The Players League season opened for Buffalo on April 19, 1890. Visiting Cleveland sent their ace, Henry Gruber, to the box against the Bisons. It was more like entering a den of hungry lions. When the dust cleared and the Bisons stopped circling the bases the score stood at 23-2 in their favor. In the sixth inning, Buffalo right fielder John Rainey sent a drive over the left fielder’s head. Rainey circled the bases ahead of the relay and recorded the first home run in the league. He also stole two bases that day. A week later it was feared that Rainey would die from a pitch to the head.
John M. Rainey was born July 16, 1864 in Birmingham, Michigan.1 His parents, James C. Rainey and Anna McAllister were Irish and had come to the States from Glasgow, Scotland. He had an older sister named Maggie born in 1856, but little else is known of his family. Growing up in Birmingham he went to school enough to become literate.
Towns in Michigan embraced baseball and there were many spirited rivalries across the state by the time Rainey reached manhood. In Birmingham he was teamed with Rasty Wright, who went on to a long minor league career and a brief stay in the majors. From Birmingham, Rainey and Wright moved onto a traveling squad called Cass that was headquartered in Detroit. The team played all comers in Michigan, Ontario, and Ohio. Cass “won country-wide prestige through the United States and Canada.”2 In 1884 the duo joined Muskegon in the 12-team Northwestern League. This far flung league featured four teams in Michigan, two in Indiana, two in Illinois, one in Milwaukee and three teams in the Twin City area of Minnesota. Travel and scheduling was a nightmare. For example the St. Paul team opened the season in Milwaukee on May 2 and proceeded east, not to return home until June 13.3 Each series was a three-game affair. Not surprisingly the league fell apart by August with only the Minnesota teams, Milwaukee, and the addition of the Winona Clippers playing to the end. Six of the Muskegon players joined the squad in Winona, Minnesota for the remainder of the Northwestern League schedule. Rainey debuted with the Clippers on August 23as player-manager and had two doubles and a single in a 6-5 loss to St. Paul. In 63 Northwestern League games he hit .304, primarily as a third baseman, and generally got good reviews about his skills and demeanor.
In 1885, Rainey stepped up a level and joined Wright with Toledo in the Western League. Rainey was employed as a left fielder/third baseman and struggled mightily at bat. In 24 games he made only nine hits and closed with a .097 average. After his release he joined the Hamilton Clippers in the Canadian League. Playing third exclusively his batting eye returned and he tore apart Canadian pitching at a .405 clip and smacked his first professional homer. His batting was even more astounding when compared to the composite .232 average (409 hits in 1762 at bats) of the other Clippers. The Clippers moved into the International League in 1886 and added Wright to their roster. Rainey batted second to start the season, but spent the last half of the campaign batting leadoff. His .301 batting average and .395 slugging percentage led all Clippers with 200 or more at bats. The team dropped behind champion Utica, but had a spirited battle with Toronto for third place. Toronto won the last two games of the season over Hamilton to clinch the spot.
Rainey returned to Hamilton in 1887 (as did Wright) and claimed the lead-off spot in the line-up. He would appear in 70 games and bat .348. At third base he made 40 errors for an .857 percentage. The Hams fell off the pace early in the season in the 12-team race. Toronto at 65-36 sported the best record at season’s end. Hamilton finished at 56-41. Rainey was sold to the New York Giants on August 23 when Buck Ewing was injured. The plan was for Rainey to play third and Jim O’Rourke would catch for a week or so until Ewing mended.
Nine thousand fans attended the Giants-Cubs clash on August 25 at the Polo Grounds. Rainey made his debut batting eighth in the line-up. After blasting a double to center, chasing down a difficult foul fly and poking a single he was described by the New York Times as “a big, strong, wiry fellow, moves about with the agility of a cat, picks up a ball in a clean manner…runs with uncommon speed, and above all makes clever slides to the base.”4 At 5’10” and 165 pounds he may not have been the physical specimen the paper suggested, nor was he without faults. The Giant held the lefty-swinging Rainey out the next game because of a supposed weakness against left-handed pitchers. Veteran (and future Hall of Famer) Jim O’Rourke played third and had a miserable game. “There was a plaintive wail for Rainy [sic ]”5 after O’Rourke committed multiple errors. Rainey returned to the line-up against Indianapolis on August 29. He would see action in 17 games and bat.293. In the field he committed ten errors for a lackluster .818 fielding percentage. In October The New York Times listed three third basemen on the Giants roster for 1888: Rainey, Elmer Cleveland, and Gil Hatfield.6 A few weeks later the wire services announced that Rainey would return to Hamilton for the 1888 season.
The creation of the Central League that included Scranton, Binghamton and eight others caused the reconfiguration of the International Association in 1888. The Syracuse Stars burst out of the gate with a 10-1 record. Hamilton tried to keep pace and in early August stood at 51-28, six games behind. A late season swoon saw them drop 17 of 32 and finish well behind the Stars. Rainey played every game at third base. He batted .286 but his season paled in comparison to pitcher, first baseman, outfielder Pete Wood who won 37 games and led the team with a .322 average.
The International Association gave way to the International League in 1889 with new franchises in Detroit, Toledo, and Buffalo, Rainey left the Hams and joined the Buffalo Bisons. He played every game again and posted career highs in doubles (26) and triples (14) while batting a team leading .305. The Bisons had serious issues with their pitching staff. In a league where eight pitchers tossed over 300 innings and six more threw 200 plus, the Bisons were led by 31 year-old Jim Whitney with 197. Buffalo finished seventh at 41-66. In January, Rainey was signed to play outfield for the Bisons, but this was a new franchise that would play in the Players League.
The Bisons opened the season with Cleveland and showed no mercy at the plate. Winning scores were 23-2,15-8,19-7, and 18-15. On April 25 they welcomed Chicago and Mark Baldwin to town. After opening the game 1-for-2, Rainey was struck in the head by a fastball and had to be carried from the field. “There was a rumor… that he was dead, but on inquiry it was learned that” he had a concussion but was out of danger.7 Buffalo lost the game 10-8. Rainey was hitting a robust .400 (8-20) when he went home to Birmingham to recover. When he returned to the lineup on June 2 the Bisons were 9-19. He found himself at shortstop in place of Manager Jack Rowe who had a broken rib from a Matt Kilroy pitch. After seven games at short he returned to right field, but he was weakened and not playing to his desired level. The team released him in mid-August. He saw action in 42 games with a .235 average.
Back in Birmingham, Rainey took a job as a bank clerk and pondered his future in baseball. An interesting opportunity presented itself in the spring of 1891 when he was offered the managerial job, according to some sources, for the Detroit franchise in the Northwestern League. In late April he was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Detroit club, but W.S. (Rasty) Wright was named the manager.8 The twosome became the backbone of the Wolverines lineup. Rainey opened the season at third, but quickly took over at shortstop. Sporting Life carried box scores for 23 games that he played. He went 23 for 85 (.271) with three doubles and five stolen bases. Detroit and Bay City dropped out of the league in the second week of June. By June 16, Rainey had found employment with Manchester in the New England League. He played a utility role with the Amskoegs — 10 games at third, eight at first and 19 at second — until they disbanded on August 2. He hit .228 (35 for 153) with four doubles, five triples, and a homer. He was credited with 12 sacrifices (which counted as at bats) and stole 11 bases.9 Fans remarked that he was back at full strength more than a year after the beaning. His next stop was Jamestown, New York in the rapidly decaying New York and Pennsylvania League. After four games, the team threatened to drop out of the league and even forfeited a game when they briefly disbanded on August 19. Jamestown’s actions caused the league to retool. Jamestown became one of four remaining franchises and profited handsomely by picking up players from teams that had dropped out. Rainey played 21 games, mostly at third and hit .286. The league folded in the second half with Jamestown in first place.
Intrigued by his experience on the board at Detroit, Rainey investigated the business side of the game. In February, 1892, Rasty Wright and Rainey attempted to buy a franchise in the Eastern League for Toronto but failed.10 He returned to the field and started the year with the Binghamton Bingos in the Eastern League. They released him after four games in favor of veteran John Irwin. In late May, Rainey caught on with the Terre Haute Hottentots in the I-I League as a first baseman. They folded a couple of weeks later. In August, Rainey went to the Wisconsin-Michigan League with the champion Green Bay Bays.
According to Sporting Life, when his playing days were over Rainey moved to Chicago.11 There he took a position with Swift Meats. In September, 1912 he was taken ill. The illness lingered and he moved to Detroit to join his sister Maggie, who had married a concrete contractor named Thomas Bigley. He passed away at their 21st Street home on November 11, 1912 and was buried in the Birmingham, Michigan cemetery.
Thank you to SABR member Bill Carle who helped with family background on Rainey. A BIG thank you to Anthony Bush and his research on Rasty Wright which helped clear up who was the manager in Detroit. Josh Rouan at the Birmingham library tried to help with Rainey’s background. The Sporting Life suggested that Rainey was a bachelor. Census records show a John M Rainey in Birmingham with two different wives at different times. However, that John M Rainey lived past 1920.
Bay City (Michigan) Times
Chicago Inter Ocean
Detroit Free Press
Evansville (Indiana) Courier and Press
New York Herald
Oshkosh (Wisconsin) Daily Northwesterner
Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Record
- 1. Michigan Death certificate cdm16317. Some sources list his birth on July 26. He also appears in some articles with a middle initial of P or W, but M is on his gravestone. His obituaries from 1912 list his age as 51 despite the certificate’s age of 48yrs 3 month 27 days.
- 2. The Sporting Life, November 23, 1912: 15.
- 3. The Saint Paul Globe, April30, 1884: 3.
- 4. The New York Times, August 26, 1887:3.
- 5. New York Tribune, August 27, 1887:8. The Times gave O’Rourke 4 errors, The Tribune was kinder and only listed 3.
- 6. The New York Times, October 27, 1887:2.
- 7. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 27, 1890: 20.
- 8. Saginaw News, April 23, 1891:7 The May 2 Sporting Life reported that Rainey would be manager and Wright would serve as captain.
- 9. Sporting Life box scores supplied the data used, it is not listed in Baseball Reference.
- 10. Anthony Bush’s bio of Rasty Wright on the BioProject site was the source of this information. Bush cited Sporting Life, February 27, 1892:1.
Anthony Bush’s bio of Rasty Wright on the BioProject site was the source of this information. Bush cited Sporting Life, February 27, 1892:1.
- 11. Sporting Life, November 23, 1912: 15.