This article was written by Ralph Berger
Philadelphia in the late 1800s was crazy for baseball. Dozens of local teams competed with each other for the honor of being the best team in the area. School teams were few and far between, with playing areas limited and no permanent organizations for recreation for children of that day. Moreover, sweatshops still employed a great number of children, greatly limiting their recreational time.
There were exceptions, among them Girard College, a school for orphaned children founded by the estate of Stephen Girard. The school opened in 1848 and admitted orphan boys between the ages of 6 to 9. There was time at Girard for athletics and the grounds to play on. Baseball entered the lives of these children and thirteen graduates of the school played in the major leagues. Among those who played professionally was Jocko Milligan, who if not for Girard might have been one of those children who were swept away and forgotten.
John Milligan was born on August 8, 1861, in Philadelphia. He lived at 2144 Lombard Street. His mother died shortly after he was born from unknown causes; his father, William, a laborer, died of inflammation of the lungs in May of 1869 when John was eight years old. Thomas Dunbar, his mother’s brother, became his guardian.
Milligan was enrolled at Girard on January 4, 1870. He was a well-behaved boy and made fair grades. But he grew rapidly, and all the teams at Girard sought him for his athletic ability. Girard had solid baseball teams, and Milligan soon became a standout member of the club, playing third base and showing great power even with a dead ball.
During Milligan’s final year at Girard, Alonzo Knight, a former student of Girard from the class of 1870 and the second of the thirteen from Girard who played in the majors, brought in the Philadelphia Athletics to show the youngsters how to play baseball. Knight, captain of the A’s, played every position but catcher. Moreover, he might have been one of the first Italian ball players in professional baseball, having entered Girard as Alonzo Letti, later changing his last name to Knight. The A’s showed off their skills as the youngsters watched. After the practice session Knight challenged the Girard team to a game, telling the students that he had some presents for them if they even scored a run. To the embarrassment of Knight and the A’s, the young men on the Girard team eked out a 5-4 win. As to the gifts promised there is no record that they were ever given. But it didn’t matter to Milligan and his mates, for they had defeated a professional team to the delight of the school.
After graduating from Girard in 1879, Milligan was apprenticed out to a blacksmith. Shoeing horses for five years, he managed to play some baseball with the Anthracite Club in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. He was noticed by Bill Sharsig, manager of the Philadelphia club of the major league American Association, and became a teammate of fellow Girardian Alonzo Knight in 1884 and 1885. Milligan stayed with the A’s for four seasons. When Wilbert Robinson came to the A’s, Milligan was relegated to second- string catcher even though he fielded much better than Robinson. As a rookie catcher in 1884, he led the league in fielding percentage. In four of his next six seasons he led the league in double plays. He also played first base on occasion.
After leaving Philadelphia at the close of the 1887 season, Milligan again played second fiddle to Jack Boyle for the St. Louis Browns of the American Association. When the Browns played in the 1888 World Series against the New York Giants of the National League, Boyle could not catch more than a couple of games because of sore hands. This was Milligan’s only appearance in post-season play. He played in eight games, batting .400. In 1889 Milligan rapped out enough hits for a career-high .366 average. He slugged 12 homers and drove in 76 runs as a backup again to Jack Boyle.
Eighteen ninety found Jocko back in Philadelphia, this time taking a risk by playing in the newly founded, ill-fated Players League. He shared catching duties evenly with Lave Cross. The new league soon collapsed after a season, and Milligan stayed in Philadelphia in 1891 to catch for the Philadelphia Athletics American Association franchise when it was awarded the fallen Players League Philadelphia club. He caught 118 games that year, the most ever in his career. He batted .303 that season with 106 runs batted in. This club eventually went the way of the dinosaur when it became the Philadelphia Phillies of the National League in 1892.
He split time in 1893 with the Baltimore and New York clubs in the National League. That was the end of his ten-year major league career. His statistics for those ten years were solid-a .286 lifetime batting average with 49 homers in the Deadball Era. In addition, he had 50 triples and drove in 497 runs as mostly a part-time player and fielded his position with a .943 average. He is also one of the relatively few players to hit four doubles in one game, accomplishing the feat on May 2, 1886. Jocko might have been a second banana, but he was a valuable one.
After his major league career Milligan played minor league ball with several teams: Pottsville, Reading and Allentown of the Pennsylvania State League; Yonkers of the Eastern League; Shamokin of the Pennsylvania State League; and the Athletics of the Atlantic League.
Potttsville became the Allentown club, and eventually the Reading club that still exists as the Philadelphia Phillies’ Double A farm team. Milligan was the manager of the Reading team that had no home field and became known as Milligan’s “Wanderers.”
Milligan probably didn’t relish being miscast in a supporting role but still created his own niche as a solid defensive catcher and a good hitter. He hammered away at his trade in baseball as he hammered shoes on to horses. One thinks of the poem about the smithy and his anvil under the spreading chestnut tree pounding shapeless metal into something recognizable. Milligan shaped his baseball career on accepting what was handed to him and pounding it into a respectable one.
Solid, stoic yet gentle Jocko met life head on. He bravely faced the world and forged a life for himself with the aid of Girard College. He never forgot Girard, and when he was free on Founder’s Day (Stephen Girard’s birthday, May 20, or the closest Saturday to May 20), he would enter the gates of the school that served him well to pay homage to the Founder.
Milligan was a full-time catcher for only one year, but his statistics as measured by the Total Baseball’sTotal Player Rating, outrank those of fellow-catchers Lave Cross, Wilbert Robinson and Deacon McGuire. With his solid hitting and fielding combined Milligan ranks twentieth among position players of his era and among the top 250 players of all time. Bill James in his New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract ranks Jocko Milligan as the 103rd best all-round catcher. One wonders why managers overlooked these abilities during his baseball days and why he did not get more playing time.
After his retirement from baseball, Milligan invested in real estate, buying land in South Philadelphia and was a Tipstaff (a sheriff’s deputy) in the city of Philadelphia.
Jocko Milligan died in Philadelphia of a heart attack at his home at 2741 Sears Street on August 29, 1923, and was survived by his wife Isabella, whom he had married on May 12, 1884
If Milligan hadn’t been able to go to Girard, one wonders if he would have had any chance in life. He might have wound up as a waif on the streets of Philadelphia or just as bad in a sweatshop never getting an education and a chance to exhibit his skills as a baseball player. Grateful for the opportunities and education he received at Girard, he returned whenever he could, especially to celebrate Founder’s Day. He would ask a pitcher on the Girard team to throw him some pitches that he would (to the delight of the boys watching) deposit over a wall 350 feet away and ten feet high. Though a big man for those days (6’1″ and 190 pounds) and made strong by his days as a blacksmith’s apprentice, he was a gentle and loving husband and father to his wife and children and a doting grandfather.
John Milligan was lucky to attend Girard College and receive the care one needs to prepare for life as an adult. But much credit has to go to the boy and man himself. Deep down in his psyche he found the courage to overcome the tragedies that befell him as a child and go on to a productive life. Perhaps there is no tragedy in death when one has faced life and dealt with it with courage. John Jocko Milligan found the courage.
Girard College Archives.
James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. New York: The Free
John (Jocko) Milligan File at National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in
Cooperstown, New York.
Thomas, Joan M., and Frederick Ivor-Campbell. “John Milligan.” Baseball’s First
Stars. Eds. Frederick Ivor-Campbell, Robert L. Tiemann, and Mark Rucker.
Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1996.