By appearing in 31 games in 1884 during the lone season of the Union Association, Jerry Sweeney is one of several dozen professional ballplayers whose only major-league experience occurred in that upstart league. Sweeney had a checkered baseball career, as a result of his involvement in the accidental death of a teammate in 1878, and died at age 33 in 1891.
Jeremiah James Sweeney was born on September 4, 1857, in Boston, Massachusetts.1 He was the second oldest of the five children of James and Mary Sweeney, both natives of Ireland.2 His father worked as a packer for various businesses in the central business district of Boston, close to the family’s home at 42 Seneca Street in the South End neighborhood.3 By 1872 Sweeney likely left school to go to work to help support his family.4
In 1877, Sweeney played first base for the Our Boys, a semipro baseball team based in Boston.5 For the 1878 season, Sweeney became a full-time professional ballplayer as the first baseman for a new professional team based in Westboro, Massachusetts, 25 miles west of Boston.6 Westboro was the smallest locale to compete for the New England Association championship in 1878. When the Westboro team disbanded in August, Sweeney and most of the players joined the independent team in nearby Clinton, Massachusetts.7
Following Clinton’s victory over Springfield on September 4, 1878, Sweeney’s teammate Billy Crook died in a fall at the hotel where the Clinton team was staying that night.8 The hometown newspaper of the Clinton team reported the incident in excruciating detail:
Crook was on his way upstairs about ten o’clock, for the night, and stopped on the second floor for a little sport, when in the dim light he backed against what he supposed was the side of the house, but in reality was merely a low railing which surrounded an aperture, covered by glass, beneath which the chandelier hung; he fell backwards upon the glass, which of course gave way; Sweeney caught him by one leg, but his clothing gave way, and he fell, striking the chandelier and falling from thence, twenty-eight feet in all, to the floor striking his head; he was taken up unconscious, and remained so till about six the next morning when he died.9
Clinton manager George Fayerweather, who witnessed the accident, added a few more details several years later: “Sweeney and Crook went upstairs together. Sweeney went into the bath-room and Billy, who was always full of fun, followed and struck him on the back, then started backward on the run, trying to ward off Sweeney, as the latter chased him. He backed into an air well. Sweeney made a grab to save him, caught him by the pants, but the grab did not hold, and poor Billy fell to the bottom of the well.”10
Fayerweather said that Sweeney was severely shaken up by the incident. “After Crook’s death, Jerry Sweeney, who was a Boston boy, a grand first baseman and good fellow, was a badly broken up man. His usefulness was greatly impaired, as the sad death of his chum was a severe blow to him.”11 Fayerweather did not elaborate on what he meant by Sweeney being “greatly impaired,” but it is likely that Sweeney began to drink heavily to try to avoid his demons.
For the 1879 season, Sweeney was back at first base for the Clinton team.12 The team was now under the management of George Brackett, who replaced Fayerweather.13 Brackett had managed teams the previous two years in the International Association, which in 1879 had downsized to being the National Association. Although Sweeney was no longer the same player that he was in 1878, Brackett saw promise in him. Brackett would later be the angel who provided Sweeney with the few opportunities he would get to play in Organized Baseball.
In June 1879, the Clinton team disbanded.14 While Brackett helped several of the Clinton players to get jobs with teams in the National Association, Sweeney had to settle for playing for the semipro team in Malden, a suburb north of Boston.15 Later in 1879 he played briefly with the Washington Nationals of the National Association, when the manager “engaged on trial Sweeney, late of the Clintons and Maldens,” for the team’s game in New Bedford, 40 miles south of Boston.16 When Brackett revived the Live Oak ball club in Lynn in August 1879 as a semipro team, he had Sweeney at first base.17 However, an uncertain future in baseball, compounded by the death of Crook in 1878, likely led Sweeney to drink even more. In December 1879 his girlfriend became pregnant, but Sweeney did not immediately marry her, as was the custom at the time.
There were few professional baseball opportunities for 1880 in the Greater Boston area, but Sweeney was able to procure the first-base job with the independent professional team in Brockton, 20 miles south of Boston.18 Sweeney got a chance to make an impression with major-league team officials when Brockton played exhibition games against the National League teams of Troy and Buffalo.19 However, by the end of June the Brockton club disbanded and Sweeney was out of baseball once again. On July 11, 1880, Sweeney married a visibly pregnant Mary Stewart.20 Their first son, Edward, was born six weeks later, on August 22.21 Although he listed “ballplayer” as his occupation on the marriage certificate, Sweeney rarely identified his occupation in that manner in other instances. In the 1880 federal census his occupation was listed as clerk and in Edward’s birth record he was listed as a glass cutter.
With a family to house and feed, Sweeney left baseball. The Boston City Directory during the early 1880s listed his residence as 295 North Street in the city’s North End neighborhood and his occupation as machinist.22 It is unclear if Sweeney played much baseball during the years 1881 through 1883. Beyond the National League clubs in Boston, Worcester, and Providence, there were very few opportunities to play professional baseball in eastern New England in 1881 and 1882. For the 1883 season, Sweeney apparently did not head west to Michigan to play for a team in the Northwestern League, the first recognized minor league, as did many of the top ballplayers from the Boston area.
For the 1884 season George Brackett also went west, to manage the Quincy (Illinois) club in the Northwestern League.23 Brackett enticed Sweeney to join him in Quincy, and named him team captain.24 Sweeney demonstrated some petulant behavior while with Quincy. “Sweeney, the captain and first baseman, was in the sulks and declined to play because Manager Brackett wanted him to leave a dance at midnight last night,” the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported. “His actions to-day, however, have lost him more friends worth having than he can regain in years.”25
Quincy applied to move up to the major leagues by joining the Union Association, and got a tryout in an August 14 exhibition game against the league’s first-place St. Louis Maroons; after getting only two hits in that game, Quincy was denied entry into the league and then disbanded.26 However, the lowly Kansas City team, with the worst won-lost record in the Union Association, picked up Sweeney and several other Quincy players. Sweeney played his first major-league game on August 22, 1884. Two weeks later Kansas City came to Boston to play four games against the Boston Unions at the Dartmouth Street Grounds.
Sweeney was in the lineup at first base for the September 10 game, when he created quite a stir. “Jeremiah Sweeney made his first appearance in this city with the Kansas City Unions yesterday afternoon, and he celebrated it by making himself as sublimely ridiculous as ever did a player in this city,” the Boston Globe reported. Sweeney received a floral tribute when he came to bat in the first inning, before his “ridiculous” act:
He had two strikes, and then to every one’s astonishment, he drove the ball by McCarthy. This feat and the unexpected and touching tribute made him forgetful of the fact that the bases must be touched, and emulating the swiftly-moving Gore, he skipped by second and neglected third. O’Brien and Irwin promptly claimed the out and Umpire Dutton, who saw the whole of Sweeney’s act, allowed the claim. Sweeney, who is the captain, then began a disgraceful amount of kicking, which only terminated when the time for resuming play expired.27
He was absent from the final game of the series on September 12, as the Boston Globe noted that “Sweeney, the disturbing element of the club, was not there, and everything went smoothly.”28
Sweeney played his last major-league game on October 16, 1884. In the 31 games he played for Kansas City, Sweeney compiled a .264 batting average and a .958 fielding average. The Boston Globe reported during the fall of 1884 that “Jerry Sweeney of this city, who played with the Kansas Citys last season, has been offered $1800 for next season and wants $2100.”29 Because the Union Association had disbanded, the Kansas City club entered the minor-league Western Association for the 1885 season, but without Sweeney due to his inflated salary demands.
For the 1885 baseball season, Sweeney became an umpire in the fledging New England League, a minor league established among several smaller cities in New England. Since Brackett had returned to Massachusetts to manage the Haverhill team in the New England League, he likely helped Sweeney secure that job. Sweeney umpired mostly the games played in the two Maine cities of Biddeford and Portland. The Biddeford Journal reported that Sweeney turned to umpiring because “the former Kansas City player … was troubled with rheumatism to such an extant that he was obliged to give up ball playing.”30 At a late June game in Portland, the Boston Globe reported that the often mercurial “Mr. Sweeney umpired, and surprised all present by his fine decisions.”31 In late July, though, after returning to Massachusetts to umpire a game in Brockton, Sweeney thereafter disappeared from the newspaper box scores of league games. He appears to have returned to Maine for the 1886 season, playing some first base for ballclubs in Bangor and Belfast.32
Sweeney’s last appearance in Organized Baseball was during the 1887 season, when he appeared in several games for the Salem and Lynn teams in the New England League. Sweeney signed with Salem in April, likely due to the influence of Brackett.33 He was soon released and signed with Lynn, where Brackett was part owner of the club.34 However, in a game on June 17 Sweeney got in a tussle with Lowell player-manager Bill McGunnigle.
“McGunnigle was assaulted during the game,” the Lowell Sun bluntly reported to its readers, over a dispute between Sweeney and McGunnigle (Mac) about the number of strikes called on a Lowell player. “Sweeney called Mac a hard name and Mac returned it. Sweeney, who had started off to his base, suddenly turned and running up behind Mac, gave him a blow on the jaw, breaking off a piece from one of his teeth. Mac, like the gentleman he is, restrained himself. Manager Murphy pulled Sweeney away and the spectators saw the end of the most disgraceful scene ever acted on a ball field.” The Lowell writer added: “Measures should be taken to blacklist Sweeney so that he can never play on a league ball field again.”35 Sweeney played his last minor-league ball game on June 21, 1887, after the Boston Globe reported: “Jerry Sweeney, the Lynn first baseman, is at some of his old tricks again. He assaulted Manager McGunnigle during a game last week. His case should be looked into at once.”36
During his last years, Sweeney suffered from tuberculosis, which in the nineteenth century was referred to as consumption or, as stated on his death certificate, pulmonary phthisis. In November 1890 the Boston Globe bluntly reported that Sweeney “is now dying from consumption at his home in the North End, this city.”37 In June 1891 his friends in Boston organized a benefit for Sweeney, to raise money for his wife and children to live on after his death.38 Sweeney died on August 25, 1891, at his home in Boston, and is buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston.39
This biography was reviewed by Len Levin and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author utilized data and information from Baseball-Reference.com as well as the early history of professional baseball in the Boston area from the author’s book Tim Keefe: A Biography of the Hall of Fame Pitcher and Player-Rights Advocate (McFarland, 2015).
1 Birth records in the Massachusetts State Archives for 1857 (Volume 107, Page 113). Since the given name on this birth record is James, the name Jeremiah was adopted later to distinguish between father and son.
2 Federal census records for 1870 for Ward 7 of Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts; federal census records for 1880 for 42 Seneca Street, Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts.
3 Boston City Directory, 1869 and 1878.
4 Age 14 was then the maximum age under state law for compulsory school attendance; the 1870 federal census listed the occupation of 12-year-old Sweeney as being a student.
5 New York Clipper, May 5, 1877.
6 New York Clipper, May 11, 1878.
7 Clinton (Massachusetts) Conant, August 17, 1878.
8 Death records in the Massachusetts State Archives for 1878 (Volume 301, Page 354).
9 Clinton (Massachusetts) Conant, September 7, 1878.
10 Frank Pope, “The Clintons of ’78: Manager Fayerweather Gives Reminiscences,” Boston Globe, March 24, 1889.
12 New York Clipper, April 19, 1879.
13 New York Clipper, May 17, 1879.
14 Clinton (Massachusetts) Conant, June 14, 1879.
15 New York Clipper, July 12, 1879.
16 New York Clipper, August 30, 1879.
17 Boston Globe, August 22, 1879.
18 New York Clipper, May 15, 1880.
19 New York Clipper, May 22 and June 19, 1880.
20 Marriage records in the Massachusetts State Archives for 1880 (Volume 318, Page 104).
21 Birth records in the Massachusetts State Archives for 1880 (Volume 315, Page 111).
22 Boston City Directory, 1882.
23 Boston Globe, March 23, 1884.
24 St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 11, 1884.
25 St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 13, 1884.
26 St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 15 and 16, 1884.
27 Boston Globe, September 11, 1884.
28 Boston Globe, September 13, 1884.
29 Boston Globe, November 2, 1884.
30 Biddeford (Maine) Journal, June 19, 1885.
31 Boston Globe, June 27, 1885.
32 New York Clipper, September 5, 1891.
33 Boston Post, April 1, 1887.
34 New York Clipper, May 28 and June 4, 1887.
35 Lowell (Massachusetts) Sun, June 18, 1887.
36 Boston Globe, June 22, 1887.
37 Boston Globe, November 2, 1890.
38 Boston Globe, June 24, 1891.
39 Boston Globe, August 26, 1891; New York Clipper, September 5, 1891; death records in the Massachusetts State Archives for 1891 (Volume 420, Page 293).