May 30, 1914: Frank Rooney becomes first Czech player to homer in the major leagues
Contrary to popular belief, Frank Rooney wasn’t Irish-American. He was born on October 12, 1884, in Poděbrady, a town on the river Elbe about 25 miles east of Prague, which was at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.1 His surname at birth was Rovný, although he played baseball in the United States as Rooney, which sounded more American.2 Not surprisingly, when he homered in a 1914 game for the Federal League’s Indianapolis Hoosiers, the significance of his achievement as the first Czech to homer in a major-league game went unnoticed.3
According to the 1900 census, the Rovný family emigrated to the United States in 1893 when Frank was 8 or 9 years old.4 He rose to prominence as a star pitcher in the semipro ranks5 and made his first appearances in the minor leagues in 1910-11 with the Oshkosh (Wisconsin) Indians of the Class C Wisconsin-Illinois League.
In 1913 the Federal League debuted as a six-team, independent minor-league circuit. Rooney earned a spot as a pitcher on one of those squads, his hometown Cleveland Green Sox.6
The Forest City’s newest professional baseball team was managed by someone who knew a thing or two about pitching: the incomparable Cy Young. But Young was more impressed with Rooney’s hitting than his pitching, so he converted him into a first baseman to get his bat in the lineup every day.7 His defense also drew rave reviews, with one scribe comparing him to the slick-fielding Hal Chase.8 A Cleveland Plain Dealer article on May 6 commented that Rooney’s “sparkling work of yesterday [as a first baseman] vindicates Cy’s judgment completely.”9
Rooney hit .300 in 103 games with the Green Sox, and he was expected to return to the team in 1914.10 But the Green Sox were dropped from the league after Cleveland Indians owner Charles Somers strategically moved the Toledo Mud Hens to Cleveland, and so Rooney was briefly without a job.11 He was quickly signed by Indianapolis. With the Federal League declaring itself a major league for the 1914 season, the lad from Bohemia had joined the big time.
Rooney lost a preseason competition with Biddy Dolan for the starting first baseman’s job, so he played in only one of the Hoosiers’ first 24 regular-season games.12 After manager Bill Phillips came to the conclusion that Dolan wasn’t up to the task, Rooney took over the starting role on May 25 and he had some success initially.13 He came into the first game of the Hoosiers’ May 30 doubleheader against the Chicago Chi-Feds hitting .308 (4-for-13) with a triple and 5 RBIs.
The defending champion Hoosiers had been struggling of late. They had lost 8 of their previous 11 games to fall into fifth place, 7½ games behind the first-place Baltimore Terrapins. The Chi-Feds, led by player-manager Joe Tinker, were in second place, 6½ games out of first.
The pitching matchup in the first game of the twin bill was between a pair of hurlers who enjoyed breakout campaigns in 1913, earning themselves lucrative contracts in the outlaw Federal League. The Hoosiers gave the ball to their ace, 34-year-old emery-ball specialist Cy Falkenberg (5-5, 2.39 ERA).14 Tinker countered with 26-year-old Ad Brennan, whose effective fadeaway pitch had people calling him “the left-handed Christy] Mathewson.”15 Brennan had compiled a 2-3 record and a 2.22 ERA so far in 1914.16
Aided by perfect weather, a Memorial Day crowd of “at least 12,000 people” came out to Weeghman Park—known later as Wrigley Field—to witness the first meeting of the season between the two teams.17 Meanwhile, about six miles to the south, the Cubs drew 14,000 fans to the West Side Grounds for a doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals.18
Brennan retired the first seven Indianapolis batters he faced before Bill Rariden singled into left field in the top of the third. After Falkenberg sacrificed Rariden to second, the former Boston Braves catcher scored on a single by Vin Campbell.
Rooney’s glove work robbed Chicago of three hits in a four-inning span. He fielded Fred Beck’s hot smash leading off the bottom of the third and made the out unassisted at first. In the fifth he made a leaping grab of a line drive off the bat of Al Wickland, and an inning later he made a diving catch of a popup just past the pitcher on a bunt by Jack Farrell.19
Hoosiers shortstop Jimmy Esmond led off the fifth with a bunt single. He was sacrificed to second and scored on Rariden’s Texas Leaguer, giving Indianapolis a 2-0 lead.20
The Hoosiers tacked on three more runs against Brennan in the sixth. Campbell walked and was sacrificed into scoring position; when first baseman Beck “pegged uselessly” to second, the ball ricocheted off Tinker’s shin and bounded into center field, allowing the speedy Campbell to scamper home.21
Left fielder Benny Kauff, who went on to win Federal League batting titles in 1914 and 1915, hit a one-out double. After Frank LaPorte made the second out of the inning, the left-handed-swinging Rooney came to the plate. Rooney pulled a Brennan offering over the right-field wall for a two-run homer, and Indianapolis led 5-0.22
Falkenberg was in control the entire game, scattering five singles without walking a single batter. The Chi-Feds got their first and only runner into scoring position in the bottom of the eighth before Falkenberg slammed the door shut. He retired Chicago in order in the ninth to put the finishing touches on his second shutout of the season.23
Rooney also reached base in his last at-bat of the game, a single in the top of the ninth that briefly raised his batting average to .353. But it was all downhill after that. He went 1-for-18 in his next five games, dropping his average to .200.
On June 9 the Hoosiers signed 37-year-old first baseman Charlie Carr, who had last played in the big leagues in 1906 with the Cincinnati Reds, and released both Dolan and Rooney.24 Neither man played in the big leagues again.25
The veteran Carr helped turn the Hoosiers’ season around. Indianapolis went on a 15-game winning streak from June 11 to 24, and a red-hot Carr hit .456 with 12 RBIs during that stretch.
Indianapolis and Chicago battled for the pennant into the season’s dying days, with the Hoosiers narrowly winning the flag by 1½ games over the Chi-Feds.
Rooney finished his brief major-league career with a .200 batting average, one homer, and eight RBIs in 12 games. As of the start of the 2023 season, he remained the only player born in the region that became the Czech Republic to hit a home run in the big leagues.26 No other Czech player has appeared in a major-league game since − but that could change soon.27
Although baseball is nowhere near as popular as soccer or ice hockey in Czechia, it is certainly on the upswing.
The sport was introduced to Czechoslovakia in 1919 by Joe First, an American living in Prague.28 After baseball disappeared from the country during World War II, it was reintroduced by American GIs in 1945-46.29 The sport got another boost from the Cuban students studying in Prague in the 1960s, and it began to be played competitively late in that tumultuous decade.30
A key moment for baseball’s development in the region came shortly after Czechoslovakia split peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia at the end of 1992. In 1993 the Extraliga was formed, providing an opportunity for the top Czech players (and a few imports) to compete at an elite level.31 As of 2023, the eight-team circuit was one of the top baseball leagues in Europe.32
In 1997 Pavel Budský inked a contract with the Montreal Expos, becoming the first Czech-born-and-raised player to sign with a major-league organization.33 At least a dozen more Czech players signed with big-league teams in the next 25 years.34
As of 2023, catcher Martin Červenka had come closest to making the majors. Červenka played in the Arizona Fall League in 2018, and in 2021 the 28-year-old hit .183 with 7 homers in 72 games with the Triple-A Syracuse Mets.35
Czech baseball experienced a major breakthrough in September 2022 when the country of 10.5 million people qualified for the 2023 World Baseball Classic, despite having only 7,000 baseball players.36 In the WBC Qualifier in Regensburg, Germany, a team comprising almost entirely Czech-born Extraliga players (including Červenka) defeated the heavily favored team from Spain, 3-1, to clinch a spot in the 20-team tournament in March 2023.37 The victory was especially impressive considering that the Spanish team was predominantly made up of players from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the United States.38
As of the end of 2022, the Czech Republic’s national men’s baseball team was ranked 15th in the world—10 spots higher than it was a decade earlier.39 Given baseball’s robust growth in the Czech Republic, the player who was known in America as Frank Rooney might not be the only Czech to hit a home run in the big leagues for much longer.
This article was fact-checked by Kurt Blumenau and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, the Baseball Player Contract Cards Collection from The Sporting News, Ancestry.com, and the Extraliga website. Unless otherwise noted, all play-by-play information for this game was taken from Retrosheet.org.
1 Czechoslovakia declared its independence from Austria-Hungary in 1918. The country peacefully split into two independent nations, Czech Republic and Slovakia, on December 31, 1992. As of 2023, Poděbrady was in the region of Bohemia in the Czech Republic. The official short form for the Czech Republic is Czechia.
2 The author was unable to locate Rovný’s birth certificate. It is unlikely that a child born in Bohemia in 1884 would be given a first name of Frank; it is more likely that his first name was František.
3 At the time, Rooney’s round-tripper would have merely made him the first player from the region of Bohemia to hit a major-league home run. On September 11, 1911, New York Yankees pitcher Jack Quinn became the first player born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to hit a major-league home run. Quinn was born Johannes Pajkoš in the village of Štefurov, which as of 2023 was part of Slovakia.
4 The 1915 city directory for Cleveland found on Ancestry.com shows Frank’s surname as Rovný. It’s unclear when or if his last name was legally changed to Rooney.
5 “Rooney Is Coming,” The New North (Rhinelander, Wisconsin), April 14, 1910: 1.
6 Robert I. Snajdr, “Justus Wins Game by Three-Bagger,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 6, 1913: 10.
7 “Justus Wins Game by Three-Bagger.”
8 “Federal League Will Open Today,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 3, 1913: 11.
9 “Justus Wins Game by Three-Bagger.”
10 “Federal League to Outline 1914 Fight,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 26, 1913: 12-D.
11 Steve West and Bill Nowlin, eds., Whales, Terriers, and Terrapins: The Federal League 1914-15 (Phoenix, Arizona: Society for American Baseball Research, 2020), 52.
12 “Veteran and Youngster Vie with One Another for First Base Position with Hoosier Feds,” Indianapolis News, March 26, 1914: 10.
13 “Slump of Hoosiers Moves Phillips to Switch His Lineup; Frank Rooney Will Get Chance at First Base—Other Changes Likely,” Indianapolis News, May 25, 1914: 12.
14 Eric Enders, “Cy Falkenberg,” SABR BioProject, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/Cy-Falkenberg/, accessed January 31, 2023.
15 Robert Peyton Wiggins, “Ad Brennan,” SABR BioProject, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ad-brennan/, accessed January 31, 2023.
16 As of February 11, 2023, Baseball Reference and Retrosheet had different ERAs for Brennan in 1914. According to Baseball Reference, his ERA was 2.01 coming into his May 30 start, while Retrosheet had him with a 2.22 ERA. Brennan had been battling arm problems all season, and this was his last start for over three months. After this game he pitched only 35 innings during the rest of the season, although he won three important games for Chicago in September to help keep them in the pennant race.
17 The ballpark had opened less than a month earlier. According to the Chicago Tribune, all seats were occupied except for a few at each end of the grandstand. Sam Weller, “Chi-Feds Make It Horse and Horse with Hoosiers,” Chicago Tribune, May 31, 1914: 21.
18 The attendance figure of 14,000 fans is according to Baseball Reference. The Chicago Tribune described attendance for the doubleheader as “in the neighborhood of 13,000.” Keene Gardiner, “O’Days and Cards Beat Each Other as 13,000 Look On,” Chicago Tribune, May 31, 1914: 21.
19 Weller, “Chi-Feds Make It Horse and Horse with Hoosiers.”
20 “Hoosiers Get Even Break with Chicagos,” Indianapolis Star, May 31, 1914: 53.
21 “Hoosiers Get Even Break with Chicagos.”
22 Weller, “Chi-Feds Make It Horse and Horse with Hoosiers.”
23 In 1914 Falkenberg led the Federal League in shutouts (9), strikeouts (236), appearances (tied with Claude Hendrix with 49), starts (43), and innings pitched (377⅓). He went 25-16 with a 2.22 ERA.
24 Ralston Goss, “‘Toots’ Schultz Is Getting a Trial with Hoosiers,” Indianapolis Star, June 10, 1914: 6.
25 Rooney and Dolan remained teammates for the rest of the 1914 season; both caught on with the Peterborough (Ontario) Petes of the Class B Canadian League. Rooney also played in the Canadian League in 1915 with the Ottawa Senators. His teammates in 1915 included player-manager Frank “Shag” Shaughnessy and 24-year-old Urban Shocker.
26 According to Baseball Reference, only four Czech-born players have appeared in the major leagues: Third baseman John Stedronsky (1879 Chicago White Stockings), catcher Dad Meek (1889-90 St. Louis Browns), pitcher Josef Koukalik (1904 Brooklyn Superbas), and first baseman Frank Rooney (1914 Indianapolis Hoosiers). Hugo Bezdek (born in Prague in 1883) managed the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1917 to 1919. “Player Batting Season & Career Stats Finder,” StatHead.com, https://stathead.com/tiny/XgpsB, accessed February 1, 2023.
27 According to Baseball Reference, three players born in what is now Slovakia have appeared in the major leagues: Pitcher Jack Quinn (1909-1933), outfielder Carl Linhart (1952), and outfielder Elmer Valo (1940-61). “Player Batting Season & Career Stats Finder,” StatHead.com, https://stathead.com/tiny/HDIp2, accessed February 1, 2023.
28 Josh Chetwynd, Baseball in Europe: A Country by Country History (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2019), 168.
29 Chetwynd, 168.
30 Chetwynd, 169.
31 Chetwynd, 179.
32 “Federation Focus: World No. 14 Czechia Has One of the Top Baseball Programs in Europe,” World Baseball Softball Confederation, September 6, 2022, https://www.wbsc.org/en/news/federation-focus-world-no-14-czechia-has-one-of-the-top-baseball-programs-in-europe, accessed February 1, 2023.
33 Budský never played for an affiliate of the Montreal Expos. He pitched rookie-league ball for the GCL Royals (an affiliate of the Kansas City Royals) in the Gulf Coast League in 1997. Chetwynd, 175.
34 Chetwynd, 176.
35 Červenka also played 12 games in Triple A in 2019 with the Norforlk Tides, although he did not hit any home runs. His first Triple-A home run came in 2021. In 2019 Červenka hit .372 with 4 RBIs in 43 at-bats with Norfolk.
36 “Federation Focus: World No. 14 Czechia Has One of the Top Baseball Programs in Europe.”
37 Michael Clair, “Czech Ousts Spain, Qualifying for World Baseball Classic,” MLB.com, September 21, 2022, https://www.mlb.com/news/czech-republic-qualifies-for-2023-world-baseball-classic, accessed February 1, 2023.
38 Only two players on Spain’s roster for the 2023 WBC Qualifier were born in that country. Christian Romo, “Team Spain Doesn’t Look Very Spanish, but They Still Might Make Noise at the World Baseball Classic,” CABRA Sports, September 20, 2022, https://cabrasportshq.com/team-spain-doesnt-look-very-spanish-but-they-still-might-make-noise-at-the-world-baseball-classic/, accessed February 1, 2023.
39 The Czech Republic’s national women’s baseball team was ranked 20th in the world as of the end of 2021. “WBSC World Rankings,” WBSC.org, https://rankings.wbsc.org/, accessed February 1, 2023.
Indianapolis Hoosiers 5
Chicago Chi-Feds 0
Game 1, DH
Box Score + PBP:
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