Like a host of other marginal talents, pitcher John Connor owes his place in major league player ranks largely to the profusion of clubs accorded major league status during the 1884 season. At one time or other that year, no fewer than 33 different organizations claimed a National League, American Association, or Union Association franchise.
Predictably, Connor’s stay in the bigs was relatively brief — but not entirely without interest or modest distinction. For example, he spent most of the 1884 campaign as the hurling mainstay of the Boston Reserves, a reserve nine owned and operated by the defending National League champion Boston club. The Reserves played in the Massachusetts State League and were arguably major league baseball’s first farm team. Thereafter, Connor’s major league work consisted of 12 starting assignments for three different ball clubs: all complete games. Unhappily for the hurler, only two of these efforts ended in victory.
Last but likely most significant, Connor and $750 in cash were sent by the AA Louisville Colonels to the Chattanooga Lookouts of the minor Southern League in late August 1885. In return, Louisville received hard-throwing pitching prospect Tom (Toad) Ramsey from Chattanooga. Although other instances of player transfers preceded the deal, various 19th century baseball historians consider the Connor-for-Ramsey swap the first straight player trade ever consummated in professional baseball.1 An account of the life and noteworthy events in the otherwise forgettable playing career of John Connor follows.
Unrelated to 19th century Hall of Famer Roger Connor, our subject was born sometime during July 1861 in Nashua, New Hampshire, a fast-growing commerce hub located 45 miles northwest of Boston.2 John was the second of four children born to common laborer Hugh Connor (1835-c.1913) and his wife, the former Hannah (Honora) Cahill (1832-1904), both Irish-Catholic immigrants. The Connors were among the new arrivals attracted to the employment opportunities provided by Nashua’s burgeoning mills, factories, and metal foundries. From the time of the family’s arrival in the late 1850s to the turn of the century, the city’s population quadrupled to over 40,000. In the beginning, Hugh Connor bounced between jobs before settling in as an iron molder at a locomotive assembly plant. By 1880, his sons Dennis and John had found work in local shoemaking factories,3 as would their younger sister Mary a few years later.
Little is known about the early life of John Connor, but he presumably followed the sandlot-to-semipro-to-professional ballplayer path blazed by outfielder Bill Hawes, the first Nashua native to reach the major leagues (with Boston in 1879). In spring 1884, Connor was among the playing hopefuls collected by the powerhouse Boston club, the NL’s reigning champions. With pitching duties in the capable hands of returning aces Jim Whitney and Charlie Buffinton, the champs had little immediate need of the likes of the 22-year-old Connor. But signing him, and fellow prospects like Jim Manning, Tom Gunning, Bill Annis, and Gene Moriarty, served a dual purpose. In the first instance, these signings allowed NL Boston to staff the Boston Reserves, a newly created reserve nine that would provide the big club with replacements on an as-needed basis as the 1884 season progressed. Probably more important to club management, placing Connor and the others under contract shrank the pool of area playing talent available to the rival Boston Reds, the local entry in the upstart Union Association.
Young Connor had good size (6’1”, 170 lbs.) and a strong (officially listed as unknown but presumably right-handed) throwing arm. Apart from that, he was a raw talent who never developed into much of a batsman or fielder. And his first foray pitching against top-notch opposition exposed his shortcomings as a hurler. Facing only a rising underhand fastball and a rudimentary curve, the Boston varsity feasted on Connor’s serves, shelling him for 31 runs (15 earned) in an early April intra-squad game between regulars and reserves.4 Six days later, Connor was again hammered by the Boston regulars, surrendering 16 runs in six innings pitched, but mostly undone by the 22 fielding errors committed behind him and reliever Jim Burke in a 28-2 intra-squad laugher.5 Soon thereafter, Connor was consigned to the outfield, with Burke taking over as the everyday pitcher for the reserve nine.
That changed when Burke jumped to the UA’s Boston Reds in early May. Returned to the box, Connors quickly found form, emerging as the best pitcher in the Massachusetts State League, the independent minor circuit into which Boston management had entered the Reserves. Connor’s good work did not go unnoticed by the local press. In early July, the Boston Herald reported: “Connor, who is doing most of the pitching for the Reserves, is showing up wonderfully well at that position. He has the qualifications of a first-rate pitcher that only needs experience to develop themselves [sic].”6 Apparently, NL Boston manager-first baseman John Morrill was also keeping himself abreast of the youngster’s progress.
On July 22, Morrill promoted the reserve battery of Connor and catcher Tom Gunning for an NL Boston exhibition game to be played in Portland, Maine. The local nine proved a poor test, registering only three hits off Connor while striking out 13 times — even though the youngster visibly eased up on them in the later innings.7 The final score: Boston 29, Portland, 3.
Sufficiently impressed by their performance, Morrill decided to give his reserve battery another tryout a few days later, but against more formidable opposition: the National League’s New York Gothams (later Giants). On July 26, 1884, Connor and Gunning made their major league debuts and the outcome, in the estimation of Sporting Life, was “disastrous.”8 Nervous and wild, Connor surrendered four walks and three base hits in the opening frame to fall behind, 5-0. Thereafter, he “pitched in better form but was poorly supported” by battery mate Gunning, charged with six passed balls, and a miscue-prone Boston defense (seven errors).9 By game’s end, New York had touched Connor for 15 hits, but only three earned runs, in a 12-3 drubbing.
Following his lackluster performance against New York, Connor returned to the Reserves and pitched the club to the Massachusetts State League title, posting the majority of the champs’ 48 victories.10 But Connor was not around for the Reserves’ finish, having been recalled by the big club in mid-September. Shoulder problems, likely the toll of throwing nearly 1,500 innings over the previous three seasons, sidelined Jim Whitney. Thus, Boston had to resort to Connor and diminutive right-hander Daisy Davis in the attempt to stay in the pennant chase. Neither recruit proved up to the task. In Connor’s return engagement, 11 Boston fielding errors, including four by Connor himself, cost him a 5-3 loss to Detroit. Five days later, Connor held Cleveland scoreless through eight innings, but weakened in the ninth to drop a well-pitched 3-0 decision. Days later, he turned the tables on Cleveland to notch his maiden win in the major leagues, hanging on for a 7-6 triumph on October 3.
By then, however, Boston had fallen hopelessly behind the front-running Providence Grays, riding Hoss Radbourn’s record-setting 60-win season to the 1884 National League crown. In meaningless mid-October competition, Connor hurled three complete games against Buffalo. The final result: two ties and a season-ending 9-8 loss to the Bison.
In the end, Boston — handicapped by the 1-3 logs posted down the stretch by both Connor and Davis — finished 73-38 (.658) and a distant second to Providence (84-28, .750). Overall, Connor had gone 1-4, completing all seven of his starting assignments. Over 60 innings pitched, he allowed a generous 70 base hits, but nevertheless posted a respectable 3.15 ERA. His strikeout to walk ratio was also tolerable (29 to 18). But as a batsman, Connor had been near helpless, going 2-for-25 (.080), with 13 whiffs.
Still, he had shown just enough to be included in the contingent that Boston fielded for post-season exhibition game play.11 And local newspapers predicted his return to the major league club for the 1885 season.12 “Talking about young material, the Bostons gained strong accessions in Manning, Connor, and Gunning,” observed the Boston Herald.13But it was not to be, and over the winter Connor signed with Buffalo.14
The new recruit was unimpressive in a preseason exhibition game against Baltimore, and he was on the Buffalo “sick list” as Opening Day approached.15 Connor’s regular season tenure with the Bison started and finished on May 22, 1885. As usual, he went the distance in a 9-4 Buffalo loss to New York, but was raked for 14 hits and botched three of his fielding chances. Shortly thereafter, he was released. Connor’s final major league stop came in a rival circuit, the American Association. He got off to a rocky start with the Louisville Colonels, reached for 17 hits in a complete-game 13-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on June 23. Connor was better in his next outing, holding Brooklyn to five hits, but he walked enough batters to provide the difference in a 4-3 defeat.
Finally on August 2, Connor registered his second major league victory, being “very effective at critical points” in a seven-hit, nine-strikeout win over Pittsburgh, 4-1.16 Connor’s “slow curves were great puzzlers to the Pittsburgh hitters,” added the hometown Louisville Courier-Journal.17 The victory would prove his last. Indeed, Connor had only one more major league game left to pitch: a 9-5 defeat by Pittsburgh on August 24. Five days later, John Connor assumed his modest place in baseball annals. He became the first big league player ever traded to another club.
On August 29, 1885, Louisville sent Connor and $750 cash to the Chattanooga Lookouts of the minor Southern League. In return, the Colonels received young lefty fireballer Toad Ramsey from Chattanooga.18 Although there are other contenders for the distinction, early baseball scholar David Ball and others assert that the Connor-for-Ramsey exchange constitutes the first player trade in professional baseball history.19
Although only 23 years old, John Connor’s major league career was now behind him. In 12 games total, he had gone 2-8 (with two tie games), with a 3.81 ERA. Noteworthy is the fact that Connor recorded a complete game in every major league contest in which he ever appeared. During those outings, he struck out 48 enemy batsmen and walked 32. But his ratio of hits allowed (127) to innings pitched (104) was among the highest registered for major league hurlers during the 1884-1885 seasons. And Connor was a woeful performer as a hitter, going a career 4-for-42 (.095 BA) with two RBIs. He was also a lousy fielder.
Connor made an impressive debut with Chattanooga, limiting Birmingham to five hits in a 5-1 triumph on September 1. He was even better the next time out but suffered a hard-luck, ten-inning 1-0 loss to Augusta. He never got another chance to show his stuff to Southern League fans, as the Chattanooga club disbanded on September 9.20 Connor began the following year with the Rochester Maroons of the International Association, but was dropped from the club roster after two April losses.21 Nineteenth century baseball historian David Nemec also places Connor with the Brockton (Massachusetts) club in the New England League early in the 1886 season.22 His last reported affiliation involved mid-summer pitching duty for a Boston semipro team called the Belfasts.23 Thereafter, Connor returned home to Nashua, his professional playing career completed at age 25 as far as has been discovered.
Connor spent the remainder of his life living with his parents and spinster sister Mary in the family residence on Tyler Street. By 1889, he and a local acquaintance were the proprietors of Connor & Corcoran, a downtown Nashua saloon. Connor maintained the business until his health began to fail.24 He died at 44 in the Connor family residence on November 14, 1905, a victim of paresis, the end-stage of syphilis likely contracted sometime during his baseball playing years.25 Following a Funeral Mass said at Immaculate Conception Church in Nashua, his remains were interred in Catholic (now St. Patrick’s) Cemetery in nearby Hudson, New Hampshire.26 Never married and without children, John Connor’s only immediate survivors were his father Hugh and sister Mary.
A non-annotated version of this article was originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of Nineteenth Century Notes, the quarterly newsletter of SABR’s Nineteenth Century Committee. This version was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Paul Proia.
Sources for the information provided above include the John Connor file maintained at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York; The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball: Biographies of 1,084 Players, Owners, Managers and Umpires, David Nemec, ed. (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012); US Census and other government records accessed via Ancestry.com; and certain of the newspaper articles cited in the endnotes. Unless otherwise noted, stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference.
1 See John Connor in The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball: Biographies of 1,084 Players, Owners, Managers and Umpires, David Nemec, ed. (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012), 23.
2 A recent check of government records by officials in both Nashua and Concord failed to uncover an 1861 birth certificate for John Connor (or O’Connor, Connors, or Conner) on file with New Hampshire vital statistics agencies.
3 As reflected in the 1880 US Census.
4 As reported in “Base-Ball,” Boston Herald, April 2, 1884: 2.
5 See “Twenty-Five Base Hits,” Boston Journal, April 8, 1884: 3, which misspells our subject’s surname as O’Connor, a recurring event in both baseball reportage and government records. Other published variants of the Connor surname include Connors, Conner, and Conners.
6 “Around the Bases,” Boston Herald, July 5, 1884: 8.
7 According to “Portlanders Paralyzed,” Boston Herald, July 23, 1884: 8. Another Boston newspaper noted that the Portland nine “were immensely amused at their own inability to hit Connor even when he pitched his easiest and straightest balls.” See “Notes,” Boston Journal, July 23, 1884: 4.
8 See “Games Played July 26th,” Sporting Life, August 6, 1884: 3.
9 Per “Baseball,” New York Herald, July 27, 1884: 12. See also, “The Bostons Defeated,” Boston Herald, July 27, 1884: 2: “After the first inning Connor seemed to recover from his fright and pitched in better form, but he did not receive proper support from the rest of the players.”
10 See “The Reserves’ Season Ended,” Boston Journal, October 1, 1884: 3, which gives Connor a .138 batting average in 32 games-played. No pitching stats are provided. The team name Blues has appeared in some sources, but Reserves seemed to the name of choice in 1884 newspapers.
11 Late-inning errors cost Connor a 5-2 loss to American Association champion Cincinnati Reds in an exhibition game played in Providence on October 17. See “Belated Base Ball,” Boston Journal, October 18, 1884: 3, and “Out-Door Sports,” New York Tribune, October 18, 1884: 10.
12 See e.g., “Notes,” Boston Journal, October 4, 1884: 6.
13 “Around the Bases,” Boston Herald, October 19, 1884: 2.
14 As reported in “Buffalo’s Strong Nine,” Boston Journal, January 9, 1885: 4. See also, “Prospects for the Base-Ball Season,” Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican, March 8, 1885: 3.
15 Per “Notes,” Boston Journal, April 27, 1885: 3.
16 According to a wire service dispatch printed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, New Orleans Times-Picayune, and elsewhere, August 3, 1885.
17 “Winning in the Mud,” Louisville Courier-Journal, August 3, 1885: 2. To the extent that he had an out pitch at the major league level, Connor relied on a slow, roundhouse-type curveball.
18 Per “Base Ball,” Evansville (Indiana) Journal, August 31, 1885: 1; “Swapping Pitchers,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, August 31, 1885: 8: “Base Ball,” Wheeling (West Virginia) Register, August 31, 1885: 1.
19 See again, The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball, 23. See also, John Marsh, “The Genealogy of Trades,” The Hardball Times, June 25, 2015.
20 The Southern League was then on the brink of disintegration and ceased play less than ten days later with nearly a month left on the schedule. See “The Southern League,” Sporting Life, September 23, 1885: 4.
21 As noted in “Hits and Fumbles,” Boston Herald, May 9, 1886: 2.
22 The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball, 23.
23 See “Gossipy Gleanings,” Boston Herald, July 21, 1886: 3.
24 From 1889 through 1904, Connor’s place of work is listed in various Nashua, New Hampshire city directories.
25 Per New Hampshire death records accessed via Ancestry.com.
26 Per “Deaths,” Nashua (New Hampshire) Telegraph, November 16, 1905: 5. According to a brief obituary in the Manchester (New Hampshire) Union, November 15, 1905, our subject was known as Chag Connor, a nickname not otherwise encountered during the writer’s research.