This article was written by Tim Hagerty
Michael “Fancy” O’Neil was a boxer and ballplayer who stepped on the field with four future Hall of Famers in his only major league game. He also had to be institutionalized multiple times and his death details were a mystery until 2019.
O’Neil was born in Hudson, New York, to Irish parents Michael and Sarah O’Neil. Michael worked as a laborer and harness maker while Sarah was a homemaker. Both Michael and Sarah were born in 1824. As for Fancy’s date of birth, it depends on who you ask. Some sources list it as 1853,1 others 1855,2 while O’Neil’s death certificate incorrectly says he was born in 1858.
He was part of a big family. O’Neil and his sister Sarah were born as two-thirds of a set of triplets, but the third baby passed away.3 He grew up with seven siblings — older sisters Catherine and Ellen, Sarah, younger sisters Margaret and Mary, and a younger set of twins named Charles and Hannah.
O’Neil’s early years spanned three states. The family relocated from Hudson to Springfield, Massachusetts, in the late 1850s before settling in Hartford, Connecticut, by the mid-1860s. It appears that O’Neil lived in Connecticut for the rest of his life.
His nickname “Fancy” originated in the boxing ring, where he was known for his fancy footwork.4 He competed in boxing matches in and around Hartford in the 1870s, while also participating in local ballgames.
O’Neil played catcher for the Amateurs baseball club in Hartford in 1874 and his performance on July 2 of that year drew praise in the press. “The play of the first base, pitcher and catcher of the Hartford club was exceptionally fine and would have been creditable to professionals.”5 Just four months later, O’Neil would be called upon to play with professionals on a much bigger stage.
Early in 1874, Connecticut baseball executive Ben Douglas Jr. heard the National Association was hoping to place a team somewhere between Boston and New York for travel convenience; he felt that Hartford was the answer. Douglas had run the National Association’s Middletown Mansfields two years earlier and knew the local business leaders who could help him bring professional baseball to Hartford. He convinced the group to pledge $5,000, and the Hartford Dark Blues were born.
The Dark Blues won the first four games in team history but quickly faded from contention after that, losing 14 of their next 16 contests. Later in the 1874 season, Hartford dropped 13 of 14 heading into their home matchup with the Boston Red Stockings on October 23, which proved to be Fancy O’Neil’s only major league game.
O’Neil had gained local notoriety with the Amateurs and played his way onto the Dark Blues’ radar. Hartford’s Bill Stearns was unable to pitch on October 23 versus Boston, so the Dark Blues shifted Cherokee Fisher from right field to the pitcher’s box.6 Hartford needed a right fielder to fill in for Fisher, and O’Neil was chosen.
A guy like Fancy being invited to fill in was fairly common because of the National Association’s small rosters. In 2020, Major League Baseball rosters increased to 26 players per team. In 1874, National Association rosters had only nine or 10 players.7 Injuries sometimes led to a last-minute scramble to find a local amateur talented enough to serve as a capable substitute.
O’Neil’s lone major league game came under partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the high 50s.8 He batted eighth and went 0-for-3 with a strikeout in the Dark Blues’ 13-1 loss at Hartford Ball Club Grounds. It’s unclear if famous Dark Blues fan Mark Twain was one of the 1,200 rooters there that day, but it’s possible. “(I)n 1874, Twain took trips to the Hartford Ball Club Grounds whenever he could.”9
The Dark Blues made 13 errors in the lopsided loss, continuing their season-long defensive problems.10 Hartford fielders didn’t use gloves in 1874,11 but they could’ve used them. The team led the National Association with 521 errors, an average of almost 10 per game.
The 1874 Dark Blues were not known for gentlemanly behavior. In fact, the players “mortified Hartford’s more genteel residents with their lack of decorum off the field” and they frequented saloons “at the hours when they should be abed.”12
Three years after briefly joining those rowdy Dark Blues, O’Neil suffered an on-field injury in an Amateurs game that the Hartford Daily Courant theorized “will incapacitate (O’Neil) from playing ball again this season, and perhaps injure him for life.”13 It happened on a collision at home plate in June 1877. A baserunner for the Jeffersons, another Hartford-area amateur club, was charging home when O’Neil jumped trying to catch a high throw. The two players collided and O’Neil flipped in mid-air, hitting the ground so hard that he broke his elbow and sustained bruises on his face.
O’Neil’s doctor said the elbow injury “may cause him considerable trouble in the future.”14 The Amateurs organized a benefit game for their debilitated teammate in July 1877, with the proceeds going to O’Neil and his sudden medical costs.
In the years following his playing career, O’Neil remained part of Connecticut’s baseball scene as an umpire, working both professional and amateur games. Much like his playing, O’Neil’s umpiring judgement received solid reviews. “[T]he umpire was a lenient one, in the person of ‘Fancy’ O’Neil, who, while not first class in the position, was much better than some that have officiated this season.”15
He umpired at least one International Association game; London at New Haven on May 18, 1878. Future Hall of Famer Candy Cummings wasn’t able to throw that day for New Haven because he was sick with chills and fever.16
O’Neil’s other occupations over the years included polisher, night watchman, and a position at Saratoga Chips.17
Any biography of Fancy O’Neil would be incomplete without mentioning his off-field issues. As one example, he knocked out a boxing instructor in a beer saloon on July 31, 1878.18 Years later, O’Neil was institutionalized at Connecticut Hospital for the Insane from August 9, 1889, to May 4, 1891 — the first of his three stints there.19
It’s clear Hartford’s boxing scene felt sympathy for the struggling O’Neil. A fundraiser to benefit “Michael O’Neil, the old-time boxer” was attended by 150 people on October 17, 1893, and was organized because “Mr. O’Neil has been in poor health for some years.”20
Two years later, O’Neil went after his boss with a knife in an episode that brought this dramatic headline in the Hartford Courant:
“CRAZY ‘FANCY’ O’NEIL.
He Drew a Knife on His Employer.”21
The article went on to explain that O’Neil was working for Saratoga Chips under a man named Mr. Burns, who had hired O’Neil as a kind gesture after learning he was recently institutionalized. “[O’Neil] then went out after his employer. A man on the street saw him with the knife, preparing to strike, and Mr. Burns was warned. He got away from this crazy man.”22
The stabbing attempt sent O’Neil back to Connecticut Hospital for the Insane for the second of his three stints there. He spent a total of three years and one month in that institution throughout the late 1880s and 1890s.23 One wonders if O’Neil’s mental illness was at least partly due to head injuries from boxing and being behind home plate as an under-protected catcher.
O’Neil’s death information was listed as “unknown” for decades in baseball books and encyclopedias. “His disappearance may have been self-engineered to dodge the law,” was one published theory.24 The undiscovered death date became, as noted baseball historian Peter Morris phrased it, “an enduring mystery that would take almost a century and a half to solve.”25
Throughout the fall of 2019, a group of researchers pieced together clues from census records, city directories, newspaper archives, and Connecticut’s Death Index. Those clues, along with phone calls to various State of Connecticut and City of Hartford archival departments, confirmed that Michael “Fancy” O’Neil passed away on December 7, 1918, in Hartford from uremia.26 He was unmarried. Hartford baseball and boxing insider P.H. Dougherty, who was likely a friend of O’Neil’s, served as his death certificate informant.
O’Neil is buried at Mount Saint Benedict Cemetery in Bloomfield, Connecticut, six miles from the city where he made a name for himself on the field, in the ring, and on the streets.
This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Norman Macht and fact-checked by David Kritzler.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author would like to thank Retrosheet.org and the following people for their contributions: David Arcidiacono, John Bazzano, Bill Carle, Courtney Devin, Hartford Bureau of Vital Records, Danny Gonzalez, Richard Malatzky, Peter Morris, the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library staff, Allen Ramsey, Diana Shaw, Mel Smith, and the State of Connecticut Bureau of Vital Statistics.
1US Census Bureau, 1870 US Census.
2US Census Bureau, 1880 US Census.
3US Census Bureau, 1860 US Census.
4David Nemec, The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball: Biographies of 1,084 Players, Owners, Managers and Umpires (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Books, 2012), 257.
5“Amateurs vs. Forest Citys,” Hartford Courant, July 3, 1874.
6“A One-Sided Game — The Bostons Score 13 to 1,” Hartford Courant, October 24, 1874.
7William J. Ryczek, Blackguards and Red Stockings: A History of Baseball’s National Association, 1871-1875, Revised Edition (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Books, 2016), Appendix.
8Email correspondence with AccuWeather Director of Forecaster Scheduling Tom Kines, November 6, 2019.
9Landers, Chris. “Baseball diehard Mark Twain once had his umbrella stolen from him at the ballpark,” MLB.com, May 17, 2017.
10“A One-Sided Game — The Bostons Score 13 to 1,” Hartford Courant, October 24, 1874.
11National Baseball Hall of Fame. “Al Spalding,” http://www.baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/spalding-al
12Arcidiacono, David. “The Hartford Dark Blues.” Connecticut Explored, Spring, 2003.
13“Base Ball: Serious Accident to One of the Amateurs,” Hartford Daily Courant, June 22, 1877.
15“The Citys Still Ahead,” Hartford Courant, June 9, 1884.
16“Tecumsehs 5 New Havens 0,” The Boston Globe, May 20, 1878.
17Connecticut State Library Assistant State Archivist Allen Ramsey, email correspondence, September 27, 2019.
18“City Briefs,” Hartford Courant, August 1, 1878.
19Email correspondence with Connecticut State Library Assistant State Archivist Allen Ramsey, September 27, 2019.
20“Boxing Bouts. Benefit For Michael O’Neil-Fitzgerald Nearly Done Up,” Hartford Courant, October 18, 1893.
21 Hartford Daily Courant, October 30, 1895.
23Email correspondence with Connecticut State Library Assistant State Archivist Allen Ramsey, September 27, 2019.
24David Nemec, The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball: Biographies of 1,084 Players, Owners, Managers and Umpires (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Books, 2012), 257.
26State of Connecticut Bureau of Vital Statistics, Medical Certificate of Death for Michael O’Neil.