John O’Brien

This article was written by Mike Lackey

When John Joseph O’Brien took the field for the Brooklyn Bridegrooms on July 25, 1891, he was “unheralded and unknown,”1 described as “a little pale-faced chap who looked as meek as a country youth fresh from the mourners’ bench.”2 He hit the first pitch he saw for a line single to right, then added another single and a triple, ultimately scoring three runs and batting in four, leading his club to a 15-2 victory. When the game ended, he was followed off the field “by a cheering crowd of admirers.”3 The performance prompted a remark that perhaps the home team had finally found a “genuine O’Brien.”4

In 1891, that was a high compliment. At the time there was a widespread perception that the Irish had a particular aptitude for baseball, being not only naturally athletic but also quick-witted and creative. Henry Chadwick praised the “pluck, courage, endurance and physical activity” of Irish players.5 Bill Joyce, hired as manager of the New York Giants in 1896 (after sharing an infield with O’Brien in Washington), said, “Give me a good Irish infield and I will show you a good team.”6

Joyce might have been biased. He was an infielder and also the son of Irish immigrants. But a year after O’Brien’s debut, an item in The Sporting News suggested that “probably one-half of the professional ball players of prominence are Irish born or [of] Irish-American parentage.”7 Such estimates are speculative at best and almost surely overstated, but certainly our subject fit the predominant image of a ballplayer of his time.

O’Brien was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, on July 13, 1866. His parents, James J. and Mary Ellen Hayes O’Brien, were Irish immigrants. The future ballplayer was the first of their six children, three sons and three daughters. The family survived the Great Saint John Fire of 1877 which destroyed 40 percent of the city and left nearly half of its 29,000 inhabitants homeless. The O’Briens left Canada in 1880 and emigrated to Lewiston, Maine, where John first played baseball as a teenager.8

Many Irish newcomers, forced from their native land in the wake of the potato famine of the 1840s, arrived in North America with few resources and limited skills. The O’Briens were probably typical; the ballplayer’s father worked as a laborer and died in his mid-50s. Sports often provided a path to socioeconomic improvement. While John gravitated to baseball, brother Dick O’Brien became a contender for the world welterweight boxing championship, matched a half-dozen times against one-time titleholders Kid McCoy, Barbados Joe Walcott, and Mysterious Billy Smith.9 John also developed at least a local reputation as a wrestler and “scientific” boxer, touted as “the best sparrer for points in Maine.”10

By his early 20s, O’Brien was “one of the most promising young players in the state.”11 He began his professional career in 1889. Over the next 16 years he played second base in Canada and the United States: from Augusta, Maine, to Augusta, Georgia; and from the San Francisco Bay to the Bay of Fundy. He spent all or part of six seasons in the National League. A year after cracking the big leagues, he married Ellen Frances Cavanaugh on November 17, 1892, at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Saint John. Like her husband, Ellen was a child of Irish immigrants. Despite whatever stability might have accrued from his baseball success, O’Brien’s family experienced hardships. His wife gave birth to seven children and outlived three of them before dying “without warning”12 in her mid-30s. Brother Dick, after retiring from the prize ring, suffered “creeping paralysis” that left him “practically helpless”13 for three years before his death at 43.

O’Brien was just the fourth native New Brunswicker to play in the major leagues. Through 2022 there have been 16, most notably the Deadball Era catcher Larry McLean and modern-day pitcher Rhéal Cormier and outfielder Matt Stairs. O’Brien apparently was better educated than most players of his day and reportedly even studied briefly for the priesthood.14 Hometown papers in Lewiston described him as “a very gentlemanly ball player”15 and personally as temperate and reserved, a man who always stayed in condition and took good care of both his health and his money.16 He was sufficiently respected to once be tapped as captain of a major-league team. But baseball in the 1890s was “a crude, violent game,”17 and the Irish, in the words of Richard F. Peterson, “played the game as they found it.”18 O’Brien was an aggressive, argumentative competitor whose career was marked by frequent explosive clashes with umpires.

Tracing his nomadic career can be tricky, in part because of the large number of O’Briens in baseball. Four John O’Briens played in the major leagues between 1890 and 1899. As of 2023, had pages for three more in the minor leagues, plus another 10 O’Briens whose first names were undetermined. Usually reliable sources—, contract cards maintained by The Sporting News, research by SABR members Ray Nemec and G. Reed Howard—suggest as many as 28 stops for our John O’Brien, who rarely spent more than one full season with a team, and never as many as two. says he broke in with San Francisco in the California League in 1889, but contemporary sources place him with Augusta in the New England League.19 It seems likely that an unknown player from Lewiston would have launched his career 30 miles from home in Augusta, then finished the season 3,200 miles away on the West Coast. The following year he was back in Saint John in the four-team New Brunswick League.20 There he participated in one of the most consequential games ever played in the province. O’Brien’s team was the appropriately-named Shamrocks, backed by what a local sports historian described as “a group of hard-nosed Irish Catholic businessmen.” Their chief rivals were the St. Johns, sponsored by an association of “Protestant ‘WASPs.’ ”21 The two teams were battling for first place when they squared off on the Shamrocks’ grounds on August 21. Two thousand howling partisans crowded in on the foul lines, jeering and intimidating the visiting players, who quickly blew a four-run lead. The Shamrocks scored seven times in the sixth inning and won the game 12-8. Newspapers decried the “disgraceful” spectacle,22 and city fathers put the kibosh on any further meetings between the two clubs. Within days the St. Johns withdrew from the league and another franchise succumbed to financial woes. That marked the end of the N.B. League and, except for another short-lived experiment in 1913,23 the end of professional baseball in New Brunswick.

O’Brien’s break came in 1891. He was playing for Portland and gaining a reputation as “the most desperate base runner in the [New England] league”24 when Brooklyn found itself in need of a replacement for injured second baseman Hub Collins. Club president Charles Byrne traveled to Maine, looked O’Brien over and bought him for $700.25 Byrne told reporters that his new infielder “neither drinks nor smokes, and is a bright, clear-headed fellow … [and] full of ginger.”26

Starting with his attention-grabbing debut, O’Brien hit .246 in 43 games as a rookie “and would probably have been retained … for the following season” had the Grooms not obtained Tommy Corcoran to play shortstop, permitting the shift of Monte Ward to second.27 Instead our man was released and headed west, where the following spring found “John J. O’Brien, formerly of the Brooklyn club,” manning second base for Oakland in the California League.28 Released there in August, he finished the season with Lewiston in the New England League.

In 1893, George Stallings secured him for Augusta in the Southern Association, where he batted .280 before requesting his release in early August29 in order to accept a better offer. Within days, O’Brien was back in the majors with the Chicago Colts. They had a revolving door at second base, trying eight players at the position that year. At the same time manager Cap Anson was signing O’Brien, club president James Hart was signing Bob Glenalvin from Los Angeles in the California League.30 O’Brien made a good impression in Chicago, batting .357 and generating excitement with his “rip-snorting, soul-racking” head-first slides,31 but he appeared in only four games before the club decided to go with Glenalvin. O’Brien again finished the season in the New England League at Dover, New Hampshire.

Early in 1894, O’Brien was reunited with Stallings and back in the Southern Association, this time at Nashville. By now the non-smoker had acquired a unique nickname. While many players chewed tobacco, O’Brien was known for a different “chaw” of choice: He was called “Chewing Gum.”32 O’Brien was batting .319 when the league folded in July. His last Nashville appearance was on July 6 in an experimental night game. He took the field sporting a green cutaway coat, stovepipe hat and red side whiskers.33 Four days later he was in Buffalo, where he played out the season hitting .330 in 60 Eastern League games.

That got him back to the big leagues, barely. He signed with the Louisville Colonels, who had finished last among 12 teams in the National League. The local newspaper pronounced him “probably the best second baseman picked out of the minor leagues this year.”34 As usual, he earned particular praise for his fielding; Wilbert Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles singled him out as “the best second baseman on the diamond today.”35 An everyday player in the majors for the first time, O’Brien batted .256 and scored 82 runs, but he couldn’t do much for the team which finished in the cellar again with only 35 wins. The most dramatic moment of his season occurred July 2 when he was thrown out of the game and fined $50 after tangling with Cincinnati catcher Farmer Vaughn. O’Brien claimed Vaughn spiked him in a deliberate attempt to injure him “for life.”36

Manager John McCloskey named O’Brien team captain at the start of the 1896 season, but the Colonels got off to a 2-17 start and McCloskey was fired barely three weeks into the campaign. O’Brien and the 23-year-old left fielder, Fred Clarke, went to the club’s directors to remonstrate on McCloskey’s behalf, but to no avail. O’Brien was asked to take over as interim manager, but he declined, insisting “he was entirely too young and inexperienced.”37 Within days the new manager, Bill McGunnigle, demoted O’Brien and handed the captaincy to Doggie Miller.

In the wake of the changes there were rumblings that the club was split into rival factions. In any case, the Colonels continued to lose, and on July 3, O’Brien was sent to the Washington Nationals in exchange for infielders Jack Crooks and Jim Rogers and $1,000. Despite suggestions of bad blood, O’Brien received a “cordial reception” from his former mates when he returned to Louisville with the Nationals.38 On the same trip, O’Brien took a step toward establishing his reputation with his new team. Umpire Tim Hurst ejected O’Brien from a game, then suggested they might meet after the game to settle their differences. When O’Brien pronounced himself “tickled” to oblige, the Washington Evening Star reported, Hurst seemed to have second thoughts.

“It all ended pleasantly,” the paper added. “… Ball players say John O’Brien knows more about the manly art than any other man in the league.”39

The Nationals finished tenth, 33 games out of first place, but O’Brien established major-league highs in doubles (15), home runs (6), runs batted in (57), batting average (.296), slugging average (.386), and on-base percentage (.361). His production declined the following year, and with the team in eleventh place, he was among several players released during a shakeup in August. He spent the rest of that season and all of the next in the Eastern League, first with Providence and then Syracuse before helping Montreal to the pennant in 1898.

O’Brien’s best chance to play for a major-league contender came in 1899. But he batted just .193 in 39 games for John McGraw’s Baltimore Orioles and on June 16, he was sold to Pittsburgh. Within a week he got the thumb two days in a row from the Hall of Fame umpire Tommy Connolly, and that turned out to be the highlight of his time with the Pirates. His hitting improved slightly, but he finished the season with an overall .215 average. The team finished seventh out of 12 teams.

O’Brien left Pittsburgh as part of one of the biggest trades in baseball history, at least in terms of body count. Louisville, facing the prospect of being dropped from the National League (along with Baltimore, Cleveland and Washington) as it contracted from 12 teams to eight, sent nearly its entire roster—13 players, including Rube Waddell, Deacon Phillippe, Fred Clarke, and Honus Wagner—to the Pirates in exchange for O’Brien, Jack Chesbro, two other players, and $25,000. The deal, completed December 8, 1899, was part of a complex series of maneuvers that enabled Louisville’s Barney Dreyfuss to take over the Pittsburgh franchise. In March 1900, O’Brien, Chesbro, and the two other players were returned to Pittsburgh, where all but Chesbro were disposed of the following month.

O’Brien’s 1900 season was unsettled. He caught on with Scranton, which quickly established itself as the class of the Atlantic League, but the league folded on June 12. From there he went to the New York State League, joining the Oswego club which soon moved to Elmira, ultimately went through three managers, and finished dead last.

In 1901, for the first time in five years, O’Brien spent the entire season with one team. He was installed as captain of the Kansas City Blues in the Western League, and for once the arrangement worked out splendidly. With O’Brien sparkling in the field and batting .272,40 Kansas City won the pennant by 10 games. Owner-manager George Tebeau gave much of the credit to his captain.

“O’Brien has … conducted the team in such a manner that I have been on the field very little this season,” Tebeau said. “I have left the running of the team to him and he has accomplished his work in admirable style.”41 The local correspondent for The Sporting News could find only one fault in O’Brien’s performance—that being “his mouth, which he has exercised a bit too freely.”42

If anything, that was an understatement. O’Brien’s conduct reached new levels of intensity. The June 26 game at Des Moines had barely begun before a dispute erupted and O’Brien pulled his men off the field. Fined $100 and suspended for 10 days, he was nonetheless allowed to sit on the bench in uniform while serving his sentence. During a July 4 doubleheader, he repeatedly charged onto the field to argue with the umpire and was ejected from both games.

Within two years nearly all the regulars from O’Brien’s 1901 club were in the major leagues,43 but he never got another shot. He remained in Kansas City and got entangled in controversy of a different sort. He jumped his Western League contract and joined the city’s other team in the American Association. This earned him mention in a Sporting News editorial bemoaning the inability of the minor leagues’ governing body “to compel its members to live up to its laws.”44 Amid a tangle of claims from multiple clubs, and despite protests from Kansas City45—and along the way being thrown out of an American Association game in Columbus where it took two police officers to remove him from the field46—O’Brien eventually finished the season with the last-place Peoria Distillers of the Western League.

His playing career wound down after that, ending in 1904. The same year, he coached the baseball team at Bates College in Lewiston to an 8-6-1 record. After that, he ran a boxing school in Lewiston and refereed boxing and wrestling matches. He also umpired in the minor leagues for several years, during which his pugilistic skills occasionally came into play. In 1906, O’Brien ejected New Bedford catcher Jack Coveney from a New England League game and felt compelled to enforce his authority with “two stiff punches in the face.” Before the game was over, Coveney showed up at the local police court displaying “a black eye and a couple of cuts,” intent on pressing charges of assault and battery. O’Brien was arrested and released on $200 bail.47 The case was later settled out of court.48

Like many in his family, O’Brien was not destined for a long life. He died May 12, 1913, at age 46, his death attributed in various sources to pneumonia, kidney disease, or meningitis. He was buried in Lewiston’s Mount Hope Cemetery. John J. O’Brien was inducted in 1971 into the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame and in 1974 into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, where he was joined two years later by brother Dick.



This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Gary Livacari and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

Photo credit:



1 “Grooms and Giants Win with Ease,” New York Herald, July 26, 1891, 14.

2 “The Two O’Briens,” Brooklyn Citizen July 26, 1891, 3.

3 “Grooms and Giants,” above.

4 “John J. O’Brien the Ball Player,” Lewiston (Maine) Evening Journal, May 13, 1913, 12.

5 Charley Rosen, The Emerald Diamon: How the Irish Transformed America’s Greatest Pastime (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 50.

6 “Lots of Irish,” Sporting Life, September 19, 1896, 18.

7 “Caught on the Fly,” The Sporting News, October 8, 1892, 5.

8 “John J. O’Brien,” New York Clipper, 1897, undated clipping on file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

9 The All-New 1980 Ring Record Book, Bert Randolph Sugar, ed. (New York: Ring Publishing Co., 1980), 530-36.

10 “For Sportsmen,” Lewiston (Maine) Saturday Journal, January 12, 1889, 1.

11 “Big Sport,” Lewiston Saturday Journal, December 15, 1888, 1.

12 “Very Sudden Death,” Lewiston Evening Journal, May 19, 1910, 3.

13 “Lewiston’s Famous Fighter is Dead,” Lewiston (Maine) Sun, November 13, 1918, 10.

14 Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900: The Ballplayers Who Built the Game, David Nemec, ed. (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 368.

15 “Sporting Say-So,” Lewiston Evening Journal, Oct. 10, 1889, 1.

16 “John J. O’Brien,” Lewiston Evening Journal, above.

17 Bill James, The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers from 1870 to Today (New York: Scribner, 1997), 31-32.

18 Richard F. Peterson, “‘Slide, Kelly, Slide’: The Irish in American Baseball” in Lawrence Baldassaro and Richard A. Johnson, The American Game: Baseball and Ethnicity (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002), 66.

19 “John J. O’Brien,” New York Clipper above. See also Sporting News contract card.

20 “New Brunswick League,”; article provided by Nick Boudreau, executive director of Baseball New Brunswick, February 2023.

21 Brian Flood, Saint John: A Sporting Tradition, 1785-1985 (Saint John, New Brunswick: Neptune Publishing Co. Ltd., 1985), 75.

22 “Sporting Events,” Saint John (New Brunswick) Telegraph, August 21, 1890, 3.

23 Saint John and two other New Brunswick clubs were members of the New Brunswick-Maine League, which functioned for a few months before folding in August 1913. See Benjamin Barrett Sumner, Minor League Baseball Standings: All North American Leagues, Through 1999 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1992), 414.

24 “Poor Mr. Dunning,” Portland (Maine) Evening Express, May 26, 1891, 4.

25 “Baseball Gossip,” Brooklyn Citizen, July 24, 1891, 3.

26 “Champions Return Home,” Brooklyn Eagle, July 25, 1891, 2.

27 “John J. O’Brien,” New York Clipper above.

28 “An Opposition League,” Oakland Tribune, February 24, 1892, 8.

29 “Is This the End of Augusta,” Atlanta Constitution, August 8, 1893, 2.

30 “A Conflict in Signing Authorities,” Chicago Tribune, August 13, 1893, 6.

31 “New Blood Counts,” (Chicago) Inter-Ocean, August 14, 1893, 3.

32 “Eight of ’Em Named,” Nashville American, February 8, 1894, 6. See also James K. Skipper Jr., Baseball Nicknames: A Dictionary of Origins and Meanings (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1992), 206; and “Two in Succession,” Nashville Banner, May 11, 1894, 6.

33 “The Electric Light Game,” Nashville Banner, July 7, 1894, 10; “Was No End of Fun,” Nashville American, July 7, 1894, 6.

34 “Are Winners,” Louisville Courier-Journal, April 15, 1895, 2.

35 “Caught on the Fly,” The Sporting News, June 8, 1895, 5.

36 “Players Fight,” Louisville Courier-Journal, July 3, 1895, 6.

37 “M’Gunnigal,” Louisville Courier-Journal, May 5, 1896, 8.

38 “The Western Trip,” Washington Evening Star, July 27, 1896, 8.

39 “The Western Trip,.

40 This figure is based on the research of SABR’s Ray Nemec. Other individual statistics in this article are from and/or

41 “Tebeau Talks of the Pennant,” Kansas City Times, September 10, 1901, 7.

42 Doc Shively, “Best of the Blues,” The Sporting News, August 10, 1901, 1.

43 Mike Lackey, Spitballing: The Baseball Days of Long Bob Ewing, Wilmington, Ohio: Orange Frazer Press (2013),:27-28 and 34 (note 36).

44 The Sporting News, July 12, 1902, 4.

45 “Jack O’Brien with Peoria,” Kansas City Star, June 18, 1902, 3.

46 “Timely Hitting Beat Columbus,” Kansas City Star, May 3, 190), 5.

47 “John Biffed Him Couple of Onces,” Lewiston Evening Journal, July 19, 1906, 10.

48 “Baseball Notes,” Kennebunk (Maine) Journal, July 28, 1906, 4.

Full Name

John Joseph O'Brien


July 13, 1866 at St. John, NB (CAN)


May 12, 1913 at Lewiston, ME (USA)

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