This article was written by Bill Nowlin
The first year the Red Sox wore uniform numbers was 1931. The first man to wear #1 was Bill Sweeney. It was his last year in the majors.
Sweeney lived out the rest of his life in baseball, twice managing the Pacific Coast League Los Angeles Angels to pennants, in two stints eight years apart (1943-46 and 1954-55), and managing the Portland Beavers three different times (1936-39, 1949-51, and 1956-57).
Sweeney was of Irish/English heritage. His father, Michael J. Sweeney, came to America in 1887. He was one of 15 children.1 His mother, Catherine Carney, came two years later. They married and had at least eight children; Bill was the sixth born – on December 29, 1904, in Cleveland, where Michael worked as an iron worker in a plate mill.
Sweeney attended Immaculate Conception school through the eighth grade, but that was the extent of his formal education.
Sweeney was a first baseman playing ball in Cleveland, including in an indoor baseball league sponsored by City Councilman Tom Walsh in early 1923.2 In 1924, he played semipro ball with the Grennan Cake team. He was described as “the scintillating infielder picked up from the Class A Superior-105th Markets.”3 Cleveland scouts were reportedly looking him over. He was seen as “a real sensation at first…just about the sweetest youthful first baseman in the city…There doesn’t seem to be a better prospect in Cleveland sandlotdom.”4 The Grennan Cakes team captured the National Baseball Federation Class-A championship.5
He was 20 in early 1925 when he joined Wichita in the Class-A Western League and hit two doubles, a single, and a sacrifice in his first game. Despite the hot start, it was determined that he spend most of the season in Class B, playing for the Springfield (Illinois) Senators in the Three-I League. He had a good season wherever he played – in 40 games for Wichita (both before and after Springfield) he hit .342, while in 111 games for the Senators, he hit .375. He continued with Wichita in 1926, batting .305, his .992 fielding percentage leading the league.6 He was on a Minneapolis contact, but acquired by the Fort Worth Panthers in April 1927; he led the Texas League in fielding. Fort Worth was affiliated with the Detroit Tigers and Sweeney got an opportunity to play with Detroit in 1928.
His first game for the Tigers was on April 13, a fruitless pinch-hitting appearance. He collected his first base hit the next day and scored his first run. He drove in his first run on April 18. On April 26, friends in Cleveland organized “Sweeney Day” to celebrate his arrival there with the Tigers. . He was 0-for-3 with a walk, but received a wrist watch, traveling bag, cigar lighter, and a floral horseshoe tribute. His role was understudy to first-string first baseman Johnny Neun.
By season’s end, he had appeared in many more games than Neun – 89 games – hit a respectable .252, driven in 19 runs, and scored 47. Steady as always in the field, he’d committed only five errors in 740 chances (.993).
In a big December trade, the Tigers brought in Dale Alexander to play first base in 1929, however, and sent Sweeney to Toronto in partial payment for the big slugger. Alexander had a tremendous year for the Tigers. Sweeney had an excellent year for the Maple Leafs, batting .335 with nine home runs.
In the October 7, 1929, Rule 5 draft conducted at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, the Boston Red Sox selected Sweeney. A contender to replace or platoon with first baseman Phil Todt in 1930; he played in 88 games to Todt’s 111 and hit .309. Todt hit .269 but ranked second on the team in both home runs (11) and RBIs (62). Sweeney hit four homers. One of them won a game – his pinch-hit homer in the June 24 game against his former team, the Tigers. It wasn’t his only game-winning hit. A two-out walk-off double in the ninth won the May 16 game against the Yankees.
Before the season had begun, he and Helen Catherine Hueter married, on March 1, 1930. At the time, he was listed as a “salesman” and she as a clerk.
In February 1931 the Sox sold Todt to the Athletics for the waiver price so the first-base job became Sweeney’s under new Red Sox skipper Shano Collins. Sweeney was 2-for-4 with an RBI on Opening Day – wearing uniform #1 on that first day. The number seems to have reflected his position – first base – since second baseman Bobby Reeves wore #2 and third-baseman Jack Rothrock wore #3. There were no traditions yet established regarding uniform numbers, so someone just seems to have assigned them this way for the Red Sox. When Sweeney came down with a fever a few days later, Urbane Pickering filled in. With no other uniforms available, he slid on Sweeney’s #1 for the season’s fourth game. Sweeney came back a week later. By season’s end, he’d appeared in 131 games, posted the second-best batting average of the team with .295 (tops was Earl Webb’s .333, who set a major-league best single-season record of 67 doubles that has yet to be matched), and ranked third on the team in RBIs (with 58, on another anemic Red Sox team of the era). Sweeney earned a unique hit at Fenway on September 12. Leading off the bottom of the 13th inning, he hit a routine fly ball to right field. Roy Johnson of the Tigers camped underneath it when “up from the smooth green grass of that territory flashed a covey of pigeons. They flew between Johnson’s vision and the little white ball.”7 The ball tipped off his fingers, and Sweeney pulled into second base – but then took third when Johnson’s hurried throw went wild. He scored on a sacrifice fly for the only run of the 1-0 game.
Sweeney remained an excellent fielder, with a best-in-the-league .993 fielding percentage in 1931 (nine errors in 1,384 chances).
Come 1932, Collins and the Red Sox decided to go with Al Van Camp as their regular first baseman. “Van Camp filled in there last season when Sweeney was out, and I think he is a better first baseman than Sweeney,” Collins explained when giving Sweeney his outright release to the Toledo club on February 6.8 Van Camp had played under Collins for two years in Des Moines, so the manager knew him well. As it happens, Van Camp under-performed (hitting .223 in 34 games) and in mid-June the Red Sox traded with the Tigers, Earl Webb for Dale Alexander and Roy Johnson. Alexander won the AL. batting crown in 1932, hitting .367 overall (.372 during the 101 games he played for the Red Sox). Sweeney hit .308 in 148 games for the Toledo Mud Hens. In 1933, Sweeney played for Toledo again, batting .303 in 95 games.
In January 1934, the Columbus club purchased rights to his services but he played in only six games before being acquired by the Syracuse Chiefs, where he worked as playing manager, succeeding Andy High. Sweeney handled over 500 chances without an error and hit .335 with 10 homers in 123 games. The team finished in seventh place. In December, Sweeney was purchased by the International League’s Baltimore Orioles, where he hit .357 with 13 homers. He would have won the batting title if he’d made a hit in his last at-bat of the year.
It was back to the managerial ranks in 1936. That was his first year with Portland, who had traded Bill Cissell to Baltimore in November 1935. He started off the season on a down note, lining into a triple play on his very first time at bat.9 He appeared in 83 games during 1936, and hit .309 with three homers despite suffering a broken arm early in the season. He’d recovered from the arm injury within a month and took over the reins from injured manager Max Bishop in mid-May.10 The Beavers, who had finished fourth in 1935, won the pennant in 1936. They also won the playoffs. Veteran Portland sportswriter L. H. Gregory later wrote that Sweeney, who he considered “one of the great baseball managers,” had “piloted a weird collection of oldsters, castoffs, and a raw kid, 18-year-old Pete Coscarart at second base, and won one of the most exciting pennants of the league’s long history on the very last day. The winning single came off the bat of the youngster he made a regular.”11
It was back to fourth in 1937 (Sweeney hit .313 in 135 games) and to sixth place in 1938 (Sweeney’s average dropped to .273, a true off-year for him, hampered as he was with stomach ulcers and then an attack of appendicitis). A manager is only as good as the players on the team, so in mid-September L. H. Gregory opined, “No one blames the popular leader for this year’s collapse of the Beavers.” He added that Sweeney himself “had stayed in the line-up most of the summer on his nerve alone,” despite his afflictions.12
In the field, Sweeney’s .997 fielding percentage led all PCL first basemen.13 In 1939, the Beavers finished last, even though Sweeney had returned to form and hit .336 in 146 games.
As a manager, Gregory wrote, Sweeney simply “took charge.” He was also said to be “one of the keenest psychologists who ever ran a team,” despite his lack of formal schooling. He studied his players and truly got to know them. He once told Gregory, “They’re like little children, lead them by the hand. Sometimes you must surprise, even shock them. Always you must be thinking ahead of them. Sometimes a boy needs a little push, or should be curbed from running too wild. Just a hand on the rein is all they need, and you’re there to give it.”14
He administered one of those shocks when he was managing Hollywood in 1940. His team was in a prolonged slump. Standing in the press room, he calmly borrowed a pistol from the night watchman and shot the chandelier. The players heard about that for sure, and snapped out of the slump. There had been a time in Oakland when Portland was winning, 13-2, in the eighth inning but lost to the Oaks, 14-13. Sweeney went wild in the clubhouse, breaking everything in sight from bats to windows, but none of the violence was directed at any individual. His players weren’t so nonchalant after that.15
Standings aside, Sweeney was “one of the Pacific Coast League’s most popular pilots” and the Hollywood Stars had paid Portland a reported $10,000 to let him out of the one year remaining on his contract so he could manage the Stars in 1940. President E. J. Schefter on Portland said he hated to see him go, but had agreed to the deal at Sweeney’s request.16 He’d indeed been a popular manager, perhaps in part due to being such a “scrappy skipper” – he was ejected once in each game of the June 13, 1937 doubleheader.17 Those were not the only times he was thrown out of games that year. Remarkably, fans at Portland’s Vaughn Street park had spontaneously decided on their own to organize a dinner for him near the end of the season – even though the team was in last place. It was pulled together in two days and held on September 18.18
With the Stars, Sweeney played in 85 games in 1940. He suffered a hand injury in May and then was knocked unconscious by a collision with Lou Stringer in July, which put him on the shelf for the rest of the season with a number of torn chest muscles and an injury to his arm. His average for the year was just .268.
Sweeney had a much smaller family than the one he had been born into. He and his wife Helen had one child, an adopted son, Mike, who they had brought into the family in 1940 as an infant. Sweeney was a licensed embalmer and sometimes worked as an undertaker in the offseason. At the time of the 1940 census, he was listed as working in a bindery for a printing company, while Helen worked as a stenographer for an insurance firm.
As early as April 24, 1941, he was hurt again, struck in the elbow by a pitch. He appeared in only 48 games and hit .273. He was able to get the Stars into the playoffs “with only two dependable pitchers,”19 (fourth place was the highest the team had ever achieved) but in late October, Ossie Vitt was hired as manager for 1942. Sweeney was reportedly very popular with sportswriters, and they felt he’d gotten a raw deal.20 Within days, Leo Durocher came out publicly and said he’d recommended that Brooklyn Dodgers ownership hire him, perhaps to manage the Dodgers’ farm club in Montreal: “Sweeney is universally recognized as one of the smartest men in baseball and an outstanding manager.”21
In January 1942, Sweeney signed on as a coach for the Los Angeles Angels. He appeared in 17 games and hit .188. His playing days were clearly done. On November 26, he was promoted to succeed Jigger Statz and manage the Angels – which he did from 1943 through 1946.
The Angels had finished just one game out of first place in 1942. In 1943, they finished first – by 21 games, but were swept in four games in the playoffs. They finished first again in 1944 and made it to the finals but lost again. They finished seventh in ’45 and fourth in ’46. He resigned in October 1946.
For the full 1947 and 1948 seasons, Sweeney coached in the major leagues for the Detroit Tigers, working under manager Steve O’Neill. The Tigers finished second, and then fifth. The Tigers cleaned house after the season, and Sweeney was hired for a second stint with Portland. He managed the 1949, 1950, and 1951 seasons. The Beavers finished sixth, fourth, and fourth again.
The Seattle Rainiers signed him for 1952 and 1953; Seattle finished in third place and then second. Despite the solid finish in the latter year, he was reported to have “resigned” (the quotation marks were used in at least one news story).22
In 1953, the Pacific Coast League Baseball Writers’ Association named him the league’s all-time manager.23
The Angels hired him for a second time, and he managed there in 1954 and the start of 1955. The Seattle Daily Times observed, “It is possible that he never managed a less-talented troupe of performers than last year’s band of Angels.”24 He didn’t last long in 1955; though he had a much better crop of players, he had to resign on May 23 due to ill health. He’d struggled with a lingering illness for six months, and finally had to resign due to what proved to be a kidney ailment.25
In 1956, he returned for a third stint with Portland after Tommy Holmes resigned on July 11. The team was 44-49 when he arrived. He told the discouraged second-division team that they would finish in third place. They were 42-33 after he took over, did finish in third place, and he was hired again for 1957.
Just as the new season was getting underway, Sweeney died at age 52, on April 18, 1957, at Mercy Hospital in San Diego of chemical peritonitis, due to a perforated peptic ulcer. He’d been stricken during the fifth inning of the game between Portland and San Diego on the 17th, but declined medical attention. He said it was just “the worst stomach ache I’ve ever had.” The Padres won the game, 3-2, but Sweeney kept coaching throughout the game. He declined medical aid that night, hoping a good night’s sleep would solve the problem but he’d been found “in great pain and helpless” at 9 the next morning and rushed to the hospital for an operation. Though at first it seemed the operation had been successful, he succumbed.26
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Sweeney’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, Bill Lee’s The Baseball Necrology, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.
1 The Sporting News, April 24, 1957.
2 Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 21, 1923.
3 Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 14, 1924.
4 Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 8 and 29, 1924.
5 Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 8, 1931.
6 Dallas Morning News, April 20, 1927.
7 Boston Herald, September 13, 1931.
8 Boston Globe, February 7, 1932.
9 The Sporting News, April 9, 1936.
10 See, for instance, the Seattle Daily Times, May 15, 1936.
11 The Oregonian, April 22, 1957. This column of L. H. Gregory’s is a lengthy one and provides an excellent portrait of Sweeney’s managing style and personality.
12 The Sporting News, September 15, 1938.
13 San Diego Union, December 4, 1938.
14 The Oregonian, April 22, 1957.
16 The Sporting News, November 9, 1939.
17 The phrase comes from The Oregonian, September 25, 1937.
18 The Oregonian, September 18 and 19, 1939.
19 The Oregonian, October 24, 1941.
20 San Francisco Chronicle, October 28, 1941.
21 The Oregonian, October 31, 1941.
22 The Oregonian, October 1, 1953.
23 The Oregonian, April 22, 1957.
24 Seattle Daily Times, May 13, 1955.
25 Seattle Daily Times, May 25, 1955 and July 7, 1955.
26 The Sporting News, April 24, 1957.