Courtesy of John Thorn

Jack O’Brien

This article was written by Joel Rippel

Courtesy of John ThornA hard-luck catcher with a strong bat, Jack O’Brien was a fan favorite among Philadelphia baseball fans during the 1880s. Sporting Life described him as a catcher with “a great pluck and sure catch,” who struggled with throwing.1 He was often injured, earning the reputation of being a luckless player whose career was summed up as follows: “O’Brien has but one fault and that is getting hurt in almost every game in which he takes part. … [L]ong ago, he was put down as the unluckiest man in the profession.”2

Jack O’Brien was born John K. Byrne to Francis and Mary Byrne on June 12, 1860, in Philadelphia. He was the second of seven sons known to be born to Francis and Mary, who had emigrated to the United States from Ireland. Both the 1860 and 1870 censuses list his father as a laborer.

It is not clear when John began using the surname O’Brien. He likely started using the name Jack O’Brien when he began playing baseball as a teenager for the Yeager Amateur Club in Philadelphia.

On June 29, 1878, O’Brien, who had just turned 18, and the Yeager team “took part in one of the early day classics.”3 Yeager played at Girard College High School. It took 21 innings, and four hours, for Yeager to defeat the “Orphans,” 10-7. At the time it was longest high-school baseball game ever played.

O’Brien and his teammate Bill Sweeney went west in 1879. The batterymates joined the “California” team, one of three teams based in San Francisco in the four-team California Base Ball League. (The fourth team was based in Oakland.) The teams were scheduled to play a 21-game “championship” schedule, primarily on Saturdays and Sundays.

In early April 1879, O’Brien and Sweeney were named as starters for the Californias. An early season matchup between the California and Athletic clubs drew a lot of interest, reported the San Francisco Examiner: “At the new Oakland Grounds, on Sunday next, will be played a game which has been looked forward to by base ball players with great interest that between the Athletic and California Clubs. The former club was an unapproachable champion last year and contains some remarkably good players. The California Club, however, has secured some new players, and from all appearances the game will probably be the most exciting one played this season.”4

The Athletic club, which won the Pacific Base Ball League title the previous year, defeated California, 8-2. The game drew a crowd estimated at 3,000 at the Oakland Base Ball Grounds. According to an account of the game, it was a “sad disappointment to the friends of the California Club, as the nine did not seem to play well together. Much had been expected of the (California) nine as they have recently imported three or four noted experts from the East.”5

The account mentioned both O’Brien and Sweeney: “O’Brien, the catcher, is a poor thrower, being otherwise very brilliant. Sweeney, the new pitcher, has an accurate and swift delivery, but is inferior in his management.”6

Things improved for the Californias. On May 26 O’Brien had a hit and scored a run in its 3-2 victory over the Mutuals in a game that was “one of the most closely contested games of base ball ever played on this coast.”7

Two weeks later, O’Brien scored three runs in the Californias’ 28-7 victory over the Athletics.

Through games of August 24, the Californias had an 11-3 record. In October, the club played exhibitions against the Cincinnati and Chicago National League teams, who traveled to California after the NL season. Cincinnati defeated California, 3-0, on October 12. On the 19th, Chicago defeated California, 13-0.

After the season O’Brien returned to Philadelphia. He was a glass worker during the offseason, and joined the Philadelphia Athletics. In 1880 the Athletics were an independent team. In 1881 they joined a new minor league, the Eastern Championship Association. The roster included Jud Birchall, Cub Stricker, and Charlie Mason, three players who would factor prominently in the Athletics’ 1883 championship season.

The Athletics finished in second place in the ECA with a 42-50 record. That record included games against National League, college, and independent teams. After the season, the Athletics “sought major league status by joining the NL or aligning with an organization that would rival that League.”8

After being turned down by the National League, the Athletics joined the newly formed American Association for the 1882 season. In their debut, on May 2, 1882, O’Brien and the Athletics made an immediate impression.

Playing at Oakdale Park, the Athletics defeated Baltimore, 10-7, before a crowd of 2,500. O’Brien, sixth in the batting order, was 1-for-3 with a double. He walked once and scored a run. And he was praised for his toughness.

“O’Brien was struck in the stomach by a wicked foul tip in the eighth inning, but he courageously held the ball until the umpire made a decision, then he fell senseless to the ground. He regained consciousness a few seconds later and after a few minutes rest resumed play amid great applause.”9

O’Brien, considered to have above-average power for the era, hit his first major-league home run in the bottom of the seventh inning of a game against Louisville on May 17, 1882. The two-run homer came off Eclipse pitcher John Reccius in the Athletics’ 11-4 victory.

O’Brien demonstrated his signature toughness again in the Athletics’ 7-1 loss to Cincinnati on June 2 in Philadelphia. Playing in front a crowd of 2,000, he was injured in the fourth inning.

“(Cincinnati catcher-manager Pop) Snyder threw (O’Brien) out at second, and in trying to get back to the base he fell and the spikes of (Bid) McPhee’s shoe ran into his right cheek, breaking several teeth. He laid unconscious for over an hour but had recovered sufficiently last night to leave with the nine on their Western trip.”10

Two days later, the resilient 5-foot-10 O’Brien, listed at 184 pounds, was back in the lineup. After a travel day, the Athletics opened their road trip with a 2-1 loss to the Louisville Eclipse in Louisville. O’Brien had one of the Athletics’ eight hits.

The Athletics finished the American Association’s inaugural season in second place with a 41-34 record, 11½ games behind the first-place Cincinnati Red Stockings (55-25). O’Brien played in 62 of the Athletics’ 75 games and led the team’s regulars in batting average (.303), on-base percentage (.339), and slugging percentage (.419). He also led the team in doubles (13) and home runs (3) and was second in RBIs (37). As a team, the Athletics hit only five home runs.

The Athletics and O’Brien got off to a good start in 1883. Through games of June 30, they were in first place with a 27-11 record and O’Brien was leading the American Association with a .337 batting average.

The Athletics (66-32) won the American Association title by one game over the St. Louis Browns (65-33). The Athletics lost six of their last 10 games and the Browns won six of their last eight games, but the Browns’ two losses in that span were to the Athletics in St. Louis.

O’Brien played in 94 of the Athletics’ 98 games and finished with a .290 batting average and a team-leading 70 RBIs. He also tied for the team lead with 10 triples.

In 1884 O’Brien was limited to 36 of the Athletics’ 108 games because of a lengthy bout with pneumonia. He finished with a .283 batting average while the Athletics (61-46-1) slipped to seventh place, 14 games behind the league champion Metropolitans (75-32-5). The league, which had eight teams in 1883, added four teams for the 1884 season – Brooklyn, which had won the Interstate Association in 1883; Toledo, which had won the Northwestern League in 1883; Indianapolis; and Washington.

O’Brien spent the 1885 season as a semi-regular, appearing in 62 (of the Athletics’ 113 games). He batted .267 with two home runs and 30 RBIs. The Athletics (55-57-1) finished in fourth place, 24 games behind the first-place St. Louis Browns (79-33).

O’Brien returned to regular duty in 1886, appearing in 105 of the Athletics’ 139 games. He showed his versatility by being used at catcher, all four infield positions, and in the outfield. He batted .253 with 56 RBIs. The Athletics (63-72-4) finished in sixth place, 28 games behind the champion Browns (93-46).

Late in the season O’Brien was mentioned in trade rumors.

“There is talk of the Athletics trading O’Brien for (Pop) Corkhill of Cincinnati,” reported the Times of Phildelphia. “The latter would make a good first-baseman, just what the Athletics need, and O’Brien would strengthen Cincinnati behind the bat.”11

Shortly after the season ended October 15, O’Brien was released by the Athletics.

“The release of O’Brien may have occasioned some surprise to the general public, but to those who knew the strained relations he had held with one of the proprietors for several years the event came no sooner than was expected,” said the Times.12

Any strained relations between O’Brien and management may have begun in the 1884 season, when he reportedly was not paid while he was sidelined with pneumonia.13

O’Brien was offered a contract for 1887 by the Association’s Brooklyn entry. The team finished third in the in 1886 with a 76-61-4 record. O’Brien signed with the Brooklyns and was their Opening Day catcher.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle praised him: “Brooklyn’s new player, O’Brien, is proving to be a valuable acquisition to the team, not only by his splendid catching, but by his judgment in batting and base running, not to mention his ability play an infield position up to a high mark. He is also an excellent coach and thoroughly up in the points of the game.”14

Injuries hampered O’Brien again in 1887; he appeared in just 30 of Brooklyn’s 138 games. He batted.228 with one home run and 17 RBIs. He was released after the season, and eventually signed with Baltimore.

O’Brien was again limited by injuries in 1888. He appeared in 57 of the Orioles’ 137 games, just 37 of them behind the plate. He hit a career-low .224 with 18 RBIs. The Orioles finished in fifth place with a 57-80 record, 36 games behind the champion Browns (92-43-2). O’Brien was released after the season. He sat out the 1889 season. A newspaper report said he had “retired permanently, and now he wants to be an umpire.”15

The offseason between the 1889 and 1890 seasons was tumultuous. A third major league, the eight-team Players’ League, was formed and lured many players from the National League and American Association. Six members of the 1889 Philadelphia Athletics jumped to the new league, so the team, with a new front office, persuaded O’Brien to make a comeback.

“The Athletics made a ten strike when they signed Jack O’Brien for first base,” the Philadelphia Inquirer declared. “There is no doubt about Jack’s ability as a hitter and a general player, and he only needs to pull off some of his superfluous flesh to be as good as he ever was.”16

Healthy the entire season, O’Brien played in a career-high 109 games as the Athletics’ regular first baseman. In a career-high 433 at-bats, he hit .261 with career highs in home runs (4), triples (14), RBIs (80), runs scored (80), and stolen bases (31). He also matched his career high with 113 hits.

O’Brien and the Athletics got off to a great start, winning 21 of their first 30 games. A doubleheader sweep (4-1, 9-7) of Columbus at home on July 4 left the Athletics with a 40-20 record and a six-game lead over second-place Louisville. But the success came to an abrupt halt. The Athletics lost 15 of their next 19 games and dropped to third place.

The final month of the season was marred by the team’s financial difficulties. In early September, the franchise was hit with several claims over unpaid bills and O’Brien was one of nine Athletic players to file suit against the franchise for unpaid salaries. The club announced that it was bankrupt.17

After the Athletics lost to Baltimore, 5-1, on September 16 in a game shortened to seven innings because of rain, the franchise, which was $17,000 in debt – $2,650 owed to the players – gave the players their unconditional releases.18 The Athletics were 54-57 at the time. They were able to secure enough players to finish out the season, but they didn’t win another game. They finished the season with a 22-game losing streak.

After the season, the club’s property was auctioned off and in late November, the American Associated voted the team out of the league.

Having made it through the 1890 season without an injury, O’Brien decided to play again in 1891. He signed with the St. Paul Apostles of the Western Association. As in 1890, O’Brien’s 1891 season was interrupted by financial issues.

In early June the Apostles franchise, which was struggling financially, was sold to a group in Duluth, Minnesota. The team remained based in St. Paul and was still referred to as St. Paul until the middle of the month. St. Paul had a 16-34 record on June 17. Between June 18 and July 4, the team played road games in Minneapolis, Omaha, Lincoln, Denver, and Kansas City. The team finally played its first home game in Duluth on July 5.

Despite the distractions, O’Brien was having a solid season. “Jack O’Brien continues to put up a fine game for St. Paul,” wrote the Minneapolis Tribune on June 21.19

On August 20 the team was disbanded. “Manager (Bill) Watkins said this evening the victim would be Duluth,” the Omaha Bee reported. “The citizens of Duluth, he said, had failed to raise the $3,000 to pay the players’ back salaries for thirty days, and the club would have to go to the wall. Mr. Watkins has arranged to transfer six of his players to the new Minneapolis team, most of the players of which have deserted during the past week.”20

Duluth finished with a 37-62 record. For the second consecutive season, O’Brien stayed healthy. Appearing in 97 games, he led the team’s regulars with a .317 batting average. He had six home runs and 22 RBIs.

For O’Brien, who was 31, his professional career was over. In eight major-league seasons, he had a batting average of .266, with 106 doubles, 42 triples, 11 home runs, and 308 RBIs.

O’Brien remained in Philadelphia and worked as a pressman. He continued to play semipro baseball locally.

O’Brien died of Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment, on November 20, 1910. He was 50 years old. At the time of his death, he was said to be a widower with a young daughter. Little information is known about his wife or family, but it is believed the couple had two daughters. He was buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia under the name John Byrne.



In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted,,,, and



1 “The Home Clubs: Sketch of the Men Who Constitute the Local Teams,” Sporting Life (Philadelphia), April 15, 1883: 2.

2 David Nemec, ed., MLB Profiles, 1871-1900, Volume 1: The Ballplayers Who Built the Game (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press), 266.

3 Nemec, 265.

4 “Ballomaniacs,” San Francisco Examiner, April 11, 1879: 3.

5 “Base Ball. Two Interesting Games Played at the Oakland Grounds,” Oakland Tribune, April 22, 1879: 1.

6 “Base Ball. Two Interesting Games Played at the Oakland Grounds.”

7 “Base ball,” Oakland Tribune, May 27, 1879: 3.

8 Robert D. Warrington, “Philadelphia in the 1881 Eastern Championship Association,” Baseball Research Journal, Spring 2019: 83.

9 “On the Field and Track,” Times (Philadelphia), May 3, 1882: 1.

10 “Base Ball,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 3, 1882: 2.

11 “Base Ball notes,” Times, October 10, 1886: 10.

12 “The Athletic Club,” Times, November 7, 1886: 11.

13 “Base Ball,” Times, June 4, 1884: 4; “Notes,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 7, 1884: 8.

14 “Storm Bound,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 19, 1887: 1.

15 “Notes of the Diamond Field,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 17, 1889: 6.

16 “Base Ball Comment,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 19, 1890: 6.

17 “The Bankrupt Athletics,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 7, 1890: 3.

18 “A Base Ball Club Disbands,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 17, 1890: 1.

19 “Base Ball Notes,” Minneapolis Tribune, June 21, 1891: 11.

20 “Will Start Over,” Omaha Daily Bee, August 20, 1891: 2.

Full Name

John K. O'Brien


June 12, 1860 at Philadelphia, PA (USA)


November 20, 1910 at Philadelphia, PA (USA)

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