This article was written by Bill Nowlin
In his first year in the big leagues, center fielder Denny Sullivan played in three games for the Washington Senators, and in his last year in the big leagues he played in three games for the Cleveland Naps. In between, he played in 245 games for the Boston Americans/Red Sox.
He missed most of a season due to malaria, and then became a physician just a couple of years later.
He hit left-handed and threw right and was born as Dennis William Sullivan on September 28, 1882, in the small city of Hillsboro, Wisconsin. He was 5-feet-10 as a major leaguer; we don’t have a listed playing weight.
Sullivan entered the University of South Dakota in Vermillion in April 1900, having graduated from high school in Milbank, South Dakota, where his father, David F. Sullivan, was a doctor, himself born in Wisconsin, a son of two Irish parents. Denny’s mother was Hattie (Shannon) Sullivan, a Missouri native. His aunt, Miss Minnie Shannon, was the first librarian in Milbank and served as such for 50 years.i
We know rather little about Denny’s childhood and upbringing.
As a professional ballplayer, he first turns up with Winnipeg of the Northern League in 1902. A July 19 news story said, “Sullivan, of Winnipeg, and Doherty, of Crookston, are the two speediest outfielders in the league. Both are rare fielders and timely hitters.”ii Working right field for the Peggers, he “seems destined for faster company. He purloined seven bases in the recent Winnipeg-Cavalier series of three games and cut down hits that were labeled for many bases. He resembles Keeler in build and is also acquiring Willie’s art of ‘hittin’ ’em where they ain’t.’ ”iii Sullivan hit for a .331 average, second in the Northern League. It was a nice way to start a career; Winnipeg finished first in the four-team league. (The league had shrunk to four teams when two disbanded on July 21.) Early in the season Sullivan may have played briefly for Fargo before joining Winnipeg. By year’s end, he was on the roster of the Minneapolis Millers. SABR’s minor-league database shows him playing in 32 games for the Millers in 1902, with a .224 average.
In 1903 and through 1905, it was Minneapolis all the way. Sullivan was just 20 at the start of the ’03 season, and played in 68 games hitting American Association pitching at a .264 pace, upping that in 1904 to .303 in 94 games. It seems he may have started the 1903 season with Winnipeg again, or spent some time there in midseason, since an August article said he’d been recalled by Minneapolis to play center field in place of Tom McCreery, who had been let out.iv In August 1904 the Detroit Tigers secured an option on Sullivan.
The Tigers tried to get Sullivan through waivers so he could put in another development year with the Millers, but the Washington Senators refused to waive claim and so Denny started the season in the major leagues with Washington. His debut came on April 22, the team’s first road game of the year after six at home.
Looking at Sullivan’s record, one sees some poor statistics. He appeared in three games, with 11 at-bats, he walked once, and he struck out six times. But the stats leave out what could have been a dramatic debut. It was on April 21, in New York. Sullivan played right field in front of 15,000 fans assembled for the Highlanders’ opener. There had been the usual festivities and a 3:30 P.M. start, but rain began to fall in the second inning. Sullivan came to the plate in the top of the fourth with the bases loaded and swatted a triple to clear the bases. But the rains intensified and before New York could complete the bottom of the fourth, Umpire Connolly had to call off the game. Sullivan’s triple and three runs batted in were all washed out.v
The New York management had been unable to supply rain checks to all who attended the April 21 game, so ownership declared that the game on the 22nd would be free to all. Sullivan played the full game in right field, batting seventh in the order, and began a string of hitless at-bats that stood until he returned to the majors two years later.
On May 1 Sullivan parted company with the team and was returned to Minneapolis, which had to refund Washington $2,500.vi He appeared in 133 games for the Millers and hit for a steady .295.
And in 1906 it was Minneapolis again; this time Sullivan hit .312 for manager Mike Kelley. He still had speed; he stole 31 bases. He did get fined once in May, losing $10 to league coffers for using obscene language. He was drafted by the Boston Americans but after the American Association season, instead of heading east, he went on a barnstorming trip to points west, including Winnipeg, with most of the Millers team.
In February 1907 Boston released John Godwin to Minneapolis and officially signed Sullivan. He spent the summer in Vermillion, South Dakota, where he had gone to college. When he arrived in camp for spring training, people learned that he was accomplished on the violin. It was a rough camp, with the suicide of manager Chick Stahl casting a pall over the team in spring training. The team labored under four managers during the regular season.
Sullivan hit .245 in 144 games in 1907, with 26 RBIs but with 73 runs scored, and stole 16 bases. His one and only major-league home run was hit in Boston’s capacious Huntington Avenue Grounds, a leadoff homer in the bottom of the first inning on May 2. It was an inside-the-park home run off New York’s Bill Hogg. But the Red Sox lost the game, 5-2.
After the 1907 season, Sullivan was said to be “completing his studies at the Ainsworth Medical School in Minneapolis. In another year he will be a full-fledged medical doctor.”vii
In his second year with Boston, 1908, and the first the team played under its new nickname, Red Sox, Sullivan became increasingly adept in the outfield to the point where Sporting Life declared, “Outfielder Denny Sullivan, of Boston, is grace personified in the outfield. Most difficult catches are made to look extremely easy by the fleet Red Stocking.viii
Jacob Morse of the Boston Herald wrote, “No better work than that of Denny Sullivan could be desired. He has shown his ability to hold his own in major league company and he has become a very warm favorite here.”ix
Sullivan’s offense remained anemic, though. He hit just .239 in 101 games, and on September 20 he was sold to the Cleveland Naps. In announcing the purchase, the Washington Post wrote, “He has made a record as one of the best outfielders ever on the Boston team, and is one of the best in the league. His only trouble is in batting. He has been hitting under .250, and with the wealth of outfielders [Boston Red Sox] President [John I.] Taylor has on hand, most of whom can hit, he didn’t need Sullivan.”x Sullivan played in four late-season games for Cleveland in 1908, without a base hit.
Just the 1909 season got under way, Sullivan was felled by a bout with malaria or typhoid fever (accounts differ) and was hospitalized. He was out of commission almost the entire season, appearing in only three games. He had one hit in two at-bats.
At the end of March in 1910, Cleveland placed Sullivan on waivers, which were obtained, and sold him to the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association. Recovered enough to play a full 137-game season, Sullivan hit .258 in 504 at-bats. After the season, in November, his contract was sold to the Kansas City Blues, another American Association club.
Sullivan was a little late reporting to the Blues, so that he could finish up his degree at a medical college in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he was president of his class. Once in action, Dennis Sullivan, M.D., had a good year at the plate, hitting .310 in 109 games. After the season he began a postgraduate medical program at the University of Minnesota (and also worked as baseball coach).
In 1912 Sullivan began the season with K.C. but suffered ptomaine poisoning in Toledo on June 29, rather soon after he had been sold to the Indianapolis Indians, his fourth American Association club, dating back to his time with the Millers.
Obscene language was one thing, but alcohol was another. Sullivan was unjustly accused and fined in 1912 for imbibing, but he was later cleared. “Sol. Meyer, owner of the Indianapolis Club, has tendered a public apology to outfielder Dennis Sullivan, one of his players, and returned to him a check for $100, the amount taken out of Sullivan’s salary for alleged breach of the club’s training rules. Meyer recently hired private detectives to trail his players, reporting any infraction of training rule. Sullivan was reported as having taken a drink. This caused the fine of $100. It now develops that Sullivan has never tasted liquor or used tobacco in his life.”xi
After the 1912 season Sullivan traveled to South Dakota to practice medicine and was hired as of February 1913 to coach the baseball team at the University of Minnesota.xii He married around this time, and he and his wife, Nellie, had their first child, a daughter named Betty, in South Dakota. A son, Dennis Jr., was born in Missouri in 1916.
After spending the rest of 1913 in Frankfort, South Dakota, Sullivan decided he wanted to get back into baseball in 1914 and signed with St. Joseph. A month later, though, he gave up. “The veteran Denny Sullivan, who attempted a comeback with the St. Joseph team, has given up the job. He found his legs would not serve him. He will return to his practice of medicine and hopes he has lost no patients during his absence.”xiii Denny is nonetheless shown on the roster of the team at Fargo-Moorhead (Northern League), batting .277 on 108 games.
He had three more years in baseball, beginning with managing Fort William-Port Arthur in the Northern League in 1915 (and playing in 97 games, hitting .316). In 1916 he managed and played in a career-high 151 games for St. Joseph (Western League), hitting .315. And in 1917, he managed, but did not play for, Fargo-Moorhead. He’d been offered but rejected a position as manager of the Hannibal team in the Three-I League “because a better opening for his medical practice was offered in the Dakota city.”xiv
Sullivan served in the United States Army in both World War I and II. He was a colonel during the first war. After the war he practiced medicine in Santa Ana, California, for a while, returning to Milbank by 1920.
Sullivan died of mediastinitis due to a perforated esophageal peptic ulcer on June 2, 1956, at the Veterans Hospital in West Los Angeles, California, and is buried in the Los Angeles National Cemetery.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Sullivan’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.
i Letter from Lois Souhrada of Plain Talk Publishers of Milbank to Joe Siminec of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on January 12, 1972. The letter is found in Sullivan’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
ii Sporting Life, July 19, 1902.
iii Sporting Life, July 26, 1902.
iv Sporting Life, August 1, 1903.
v New York Times, April 22, 1905.
vi Sporting Life, May 13, 1905.
vii Sporting Life, November 23, 1907.
viii Sporting Life, June 13, 1908.
ix Sporting Life, July 25, 1908.
x Washington Post, September 21, 1908.
xi Sporting Life, September 14, 1912.
xii Christian Science Monitor, December 18, 1912.
xiii Sporting Life, May 23, 1914.
xiv Sporting Life, March 10, 1917.