Baseball fame can be very fleeting. A perfect example is the career of William H. “Josh” Reilly. A San Francisco native, Reilly had a nearly twenty-year minor league career and made one of the most dramatic major league debuts ever. Before his career ended, he accepted a prominent position at San Francisco City Hall and worked there for nearly forty years. Yet when he died in 1938, a local paper published an obituary that confused him with another player, resulting in encyclopedia listings that were inaccurate until very recently.
William Henry Reilly was born in San Francisco on May 9, 1868. His parents, Philip Reilly and the former Mary Jane Lynch, had arrived on the Pacific Coast from New York City the year earlier with their first two children. In the mid-1870s the family returned to New York for a few years, but by 1878 they were back in San Francisco for good. By 1880 Philip was working as a ship caulker, and Mary Jane was raising their six children. Tragedy struck the family in 1884 when Philip and Mary Jane, though still in their early forties, died within two months of each other.
Two years later, Josh made his debut in the California League. The Pacific Coast’s first professional league was still in its infancy, enabling Josh and the circuit to mature together over the next few years. After a handful of appearances in 1886 and 1888, he earned his first extended stay with his hometown’s entry in 1890, where he played shortstop and third base.
He had brief stints with several other California League clubs over the next few years, but all were short-lived, suggesting that Reilly’s priorities were elsewhere. He finally appears to have gotten more serious about baseball as a career in 1893, including an attempt to convert himself to the pitcher’s box. (Sporting Life, August 19, 1893) But just when he finally committed himself to baseball full-time, the California League folded.
So Reilly spent the rest of the year on the road, playing for Albany and Salem in the independent Oregon State League and then playing winter ball in New Orleans. Initially he was slated to pitch for New Orleans in 1894, but he subsequently joined Nashville as a shortstop and finished the year pitching for Des Moines.
Josh Reilly’s whereabouts are difficult to trace in 1895 because of the many players named Reilly or Riley active at the time, but he may have spent the season playing the infield for Fort Worth. Wherever he played, he must have caught someone’s eye, as he was signed by Chicago of the National League for the 1896 campaign. California was still an exotic locale for most Americans, so the new infielder was preceded to Chicago by a fanciful tale about his being “traded for a horse when he played in California some years ago.” (Sporting News, June 6, 1896)
Instead it was Josh Reilly’s major league debut that sounded like a tall tale. On May 2, 1896, he filled in at shortstop for Bill Dahlen, who had a toothache. He must have been nervous, as he committed three errors, but he redeemed himself in the fifth inning. With two runners aboard and nobody out, he made a spectacular diving catch and started a triple play. (Chicago Tribune, May 3, 1896) Reilly is surely one of at most a handful of players – if not the only one – to start a triple play in his first major league game. And, as it turned out, it was the only major league game he played at shortstop.
Dahlen was back in the lineup the next day, and Josh Reilly’s next eight appearances were as a second baseman. Then he contracted typhoid fever and was forced to return home to San Francisco. (Sporting News, July 25, 1896) Before the end of the season he had recovered sufficiently to make a few appearances in the California League, but his days as a major leaguer were over.
It is again difficult to be sure where he played in 1897, with conflicting accounts placing him with clubs in Indianapolis, Springfield, Illinois, and Fargo. In any event, it was his last season playing east of California. With his thirtieth birthday approaching, Reilly clearly decided that security took precedence over trying to return to the major leagues.
After being listed as a baseball player in the city directory each year from 1894 to 1898, his occupation changes to deputy assessor the following year. He had, as a later profile explained, obtained “a good political job in the new City Hall which nets him a handsome salary.” (Sporting News, August 16, 1902) It was a position that he would hold for the next forty years. A corresponding shift was also occurring in his personal life. On December 28, 1899, he married Anne Elizabeth Hand and sixteen months later the couple welcomed the first of their three children.
While the new responsibilities meant that Josh Reilly pursued his baseball career closer to home, it was very far from being the end of his playing days. After a four-year hiatus, the California League was revived in 1898. With the league playing a weekend schedule in the cities surrounding San Francisco, it was a perfect fit for Josh Reilly’s new lifestyle, and he became a fixture in the league over the next decade.
Highlights of these years included a pennant with his hometown team in 1901, another title with San Jose in 1904, and a first-half pennant with San Jose in 1905. Befitting his status as an elder statesman, he served as captain of many of these teams. After playing for Oakland in 1908, Josh Reilly finally announced his retirement from baseball.
After his playing days ended, Josh Reilly continued to work at City Hall and helped his wife raise their daughter and two sons. One of his sons became a physician and the other a minister, and all indications suggest that his life was a happy and fulfilled one.
On June 12, 1938, Reilly passed away. After four decades in a prominent position at City Hall in his hometown, and a nearly two-decade career in professional baseball, most of it spent in close proximity to San Francisco, a thorough obituary was surely warranted.
Instead the San Francisco Examiner published a death notice the following day of William H. Reilly, age 69, husband of the late Anne, father of Rev. Stanley, Dr. William A and Mrs. Frank Hills. Yet an obituary in another column gave his name as William H. Riley, deputy tax collector, listed his wife as surviving him, and stated that he had a stroke! This was followed a day later by a brief piece in the Examiner’s sports section that reported that Charles “Josh” Reilly, age 70, a baseball player around the turn of the century who played third base for Los Angeles and various eastern clubs, had died of a heart attack. Readers would never have been able to determine that these three articles were about the same man unless they happened to notice that his sons’ names were the same. So in the course of two days, the Examiner gave contradictory information about Reilly’s first name, last name, age, cause of death and whether or not his wife was alive.
In addition, the information it provided about his baseball career was simply wrong. Josh Reilly had never played for Los Angeles, but a contemporary player named Charles Reilly spent several years there. Since the piece in the Examiner’s sports section referred to its subject as Charles instead of William, a likely scenario is that the newspaper had a file on Charles Reilly (who died six months earlier), and erroneously pulled it when William died.
Not surprisingly, The Sporting News followed and compounded the Examiner’s mistake. Its obituary reported the passing of Charles “Josh” Reilly, “a left fielder for Los Angeles Pacific Coast League club at the turn of the century and who managed the Salt Lake City PCL club in 1905.” The encyclopedias in turn picked up this listing and he was misidentified until very recently. Baseball fame is indeed fleeting.
John E. Spalding, Always on Sunday: The California Baseball League, 1896 to 1915 (Manhattan, KS: Ag Press, 1992); contemporary censuses, city directories and newspaper accounts (as noted), research by Richard Malatzky.