When St. Louis Browns coach Charley O’Leary pinch-hit in the final game of the 1934 season, the fans at Navin Field in Detroit thought they were witnessing nothing more than a bit of harmless fun to liven up a relatively meaningless contest. At the time, O’Leary, a veteran of 833 games with the hometown Tigers from 1904 though 1912, was believed to be nearing his 52nd birthday.1
But the significance of his appearance wasn’t fully understood until 76 years later when SABR researchers Cliff Blau and Richard Malatzky discovered that O’Leary, who had most recently appeared in a major-league game in 1913,2 was actually seven years older than previously thought.3
As a result, the “former [Detroit] Tiger star of ancient vintage,” as the Detroit Times labeled him, set three records that day, two of which still stood as of the start of the 2022 season.4
Detroit had just claimed its first pennant in 25 years − the first since O’Leary helped the Tigers win three consecutive American League titles between 1907 and 1909.
The Tigers clinched the 1934 pennant on September 24—an offday − when the second-place New York Yankees were shut out by the Boston Red Sox.5 First-year player-manager Mickey Cochrane, who won the 1934 American League MVP Award, was golfing when he learned that his team was headed to the World Series.6
That night a group of the city’s leading citizens and baseball fans hosted an impromptu dinner at Detroit’s Book Cadillac Hotel for Cochrane and his two coaches, Cy Perkins and Del Baker. The three men spoke eloquently after dinner, with Cochrane and Perkins heaping praise on each other.7
Cochrane had replaced Perkins as the Philadelphia Athletics’ starting catcher in 1925, but Perkins managed the transition with grace, becoming a mentor to the younger receiver.8 The two men became close friends. Soon after taking over the Tigers’ managerial reins, Cochrane persuaded Perkins to resign as a Yankees coach and join him in Detroit.9
The day after the celebration at the Book Cadillac Hotel, the Tigers quietly signed the 38-year-old Perkins as a free agent, likely with the intention of getting him into a game late in the season.10 In what was probably not a coincidence, the Browns inked O’Leary to a contract on the very same day.11
A rainout on September 29 forced the Browns and Tigers to play a doubleheader on the last day of the season.
The Browns came into the twin bill in sixth place with a 67-83 record, 31 games behind Detroit. The perennial also-rans, still a decade away from their first pennant in franchise history, had been piloted by player-manager Rogers Hornsby for the past 14 months.12 The 38-year-old Hornsby could still swing the bat; he was hitting .318 (7-for-22) in 1934, mostly as a pinch-hitter.13
The Tigers had several unresolved items that day. Their World Series opponent had yet to be determined, as the St. Louis Cardinals were clinging to a one-game lead over the New York Giants in the National League pennant race. Detroit second baseman Charlie Gehringer, batting .357, still had a shot at catching Lou Gehrig (.360) in the batting race, and 23-year-old Hank Greenberg was three hits away from reaching 200 hits for the first time in his career.
The Tigers won the first game of the twin bill, 10-6, for their 100th win of the season. Gehringer went 0-for-4 in the game, and when Gehrig went 3-for-4 against the Washington Senators the Iron Horse effectively clinched the batting title.14 Greenberg reached the 200-hit plateau by going 3-for-5, including a double − his 63rd of the season.15
With the Cardinals’ Dizzy Dean tossing a shutout in a pennant-clinching rout of the last-place Cincinnati Reds, little drama remained for the second game, and the stage was set for the Tigers and Browns to have a bit of fun. “Before the end of the afternoon,” reported the Detroit Times, “13,000 fans were accustomed to seeing rigid baseball rules suspended.”16
The tomfoolery began in the bottom of the third when the rarely used Heinie Schuble pinch-hit for Detroit’s regular shortstop, Billy Rogell.17 The game was briefly delayed while the Browns presented the diminutive Schuble with a package containing a fungo bat.18 The light-hitting utility infielder used the bat to slam a double over the head of Browns center fielder Ray Pepper, driving in a pair of runs.19 Detroit scored four runs in the inning off St. Louis starter George Blaeholder.
Tigers starter Tommy Bridges (21-11, 3.72) pitched four hitless innings before he was pulled to ensure that he was well-rested for the World Series.20 Perkins pinch-hit for him in the bottom of the fourth.21 The slow-footed former catcher, whose most recent major-league appearance was in 1931, hit a groundball to third baseman Harlond Clift, who threw him out “before Perkins was out of the shadows which hovered around home plate.”22
A career .226 hitter with little power, O’Leary had been an infielder with the Tigers, with the peak of his playing career coming in 1907 when he was the starting shortstop on a Detroit team that won its first pennant in franchise history.24
O’Leary bounced an offering from Auker to the right side of the infield, where “the flawless Gehringer turned handsprings to keep from fielding the ball.” 25 It trickled past him for a single, and the Browns had their first hit of the game.
The Detroit Times made note of O’Leary’s “special treatment” and used quotation marks to refer to his “hit.”26 On the level or not, it went down in the scorebook as O’Leary’s first hit in a major-league game since October 5, 1913.
The merriment continued when Auker attempted to pick O’Leary off first, forcing the would-be basestealer to retreat to the bag with a feet-first slide.27 Two batters later, O’Leary advanced to second on a scratch single by Debs Garms.
The next batter, Jack Burns, doubled, and O’Leary chugged around third. “He crossed the plate puffing and blowing, and fell fainting into the arms of the bat boy, like a marathon runner,” observed one Detroit scribe.28
The Browns added another run in the inning on an RBI single by Bruce Campbell, cutting the Tigers’ lead to 4-2.
Unbeknownst to the baseball world, O’Leary (age 58 years, 350 days) had just become the oldest American, National or Federal League player to appear in a game, register a hit, and score a run.29 The first record stood until September 25, 1965, when Satchel Paige (59 years, 80 days) surpassed O’Leary as the oldest player to appear in a game.30 As of the beginning of the 2022 season, O’Leary still held the record for being the oldest AL/NL/FL player to register a hit and score a run.
Hornsby inserted himself as a pinch-hitter in the top of the seventh. He failed to reach base, ending his season with 2,905 career hits.31
The Tigers added a run in the sixth and another in the eighth to take a 6-2 lead. Detroit reliever Elon Hogsett preserved the victory by facing the minimum number of batters in two scoreless innings of work.32 Bridges was credited with his 22nd victory of the season.33
Detroit finished with a record of 101-53, seven games ahead of the second-place Yankees. As of the end of the 2022 season, the Tigers’ .656 winning percentage was the highest in their 122-year history.
Led by the pitching of Dizzy and Paul Dean and the hitting of Joe Medwick, the “Gas House Gang” defeated the Tigers in seven games. Tigers fans would have to wait one more year for their team’s first World Series championship.
O’Leary continued to coach for the Browns until Hornsby was relieved of his managerial duties in July 1937.35 O’Leary never worked in baseball again. He finished his big-league career having won three pennants as a player and seven more in his 21 years as a coach. He also won three World Series (1923, 1927-28) while coaching the Yankees.
O’Leary died of peritonitis in January 1941 after a short illness. His obituary in the St. Louis Star and Times opened by stating that the baseball world was mourning the loss of another one of its “all-time greats.”36 It also (incorrectly) reported that O’Leary was 58 years old at the time of his death.
While researching this article, the author reviewed retrospective coverage of this game, including a 2022 article on MLB.com. None of it mentioned what the Detroit Times’ contemporary coverage emphasized about the farcical circumstances of O’Leary’s hit, specifically Gehringer’s allegedly deliberate misplay of the ball.
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, and the Baseball Player Contract Cards Collection from The Sporting News. Unless otherwise noted, all play-by-play information for this game was taken from the article “Tigers Beat Browns Twice to Close Season and Run String to 101 Victories” on page 14 of the October 1, 1934, edition of the Detroit Free Press.
1 “Who Was the Oldest Major Leaguer to Hit Safely?” Society for American Baseball Research, https://sabr.org/research/article/who-was-the-oldest-major-leaguer-to-hit-safely/, accessed August 22, 2022.
2 O’Leary’s previous major-league plate appearance was as a player-coach of the St. Louis Cardinals on October 5, 1913. He went on to coach for the Cardinals (1913-17), New York Yankees (1920-30), Chicago Cubs (1931-32), and St. Louis Browns (1934-37). The Retrosheet.org website shows him coaching the Yankees from 1921 to 1930, although several contemporary newspaper articles refer to him as a Yankees coach in 1920. O’Leary won three World Series championships and six American League pennants during his time as a coach with the Yankees. He also won a National League pennant as a Cubs coach in 1932. W.J. Macbeth, “Edwards May Be Chosen as Hermann’s Successor,” New York Tribune, February 12, 1920: 14.
3 O’Leary’s correct birthdate is October 15, 1875. “Who Was the Oldest Major Leaguer to Hit Safely?”
4 Bud Shaver, “Tigers Finish with 101 Wins,” Detroit Times, October 1, 1934: 19.
5 “New York Is Blanked by Rookie Southpaw,” Detroit Free Press, September 25, 1934: 15.
6 Cochrane hit .320 with 2 homers and 75 RBIs in 437 at-bats in 1934. He also walked 78 times, giving him a .428 on-base percentage. Charlie Gehringer finished a close second in MVP voting that season. It was Cochrane’s second AL MVP Award—the first came as a member of the 1928 Philadelphia Athletics. “Three Musketeers—a Story of Faith and How It Was Kept,” Detroit Free Press, September 25, 1934: 1.
7 “Three Musketeers—a Story of Faith and How It Was Kept.”
9 Perkins had been a player-coach with the Yankees in 1931 and a coach in 1932-33. The Yankees finished in second place in 1931 and 1933; they won the World Series in 1932. Rogers, “Cy Perkins.”
10 The author was unable to find any newspaper reports of the signing of Perkins or O’Leary. Bud Shaver of the Detroit Times was unaware of the signings; he wrote that O’Leary and Perkins were “both ineligible as players” in his game story. Baseball Reference lists both players as having signed as a free agent on September 25. Shaver, “Tigers Finish with 101 Wins.”
11 It seems probable that the Tigers and Browns co-ordinated their plans to use a coach as a pinch-hitter on the final day of the season.
12 The Browns finished at least 15 games out of first place from 1923 until 1943. The AL franchise played the 1901 season as the Milwaukee Brewers before relocating to St. Louis and becoming the Browns. They won their only pennant in St. Louis in 1944. The Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Orioles.
13 Hornsby’s 0-for-1 on the final day of the season dropped his batting average for 1934 to .304. He continued to see occasional game action until he was fired as the Browns manager in July 1937.
14 The Yankees played a single game on September 30. Gehringer needed to go 8-for-8 in the second game of the doubleheader to win the batting title. Gehrig finished the season with a .363 batting average to Gehringer’s .356. Gehrig hit 49 home runs and drove in 166 runs in 1934 for the only Triple Crown of his illustrious career.
15 As of the start of the 2022 season, Greenberg’s 63 doubles were the fourth highest single-season mark in major-league history, dating back to 1871. The major-league record for doubles in a season was 67 by Earl Webb of the 1931 Boston Red Sox. “Player Batting Season & Career Stats Finder,” StatHead.com, https://stathead.com/tiny/KrJzY, accessed August 22, 2022.
16 Shaver, “Tigers Finish with 101 Wins.”
17 Schuble had only 15 at-bats in 11 regular-season games despite spending the entire 1934 season with the Tigers. Schuble’s playing time was scarce since Rogell, Gehringer, and third baseman Marv Owen appeared in all 154 regular-season games. Schuble did not appear in the World Series.
18 According to Baseball Reference, Schuble was 5-feet-9 and 152 pounds.
19 Schuble also singled using the fungo bat later in the game. Shaver, “Tigers Finish with 101 Wins.”
20 Bridges retired the first 10 batters he faced. The only batter to reach base against him was Debs Garms, who walked in the fourth inning. Bridges started and lost Game Three of the World Series on October 5. He redeemed himself by outdueling Dizzy Dean in Game Five, moving the Tigers to within one game of winning the Series. The Cardinals rebounded to win the final two games. Bridges pitched in relief in Game Seven after the Cardinals took a commanding lead.
21 Perkins’ previous big-league plate appearance was also at Navin Field. On August 15, 1931, the Yankees player-coach went 1-for-4 in a 7-5 Yankees victory over the Tigers. Perkins drove in Lou Gehrig with an insurance run in the top of the 16th inning. Babe Ruth had given the Yankees the lead with a solo home run earlier in the inning. International News Service, “Sock Puts Babe and Lou in Tie at 32 for Lead,” Miami News, August 16, 1931: 9.
22 The Detroit Times remarked that “Cy is a great coach but he runs like a hydrant − all in one place.” Shaver, “Tigers Finish with 101 Wins.”
23 Auker, a 24-year-old righty, relieved Bridges in the top of the fifth. Auker had moved into the starting rotation in August. He finished the season 15-7 with a 3.42 ERA. Auker tossed a complete-game victory in Game Four of the 1934 World Series before starting and losing Game Seven.
24 Donie Bush took over as Detroit’s starting shortstop late in the 1908 season. The great Tigers teams of that era featured future Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, and (manager) Hughie Jennings.
25 Shaver, “Tigers Finish with 101 Wins.”
26 “Two Plays That Provided Merriment for Fans as Tigers Closed Season,” Detroit Times, October 1, 1934: 19.
27 “Two Plays That Provided Merriment for Fans as Tigers Closed Season.”
28 Shaver, “Tigers Finish with 101 Wins.”
29 At the time, Jim O’Rourke (54 years, 21 days) was thought to be the oldest player to register a hit or score a run in an AL/NL/FL game. He set the two records while catching the first game of a doubleheader on September 22, 1904, for the New York Giants. Nick Altrock (57 years, 16 days) was thought to be the oldest player to appear in an AL/NL/FL game. Altrock grounded out in a pinch-hit appearance for the Washington Senators on the last day of the 1933 season (October 1, 1933). He coached for the Senators from 1912 until 1953. Associated Press, “Pinch-Hitter Altrock Fails to Win for Nats,” Louisville Courier-Journal, October 2, 1933: 7.
30 As of the beginning of the 2022 season, O’Leary was the second oldest player to appear in an AL/NL/FL game.
31 Hornsby finished his career in 1937 with 2,930 hits. He hit .294 between 1935 and 1937, lowering his career batting average to .358.
32 Hogsett faced six batters in his two innings of work, allowing only one baserunner. He gave up a single to Garms to open the top of the eighth, but he was erased on a double play.
33 O’Leary was not the only player for whom this game would acquire statistical significance decades later. The save was adopted as an official statistic in 1969, and Hogsett was retroactively credited with collecting his third save of the season in this game.
35 Sid C. Keener, “Hornsby Plans Legal Fight to Collect Pay on Cancelled Contract,” St. Louis Star and Times, July 22, 1937: 24.
36 International News Service, “Charley O’Leary, Former Browns Coach, Dies at 58,” St. Louis Star and Times, January 7, 1941: 11.