On October 27, 1900, the steamship Havana carried 20 American baseball players to Cuba for a series of eight games against the island’s best. Among the players were two from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Jesse Tannehill and Tom O’Brien.1 En route to the island, all but two players suffered from seasickness. Kid Gleason of the New York Giants and Tom O’Brien were the exceptions.2 What happened next would be a fatal mistake that ranks as one of baseball’s most bizarre deaths.
Thomas J. O’Brien was born on February 20, 1873. The exact location of his birth depends on the source. Though he is commonly written about as being from Verona, Pennsylvania,3 the 1880 census has a Thomas O’Brien (6 years old) living with his parents, Edward (35) and Rose O’Brien (35), and a brother, Joseph O’Brien (11) in Clarksville, approximately 13 miles northeast of downtown Pittsburgh. Edward is listed as being a coal miner while his mother is listed as “keeping house.”4
The issue is whether there was ever a town officially called Clarksville in Allegheny County. However, near Verona there was property owned by “J. Clark” listed on a map titled: Map of Allegheny Co., Pennsylvania: from actual surveys.5 Later, on a map titled: Map of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, 1890: with adjoining parts of Westmoreland, Washington & Beaver counties, the property owned by “J. Clark” appears to have homes with two major roads running through it. Not far from this property is a company store, which was commonly found in coal-mining communities.6 Though it cannot be proven this is the correct Tom O’Brien or the correct location, the evidence leans in favor of it. His mother’s name was Rose,7 and the age listed on the census sheet is off by just a year. This is just one of the places he’s listed as being from.
In an article published posthumously, O’Brien is said to be from the portion of the city called Frankstown. The article also states that he learned to play ball on the lots on Second Ave.8 There is a Frankstown Avenue in Verona but exactly where O’Brien lived is unclear. Regardless, both locations mentioned are in or near Verona, Pennsylvania. These references are all that can be ascertained about the life of Tom O’Brien prior to his playing baseball. He wouldn’t appear again in the historical record until 1894.
Oil City, Pennsylvania, about 100 miles north of Pittsburgh, gets its name from the abundance of the fossil fuel in the area. The city also hosted a baseball team, the Oil City Oilers, that competed in the Iron and Oil League. In May of 1894, O’Brien joined them, though an article recording this mistakenly lists him as being from Philadelphia.9 With a clean-shaven face and dark hair parted in the middle, he stood 5-feet-11, weighed 170 pounds, and threw right-handed. (How he batted remains unknown.)10 Against the Marions from Pittsburgh on May 9, his fielding in left field and Bobby Cargo’s work at second were the highlights of the game.11 His next appearance was against the Franklin (Pennsylvania) Braves on June 16.12 Sadly, this is all the concrete information we have about O’Brien’s time on the team. On September 15 Oil City played Titusville (Pennsylvania) and there is a mention in a newspaper of O’Brien hitting a home run.13 The problem is that both teams had an O’Brien, and it is unclear which player the newspaper was referring to. With that, O’Brien doesn’t appear in the historical record until June 1895.
Exactly when and under what circumstances O’Brien began playing for the Canton (Ohio) Deubers of the Interstate League is unknown. The only mention of his time on the team comes from an article published on June 3 talking about the team’s disbandment. The article also states that the New Castle (Pennsylvania) Quakers had their eye on him.14 Again, information about this time in O’Brien’s life is scant. An article published on July 28, 1895, states that O’Brien is one of the best left fielders in the game and that he is doing well at batting.15 That is all that can be found regarding O’Brien’s time with New Castle. He is also listed as playing for the Wheeling (West Virginia) Mountaineers of the Interstate League but no box scores or game writeups can be located. While O’Brien didn’t make the papers much in 1895, he was front-page news in 1896, and not for playing baseball.
In 1896 O’Brien was playing for the Toronto Canadians/Albany Senators16 of the Eastern League with former Pirates manager Al Buckenburger at the helm. He had been signed by Connie Mack at the end of the 1895 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates but was farmed out to Toronto.17 A box score from a June 6 game against the Scranton (Pennsylvania) Miners has O’Brien listed as playing left field and scoring one run.18 A few days later, O’Brien got a triple against the Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Coal Barons.19 The papers were beginning to take notice. However, what happened next gave O’Brien the wrong kind of publicity.
On Saturday June 13, Tom O’Brien was arrested after leaving Wilkes-Barre by a Detective Cavanaugh of New York on charges of kidnapping 15-year-old Nora O’Neil. He was taken to jail in Rochester, New York.20 He wasn’t the only O’Brien brought in on that charge. Third baseman Jack O’Brien of Rochester was also arrested. However, the two were eventually released after the missing girl turned up at the police station and told a different story. She had not been kidnapped but in fact ran away from her home in Toronto, turned up in Rochester at a home for women, then went to work as a domestic for a family in the same city. Also, she wasn’t 15 but 17. Her father, a restaurateur who came to the station, heard a rumor that she had run away with a ballplayer named O’Brien. He concluded that it was Tom from Toronto. Jack O’Brien was also brought in as well because the police could not rule out a mistake in the first name. Nora said she had never heard of either man. She also stated that she first heard about her kidnapping in the newspaper.21 O’Brien would go on to have a productive season with the Canadians, playing 108 games, with 435 at-bats, 73 runs, and a .296 batting average.22 This would also be O’Brien’s last year in the minors. He was traded by the Pirates, who still held his contract, to the Baltimore Orioles of the National League the next season.
The Baltimore Orioles of 1897 were a formidable team. Manager Ned Hanlon was seeking his fourth consecutive first-place finish with his talented roster. O’Brien found himself playing alongside Willie Keeler, Hughie Jennings, and John McGraw.23 On April 15 Baltimore played the Syracuse Stars of the Eastern League in the last exhibition game of the season. O’Brien did well in left field, though the sources say there wasn’t much action for him. Later, he was hit by a pitched ball and scored a run, helping Baltimore win the game.24
As the season progressed, O’Brien’s versatility as a utility player helped gain him experience in all positions except pitcher and catcher. On May 16 against the St. Louis Browns, O’Brien substituted at first base for Jack Doyle, who was not well. While he muffed a pop fly in the first inning, he redeemed himself afterward by making two foul catches that were the highlight of the game.25 Later, on June 29 while playing the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds, O’Brien made the catch of the game. In the third inning, the Giants’ George Davis, batting with the bases loaded, cranked one to right field that looked as though it was going to be a home run. O’Brien followed it back to the fence, then jumped in the air, leaned far over the barrier, and caught the ball before it dropped into the bleachers. A roar of applause went up for O’Brien and his play made the headlines in the next day’s paper.26 His abilities on the field made him an invaluable addition to the Orioles team. He finished the season with a .252 batting average in 50 games. The team finished the regular season in second place but won the fourth and final postseason Temple Cup tournament against the Boston Beaneaters.27 O’Brien’s overall contribution was small, but it still helped his team win the Cup. He scored a run in the second game28 no runs in the third game,29 and two runs in the final game of the series.30 For the only time in his short career, his image graced a baseball collectible in the form of a Cameo Pepsin gum pin.31
In mid-February of 1898, O’Brien sent a letter to Ned Hanlon with his signed contract enclosed saying that he was in good shape.32 The team headed south to Macon, Georgia, for spring training on March 14.33 O’Brien got a chance to practice at shortstop.34 On March 25 the team left Macon and began a series of exhibition games in Savannah, Charleston, Richmond, and Norfolk.35 On March 28 against Savannah, O’Brien went 2-for-3 at bat, scoring two runs.36 His batting dropped off in the early part of the regular season,37 but by May 13 O’Brien got over his slump and was hitting the ball once or twice each game.38 Things were looking good for O’Brien but bad for the Orioles. Attendance had fallen and there were talks of trades.39 On June 3 that’s just what happened. O’Brien and catcher Frank Bowerman were sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates for $2,500 (or $3,500 as some sources quote).40 The Pirates (also known as the Patriots that season41) started O’Brien at second, where the newspapers reported he played “fine ball.”42 By July 25, O’Brien had played in 42 games and had 23 runs scored.43 Later in August, it was reported that O’Brien’s favorite hit was the two-bagger: He had hit three doubles in his last five times at bat in the previous three games.44 It wasn’t all good news though: O’Brien had great difficulty playing shortstop for the Pirates.45 However he finished the season with a .259 batting average with 53 runs scored. O’Brien had finished the season in his hometown, but he wouldn’t be sticking around for long.
As the 1899 season dawned, O’Brien was still playing for the Pirates, though his position on the team was tenuous as the Pirates had multiple players for a limited number of positions.46 Pittsburgh manager Bill Watkins made it clear that he wanted to farm O’Brien out to Baltimore in exchange for the unconditional release of Mike Heydon with the caveat that O’Brien play only second base and be returned to Pittsburgh in the fall.47 Baltimore declined the offer and O’Brien found himself in Roanoke, Virginia, for spring training with the Pirates.48 In Roanoke, O’Brien got a formal portrait taken at Landes Studio.49 This portrait is the one used in most entries and articles dealing with the player. While he trained with the Pirates, his time on the team was running out. On April 13 O’Brien was sold to the New York Giants.50 O’Brien had his best year at bat with the New York team. In June against the Boston Beaneaters, he blasted one into the 25-cent bleachers off former Pirate Frank Killen.51 By August, captain Kid Gleason moved O’Brien up to second place in the Giants batting order because of his hitting ability.52 At the end of the season, O’Brien had a .296 batting average with 101 runs scored.
In his final year in baseball, O’Brien was back in Pittsburgh after being returned by the New York Giants for the 1900 season.53 He would play alongside greats like Honus Wagner and Rube Waddell. By early July, O’Brien had a .290 batting average and was producing well for his hometown team.54 One baseball writer said that “deserves sympathy” because he was expected to be great at every position, unlike other players who master just one. But it didn’t matter to O’Brien as he never complained.55 He was a solid utility player and hit well. He played his last game on October 18 against the Brooklyn Superbas in the postseason Chronicle-Telegraph Cup competition. Playing first base, he was 0-for-4 with 9 putouts in his final box score.56 Just a few days later, he sailed to Cuba and ultimately toward his death.
Aboard the steamship Havana, O’Brien and Kid Gleason were the only two players not to suffer from seasickness. O’Brien thought getting seasick would be great for his system by cleaning it out, thus helping his overall physical condition. The two lowered a bucket over the side of the ship and filled it with salt water. It was then pulled back up and the two drank. Kid Gleason drank sparingly, but O’Brien drained almost the entire bucket. The next day both players became ill and began to vomit. While Gleason’s attack was mild, O’Brien suffered violent and wrenching fits of puking.57 By the time the players reached Cuba, all but O’Brien were in good health. He was bedridden from throwing up and was not improving.58
O’Brien returned to the United States about two weeks after arriving in Cuba. He went to a specialist in New York who advised him to go out west into the desert to help his lungs and heart, which the expert believed were damaged from the vomiting. O’Brien came back to Pittsburgh first and went to Mercy Hospital, where he was given the same diagnosis. He then packed up and headed to Arizona. Around late December he wrote from Prescott, Arizona, to inform everyone that his health was improving, though he had violent episodes of hemorrhaging on the train ride there.59
In January 1901 there was no indication that O’Brien would be anything but ready to play in the coming season. His letters stated that his health was improving.60 However, that was not the case. O’Brien died on Sunday, February 3 in Phoenix of typhoid pneumonia.61 His weakened condition brought on by drinking seawater and vomiting made him susceptible to the illness.
His body was brought back East. First, it went to his mother’s house in Verona; she was an invalid and not able to leave home.62 Next, a Mass was held for him at St. Joseph’s Church in Verona. Finally, his body was taken to St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh for burial. The Marquette Club, which included O’Brien in its ranks, took charge of the arrangements and some of its members acted as pallbearers.63 His mother would join him in death later that year.64
The news of O’Brien’s demise shocked everyone, including club owner Barney Dreyfuss, who returned to Pittsburgh that March.65 In the end, Tom O’Brien is not remembered so much for his skill on the diamond but for one of the strangest deaths in all of baseball history: a death by drinking seawater.
This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Len Levin and fact-checked by John Gregory.
In addition to the sources shown in the notes, the author used Baseball-Reference.com and the following:
Pittsburgh Baseball Network, https://pittsburghbaseball.com/
1 “Bound for Cuba,” Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, October 27, 1900: 6.
2 “Pirate Tom O’Brien Dead,” Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, February 5, 1901: 6.
3 David Nemec, Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900, Volume 2: The Ball Players Who Built the Game (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 296.
5 Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3823a.la000701/?r=0.729,0.489,0.058,0.027,0).
6 Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3823a.la000703/?r=0.654,0.36,0.05,0.023,0).
7 Rose O’Brien (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/55460846/rose-o’brien).
8 “Pirate Tom O’Brien Dead,” Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, February 5, 1901: 6.
9 “Baseball Brevities,” Pittsburgh Press, May 5, 1894: 5.
10 Nemec, 296.
11 “Marions Shut Out,” Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, May 10, 1894: 6.
12 “Oil City Wins the Eighth,” Pittsburgh Post, June 17, 1894: 6.
13 “Hecker’s Hitters Did Better Than a Draw with Titusville,” Pittsburgh Press, September 16, 1894: 8.
14 “Canton Team Disbands – Two Clubs Arrested for Playing on Sunday,” Pittsburgh Post, June 3, 1895: 6.
15 “Champions Smother the Colonels,” Pittsburgh Post, July 28, 1895: 6.
16 According to Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds., Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball Third Edition (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, 2007), the Toronto Senators played in Albany from July 9 to 30, 1896.
17 “Two New Players for the Pirates – Manager Watkins Buys O’Brien and Bowerman from Baltimore,” Pittsburgh Post, June 4, 1898: 6.
18 “Scranton Wins from Toronto,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 7, 1986: 8.
19 “Merciless Toronto – Slaughters the Miners to the Tune of 15 to 9,” Wilkes-Barre Times, June 11, 1896: 3.
20 “O’Brien Released on Parole,” Wilkes-Barre Times, June 16, 1896: 5.
21 “The O’Briens Not the Men Wanted,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, June 15, 1896: 9.
22 “Eastern League Averages,” Wilkes-Barre Times, November 24, 1896: 7.
23 “Two New Players for the Pirates – Manager Watkins Buys O’Brien and Bowerman from Baltimore,” Pittsburgh Post, June 4, 1898: 6.
24 “Orioles’ Batting Matinee,” Baltimore Sun, April 16, 1897: 6.
25 “Baltimores Rap Out Nineteen Good Hits,” Baltimore Sun, May 17, 1897: 6.
26 “Orioles Could Not Bat,” Baltimore Sun, June 30, 1897: 6. Another headline with the article read: O’Brien Set the Crowd Wild with a Fancy Catch Over a Fence.”
27 “Temple Cup Stays Here,” Baltimore Sun, October 12, 1897: 6.
28 “Baltimore Defeats Boston in an Exhibition Game at Worcester,” Baltimore Sun, October 8, 1897: 6.
29 “Boston Downed Again,” Baltimore Sun, October 9, 1897: 6.
30 “Temple Cup Stays Here.”
32 “World of Sport,” Baltimore Sun, February 16, 1898: 6.
33 “World of Sport,” Baltimore Sun, March 15, 1898: 6.
34 “Orioles Full of Ginger,” Baltimore Sun, March 18, 1898: 6.
35 “Orioles Off to Savannah,” Baltimore Sun, March 26, 1898: 6.
36 “Kitson Is the Boy – Shows Nerve and Judgement When in a Tight Place with Men on Bases,” Baltimore Sun, March 29, 1898: 6.
37 “Sunday Games,” Baltimore Sun, April 30, 1898: 8.
38 “Sunday Games,” Baltimore Sun, May 14, 1898: 8.
39 “Robinson, Pond and Hoffer Join Their Club in Pittsburg – Rowe After Some Oriole Players – The Pirates Weak, Too,” Baltimore Sun, May 31, 1898: 8.
40 “Two Orioles Sold – Manager Watkins, of Pittsburg, Gets O’Brien and Bowerman for His Club,” Baltimore Sun, June 4, 1898: 8.
42 “League Games To-Day,” Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, June 8, 1898: 6.
43 “Official Figures – Fielding and Batting Records of the Pittsburg Players,” Pittsburgh Press, July 25, 1898: 5.
44 “Sporting Notes,” Pittsburgh Post, August 15, 1898: 6.
45 “Baseball Brevities,” Pittsburgh Press, September 1, 1898: 5“Games To-Day,” Pittsburgh Press, September 3, 1898: 6.
46 “Preparations for the Baseball Season – Manager W.H. Watkins Tells of the Pittsburg Club’s Prospects,” Pittsburgh Press, March 5, 1899.
47 “M’Graw Declined – The Young Manager Did Not Like Pittsburg’s Proposition,” Pittsburgh Press, March 14, 1899: 5.
48 “A Practice Game – Pirates, Well Protected from Cold, Made a Bluff Yesterday,” Pittsburgh Press, March 28, 1899: 5.
50 “Real Baseball – Championship Season Will Begin in Six Towns To-Morrow,” Pittsburgh Press, April 14, 1899.
51 “New Yorks Lose Again – Bostons Beat Them and Gain on the Brooklyns,” New York Sun, June 15, 1899: 8.
52 “Made a Good Start – Pirates Began the Washington Series with a Victory,” Pittsburgh Press, August 17, 1899: 5.
53 “League Meeting on Wednesday – President Dreyfuss is Officially Notified of the Coming Gathering,” Pittsburgh Post, March 4, 1900: 6.
54 “Pittsburg’s Records,” Pittsburgh Press, July 2, 1900: 5.
55 “Pirates Must Hustle to Defeat Champions.” Pittsburgh Press, July 11, 1900: 5.
56 “Baseball Gossip,” Pittsburgh Press, October 19, 1900: 5.
57 “Pirate Tom O’Brien Dead,” Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, February 5, 1901: 6.
58 “Baseball Players on the Isle of Cuba – Tom O’Brien Drinks Sea Water and Is the Only Man Sick,” Pittsburgh Post, November 10, 1900: 6.
59 “Baseball Gossip,” Pittsburgh Press, December 20, 1900: 5.
60 “Loopholes of Escape for Club Owners,” Pittsburgh Commercial Press, January 4, 1901: 6.
61 “Sporting Notes,” Pittsburgh Post, February 6, 1901: 6.
62 “Tom O’Brien’s Body Here,” Pittsburgh Post, February 11, 1901: 6.
63 “O’Brien Laid to Rest,” Pittsburgh Post, February 12, 1901: 6.
64 Rose O’Brien (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/55460846/rose-o’brien).
65 “Baseball Moguls Drop into Town,” Pittsburgh Post, February 16, 1901: 6.