Tom Hernon was a career minor leaguer who as a 30-year-old outfielder gained a four-game trial in 1897 with Chicago in the National League before his premature death in 1902 at age 35.
Thomas Hernon was born on November 4, 1866, in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, the oldest son of Irish immigrants John Hernon and Mary Flaherty. The Hernon family soon moved to the nearby city of New Bedford, where Hernon’s father became a teamster, forsaking the ironworker job he had held back in rural East Bridgewater. Hernon had five siblings, according to the 1880 U.S. census, four sisters and one brother.
By his early 20s, Hernon was playing baseball for local independent teams in New Bedford, such as the Enos club and the New Bedford entry in the Bristol County League. At this stage of his career, he was a first baseman and popular among the local crowd. “Hernon was next in the order, and when he stepped to the plate he was greeted with applause,” the New Bedford Evening Standard newspaper reported on August 5, 1889. “Tommy sized up Soutter’s third pitched ball for two bases. It was a fine drive to left field.”
With no local access to minor league baseball after the New England League disbanded operations following its 1888 season, Hernon, like many top-notch Massachusetts ball players, left the region to play professional baseball. In 1890, Hernon went all the way to the West Coast to play outfield for Seattle of the Pacific Northwest League, where he spent three seasons.
Hernon moved on to play for Oakland of the California League in 1893, where two things happened to change his life. A post-season series that October between the Oakland team and the Los Angeles National Leaguers, a barnstorming team comprised primarily of players from Cap Anson’s Chicago team in the National League, helped to spread Hernon’s acclaim as a ballplayer. Off the ball field, Hernon met and married Catherine Gaines, an Oakland native.
As a batter, Hernon was a classic Willie Keeler-style 1890s ballplayer. He frequently got on base through a bunt or base hit slapped over the infield; later in his career he was renown for obtaining bases on balls. Once on the bases, Hernon then piled up stolen bases and scored runs. Unfortunately, Hernon was decidedly mediocre as a fielder, usually ranking in the lower half of fielding statistics for outfielders due to his propensity for making errors. Another quality that seemed to hamper his baseball ambition was a temperamental, headstrong attitude, which was reflected in several incidents during his minor league career.
For the 1894 season, Hernon joined the Kansas City team, owned and managed by former major leaguer Jim Manning, in the fledging Western League. Hernon seemed to have a tempestuous relationship with Manning. According to an 1897 report in the Brooklyn Eagle, “In the fall of 1894 when Chicago bought [Tim] Donahue, Hernon claimed that Manning had made an unfavorable report on his own work and prevented his becoming a Colt.”
Hernon responded to the apparent rebuke with a sparkling 1895 season, posting a .320 batting average in 124 games with Kansas City. However, at the beginning of the 1896 season, Hernon was one of four players missing from the 1895 squad. Three players-catcher Marty Bergen, shortstop Frank Connaughton, and pitcher Charlie Hastings-had all joined National League teams via the minor league draft system. Hernon, apparently feeling victimized once more by not moving up to the National League, refused to sign a contract with Kansas City. “Tommy Hernon waited to be ‘coaxed’ and ‘jollied,’” The Sporting News reported in its April 18, 1896, edition, “and when the makeup of the team was announced, his name did not appear on the list.”
Although his holdout had cost him an outfield job in Kansas City, Hernon caught on with the Columbus team in the Western League one week into the 1896 season. Hernon didn’t last two months at Columbus, though, batting .276 in 44 games and fielding a miserable .827 in the outfield (dead last in the final Western League statistics for outfielder fielding). The cause of Hernon’s playing demise in 1896 was likely related to family concerns back in his hometown of New Bedford, where his father, then a policeman, had contracted general paresis, a life-threatening brain infection that causes hallucinations, delusions, convulsions, and impaired mental judgment. The disease claimed his father’s life on March 22, 1897.
With his wife Catherine back in New Bedford with one child and pregnant with a second, and with no healthy male head of household for the extended family, Hernon, the oldest son, returned to New Bedford in the summer of 1896. By then, Hernon could play minor league baseball locally, since New Bedford fielded a team in the revived, but still shaky, New England League.
After finishing out the 1896 season with the New Bedford team, Hernon had one of his best minor league seasons in 1897 for the last-place New Bedford team. He batted .322 in 101 games for the Whalers, which was good for seventh best in the league among players appearing in at least 100 games. His performance in New Bedford finally led to his making the major leagues later that year, but not without some conflict.
Hernon appeared to negotiate his own deal to join Cap Anson’s Chicago team that September. He met with Anson in Boston on September 1 when Chicago lost to Boston 7-4 while being absent from the New Bedford lineup in its 5-1 win that day over Pawtucket. On September 7, the New Bedford Morning Mercury newspaper headlined a story, “An Offer from Chicago, Tom Hernon Wanted by Anson to Finish the Season.”
“Tom Hernon, the right fielder of the New Bedfords, has had an offer from the Chicago league team to play in the field for the remainder of the season,” the Morning Mercury reported. “Hernon would accept the offer at once, but the local management yesterday refused to allow him to go. Hernon was in Boston last Wednesday and had a talk with Anson. Yesterday he received notice to report at Brooklyn today. Hernon wanted to go but [New Bedford owner] Clarence Cook would not allow him to leave in the present condition of the team.”
Cook, a barrel maker by trade, publicly announced that he didn’t want Hernon’s absence to disrupt the hotly contested New England League pennant race between Brockton and Newport, since New Bedford played Brockton four more times. Because this would be lofty virtue for a nineteenth-century barrel maker, Cook probably just wanted his New Bedford-bred outfielder around to attract a decent gate for the last few New Bedford home games. Being compensated by Chicago for taking the outfielder from his team was no doubt also a Cook motive in preventing Hernon from an opportunity to play at the major league level.
Not being bashful about his reaction to Cook’s decision, Hernon was missing from the New Bedford lineup on Tuesday, September 7, creating the rumor that he had left the team. Later that evening Cook struck a deal with Hernon (and perhaps with Anson as well). “Hernon was told he could not have his release,” the New Bedford Evening Standard reported in its September 8 edition. “After a promise to do everything possible for him in the way of securing a chance with Chicago next week, Mr. Cook has agreed to pay Hernon’s expenses to any point in the west where Anson may ask him to report and yesterday word was telegraphed the Chicago manager.”
Grudgingly, Hernon came back to play right field on Wednesday, September 8. As the Morning Mercury reported the next day, “Hernon was a little off color out in the field and after he had made three errors, some of the bleacherites chided him about going to Chicago, which aroused Hernon’s ire and he walked up to the bleachers and had a talk with the crowd.” Hernon then played with a vengeance in New Bedford’s last three games. On September 10, Hernon went 1 for 2 from his customary leadoff position and scored two runs in a 7-4 loss to Brockton. “Hernon will join the Chicago team at Baltimore Monday and if he proves fast enough for Anson he will have graduated into the big league at the beginning of next season,” the Evening Standard noted.
Hernon was in the Chicago lineup for both games of the doubleheader with Baltimore on September 13. He went 0 for 4 in the first game, batting sixth in the Chicago order as its left fielder. In the second game, Hernon went 0 for 3. The Evening Standard highlighted Hernon’s debut in its September 14 edition with an article headlined, “Hernon with the Chicagos; Tommy Did Not Prove to Be a Mascot; Fielded Well But Could Not Get His Eye on the Ball.” The Boston Globe was more candid about Hernon’s ability, with its comment, “Anson had a new colt in left field, Tom Hernon of New Bedford, who fielded all right but could not hit the ball.”
In a single game on September 14, the Evening Standard reported, “Hernon, Chicago’s new man from New Bedford, in four times at bat made a single and a sacrifice and got a run. He had two put outs and one error.” On September 15, Hernon went 1 for 4, scored a run, and stole one base. However, the Evening Standard headline the next day, “Tommy Hernon’s Fine Showing in the Game at Baltimore,” belied the truth, as it was Hernon’s last major league game. In its “Foul Tips” notes on September 17, the Evening Standard commented, “Hernon has returned home from Baltimore where he has been playing with the Chicagoes. He will rejoin that club next season. The Chicagoes now return home.”
There’s a discrepancy in Hernon’s official record compared with the statistics that a reconstruction reveals today. Total Baseball shows Hernon with one hit in 16 at bats during his brief four-game stint with Chicago in 1897, resulting in a .063 career batting average. A modern-day review of box scores from those four games indicates that Hernon’s true record ought to be two hits in 15 at bats, for a .133 career batting average. Additionally, Total Baseball has Hernon’s fielding average as a perfect 1.000, reflecting no errors, whereas .909 would be more accurate to portray the one error charged to Hernon, as reported in several newspaper accounts.
The September 14 game is the source of the discrepancy. Hernon’s day-by-day record at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown shows Hernon with an 0 for 5 day, whereas box scores published not only in the New Bedford newspaper but also the Boston Globe and The Sporting News all show Hernon as having one hit that day. It appears that researchers creating the official records for the first Baseball Encyclopedia in 1969 (which was done by reviewing newspaper box scores since official scoring sheets didn’t exist until 1903) mistakenly dropped a base hit from his tally as well as a fielding error and also charged him with an at bat when he executed a sacrifice.
In 1898, Hernon seemingly began to feel the effects of the disease that would claim his life in 1902. While playing for Springfield in the Eastern League, Hernon batted .343 but appeared in only 26 games. After Hernon returned from an absence to play on July 7, the Springfield Union remarked, “Tom Hernon’s return to the game takes another man off Springfield’s hospital list, although Tom is still weak from his recent illness.” Although Hernon went 2 for 4 in that July 7 victory over Montreal, he called it quits a day later. “Tom Hernon has given up the game for the rest of the season,” the Springfield Union reported on July 9. “His doctor told him after the game yesterday that he was too weak to play and that a few games would lay him on his back again, so he decided to leave for home.”
Hernon returned to the diamond in 1899 to play for Providence in the Eastern League. He hit .278 for the Grays in 66 games, but was let go in August. “Tom Hernon was released from the Providence club last night,” the Providence Journal reported on August 24. “He has not been able to accomplish much in hitting, and his fielding has not been what was expected of him recently.”
Some still thought Hernon deserved another chance at the major league level. “Tom Brown is a fancier of outfielder Tommy Hernon of the Eastern League,” the Washington Post reported about comments from the Springfield manager (and former manager of the Washington team in the National League) on September 25, 1899. “Hernon was one of the best ground-coverers in the league’s outfield, the champion bunter of that league, and one of the best run-getters. Hernon is worthy of another trial in the major leagues, and $500, the draft price, would be a valuable investment for some major league team, so Brown believes.”
Hernon played in 1900 with the New London team in the Connecticut State League, compiling a .295 batting average in 53 games for the last-place team. He made his last appearance on the baseball diamond in 1901, when he appeared in a few games for the last-place Colorado Springs team in the Western League. The team was managed by Tim Donahue, a Massachusetts native and teammate from Kansas City and Chicago days, who seemed to coax Hernon from retirement to help out an old friend trying to field a competitive team.
In his last few years while off the diamond Hernon worked as an agent for the Prudential Insurance Company, until his death on February 4, 1902, in New Bedford. The cause of death was Bright’s Disease, more commonly known today as nephritis, which when untreated leads to kidney failure. Hernon was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in New Bedford, next to his mother, who had died on May 25, 1900.
Hernon was survived by his wife Catherine and three children-John, age six; Frances, age five; and William, age three. Catherine was a single parent for five years before marrying Alvin Topham in 1907, who became stepfather to the three children. They also had one child of their own, Lillian. Catherine outlived her first husband by 42 years, dying in 1944.
After Catherine Hernon remarried, remembrances of Tom Hernon began to fade. After a while, all his children and grandchildren had was the Hernon name. “We didn’t know much about him. My father John died in his 20s and his brother William, my Uncle Babe, told me sometime or other about him,” grandson John Hernon recalled in 1996, at age 78. “Nothing passed down through the family about Tom Hernon, except an old photo of him in a baseball uniform. My grandmother had a pin with two bats across it, which I remembered as a kid. I have no idea where it went, though. When you remarry, after a while the first husband’s things seem to matter less, I guess.”
While little remembered by his family after he died so young, Hernon left no doubt about the passion in his life through one of his declarations in the 1900 U.S. census. In the space indicating occupation, Thomas Hernon was listed as “Ball Player.”
Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Hernon’s day-by-day record.
Boston Globe. September 1897.
Brooklyn Eagle. September 20, 1897.
John Hernon conversation, September 16, 1996.
Los Angeles Times. October 1893.
New Bedford Evening Standard. 1889 and 1897.
New Bedford Morning Mercury. “An Offer from Chicago, Tom Hernon Wanted by Anson to Finish the Season,” September 7, 1897.
New Bedford Morning Mercury. “Tom Hernon, Well Known Ball Player, Dies Suddenly,” February 5, 1902.
Providence Journal. August 1899.
Springfield Union. July 1898.
The Sporting News. 1894-1901.
Washington Post. September 25, 1899.