This article was written by Mitch Lutzke
A two-year stint with the Cincinnati Reds, a fight with Honus Wagner, followed by a lengthy career as a successful mid-Michigan baseball man highlighted the career of John Albert Morrissey.
Born to Irish immigrant parents in Lansing, Michigan, on May 2, 1876, he was the eldest child of Thomas and Catherine Morrissey. His father was one of the many Irish to work the railroad, and was a track foreman for the Michigan Central in Michigan’s capital city. When John was 4, the family lived on Liberty Street in the heart of the downtown district in a middle-class neighborhood made up of blacksmiths, lumberyard workers, brick masons and other railroad hands. Educated in St. Mary’s parochial school as a child, Morrissey was graduated in 1893 from Lansing High School, where he was the captain of the baseball team.
Within two years Morrissey joined the world of professional baseball, signing in 1895 with the local Lansing Senators in the seven-team Michigan State League. Morrissey stood 5-feet-10 inches and was a switch-hitting middle infielder throughout his career. However, he did occasionally play the outfield and even did some catching, as was noted in an exhibition game against a nearby amateur club in Williamston, midway through the Michigan State League schedule.
One of his teammates on the Lansing Senators was the famous black ballplayer and team organizer, John “Bud” Fowler. In addition, Morrissey and the Senators played at least one exhibition game against the famed Page Fence Giants from Adrian, Michigan, a team of “colored” superstars. Morrissey and the Senators finished in third place in the Michigan State League, with a record of 56-36.
The following season, Morrissey, along with fellow Senator and mid-Michigan native Charlie Ferguson, traveled west to play for the Tacoma (Washington) Rabbits in the New Pacific League. The 1896 season began promisingly, as after about a month into the season “Tacoma has the best team in the New Pacific League.”1 However, poor weather and disappointing crowds doomed the league and before the Fourth of July it collapsed and ceased operations. A few of the Rabbits joined their manager, Charley Strobel, as he purchased and went on to manage the Toledo team in the Interstate League. Some members of the Tacoma squad barnstormed their way east as they headed for Toledo. There is no record that Morrissey joined Strobel’s Toledo entry and the Michigan native wasn’t one of its year-end reserved players.
In 1897 Morrissey signed with Toledo.”2 The Sporting News noted of Morrissey that “in the three seasons he had played his record is that he has struck out but four times. He is described as being very much of a gentleman, and of strictly temperate habits.”3
Before the season opened Morrissey was released by Toledo and was claimed by league foe Fort Wayne. The two teams opposed each other in the season-opening series and Morrissey was a key cog as Fort Wayne won the first three games. The Sporting News noted the irony: “Johnny Morrissey, who was not fast enough for Toledo, is really responsible for Toledo’s defeat the last game. He made a wonderful stop on a hard hit … and retired the side by his wonderful throw to first. … Morrissey is also hitting the ball good and hard.”4 The team’s initial quick start didn’t last, as by the end of May, Fort Wayne was at the .500 mark and fell well below it a few weeks into June, sitting in seventh place in the eight-team league. Fort Wayne managed to rally for a fourth-place finish, while Toledo won the league crown. However, Fort Wayne did not reserve Morrissey for the following season.
In 1898 Morrissey spent time on one and possibly two teams in the newly formed International League. Preseason reserve rosters for the Saginaw, Bay City, and Port Huron clubs all had Morrissey on their teams. However, statistics for this early part of the season are unknown. After beginning in the spring with six teams, three in Canada and three in Michigan, the International League folded in early July. It was then rechristened as the Canadian League, dropping the three stateside clubs and adding Chatham, Ontario, to the established teams in Hamilton, London, and St. Thomas. Morrissey batted .244 in 23 games for the Chatham Reds and stole six bases. He even pitched three innings, allowing four hits and one run. Chatham was not a good team and finished in last place, winning only about a quarter of its games. Morrissey was retained by Chatham for the next season, but no records confirm his appearance there the following year.
It appears that in 1899 and/or 1900 Morrissey played organized semipro ball in Manistee, Michigan, a small Lake Michigan coastal community, while working as the manager of a lumberyard. Morrissey’s playing caught the attention of pro scouts. After winning the championship in Manistee, Morrissey’s “career in baseball was spectacular from that time on.”5
After the season the infielder signed with the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers in the Western Association, where team statistics for the 1901 season are unknown.
The next season, 1902, Morrissey split time with four teams, as part of a hectic season that led to his rookie season in the major leagues. The American Association’s Minneapolis Millers were his first squad that year. A newspaper blurb in late May noted, “Morrissey with Minneapolis is winning the hearts of the fans by his stick work. Not long ago, out of four times at bat, Morrissey secured three hits, besides putting up an errorless game in the field.”6 Morrissey was playing both the infield and outfield for the Millers. However, despite the newspaper boasting, he was not doing as well as it seemed. “Morrissey and Carlisle have been in right field without showing any qualities that will keep either on the team,” The Sporting News wrote.7 While Morrissey may have had his moments, the Millers were playing terribly, beginning the season 2-9, and then dropping five straight games before their home opener.
The Millers management was frustrated with the awful start and announced that it was looking at 25 new players from around the country as replacements. Morrissey was one who had to go and by the first few days of June the Millers released him. Even when the replacement second baseman badly hurt his hand after a few games, the Millers signed another player for that position. It was likely at this time that Morrissey returned home for his stint with the Muskegon Reds in the lower classified Michigan State League. Later, his third team that season was a jump up to the Rockford (Illinois) Red Sox in the Class B Three-I League. He played 42 games for Rockford and batted .271.
Joe Kelley, the Cincinnati Reds manager and future Hall of Famer, hit the road in late August 1902 vowing to obtain major-league talent and stated he would not return home empty-handed. The Reds were in the midst of a tumultuous season, as the team had been sold in midseason and the new ownership was seeking to infuse the team with talent. Kelley was the team’s third manager that year, which also likely unsettled the players. Also unsettling was that in the middle of the season all the National League teams slashed player salaries across the board to make payroll. The 1902 season was also the height of the NL’s stealing players from the American League, and the Reds management made no secret of trying to lure five players from the upstart circuit. However, the Reds were able to persuade only one to jump ship, which opened a spot for the talented Morrissey. Apparently, Kelley found what he was looking for, as Morrissey signed a contract with the major-league team.
In a game against the Chicago Cubs on September 18, 1902, the 27-year-old Morrissey made his debut and started at second base for the fourth-place Reds. He had three putouts and one assist and, batting fifth, went 0-for-3 at the plate while facing Walter “Pop” Williams in a game won by the Reds. Morrissey’s big-league career didn’t begin with a rousing start, as he went 0-for-13 in his first five games. His fielding, never one of his strengths, was also a bit shaky, as he made two errors in that five-game span.
Morrissey got his first hit a week later, off St. Louis rookie right-hander Clarence Currie. It was a double as the Reds’ rookie went 1-for-3 at the plate. Morrissey had a good day in the field, handling nine errorless chances in a game Cincinnati won 6-1. The double started Morrissey on an end-of-the-season tear, as he slugged 10 hits in his next seven games to finish 1902 with a .282 average. Apparently pleased with his one-month audition, the Reds claimed their “good treatment and liberal pay” would make it unlikely they would lose any players and Morrissey was retained for the following season.8
Hopes were high for the Reds in 1903. “Morrissey looks to have a cinch to start the season at second base,” wrote local scribe J. Ed Grillo.9 He has shown such excellent form at the bat that manager Kelley believes he will in course of time be one of the best batsman in the business. In the infield Morrissey has shown so much improvement.” Everyone seemed to think first or second place was where the Reds would finish in 1903.
As predicted, Morrissey was the starting second baseman when the season began at home against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Opening Day had Morrissey going hitless, while batting fifth against Pirates ace Deacon Phillippe. The Pirates swept all four games in the opening series. It was the start of a season that would fall short of expectations. But Morrissey had three hits and a stolen base and was a part of three double plays in the series. After a win against the Cubs, the Reds dropped another four in a row and Morrissey wasn’t in the lineup for the team’s second win of the season, when they improved to just 2-8. The Reds’ poor start really affected Morrissey, The Sporting News opined. “Some changes seemed to have been necessary. The slump seemed to have taken all the life out of Jack Morrissey and he was replaced by George Magoon at second. The changed worked well for Magoon is playing great ball.”10 Later, another article placed the Reds’ early-season swoon directly at the feet of Morrissey. “Had Jack Morrissey made good at second base – that is to say, had his fielding been as good as his stickwork – the team would probably be higher in the race.”11
By early May the Reds had managed to right the ship and were around.500. It was at this time that Morrissey got into a heated confrontation with Pittsburgh Pirates star Honus Wagner in a May 7 Reds victory over the Pirates. Morrissey batted fifth and went 2-for-5, but had another error in the field. Wagner was slapped with a three-day suspension by league President Harry Pulliam for a “disgraceful scene” in which he made “an attempt to spike Morrissey.”12 According to The Sporting News, “(H)ad not umpire Holliday interfered, the players would have fought on the field,” and “Wagner’s reputation is sufficient to place the responsibility for the Pittsburgh affair upon him.”13 The National League’s season goal was to clean up the game and improve sportsmanship. However, that lofty plan suffered a dual blow, as shortly after Wagner’s suspension umpire Holliday was withdrawn from working additional games due to some undisclosed complaint.
It’s unknown whether Morrissey was injured in his altercation with Wagner, but the second baseman sat out the next four games. By mid-May Morrissey’s batting average was down to .194, while his replacement, George Magoon, was at an even .300. In an attempt to shake him out of his slump, Morrissey was moved to left field. He knocked out a few base hits and his average inched up by early June to .228. But his fielding was hurting him; Cincinnati sportswriter J. Ed Grillo noted that “Morrissey is not an infielder and he can not play the outfield.”14
Against the New York Giants and pitcher Joe McGinnity on June 11, Morrissey, back at second base, went 2-for-5, with a stolen base, and turned both a double play and a triple play, but the Reds lost the game. Morrissey also had another error in the field and they were beginning to become a major problem for him. Morrissey’s batting average slowly improved, but second base was still a problem position for the Reds. Magoon’s batting average had eventually dropped even lower than Morrissey’s and he had recently been traded. Despite the reprieve with the trade, Morrissey’s major-league fate would be sealed with a disastrous two-game stint at shortstop.
Details conflict but Reds starting shortstop Tommy Corcoran ran into another player in the field during a game in the first week of July, badly injuring his left shoulder. Morrissey replaced Corcoran to finish the game and made an error on the only ball hit to him. The next day, July 6, starting at shortstop, Morrissey had three putouts and one assist but had four errors in a loss to the Brooklyn Dodgers. His two-day fielding average of .444 was the target of critics as sportswriter Grillo declared that “Morrissey essayed to fill (Corcoran’s) place in the first game today and made an awful mess of it.”15 Manager Kelley inserted himself at shortstop in the second game of the doubleheader and benched Morrissey, and that ended his major-league career. For the season he batted .247 in 29 games, with one double and three stolen bases. For his two-year major league stint of 41 games, he hit .258 in 128 at-bats with just three extra-base hits. In the field he averaged nearly an error every other game as he totaled 19 in his Reds career.
But Morrissey was not finished with baseball that summer. Within a week or so, he appeared in a July 14 game with Columbus of the American Association, batting fifth and playing shortstop. His poor fielding streak continued as he made two errors in that game and came back with a pair of bobbles in his second appearance. he was moved to the leadoff spot and hit fairly well. But his uneven glove work doomed him at Columbus too; he was removed from shortstop and “was moved out to left, where he is fielding fairly.”16 The move didn’t save Morrissey’s tenure in Columbus as by the second week of August he was gone from the roster. He played in 31 games and batted .233. He apparently ended the season with Lawrence (Massachusetts) of the New England League. In 24 games with the Colts he batted .238 and they reserved him for the 1904 season.
Instead, in 1904 Morrissey took up the reins of the Grand Rapids team in the Central League. The season did not go well; by midyear the team was sold to a pair of fellow owners in the Central League, who had to pony up a chunk of cash to pay off debts and improve the ballpark, including enlarging bleachers and adding chairs to the grandstands. Morrissey was a player-manager and hit a respectable .289. He returned in 1905 as solely a player and had 124 hits in 129 games for the Orphans.
In 1906 Morrissey began the year on the Grand Rapids injured list. The Gannzeloids, nicknamed after the Ganzel family, who ran the team, started strong without Morrissey in the lineup, ripping off an 11-3 record. By early June they had fallen to second place with Morrissey still missing from the lineup. However, the Wolverines (the team’s official name) rallied by late August and climbed into first place, which they never relinquished. Whether Morrissey healed to eventually make it into the lineup is unknown. But when the reserve lists were drawn up for the 1907 season, the club omitted his name from the player roster.
Apparently in 1907 Morrissey was working in some capacity for the Grand Rapids club. His hometown, Lansing, was pushing for an entry into the Southern Michigan League and Morrissey’s name was floated as the front man by the local investors. Once the businessmen finally met the league’s requirement of a downtown diamond, they persuaded those in Grand Rapids to release Morrissey to become the Lansing Senators’ player-manager. Morrissey resumed his playing career with the Class D team and batted .281 in 99 games as the team finished in a tie for fifth place, going 46-57.
In 1908 he was as again a player-manager, posting an impressive .315 average in 121 games. Lansing finished in sixth place, but with a slightly higher winning percentage than the year before. He returned to the Senators as a manager in 1909, when the team finished sixth in the eight-team league again.
Returning as a player-manager in 1910, Morrissey hit just.235, but the 34-year-old did leg out six triples that season, his last year of playing in Organized Baseball. That season also saw the Senators tie for first place, posting a record of 87-52 for a .626 winning percentage. They were led by a 19-year-old Lansing native and future major leaguer, Vic Saier, who knocked out 175 hits and posted a batting average of .339. The next year Saier would begin an eight-year National League career with the Chicago Cubs. The Senators also featured four men who had at least 20 wins on the mound, including future Federal league twirler Ed Porray. The league-leaders lost the playoff and the Southern Michigan League crown to the Kalamazoo Celery Eaters.
In 1911 the league bumped up to Class C, and Morrissey led them to another respectable finish at 79- 55, good enough for second place. The team featured two future Detroit Tigers in catcher Archie Yelle and outfielder Eddie Onslow. During the next two years the league dropped down to Class D. His 1912 squad managed to finish one game above .500. He followed it with the worst season of his Lansing managing career, as the 1913 Senators were seventh in the eight-team league, with a .439 winning percentage.
Morrissey’s final year, 1914, was as both the manager and new owner of the Senators and ended with the club playing its final games in the Detroit suburb of Mount Clemens. The league began 1914 with strong hopes, and moved up to Class C, buoyed by the fact that two new teams, from the much larger markets of South Bend and Toledo, decided to join the Southern Michigan League. But by the middle of the season the Saginaw and Bay City clubs were accused of having side contracts with players, creating a competition imbalance. Once that was sorted out, last-place Kalamazoo was rumored to be for sale, but that plan was publicly quashed. However, Toledo, upset with playing in a much less prestigious Class C League as opposed to the Class A American Association, witnessed fans organizing boycotts of their home games. The plan was for Toledo to play out the year and then leave, and then drop the weakest remaining team, with the league shrinking to its original pre-1914 level of eight cities. They didn’t have to wait long. Just after the Fourth of July, Lansing was transferred to Mount Clemens and Morrissey skippered the team about 100 miles east of its home base. “Lansing fans have failed to support Morrissey’s club this season,” The Sporting News wrote.17 While the Lansing portion of the season was just under .500, the Mount Clemens Bathers fared much worse and the organization ended the schedule with a 63-80 record.
The team’s failure should have come as no surprise to local baseball fans. Morrissey and the Lansing Baseball Association were forced to jump through a series of hoops just to begin the season. With that as the backdrop, Morrissey’s affiliation with professional baseball ended in 1914 in Mount Clemens.
Morrissey’s next business move was to operate a cigar and tobacco business, Morrissey Brothers, in downtown Lansing with his brother Frank. Not able to get baseball out of his blood, he was hired as the head coach of the 1916 Michigan State College (now Michigan State University) varsity nine. In 15 games his Aggies posted an 11-4 record. He was rehired in 1917 for $750, but the college boys slumped that year to 6-5. He then left the post, only to return in 1922 for a single season, posting a losing record of 7-10.
Morrissey lived out his life in his hometown. He sold off the cigar store in 1928. He became involved in Democratic Party politics and launched an unsuccessful campaign for Ingham County sheriff in 1935. Morrissey remained faithful to his Catholic roots and helped to organize the Church of the Resurrection on Lansing’s east side and was the president of the local St.Vincent DePaul charity at the time of his death. Morrissey was also active in the Elks and Moose fraternal organizations.
Morrissey and his wife, Orpha Dora Smith Morrissey, whom he married in 1912, resided at the same Lansing address for many years. After an illness of about 18 months, Morrissey died at home on October 30, 1936. He was survived by Orpha; a stepdaughter, Erma Rosendale; three grandchildren; and a sister, Mary Morrissey. He was buried in Lansing’s Mount Hope Cemetery.
Dinda, Joel. “Baseball in Lansing, Before the Lugnuts,” http://MWLguide.com/cities/Lansing/history, 2010.
Federal Census Reports, 1970-1930.
History of Baseball in Lansing; Lansing Lugnuts web site, milb.com, 2015.
Ingham County (Michigan) News.
U.S. School Yearbooks, 1880-2012, Ancestry.com 2010.
1 Jim Schnitzer, “A Findlay Fake,” The Sporting News, June 6, 1896: 6.
2 Williamston (Michigan) Enterprise, April 7, 1897: 2.
3 “Baseball – Caught On The Fly,” The Sporting News, February 27, 1897: 5.
4 “Trounced By Toledos,” The Sporting News, May 8, 1897: 3.
5 “John A. Morrissey Is Death Victim,” Lansing (Michigan) State Journal, October 30, 1936: 1.
6 Ingham County (Michigan) Democrat, May 22, 1902: 1.
7 “Millers Are Weak,” The Sporting News, May 3, 1902: 7.
8 “Year of Disaster,” The Sporting News, October 11, 1902: 7.
9 J. Ed Grillo, “First or Second,” The Sporting News, April 4, 1903: 1.
10 “Struck Fast Gait,” The Sporting News, May 9, 1903: 1.
11 J. Ed Grillo, “Boosted Too Much,” The Sporting News, June 13, 1903: 1.
12 The Sporting News, May 16, 1903: 4.
14 J. Ed Grillo, “Is After Players,” The Sporting News, June 6, 1903: 1.
15 J. Ed Grillo, “With Herrmann,” The Sporting News, July 11, 1903: 1.
16 James Andrew, “Cripples Improve,” The Sporting News, August 8, 1903: 7.
17 “Michigan State League,” The Sporting News, July 16, 1914: 5.