Although he played just one game with the Boston Braves, in August 1920, Tom Whelan is one of nearly six dozen men who have played both major-league baseball and NFL football.1 Whelan is one of the few who played both sports in the same year, as he played with the Canton Bulldogs in the fall of 1920. In 1925, after several years of playing minor-league baseball and coaching college football, Whelan returned to his hometown, where he worked the next three decades at a local high school, first as athletic coach and later as headmaster.
Thomas Joseph Whelan was born on January 3, 1894, in Lynn, Massachusetts, a city 10 miles north of Boston along the Atlantic Ocean.2 He was the fourth of seven children of Bartholomew and Mary Whelan.3 His father worked as a laster in a shoe factory in Lynn, a city nationally renowned for making women’s shoes, and worked his way up to being a foreman by the time Tom was a teenager.4 Tom followed in the footsteps of his older siblings, who all labored as shoeworkers rather than attend high school, to help support the family.5 Although often referred to as having attended Lynn English High School, Whelan likely was only briefly a student there before working in a shoe factory by 1910.6 Instead of making a name for himself as a high-school athlete, Whelan excelled on the sandlot as an amateur and semipro athlete. By 1912 the 18-year-old Whelan was playing semipro baseball for the local Lynnhurst club.7
Whelan’s athletic prowess at the semipro level led to his receiving a secondary education at Worcester Academy, a prep school in central Massachusetts about 50 miles from Lynn, which he attended from September 1912 to June 1914. Since his working-class family could not afford the lofty tuition, room, and board at the prep school, the cost was probably covered by a Lynn benefactor, likely George Cornet. Cornet was then commissioner of public property for the City of Lynn, which entailed running the public parks where Whelan played baseball. Cornet was also the future sponsor of a semipro team, the Cornets, and later established the Cornet Scholarships “which made it possible for many athletes to attend college.”8 Cornet needed to convince Whelan’s father of the value of an education for his son in order for the family to forgo the income from his job at the shoe factory.
The Worcester Academy baseball team, with Whelan at first base, compiled consecutive undefeated 14-0 seasons in 1913 and 1914.9 The Philadelphia Athletics of the American League offered Whelan a contract, but he declined it and instead decided to continue his education in college.10 The ticket to a free college education, though, was to play football, the premier sport at the college level, not baseball. While there were no athletic scholarships at the time, college coaches worked with well-heeled alumni to provide “incentives” to athletes to pay for their tuition, room, and board at the college.
For his first two years in college, Whelan briefly attended Notre Dame (1914-1915) and Dartmouth (1915-1916), where he played on the freshman football team.11 He finally found his footing at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where Lynn native Bill Joyce, an outfielder on the Georgetown baseball team, introduced Whelan to the football coach.12 Joyce, who turned out to be a better manager than player, would play a pivotal role in Whelan’s life. Whelan was a standout end on the Georgetown football team during the 1916 and 1917 seasons.13 He also briefly played baseball at Georgetown during the spring of 1917, before the college canceled the season due to the United States’ entry into World War 1.14 During the summers while in college, Whelan continued to play semipro baseball back in Massachusetts, playing for the Lynn Gas & Electric team in 1916 and Queen Quality of Lynn in 1917.15
After the 1917 football season at Georgetown, Whelan joined the American war effort by enlisting in the Navy and training as a pilot at the naval aviation station in Pensacola, Florida.16 After his discharge from the Navy in 1919, he returned to Lynn to play semipro baseball with the Lynn Cornets. In August 1919 Whelan witnessed Bernie Friberg advance directly from the Cornets to play for the Chicago Cubs of the National League. Friberg credited Bill Joyce for making the connections for his promotion to the major leagues.17 For several years into the 1920s, the semipro Cornets were a talent feeder to major-league teams.
During the fall of 1919, Whelan traveled to Ohio to play professional football with the Canton Bulldogs, headed by the legendary Jim Thorpe, “the biggest name in sport” and the prototype two-sport pro athlete.18 Since Thorpe played baseball in 1919 with the Boston Braves, he came into contact with Whelan and several other Georgetown football alumni living in the Boston area, who all agreed to join the Bulldogs. Thorpe, as player-coach, led the team to the championship of the Ohio League. Between 1919 and 1924 Whelan shuttled back and forth between Massachusetts and the Midwest to cobble together a living as a professional athlete.
During the summer of 1920 Whelan played for the Cornets again. He got his big break in a game on August 11, when Whelan collected three hits and the Boston Globe published a special dispatch the next day headlined “Cornets Shut Out Quincy at Lynn; T. Whelan Scores Batting Honors at Little River.” Since the Boston Braves game that day was canceled due to wet grounds, Braves manager George Stallings, or a trusted associate, had apparently taken the train to Lynn to watch the Cornets game, likely at the behest of Bill Joyce.
Whelan was in a Braves uniform for the August 13 doubleheader at Braves Field, when he replaced Walter Holke at first base in the fifth inning of the opening game. Holke injured his leg when “he went slam bang into the grandstand wall in making a great catch,” the Boston Globe reported, and “was relieved by Whalen [sic], the old Georgetown University player, who is being given a tryout by the Braves.”19 The Boston Post reported: “His withdrawal made it possible for first baseman Whalen [sic], a former Worcester Academy and Lynn athlete, to make his debut as a Brave. He handled himself well afield and although he fanned on his initial trip to bat he drew a pass in the eighth.”20 Stallings was apparently unimpressed, since Whelan was back in a Cornets uniform the next day for their game on August 14 in Lynn, not at Braves Field for another opportunity to play in the doubleheader that day against Philadelphia.21
Three weeks later, in early September 1920, Whelan married Mildred Killen, a schoolteacher in Lynn, and honeymooned in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.22 Whelan and his wife would go on to raise five children: Thomas Jr., Mildred, Mary, Robert, and William.23 After their honeymoon, Whelan headed back to Ohio to play his second season of pro football with Thorpe and the Canton Bulldogs, now a member of the American Professional Football Association, the forerunner to today’s National Football League, as the sport expanded beyond Ohio to become more national in scope. Since there was more money in professional baseball than in pro football, Whelan signed in January 1921 with the Chicago Cubs.24
Whelan basically needed to leave Massachusetts to be in the Midwest in order to play both professional baseball and football. In 1921 there were few minor-league teams in Massachusetts, following the demise of the New England League after the 1919 season. There was no professional football in Massachusetts, due to the state’s restrictive Sunday law that prohibited professional sports contests on the Lord’s Day (the day pro football teams played to avoid conflict with collegiate games on Saturday).
After going to spring training with the Cubs in California in 1921, Whelan didn’t make the team. The story told by Whelan was that Cubs manager Johnny Evers told Whelan “to rest up” after developing a sore throwing arm, Whelan visited the nearby parents of a naval-flier buddy who had died in the war, and Evers was forced to put Ray Grimes at first base in that day’s exhibition game, who then won the job.25 The reality wasn’t as heart-rending. Although Whelan had been the front-runner to be the Cubs first baseman, since “he possesses a real football player aggressiveness and tenacity,” Grimes was the better ballplayer.26 As a result, the Cubs optioned Whelan to the St. Paul team in the American Association.
In the fall of 1921, for his third and final year of pro football, Whelan joined Thorpe in switching from the Canton Bulldogs to play for the Cleveland Indians. In the spring of 1922 Whelan played baseball briefly in St. Paul, before he was put on waivers when the Cubs optioned first baseman Walt Golvin to St. Paul. The Indianapolis team picked up Whelan, who served as a utility player at several infield and outfield positions. In the fall of 1922, Whelan became a college football coach, when Indiana University hired him to coach its freshman football team.27 Whelan played two more seasons of minor-league baseball with Indianapolis (voluntarily retiring after the 1924 season) and spent two more seasons coaching football at Washington State University, where he assisted head coach Albert Exendine, the former Georgetown coach.28
After spending much of the previous five years in the Midwest, Whelan stayed in the Boston area in 1925 as player-manager of the Nashua, New Hampshire, team in the semipro Greater Boston Twilight League. Whelan, now playing third base, led Nashua to the league championship.29 This first managerial position whetted his appetite for more expansive management roles in sports. He tried to return to Organized Baseball in the spring of 1926 as player-manager of the Lowell team in the just-revived New England League.30 However, Whelan had to resign after his petition for reinstatement into Organized Baseball was denied, reportedly because he used a player in Nashua who was on Organized Baseball’s suspended list.31
The rebuff by Organized Baseball turned out to be fortuitous for Whelan. He became the player-manager of the Lynn General Electric team in the Greater Boston Twilight League, which had replaced the Cornets as Lynn’s representative in that loop. The team played at GE Field, the newly built baseball field of the General Electric Athletic Association, one of the many perks available to employees at the GE plant in West Lynn.32 Whelan piloted the team to the league championship.33 More importantly, this connection to GE gave Whelan a better appreciation of how GE had now replaced the shoe factories as Lynn’s major employer, as the West Lynn plant developed and manufactured all types of lighting fixtures such as headlights for cars, flashbulbs for cameras, and outdoor floodlights.34 Whelan now permanently remained in the Boston area. In August 1926 he was hired to be the athletic coach at Lynn English High School, where he coached the football, basketball, and baseball teams.35 He supplemented his coaching of high-school football players with a side job as coach of the semipro Pere Marquette football team (which played on Sundays, to not interfere with his high-school coaching).36
Certainly influential to Whelan taking the job at Lynn English was Bill Joyce, who was the athletic coach at Lynn Classical, the college-prep public high school in Lynn in contrast to the work-prep orientation of Lynn English. Both men had experienced the value of education to move out of the working class into the middle class. At Lynn English, Whelan had the opportunity to develop young men to become athletes and give them a chance at a college education to achieve similar upward social mobility; at worst, student athletes would remain in school to obtain a diploma and a job at the GE plant rather than toil away in a shoe factory where the jobs required much less education. From a baseball perspective, college was displacing the semipro Cornets as the local feeder into pro ball for high-school players, as exemplified by three recent Lynn English graduates. Les Burke, like Friberg, went the traditional route with the Cornets and was playing with the Detroit Tigers by 1923. Bump Hadley went to Brown University and was playing with the Washington Senators by 1926. Gus Whelan, Tom’s younger brother, attended Boston College and played several years in the Texas League.37
After two consecutive league titles in the Greater Boston Twilight League, Whelan was hired to be the manager of the Lynn team in the New England League for the 1927 season.38 Whelan was finally reinstated into Organized Baseball, perhaps because professional baseball was now an avocation rather than his primary vocation. Whelan continued to achieve managerial success in the New England League. He led Lynn to playoff championships in 1927 and 1928 and narrowly missed a three-peat in 1929 when Lynn lost in the playoffs. On June 24, 1927, he participated in the first night game staged between two professional baseball teams when Lynn played Salem in an exhibition game under the lights at GE Field.39 Although night baseball was never adopted for the regular season by the New England League, GE employee teams and local amateur teams used GE Field to play night baseball. During the fall of 1927 Whelan took advantage of the artificial lighting at GE Field to have Lynn English play night football.40 Football at night soon was a staple among all the Lynn high school teams.
The collapse of the New England League during the 1930 season ended Whelan’s career in Organized Baseball. The extinction of the New England League put the 36-year-old Whelan at a crossroads. While he was happy as the athletic coach at Lynn English and also loved managing professional baseball and coaching semipro football, Whelan continued to receive lucrative offers to return to college football coaching. One of the more prominent offers occurred in the fall of 1930 when Whelan was approached to become assistant coach at Columbia University in New York City.41
Whelan decided to stay in Lynn and focus on high-school sports, but also to expand his leadership role in amateur sports. In 1932 Whelan was one of the founders of the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston, an organization that not only promotes the game of football but also “nurtures the ideals of citizenship, sportsmanship, leadership, and athletic and academic achievement.”42 He also devoted time to the Massachusetts State Coaches’ Association, where he assumed the duties of treasurer and vice president before becoming president for the 1936 calendar year.43 Whelan also got involved in the American Legion junior baseball program.
In 1937 Whelan achieved his greatest on-field success when he coached the Lynn English baseball team to the Massachusetts state high-school championship and then coached the East Lynn Post 291 baseball team to the American Legion national championship.44 The star players on both teams were pitcher Ray Bessom and catcher Jim Hegan, both of whom were then high-school juniors. During the summer of 1937, Hegan decided to turn pro following his graduation in June 1938 and came to an informal agreement with the Cleveland Indians.45 Bessom, who seriously considered going to college, demurred at turning pro until the spring of 1938. Complicating the matter for both players was Whelan’s status as a paid scout for the Cleveland ballclub.46
Bessom and Hegan officially signed contracts with the Cleveland Indians in June 1938, after the Lynn English baseball team was eliminated from the postseason state tournament and the players received their diplomas at graduation.47 Both were assigned to the Springfield, Ohio, club in the Middle Atlantic League. Hegan joined the Indians in September 1941 and played 14 seasons with Cleveland through 1957; he played three more seasons before retiring from the game in 1960. Bessom played six seasons of minor-league ball in the Cleveland organization before he retired from the game in 1947.
In 1942 Whelan, now more leader and educator than merely athletic coach, was promoted to be the headmaster at Lynn English High School.48 As the top educator at the school, he had to relinquish his role as athletic coach. Whelan, though, kept his hand in baseball as a scout for the New York Yankees.49
“As the game [of football] developed, more boys were given the opportunity to participate and more and more became aware of its value as a springboard to a college education,” Whelan remarked in 1952. “Most boys looked forward to becoming shoe workers in Lynn when they left high school,” he recalled about his younger days. “But, thanks to sports, many young fellows earned college scholarships and prospered later.”50 Whether it was Tony Geniawicz (a football and track star who went to Dartmouth College), Jim Hegan (a baseball star with the Cleveland Indians), or Harold Kaese (a “scatter-arm third baseman” who became a Boston Globe sportswriter), Whelan influenced the development of many teenagers who roamed the halls of Lynn English High School.51
Whelan died on June 26, 1957, at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and is buried in St. Joseph Cemetery in Lynn, Massachusetts.52
This biography was reviewed by Len Levin and fact-checked by Alan Cohen.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also utilized information from Baseball-Reference.com, Pro-Football-Reference.com, and the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball.
1 “Baseball and Football Players,” Baseball-Almanac.com.
2 Birth records in the Massachusetts State Archives for 1894 (Volume 439, Page 441).
3 Federal census records for 1900 and 1910 for 95 Cottage Street, Lynn, Essex County, Massachusetts.
4 Birth record for Whelan and federal census record for 1920 for 95 Cottage Street, Lynn, Essex County, Massachusetts.
5 Federal census record for 1910.
6 Whelan is not listed in any Lynn English baseball box scores in 1911 or 1912, nor is he listed among the graduates of Lynn English in 1911 or 1912. Whelan was listed as being a shoeworker in the federal census record for 1910.
7 “Lynnhurst, 8 to 6,” Boston Globe, August 25, 1912; photo of Whelan, Boston Globe, July 21, 1913.
8 “George A. Cornet, Architect, Sportsman Organized Lynn Cornets,” Boston Globe, October 14, 1949.
9 “Its Most Successful Season,” Boston Globe, June 16, 1913; “Wins Its 32nd Successive Game,” Boston Globe, June 8, 1914.
10 “Wins Its 32nd Successive Game,” Boston Globe, June 8, 1914.
11 “Tom Whalen [sic] Decides to Enter Dartmouth,” Boston Globe, September 24, 1915.
12 “Bill Joyce, Ex-Coach at Lynn High,” Boston Globe, December 25, 1966.
13 “New England Boys on the Georgetown Football Squad,” Boston Globe, October 23, 1916; “Georgetown Dates Out,” New York Times, September 30, 1917.
14 “Georgetown Routs Loyola on Hilltop,” Washington Post, March 30, 1917.
15 “Lynn Gas Gives Western Electric First Defeat,” Boston Globe, August 6, 1916; “Queen Quality, By 3 to 2,” Boston Globe, July 1, 1917.
16 “News and Gossip of College Athletics,” Washington Post, January 11, 1918.
17 Ford Sawyer, “Cubs’ Third Sacker Labors as Salesman Off-Season,” Boston Globe, December 20, 1924.
18 “Coach Sharpe Has Yale Team Picked,” Boston Post, September 24, 1919; Kate Buford, Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2010), 220, 224.
19 James O’Leary, “Braves Win, Then Lose, Pick Injured,” Boston Globe, August 14, 1920.
20 Frank Gaffney, “Braves Win, Then Lose to Phillies,” Boston Post, August 14, 1920.
21 “Cornet All-Stars Win, 4 to 0,” Boston Globe, August 15, 1920.
22 “Georgetown Football Star Weds Lynn Teacher,” Boston Globe, September 9, 1920.
23 Federal census records for 1930 and 1940 for 143 Tracey Street, Lynn, Essex County, Massachusetts.
24 “Cubs Sign Up Tom Whelan,” Boston Post, January 8, 1921.
25 Jack Malaney, “Sore Arm Cost Tom Whelan Chance to Become a Major League Star,” Boston Post, February 14, 1922.
26 “Beware of the Cubs,” The Sporting News, March 17, 1921.
27 “Tribe Evens Series with Senators,” Indianapolis Star, September 15, 1922.
28 “Exendine Will Coach Washington State,” Washington Post, June 29, 1923.
29 “Nashua ‘Millionaires’ Gave City a Great Baseball Year,” Boston Globe, September 24, 1925.
30 “Tom Whelan for Lowell,” Lowell Sun, March 4, 1926.
31 “Boys Get Good and Bad News in Farrell’s Latest Bulletin,” The Sporting News, March 18, 1926; “New England Loop Ready,” The Sporting News, April 22, 1926.
32 Rick Wartzman, The End of Loyalty (New York: Public Affairs, 2017), 30-33.
33 “Lynn Clinches Twilight Title,” Boston Globe, September 19, 1926.
34 James Cox, A Century of Light: The General Electric History of Light (New York: Rutledge, 1979), 80.
35 “Lynn English High Picks Tom Whelan,” Boston Globe, August 11, 1926.
36 “Elected Coach,” Lowell Sun, February 21, 1927.
37 “Whelan Chosen to Lead Nine at B.C.,” Boston Globe, June 18, 1924.
38 “Whelan on Job at Lynn,” The Sporting News, February 24, 1927.
39 Charlie Bevis, The New England League: A Baseball History, 1885-1949 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2008), 195.
40 “7000 Watch Lynn English Win, 25-0, Under Lights,” Boston Globe, November 4, 1927.
41 “Tom Whelan Offered Post on Columbia Football Staff,” Lowell Sun, December 15, 1930.
42 “Our History,” Gridiron Club of Greater Boston website.
43 “Tom Whelan Heads State Coaches Body,” Boston Globe, December 15, 1935.
44 “Bessom Leads Lynn to Title,” Boston Globe, June 20, 1937; “East Lynn Wins Third Game, 13-5, to Take National Title,” Boston Globe, September 4, 1937.
45 “Jim Hegan Agrees to Play Professional Ball,” Boston Globe, February 18, 1938.
46 “Ray Bessom May Decide to Follow Hegan for Major League Career,” Boston Globe, February 19, 1938.
47 “Cleveland Snares Bessom and Hegan,” Boston Globe, June 15, 1938.
48 “Thomas Whelan Dies; Principal, Sports Official,” Boston Globe, June 27, 1957.
49 “Tom Gallagher Signed by Yanks for Newark Club,” Boston Globe, July 2, 1947; “B.U. Captain Signs with Yank Farm,” Boston Globe, May 20, 1950.
50 Gene Mack, “Whelan Cites Superiority of Modern School Football,” Boston Globe, January 1, 1952.
51 Harold Kaese, “Lynn’s Tom Whelan Had Equipment to Be Big Time Coach, Pilot,” Boston Globe, June 28, 1957; Harold Kaese, “Huarte’s Dad Once Lynn Shortstop,” Boston Globe, December 16, 1964.
52 “Thomas Whelan Dies; Principal, Sports Official,” Boston Globe, June 27, 1957.