Versatile sandlot alumnus Mike O’Rourke packed a fair amount of action into his nine-game career as a major leaguer. As a pitcher for the 1890 Baltimore Orioles of the American Association, he completed all five of his starting assignments, albeit with only modest results. O’Rourke also served the club as a backup infielder and outfielder, manning right field for the Orioles in the campaign-ending three-game series. After the season, however, the 22-year-old was deemed expendable and released by Baltimore. Unsuccessful the following year with two minor league clubs, he was out of Organized Baseball and back home in Richmond, Virginia, within a year. He spent the next four decades living and working there quietly until his death in March 1934.
The passage of time, fragmentary evidence, confusion with other ballplayers surnamed O’Rourke, and reticence – his obituary described Mike O’Rourke as “naturally retiring by nature,”1 – complicate the telling of his life story. But modern baseball references posit that Michael Joseph O’Rourke was born in Richmond on September 1, 1868.2 He was the youngest of the three sons3 born to prosperous grocer Jeremiah O’Rourke (1829-1894) and his wife Catherine (née Eaton, 1829-1893), both Irish Catholic immigrants.4 Little is known about our subject’s youth except that older brother Bill died when Mike was still a boy and that their father’s business success probably provided his sons with at least a middle-class upbringing.5
In a guarded, largely unrevealing, late-life interview, Mike related that he got his start in baseball playing on the Richmond sandlots of the late 1880s.6 O’Rourke’s name first appeared in newsprint in August 1888, pitching for a local amateur nine against a team from Norfolk. “O’Rourke and [Ed] Luck were at the points for the visitors and played good ball,” observed the Norfolk Virginian.7 Although today’s baseball reference works list O’Rourke’s batting and throwing as unknown, statistical probabilities and circumstantial evidence strongly suggest that he was right-handed. Decades later it was recalled, likely with exaggeration, that O’Rourke threw with “speed … resembling Walter Johnson.”8
Still only 19 years old, O’Rourke gained more widespread notice with an exhibition game outing in early April 1889. Pitching for a picked Richmond nine led by Boston Beaneaters star Billy Nash, O’Rourke set down the Detroit Wolverines of the International Association, 4-2, yielding but four hits.9 He spent the ensuing summer playing for various Richmond amateur teams. Meanwhile, growing estrangement between major league club management and the players union produced developments that, in time, ushered O’Rourke into the professional ranks.
During the off-season of 1889-1890, the arrival of a third major league – the Players League – precipitated chaos in baseball. The National League in particular was wounded by defections to the new circuit. While not suffering as extensive player losses, the American Association was degraded by the relocation of four of its 1889 franchises to other organizations. Of relevance here is the withdrawal of the AA Baltimore Orioles in order to affiliate with the Atlantic Association, a newly formed minor league.10
According to 19th century baseball scholar David Nemec, the signing of Richmond amateur prospect Mike O’Rourke was recommended to Baltimore club boss Billy Barnie by another Richmond native, veteran Orioles catcher Pop Tate.11 When auditioned during spring camp, the good-sized (5-foot-10, 195 pounds) and athletic O’Rourke impressed Barnie with his positional versatility, an asset to any club during an era of limited player rosters. Soon the club correspondent for Sporting Life was advising Baltimore fans that “O’Rourke has considerable latent talent which can be developed, but he is still somewhat amateurish, though quite promising. He has not yet enough experience as an outfielder, but it is believed he will pan out all right. He is really a pitcher, and, Mr. Barnie thinks, a promising one.”12
As the roster cut-down date approached, the Baltimore Sun observed that “the young man’s great speed and apparently good curves … have caused many competent judges to look upon him as one of the coming twirlers.”13 In the end, however, it was O’Rourke’s ability to handle field positions as well as pitch that secured him a roster spot. Also making the grade was Joe O’Rourke, an undersized shortstop from Philadelphia, whose presence in the Baltimore lineup is now unrecognized by modern baseball authority.14
As the season unfolded, Mike served as an as-needed third starter behind staff stalwarts Lester German (35-9) and Norm Baker (29-10). In a June outing against the Wilmington (Delaware) Blue Hens, O’Rourke reportedly “showed good curves and fair speed, but the ball came in much faster than it appeared to travel because of his peculiar motion.”15 Eventually, he completed all 16 of his starting assignments on route to posting a scintillating 12-1 record, which led Atlantic Association hurlers in winning percentage (.923).16
Assaying how to get his capable young hurler into the lineup more often, manager Barnie declared in late July, “I am seriously thinking about trying Mike O’Rourke at third without delay, for he seems anxious to get a trial at that position and the prospects that he will develop into a first class infielder are very good.”17 In the end, however, O’Rourke got into only one game at third. He saw a bit more action at shortstop and right field, while batting .235 in 119 at-bats overall.18
While Baltimore (77-24, .762) was throttling Atlantic Association competition, the hapless (26-73, .254) Brooklyn Gladiators, an 1890 American Association replacement club, were headed toward liquidation. When the Gladiators abandoned play on August 26, the Orioles, a charter member of the American Association in 1882, returned to the circuit to play out the Brooklyn schedule. And with that, young Mike O’Rourke and his teammates graduated to the major leagues.
Baltimore manager Barnie sent staff aces German and Baker to the box for the four-game set against St. Louis that marked the Orioles’ return to the AA. But in the eighth inning of the series closer on August 30, Baker’s arm was broken by an errant Joe Neale fastball.19 Making his major league debut in emergency relief was Mike O’Rourke, who surrendered the final run in a 7-4 Baltimore loss.20 Thereafter, O’Rourke briefly replaced the injured Baker in the Baltimore rotation.
Two days later, O’Rourke made the first of the four starts that he was given during the ensuing two-week stretch, going the route in a 10-inning, 6-6 tie with the Columbus Senators.21 In his follow-up outings, though he was far from dazzling, O’Rourke was competitive, keeping the Orioles close each time. Unhappily, none of his starts produced a Baltimore victory, as he sandwiched a seven-inning 2-2 tie against the Toledo Maumees between 4-2 setbacks inflicted by Toledo and Philadelphia. In the latter effort, O’Rourke took a 2-0 lead into the seventh only to be undone by untimely walks, a bases-loaded hit batsman, and Baltimore fielding miscues. Statistically, he outpitched Athletics ace Sadie McMahon (29-18), yielding only five base hits compared to the 10 surrendered by his opposite number. Days later, the two pitchers were teammates, Baltimore manager Barnie having purchased McMahon’s contract from Philadelphia.22
McMahon quickly vindicated Barnie’s judgment, winning seven of 10 decisions for an Orioles club that otherwise posted an 8-16-4 log during its limited engagement in the American Association of 1890. But McMahon’s arrival had a dramatic effect on the fortunes of Mike O’Rourke, rendering his services largely superfluous. After sitting idle for nearly a month, O’Rourke was given a final start against the Syracuse Stars on October 9. The youngster responded with a plucky effort, holding the opposition to three runs (two earned) despite yielding 11 or 12 base hits23 – including one by Stars third baseman Tim O’Rourke, another O’Rourke with whom Mike was sometimes confused.24 The 6-3 victory was Mike O’Rourke’s only one as a major leaguer, as he did not receive another pitching opportunity. But the game was not O’Rourke’s last for the Orioles.
Warming up prior to the start of a season-ending series against the Rochester Broncos, Baltimore right fielder Lefty Johnson broke a finger.25 Versatile Mike O’Rourke was designated his lineup replacement, playing the three games (all Baltimore victories) as an outfielder. His defense was flawless, but O’Rourke managed only one base hit, reducing his season’s batting average to an anemic (3-for-26) .115. His final pitching line was more respectable: a 1-2 record in six appearances, with a 4.06 ERA in 42 innings pitched. Over that span, he allowed 47 base hits and issued 10 walks, while striking out eight.26 His best stats came on defense. In nine games combined as a pitcher and outfielder, O’Rourke posted a 1.000 fielding average, having handled all 15 chances sent his way without an error.
Notwithstanding his youth, versatility, and promise, O’Rourke was released by Baltimore shortly after the season ended. With the collapse of the Players League, berths on a professional baseball club were harder to come by in 1891, and O’Rourke struggled to find an engagement. In early May, he was reportedly playing for a Northwestern League team in Fort Wayne, Indiana.27 Ten days later, he was back in Richmond pitching for the semipro Old Dominion club.28 In early June, he got another shot in Organized Baseball, signing with the Troy Trojans of the Eastern Association.29 Despite decent performance (1-2, with a 1.73 ERA and only 15 hits allowed in 26 innings), O’Rourke was given his walking papers after making only four appearances. He was promptly signed by an EA rival, the Albany Senators, but O’Rourke’s time was brief there as well. Again, notwithstanding good numbers (3-1 with a 1.46 ERA), he was released by Albany. By August, he was back in Richmond, pitching and playing second base for a semipro nine.30
Over the ensuing winter, it was reported that O’Rourke and Baltimore mate Pop Tate were slated to form the battery for a Richmond entry in a new Virginia State League.31 But the nascent circuit never got off the ground in 1892, bringing Mike O’Rourke’s professional career to a close. For the next few summers, however, he may have played some semipro ball in the Richmond area.32
From there, O’Rourke receded into the anonymity of private life, his name rarely appearing in local newsprint. It appears, however, that he remained unmarried, lived under his parents’ roof, and worked in his father’s grocery business. In April 1894, Jeremiah O’Rourke died.33 In keeping with Irish custom, Jeremiah’s $35,000 estate passed to his oldest surviving son Edward, a Richmond saloonkeeper. Bequeathed to younger son Mike was a $50 per month annuity that would double whenever he married.34 According to a Norfolk newspaper, “Mike was already pretty well fixed” at the time.35
Some six years later, Ed O’Rourke died unexpectedly, the victim of an apparent heart attack at age 37. In addition to a young wife, the deceased was survived by brother “Mike O’Rourke whom almost everyone in town knows and likes.”36 Still single and now bereft of his parents and siblings, Mike drifted further into the shadows, living alone in Richmond rooming houses.37 However, it is likely, if not definite, that our subject was the “Mike O’Rourke” taken into custody in May 1909 during a police raid, accused of being the doorkeeper of an illegal mini-casino operating in the Richmond state fair grounds.38 Three years later, he served as club secretary for the Richmond Rebels, the local entry in the United States League, a short-lived major league pretender.39
Long a bachelor, O’Rourke finally married in December 1916, taking 30-year-old Richmond resident Clara Smith as his bride.40 The couple remained together for the remainder of O’Rourke’s life but were without children. During this period, he worked unobtrusively, first as a watchman for a railroad, thereafter as an information desk clerk at the Federal Reserve bank in Richmond.
In November 1932, “the rather retiring, keen-eyed, steely-haired guardian of Uncle Sam’s finances at the federal reserve” gave his only known interview. But O’Rourke proved an elusive subject, deflecting questions about his baseball experiences, providing instead anecdotes about Mike “King” Kelly, John McGraw, and other old-time greats of his acquaintance.41 Accompanying this profile was a photograph of O’Rourke, then 64, today the only known surviving image of him.
By the time of the interview, O’Rourke’s health was already in decline. Suffering from arteriosclerosis and kidney disease, he stopped working in 1933. But the official cause of his death was prostate cancer.42 Michael Joseph O’Rourke died at his Richmond residence at mid-day on March 3, 1934. He was 65. Following a Requiem Mass said at St. Benedict Church, his remains were interred at Mount Calvary Cemetery, Richmond. The only immediate survivor was his widow, Clara.
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Jeff Findley.
Sources for the biographical information imparted herein are set forth in the endnotes, below. Unless otherwise noted, stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
1 “Mike O’Rourke, an Old Oriole Before McGraw’s Days, Dies,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 4, 1934: 1.
2 Presumably, this date of birth was extracted from our subject’s death certificate, accessible on-line via Ancestry.com.
3 The older O’Rourke boys were William (1857-1876) and Edward (1862-1900).
5 When he died in April 1894, Jeremiah O’Rourke left a then-considerable $35,000 estate, as reported in “Richmond, Va.,” Norfolk Virginian, May 9, 1894: 8.
6 See David Lidman, “Mike O’Rourke: He Played Ball When Whiskers Were Smart,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 13, 1932: 26.
7 Per “Base-Ball,” Norfolk Virginian, August 2, 1888: 1.
8 See “Stars of Local Sandlots Chosen,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 20, 1924: 58.
9 See “Detroit Taken In,” New York Herald, April 2, 1889: 5.
10 The other AA defections were the Association champion Brooklyn Bridegrooms and the Cincinnati Reds to the National League, and the Kansas City Cowboys to the Western Association.
11 See the Mike O’Rourke profile by David Nemec in The Rank and File of 19th Century Major League Baseball: Biographies of 1,084 Players, Owners, Managers and Umpires, Nemec, ed. (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012), 67.
12 “Baltimore Bulletin,” Sporting Life, April 12, 1890: 7.
13 “A Choice of Pitchers,” Baltimore Sun, May 21, 1890: 4. The same article also announced the Baltimore signing of Joe O’Rourke, an undersized shortstop from Philadelphia, one of the various O’Rourkes with whom our subject would later be confused.
14 In Joe’s stead, Baseball Reference mistakenly places career minor leaguer Frank O’Rourke on the Baltimore club. The confusion of the ballplaying O’Rourkes, however, began early, with the 1890 Baltimore press touting Philadelphian “Joe O’Rourke, the little shortstop who made such a reputation in hitting and fielding with disbanded Richmond clubs.” See “Now Our Club May Win,” Baltimore Sun, May 16, 1890: 3. But with the Orioles, Joe proved a bust with both the bat and in the field and was released by Baltimore in late July.
15 Per “Another Batting Day,” Baltimore Sun, June 20, 1890: 1. No further description of the O’Rourke pitching motion was found by the writer, but one observer likened his calm, deliberate manner in the box to that of New York Giants star Tim Keefe. See “Base-Ball Notes,” Baltimore Sun, July 12, 1890: 1.
16 Per The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds. (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 3d ed., 2007), 156.
17 “Manager Barnie’s Opinion,” Baltimore Sun, July 30, 1890: 3.
18 Per official Atlantic Association stats published in the Baltimore Sun, November 1, 1890: 3. Baseball-Reference assigns Mike’s .235 BA to Frank O’Rourke, a journeyman minor league infielder-outfielder who did not play for Baltimore in 1890, while Mike is saddled with the .200 BA actually posted by Orioles shortstop Joe O’Rourke.
19 As reported in “Pitcher’s Arm Broken,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 31, 1890: 11.
20 A thorough account of game action complete with mention of O’Rourke’s replacement of the incapacitated Baker in the eighth inning is provided in “The Orioles Beaten,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 31, 1890: 8.
21 At the time this profile was being written, certain baseball reference works erroneously listed this September 1, 1890 start as Mike O’Rourke’s major league debut.
22 The Baltimore acquisition of McMahon is reported in “Notes and Gossip,” Sporting Life, September 27, 1890: 3.
23 Contemporary box/line scores vary. Compare Baltimore Sun, October 10, 1890: 3: 11 Syracuse hits, to Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 10, 1890: 5: 12 Syracuse hits.
24 Two months earlier, the Baltimore Sun had identified Mike O’Rourke as having played third base for New Haven in 1889. See “Base-Ball Notes,” Baltimore Sun, July 24, 1890: 4. The New Haven third baseman was probably Tim O’Rourke. Or it may have been Tom O’Rourke, later a teammate of Tim’s on the Syracuse Stars. In any case, the New Haven O’Rourke was not our subject. Not to be outdone, Sporting Life identified Baltimore shortstop Joe O’Rourke as minor league journeyman Frank O’Rourke. See “Philadelphia Pointers,” Sporting Life, April 5, 1890: 3. The misidentification of the latter O’Rourkes is preserved today by Baseball-Reference in its roster and stats for the 1890 Baltimore Orioles of the Atlantic Association.
25 Per “Base-Ball Notes,” Baltimore Sun, October 14, 1890: 4.
26 The above stats incorporate the one-inning relief stint of August 30, 1890, currently omitted from the O’Rourke pitching line published by Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet. Efforts to rectify this oversight were ongoing at the time of this bio’s submission.
27 Per “Minor Mention,” Sporting Life, May 9, 1891: 2.
28 As reported in “World of Sports,” Norfolk Virginian, May 19, 1891: 1.
29 The O’Rourke signing by Troy was reported in “News, Gossip and Comment,” Sporting Life, June 6, 1891: 2.
30 Per “The National Game,” Richmond Times, August 16, 1891: 5.
31 According to Nemec, above, citing The Sporting News, December 12, 1891.
32 Richmond city directories through 1895 list O’Rourke’s occupation as “ballplayer,” but the last discovered news mention of his playing baseball was published in September 1893. See “Ends in Row Again,” Richmond Dispatch, September 3, 1893: 1.
33 As reported in the Richmond Times, April 27, 1894: 2. Mike’s mother Catherine had died the year before.
34 Per “Richmond, Va.,” Norfolk Virginian, May 9, 1894: 8, and “Yesterday in the Courts,” Richmond Dispatch, May 9, 1894: 4.
35 “Richmond, Va.,” above.
36 “Mr. E.C. O’Rourke Dead,” Richmond Times, October 21, 1800: 1.
37 Per Richmond city directories.
38 See “Gaming Joint Raided at Fair,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 18, 1909: 1. The disposition of the matter is unknown to the writer.
39 As reported in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 9, 1912: 42.
40 Per State of Virginia marriage records accessible on-line via Ancestry.
41 See again, David Lidman, “Mike O’Rourke: He Played Ball When Whiskers Were Smart,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 13, 1932: 26.
42 Per the O’Rourke death certificate.