1933, and is buried at St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands, New York. His wife, Mary, survived him, as did a brother and a sister.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed O’Brien’s player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com. Thanks to Rod Nelson.
i “Of the disbanded Troy team O’Brien goes to Rochester. McDougall to Brooklyn. Weisbecker,
Messer, Kinsella and Marshall to Amsterdam; Fricken to Jamestown, Fenn and Manley to
Schenectady. Phillips, Connor, Welsh, Rogers, and Foley have not yet been placed.” Sporting Life, May 25, 1895. The short-lived Troy team sent six men to the major leagues: Joe Connor, Al Lawson, Sandy McDougal, Tom Messitt, Marr Philips, and O’Brien.
iii Sporting Life, July 6, 1895.
iv Albany Times-Union, October 27, 2011.
v Sporting Life, June 20, 1896.
vi Sporting Life, February 27, 1897.
vii Sporting Life, October 16, 1897.
viii Sporting Life, June 18, 1898.
ix Sporting Life, July 2, 1898.
x Sporting Life, January 14, 1899.
xi Sporting Life, May 20, 1899. See also the Washington Post of May 6, 1899.
xii Washington Post, June 21, 1899.
xiii Washington Post, July 26, 1901.
xiv Washington Post, July 24, 1901.
xv Sporting Life, May 30, 1903
xvi Sporting Life, November 14, 1903.
xviii Sporting Life, February 4, 1905
xix New York Times, June 12, 1933, and correspondence with Rod Nelson of SABR on August 16, 2012.