Turn-of-the-century catcher-utilityman Joe Connor belongs to a baseball fraternity whose charter members include John Ewing, Butts Wagner, John O’Rourke, a pair of Clarkson bothers, and a quartet of Delahantys. The entry requirement is not altogether a happy one: a major-league career totally eclipsed by the accomplishments of a family member bound for Cooperstown. In Joe’s case, his modest playing achievements were overshadowed by those of his older brother Roger Connor, the star first baseman for the New York Giants world champions of 1888-1889 and the major leagues’ first great home-run hitter. Given the vast disparity in their playing talent and a 17-year age difference, there was little sibling rivalry between the Connors. Roger served more as a surrogate father, encouraging Joe’s diamond ambitions as a youngster and then affording him any number of playing opportunities after Joe joined the professional ranks. Between blood and baseball, the Connor brothers forged a lifelong bond.
Joseph Francis Connor was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, on December 8, 1874, the youngest of 11 children born into the family.1 Parents Murtagh and Catharine Sullivan Connor were Irish Catholic immigrants from County Kerry who wed in Waterbury in 1852. Murtagh supported his ever-expanding brood via work in the Waterbury brass mills and with a little extra income produced from raising chickens and doing odd jobs. Two months before Joe’s birth, the family was thrown into crisis by their breadwinner’s unexpected death at the age of 46, leaving the older Connor children to provide for the family’s sustenance. By the time Joe reached the age of 6, only he and his brother Murtagh (age 8) were afforded the luxury of attending school. The other Connor siblings, down to 10-year-old Matthew, were all members of the Waterbury workforce, save for Roger, who was then just beginning a sterling major-league baseball career as a member of the National League Troy Trojans.2
Of the Connor boys, only Joe followed the path chosen by Roger.3 Joe took up baseball early, playing for his grammar- and high-school teams. At 16 or so, he left school but continued his diamond pursuits, spending the next four summers alternating between catcher and third base for the semipro Waterbury Pastimes.4 By now a fully grown 6-feet-2 and 185 pounds, Connor began his professional career in 1895, joining the namesake of Roger’s old team, the Troy Trojans, now of the New York State League. Fleet afoot and with a strong, accurate arm, Joe was never a first-rate batsman. Rather, the key to his advancement was versatility, a major attribute in an era of small team rosters. Before his playing days were over, Connor would see action at every defensive position except pitcher. He also adapted quickly to new surroundings, a faculty that the 1895 season would put to the test. Before the campaign was out, he had moved from Troy to the Bangor (Maine) Millionaires of the New England League. And from there, he went to the circuit’s Augusta Kennebecs. But the highlight of Joe’s travels was doubtless a brief sojourn to St. Louis for an audition with brother Roger’s current team, the hapless Browns of the National League, then headed for a 39-92, 11th-place (out of 12) finish.
Perhaps to conciliate their disgruntled first baseman, only recently returned from a five-week midseason respite at home in Waterbury.5 the Browns gave Roger’s kid brother a tryout. On September 9, 1895, 20-year-old Joe Connor made his major-league debut at Boston’s South End Grounds. Stationed at third base, he handled the chances that came his way competently but went hitless in three at-bats against the Beaneaters’ Cozy Dolan. His new teammates fared little better, collecting but three hits in a 6-0 whitewashing. The following day Joe was back in the Browns lineup, taking the collar in four plate appearances but driving in a run during an 8-4 St. Louis victory. With that, Joe Connor’s tenure as a St. Louis Brown was over.
The following season, Joe was back in Augusta, where he batted .255 in 104 games.6 Again, versatility was his strongpoint. He split time between catching and the outfield, while also filling in at second base and third base. In May 1897, meanwhile, a now 39-year-old Roger Connor was given his release by St. Louis, bringing an exceptional 18-year major-league career to a close. But Roger was unable to get playing ball out of his system. Once back home, he joined the local Waterbury Pirates. Then in June, Roger signed as first baseman-manager with the Fall River (Massachusetts) Indians of the New England League. Among his duties was shaping the club’s roster. With Joe apparently at loose ends, his older brother promptly engaged him. Playing across the diamond from Roger, Joe rewarded his brother’s confidence by hitting .304 for the remainder of the 1897 season, the first of only two times that Joe Connor would enter the charmed circle.
In 1898 Roger returned home to take charge of the recently renamed Waterbury Rough Riders of the Class F Connecticut State League, the circuit operated by Roger’s former Giants teammate and good friend Jim O’Rourke. And where Roger went, Joe followed. With the Connor brothers manning the infield corners (when Joe was not behind the plate), Roger’s wife, Angeline, handling gate receipts, and their daughter Cecilia making herself of use around the grounds, the Waterbury franchise was a real Connor family enterprise. It was a successful one, as well, a season-ending victory boosting Waterbury to the pennant, a razor-thin .002 ahead of New Haven in final standings.7 Joe returned to his older brother’s command the following season, revolving between catching and the outfield while batting .264 for the 1899 Rough Riders. For the 1900 season, however, Joe transferred to the Bridgeport Orators where he again split time between catching and the outfield.
Whether influenced by the change of scenery or not, Joe’s stickwork showed marked improvement in Bridgeport. He raised his batting average to .293 and poled a career-high six home runs. He also stole 51 bases. Somehow, Joe Connor’s fine play came to the attention of Ted Lewis, a mainstay in the Boston Beaneaters’ pitching rotation.8 Acting on a recommendation by Lewis, Boston dispatched disabled star Hugh Duffy to scout Joe in the Connecticut State League title game. As he later admitted, Connor “did not have a good day” under Duffy’s scrutiny. Still, after the game Duffy offered Joe a Boston contract for the remainder of the season.9 Once in uniform, Joe was assigned to back up the catching tandem of Boileryard Clarke and Billy Sullivan. On September 21, 1900, Connor was inserted into a game against the New York Giants, ending a five-year absence from the major leagues. And the 14-14 slugfest that ensued included a single by Joe Connor, his first big-league hit. But he also committed a fielding error and allowed two passed balls, a recurring problem during his late-season play.10 Appearing in six contests thereafter, Connor finished the 1900 season having gone 4-for-19 (.211) with 4 RBIs.
Notwithstanding performance lapses, Joe Connor had made a favorable impression during his brief stay in Boston. And like a multitude of other marginal talents, he would benefit from the emergence of the fledgling American League, which assumed major-league status for the 1901 season. One person desirous of obtaining Connor’s services was Hugh Duffy, who was jumping from the Beaneaters to become player-manager of the American League Milwaukee Brewers. To obtain his release from Bridgeport – Joe’s contract had reverted to the Orators at the close of the 1900 major-league season – Duffy contacted Connecticut State League President Jim O’Rourke and was surprised to learn that Connie Mack, taking over the new American League franchise in Philadelphia, had also made inquiries about Connor.11 But Duffy won out, getting Connor as a backup for the expected first-string catcher, Bill Maloney.
The 1901 Milwaukee Brewers were a lousy team, spending most of the season in a dogfight with the Cleveland Blues for possession of the American League cellar. Catching sporadically (and occasionally playing in the infield), Joe again had passed-ball problems, letting ten get past him in only 30 games behind the plate. But he posted decent numbers with the lumber, hitting .275 in 102 at-bats with 9 RBIs. On July 1, 1901, he hit his only major-league home run, a two-run blast off right-hander Bill Hart of Cleveland. Doubtless impressed, the Blues promptly signed Connor when he was released by Milwaukee three weeks later. There, the Connor bat went into a tailspin. In 133 at-bats, Joe managed only 17 hits, spawning a woeful .140 Cleveland batting average.12 But one of his occasional turns in the Blues outfield provided Connor with what he always considered the highlight of his major-league career. With Cleveland leading Chicago 3-2 in the ninth, a bases-loaded liner headed for the right-center-field gap. As Joe later told it, he “didn’t dream that I could ever catch it but at the last second I made one of those desperate leaps for it and succeeded in hauling it in. It was the greatest catch I ever made.”13
In 1902 Roger Connor placed a team from Springfield, Massachusetts, in the Connecticut State League.14 Brother Joe became the junior partner in franchise operations and the club’s catcher. And it was midseason game horseplay by Joe that precipitated a first in the long playing career of Roger Connor – his ejection from a baseball game. Normally a placid giant (6-feet-3, 230 pounds), Roger became enraged when Meriden’s Tommy Tucker, an ex-major leaguer whom Roger had disdained since the 1890 Players League conflict, responded to baserunning antics by his brother in a physical manner, hurling Joe to the infield ground. A Tucker pummeling by Roger quickly ensued, obliging the umpire to dismiss the elder Connor from the contest.15 Joe continued playing for Springfield the next two seasons, posting a career-best .311 average in 1904. The year’s high point for him, however, occurred away from the diamond: marriage to Agnes Walsh, a schoolteacher from Albany, New York. The birth of daughters Catherine in 1905 and Agnes two years thereafter would complete the Connor family.
Joe’s 1904 performance earned him a promotion to the Newark Sailors of the Class A Eastern League. There, his performance was pedestrian (a .249 batting average) but once again Connor’s ability to catch and his all-around versatility garnered him a major-league shot. This time, it was the New York Highlanders that needed help. In eight games late in the 1905 season, (including two at first base), Connor hit .227 with two RBIs and four runs scored. Although he was just 30 years old, his stint with New York brought Joe Connor’s major-league career to a close. Altogether, he had appeared in 92 major-league games, making at least one appearance at every position on the diamond except pitcher. His career batting average was a lowly .199, with but ten of his 54 hits good for extra bases. Passed balls aside, Connor’s defensive log was considerably better, his .950 lifetime fielding average being more than acceptable, particularly given the variety of positions he was called upon to play.
While his major-league days were now behind him, Joe Connor was far from done with the game. In 1906 he returned to the Eastern League, hitting .262 in 113 games for the Montreal Royals.16 The next year, a .216 midseason batting average sent Joe back to his old Springfield club in the Connecticut State League. And there he would remain through the 1909 season. Joe completed his professional baseball career as the 35-year-old player-manager of the 1910 New Britain Perfectos. In 14 minor-league campaigns, Connor batted a respectable .266, but with little power. Only 141 of his 1,150 minor-league hits were extra-base blows.
After his retirement from the game, Joe stayed close to home in Waterbury. While still relatively young, he worked as a roofer. Later, he took a job in the packing department of the Waterbury Manufacturing Company, eventually becoming a plant foreman. In January 1931 a sad familial duty called, with Joe lending his bass voice to the choir at St. Margaret’s Church for the Requiem Mass conducted for esteemed brother Roger, dead at the age of 73. Joe spent the final 11 years of his working life as a messenger for the Connecticut Superior Court, retiring at the age of 68 in 1946. All the while, he and wife Agnes lived at the same Plaza Street address in Waterbury with their daughters, both of whom had become public-school teachers.
Joe Connor never lost his interest in baseball. He was a constant presence at local school and sandlot games, at times coaching for the Waterbury American Legion. In his last years he took particular delight in the playing achievements of Jimmy Piersall, a star graduate of the Waterbury Legion team. Even as an old man, Connor remained active, socializing with friends at the Waterbury Elks Lodge and attending to his responsibilities as a member of the Holy Name Society at St. Margaret’s Church. In June 1955 Agnes, Joe’s wife of more than 50 years, died. Two years later he joined her, stricken by a fatal heart attack while at home. Joe was 82 years old.17 After funeral services, he was laid to rest alongside his wife at Old St. Joseph’s Cemetery, the Waterbury burial grounds of his parents, brother Roger, and many other members of the large Connor clan.
Although his playing achievements were meager, Joe Connor always took pride in the fact that he had made it to the majors. In a fond remembrance published shortly after Joe’s death, a Waterbury Republican reporter recalled that Joe had once said, “It was wonderful to be classed as a big leaguer.”18 And so Joe Connor was entitled to be, even if his major-league career was relatively brief and played in the shadow of a far more celebrated brother.
1 The biographical data in this profile has been drawn from various US censuses; the Joe and Roger Connor files at the Giammati Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York, and the Silas Bronson Public Library, Waterbury, Connecticut; Roy Kerr, Roger Connor: Home Run King of 19th Century Baseball, (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011); and Joe Connor’s obituary in the Waterbury Republican, November 9, 1957. Joe’s birth was preceded by that of Hannah (born 1853), Mary (1856), Roger (1857), Julia (1860), Ellen (Nellie – 1863), Daniel (1866), Dennis (1868), Matthew (1870), and Murtagh (1872). Sister Julia and an infant sibling, name unknown, died before Joe was born.
2 Information from the 1880 US Census.
3 Brother Matt tried his hand at boxing while Dan Connor later became groundskeeper for the Waterbury team in the Eastern League.
4 Waterbury Republican, November 9, 1957.
5 In the midst of the final outstanding season of his major-league career, Roger had left the Browns for reasons obscure. After missing some 40 midseason games, he returned to the team in late August 1895. For more, see Kerr, Roger Connor, 131-132.
7 Kerr, 141-144. Baseball-reference.com provides no team or individual statistics for the 1898 Connecticut State League season.
8 The Sporting News, October 6, 1900.
9 Waterbury Republican, November 9, 1957
10 Box scores published in The Sporting News charge Connor with six passed balls in seven 1900 games behind the plate for Boston. Otherwise, he fielded an adequate .971.
11 Waterbury Republican, November 9, 1957
12 Combined, Joe hit .202 with 15 RBIs in the 1901 American League season. According to Baseball-reference, he was also a member of the Bridgeport Orators in 1901 but no stats are provided.
13 Waterbury Republican, November 9, 1957.
14 Roger had sold the Waterbury club to a local businessman in July 1901. Kerr, 146.
15 Sporting Life, June 4, 1902
16 Baseball-reference also places Joe Connor in Fort Worth of the Texas League for three games during the 1906 season but provides no other information.
17 Waterbury Republican, November 9, 1957. He was survived by daughters Catherine and Agnes, neither of whom ever married.
18 Waterbury Republican, November 24, 1957