This article was written by Peter Morris
William John Sweeney was born in Covington, Kentucky, on March 6, 1886, one of ten children of John Sweeney, an Irish-born salesman, and his wife Mary, a native of Cincinnati. The family moved to Cincinnati and then across the river to Newport, Kentucky, where Sweeney grew up. During his career, it was widely reported that he had attended Cincinnati’s Xavier College and played shortstop for the school. However, since he was only 18 when he began his professional career, it seems more likely that he was a student at the preparatory school associated with Xavier, rather than the college itself.
Sweeney also played in Norwood, Ohio’s well-regarded Saturday League, where one of his teammates was future cup-of-coffee major leaguer John Schulte. (Sporting Life, March 30, 1912, December 14, 1912) He made his professional debut with Toledo of the American Association in 1904. After hitting only .225 in limited playing time, he closed out the season with Rock Island of the Three-I League, batting .301.
He returned to Rock Island for the 1905 season where he was named team captain and earned a reputation as “one of the most popular and consistent players that was ever connected with the local team.” Before the season, he had reached an unusual understanding with team management: “Sweeney is one of those players who is in the game for the love of it and to see the country. When he signed for this year he made the request that if he was ready by the end of the season to graduate into faster company, that a place be found for him on the [Pacific] Coast, as he wished to play ball there for a time, preferring that to a berth in one of the major leagues.” Sweeney was as good as his word, passing up the opportunity to earn a much greater salary from an outlaw league in Pennsylvania. Management upheld their end of the bargain as well, turning down several offers from major league clubs and selling Sweeney’s contract to Portland (Oregon) of the Pacific Coast League at the end of August. (Rock Island Argus, reprinted in Portland Oregonian, September 3, 1905)
Sweeney struggled to a .227 mark with Portland that fall, but it was a different story when he returned to Portland for the 1906 season. He pounded out a .276 average while stealing 51 bases and leading all shortstops in chances accepted per game. The previously inept Beavers won the PCL pennant by 21 games in the earthquake-shortened season. Their .663 winning percentage remained the league record until 1934. The Chicago Cubs beat out several other clubs to draft Sweeney at the end of the season.
Sweeney’s new team was coming off a record-shattering 116-36 season and featured an intact young infield of Harry Steinfeldt and the soon-to-become-legendary combination of Tinker to Evers to Chance. Sweeney’s chances seemed to improve when Joe Tinker had to have his appendix removed and missed part of spring training. (Chicago Tribune, March 2, 1907) However, Sweeney was plagued by mysterious darting pains in his feet and ankles. Team trainer Jack McCormick eventually diagnosed the malady as “strapitis” — Sweeney had kept in shape that off-season by roller-skating, but had laced his skates too tightly and cut off the circulation. (Chicago Tribune, March 8, 1907)
The unusual injury delayed his major league debut until June 14, when Tinker suffered a Charley horse. Sweeney took his place at shortstop, and the nervous rookie made a throwing error that led to two runs in a 4-2 Chicago win. The next day, Sweeney made his first major league start, but he played too far back and committed four errors, including a critical ninth-inning miscue that forced the Cubs to play eleven innings to win. He started again the next day and made only one error, but Chance had seen enough and on June 20, Sweeney was traded to the Boston Doves. (Chicago Tribune, June 15-21, 1907)
A more dramatic change of fortune would be hard to imagine. While the Cubs would romp to back-to-back world championships in 1907 and 1908, Sweeney’s woeful new team was coming off a last-place season and would repeat as cellar-dwellers in four of the next six seasons. Between 1906 and 1912, Boston would finish 348.5 games behind Chicago, an average of fifty games a season. In 1909, the two clubs met twenty-two times, with the Doves winning only once.
Sweeney played a utility role for Boston the rest of the 1907 season, and over the next six years he would become the stalwart of what was surely the most unsettled infield in baseball history. Consider the following lowlights. Twenty-eight-year-old third baseman Dave Brain hit .279 and led the National League in homers in 1907, but would rap out only nine more major-league hits. Scotty Ingerton garnered over 500 at bats as a utility infielder in 1911 but never before or afterward appeared in a major league game. Seventeen-year-old Blackie O’Rourke was installed as the team’s shortstop in 1912 and hit a lusty .122. He returned to the minors for four more years of seasoning before eventually carving out a fourteen-year major league career. Rookie Jack Coffey was the closest thing the Braves had to a regular shortstop in 1909, but after batting .187 it would be nine more years before he resurfaced in the majors. Harry Steinfeldt was acquired to be the club’s third baseman in 1911 but played only 19 games and would be dead within three years. Ed McDonald was Boston’s regular third baseman in 1912, but never again got a hit in the major leagues. Even more incredibly, Boston used a different regular first baseman each year from 1908 to 1912 and not one of them ever appeared in another major league game.
Surrounded by all these apprentices, Bill Sweeney was forced to make two position switches to plug the gaping holes. After spending two seasons at third base, he shifted to shortstop in 1910. After one season there, he moved permanently to second base.
The move was fortuitous. Sweeney threw with an unusual sidearm motion, and would lead the National League in errors at his respective positions for five straight seasons. However, he also led the league three times in chances accepted per game. The new position was ideal for Sweeney because it allowed him to flash his outstanding range, but put less pressure on his sometimes erratic throwing arm. Total Baseball‘s fielding ratings credit him with being an average shortstop and an above-average third baseman — but an outstanding second baseman.
Bill Sweeney also emerged as a team leader during these years, being named captain in 1910. While most captains of this era were pugnacious types, Sweeney pursued a different course. He was known as “the most religious man in baseball, and never, under any circumstances, uses vulgar words.” (William A. Phelon, Sporting Life, February 19, 1914) All indications suggest that Sweeney commanded the respect of his teammates with his quiet approach to leadership.
In his first three big league seasons, Sweeney’s batting was competent for a middle infielder. Midway through the 1910 season, he made a wise switch from a light bat to one of the heaviest in the majors. Rather than trying to become a power hitter, Sweeney continued to “try to swing straight at the ball and send it out on a line, just over the infielders’ heads.” The result was new highs in batting average, walks and extra-base hits.
He started the 1911 season in a deep slump, and was hitting a mere .192 at the end of April. He heated up in May and when moved to the leadoff spot on May 26, Sweeney responded by fashioning a 26-game hitting streak that lasted from May 30 to July 1. (This streak is listed as a 31-gamer that began on May 24 in many sources, but he went hitless in the first game of the doubleheader on May 30.) He ended the season on an even better skein, batting a robust .365 after August 12. He also showed much more patience after moving to the leadoff spot, with a .297 on-base percentage prior to the switch and a .432 mark afterward. For the season, Sweeney posted a formidable .314 average, a .404 on-base percentage and a significant increase in his extra base hits.
Cincinnati president Garry Herrmann offered $10,000 for Sweeney’s contract that winter, with the intention of making the local product a player-manager. Boston manager Fred Tenney responded that he would consider accepting the $10,000 along with Reds’ second baseman Dick Egan, but added, “I should very much dislike to do so. If we let you have [Sweeney] at all, it is merely as a matter of personal accommodation under existing conditions.” Five days later, Tenney withdrew his offer and explained that the conditions had changed again: “since writing you I have learned that the Club may be sold. I would consider it to be by far the better business policy to let matters rest as they are until the status of the Club is definitely determined. The sale of Sweeney at this time might prejudice the value of the team in the eyes of the prospective purchaser.” (Garry Herrmann collection, National Baseball Hall of Fame)
The turmoil in the Boston front office was underscored by the fact that the letterhead on which Tenney wrote had X’s through the names of two of the club’s four officers. Matters got worse when owner William Hepburn Russell died within the month and the new owners replaced Tenney with Johnny Kling. The chance for Sweeney to leave Boston was lost in the shuffle.
Sweeney had been excited about the prospect of returning to Cincinnati and held out during training camp. (Sporting Life, March 9, 1912; The Sporting News, March 14, 1912) When he finally came to terms, Sweeney put together a season that surpassed even his splendid 1911 campaign. He batted leadoff for the first twenty-five games of the 1912 season but then was moved to the number three position in the lineup. (Sporting Life, May 15, 1912) He never missed a beat and swatted a prodigious .344 for the year while driving in a hundred runs. The total is astonishing considering Sweeney’s time in the leadoff spot and that he ranked among the league leaders in sacrifice bunts with 33.
His fielding was equally brilliant, as he set a National League record for putouts by a second baseman that would stand for twenty-one years. Even without a regular shortstop partner, he led the league in assists and double plays. Sweeney came in sixth in the National League MVP voting although Boston lost 100 games for a fourth consecutive year. The winner of the award was Larry Doyle, second baseman for the pennant-winning Giants, whose numbers were comparable to Sweeney’s but not better. (Bill Deane, Award Voting, 15)
Sweeney could not repeat his batting success in 1913. Playing through nagging injuries to his wrist and throwing hand, he fell off precipitously at the plate. However, Boston’s fortunes had begun to revive under new manager George Stallings. Before the season, Sweeney predicted that his club, now known as the Braves, would fight it out for fifth that year. (The Sporting News, March 27, 1913) The team did indeed move up to fifth place that season after four straight years in the National League cellar. Sweeney and rookie shortstop Rabbit Maranville finally brought some stability to the infield. Sweeney also assumed the role of acting manager when Stallings returned home because of an illness in the family. (The Sporting News, March 19, 1914) In spite of the subpar year at the plate, Sweeney tied for thirteenth in MVP balloting. (Bill Deane, Award Voting, 15)
Meanwhile, the Cubs were headed in the opposite direction. While still a first-division club, the Cubs’ win total had declined every year since their last pennant in 1910. The team’s irascible president Charles Webb Murphy was unceremoniously dismantling the holdovers from the glory days. After the 1913 season, player-manager Johnny Evers was offered $100,000 to sign with the Federal League, but instead signed with Chicago for much less money. Murphy, however, had apparently already decided to fire Evers, yet delayed the announcement until his popular player-manager could induce several players to sign their contracts.
In February, Murphy fired Evers as manager and the next day traded him to Boston for Bill Sweeney and Hub Perdue. Evers balked at the transaction, and, fearing that they would lose another popular star to the Federal League, the National Commission voided the trade and awarded Evers’ contract to Boston. They also used the debacle to finally force Murphy to sell the team. (Boston Globe, February 11-15, 1914)
The acquisition of Evers to take his place at second base left Bill Sweeney with a dilemma. Manager Stallings offered him the chance to move to first base, which was vacant yet again because incumbent Hap Myers had signed with the Brooklyn Tip-Tops of the Federal League. Sweeney was reluctant to make yet another position change, but after six full seasons in Boston he had deep roots in the community. After the 1911 season, he had married Katherine Leonard, the sister-in-law of club treasurer Fred Murphy. (The Sporting News, March 14, 1912) The couple had settled in Cambridge, and the first of their five children, William Jr., was born in 1913. Sweeney had built up an insurance business in the off-season and also become a popular after-dinner speaker, frequently addressing the area’s Sunday schools and young men’s clubs. (The Sporting News, February 26, 1914)
After Sweeney wrestled with his decision for a month, Chicago offered him a three-year contract with a sizeable signing bonus and a fifty-percent raise. (The Sporting News, March 19, 1914, December 24, 1914) Sweeney accepted, and used some of the money to purchase a “five-passenger benzine [sic] buggy.” (The Sporting News, December 24, 1914) He undoubtedly anticipating the opportunity to finally play for a pennant contender, but instead Chicago spent the year struggling to stay above the .500 mark.
Sweeney’s departure left the Braves without a single player who had been on the team at the start of the 1911 season. Boston staggered out of the gates at 4-18 and was still in last place on July 4th but made a miraculous turnaround to win the 1914 pennant and World Series. For Sweeney it must truly have been both the best and worst of times to return home to Boston and watch the team that he had toiled for during so many lean years scale such heights. However, he retained his sense of humor and, after the Series, dropped in at the Braves’ office and casually inquired whether a Cub would be welcome inside. (The Sporting News, December 24, 1914)
Sweeney’s career was now in serious decline. He had retained the Cubs’ second base job all season but batted a feeble .218, and there was speculation that his mind was more on premiums and policies than baseball. Only 28 and two years removed from finishing sixth in the league’s MVP voting, Sweeney was unconditionally released. (Chicago Tribune, February 14, 1915) He went to spring training with the Red Sox in 1915 but showed little and was let go, thus missing out on yet another chance to play for a World Series winner. (The Sporting News, March 4, 11 and 18, 1915) There was talk that he might sign with Detroit or Cincinnati, but his youthful desire to see the country had now been succeeded by a conviction that there was no place like his adopted hometown. Still shy of his thirtieth birthday, Bill Sweeney announced his retirement. (The Sporting News, April 8, 1915; Boston Globe, April 6, 9 and 15, 1915)
In 1916 he coached the Boston College baseball team and that year sold the Boston Braves a half-million-dollar accident insurance policy from which his commission was said to be more than a season’s baseball salary. That ended his active connection with baseball, and thereafter he devoted his attention to his insurance business and to raising his five children. Bill Sweeney died on May 26, 1948, at Wyman House, Mt. Auburn Hospital, in Cambridge. He was buried in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in West Roxbury.
Note: A somewhat different version of this biography appeared in Tom Simon, ed., Deadball Stars of the National League (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, Inc., 2004).
This piece is based upon Sweeney’s Hall of Fame file, the Retrosheet website, contemporary articles in the sporting presses, the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe, an obituary tracked down for me by Bob Richardson, and notes unearthed by Jim Lannen, Carlos Bauer and Rock Bauer.