This article was written by Arthur Ahrens
This article was published in the 1983 Baseball Research Journal
The SABR 19th Century Committee recently polled its members to determine the top ten players of the pre-1900 era not in the Hall of Fame. Heading the list in a three-way tie were Jimmy Ryan, Harry Stovey, and George Van Haltren. My favorite is Ryan, the great Chicago outfielder. A brief review of his life and career should tell you why.
Born at Clinton, Massachusetts, February 11, 1863, James E. Ryan began his baseball career at Holy Cross College, although it is not clear whether he was a student or only a member of the team. In mid-1885 Ryan went professional, joining Bridgeport of the Eastern League, and had but 29 games of minor league experience when Cap Anson signed him with the Chicago White Stockings (Cubs) at the close of the season. Stationed at shortstop in place of Tommy Burns, Jimmy made his debut October 8, 1885, at Chicago. Although he went only one-for-four in a 5-3 loss to the Phillies, the Chicago Tribune noted that “Ryan, the young Bridgeport player, . . . . proved himself a strong batter, a quick fielder and very clever between the bases.” The following day he went four-for-six but the Phillies again won, 12-11.
In 1886, playing on a semi-regular basis, Ryan gave Chicago a glimpse of things to come by batting .306. Beginning the next year, he was an everyday player for the rest of his career.
By 1888 Jimmy was approaching his stride, hitting for both average and power with a .332 average and a league-leading 16 home runs. Generally batting in the leadoff spot, Ryan became renowned for his game opening homers, the first of which came April 20, 1888, in a 5-4 victory at Indianapolis. On July 28 he became the first Chicago player to hit for the cycle, collecting a single, a double, two triples and a homer as the White Stockings outslugged Detroit, 21-17. The versatile player spent 7-1/3 innings on the mound in that game at Chicago and just missed being the only pitcher to hit for the cycle when he singled and tripled before going to the hill.
In 1889 Jimmy reached a career high with 17 homers but did not lead the league because Sam Thompson of the Phillies belted 20. On September 30 Ryan hit George Haddock’s first pitch for his sixth leadoff homer of the year as Chicago took care of Washington, 9-5. This remained a major league record until broken by Bobby Bonds in 1973.
By now Ryan had established himself as a bona-fide star — not only as a hitter but defensively as well. His throwing arm ranked with that of such latter-day standouts as Kiki Cuyler and Carl Furillo. Sportswriter Hugh Fullerton, who saw Jimmy perform countless times, recalled years later that “He was known as the most accurate and clever thrower in the history of the game.” The statistics bear this out, as Jimmy made 33 assists in 1887, a league-leading 34 in `88 and a career high 36 in `89. Equally adept in left, center or right, Ryan would in time play regularly in all three spots. By the end of his career, he had played 386 games in left, 954 in center, and 606 in right. As a base stealer, Ryan was good (408 thefts), but not exceptional.
In addition to this, Jimmy was one of baseball’s first successful relief pitchers at a time when firemen were about as common as mice at a cat show. He pitched in 24 games between 1886 and 1893, winning seven games while losing only one. In 1888 his pitching record was 4-0, three of his wins coming in relief. Although he went to bat only 55 times while pitching, he technically became baseball’s greatest hitting pitcher by batting for an average of .436 and slugging at an .891 clip. His 24 hits included six doubles, two triples, and five home runs.
Ryan, who threw from the port side, nevertheless played 58 games at short, 8 at second base, and 6 at third. To trace the irony even further, he batted righthanded, making him the best hitter in that unorthodox category of players who threw left and batted right.
Personally, Ryan was a moderate to heavy drinker and a rather moody individual who didn’t get along well with his fellow players, particularly Anson, the player-manager. However, if failure to get along with one’s teammates is a valid reason for denying entrance into the Hall of Fame, then Ty Cobb does not belong either.
In the late l880s, a player rebellion was in the wind. The first players’ union, the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, had been formed in 1886, and three years later they presented their demands to the National League. While the league acceded to a few minor points, they balked at the abolition of the reserve clause and the salary limitation. Consequently, the Brotherhood bolted in 1890, forming the Players’ League. Since Chicago second baseman Fred Pfeffer was one of the leaders in the movement, nearly all of the White Stockings joined him, including Ryan. Most of them signed with the Chicago Players’ League team, nicknamed the “Onions.” Although the team had a star-studded lineup, including Ryan, Pfeffer, Hugh Duffy and Charlie Comiskey, they finished only fourth as Ryan led with a .340 mark. Furthermore, the new league went bankrupt in its attempt to alter baseball’s power structure.
Unlike Pfeffer, who remained a staunch unionist, Ryan emerged thoroughly disillusioned from the experience. In an interview November 15, 1890, he said:
I’ve had enough of it. There’s more wind than money in it. Let the men who put up the capital manage the game, and let the men who do the playing get paid for it and keep still. This is all any ballplayer should ask. There is one thing certain and that is that I will not play again under the same conditions as I did this season.
After the Players’ League folded, Ryan, Pfeffer and pitcher Ad Gumbert were returned to the Chicago Nationals, who had been renamed the Colts due to a massive influx of young players. For Ryan, 1891 was, by his standards, a sub-par season as his batting average fell to .287. But on July 1 he became the only Cub player to hit for the cycle twice, connecting in a 9-3 victory over Cleveland. A year later to the day, Jimmy earned another distinction of sorts by becoming the first Chicago player to slug a sportswriter. It seems George Bechel of the Chicago Evening News had written some unkind words about Ryan’s abilities, after which Jimmy taught him a lesson in journalistic diplomacy. By now the team was on the decline and Ryan, sporting a thick handlebar mustache, was one of the few genuine stars left in the lineup.
On August 6, 1893, Ryan suffered a severe leg injury in a train wreck at Toledo, which limited his action that year to 83 games. But that did not stop him from rebounding the following year with a .361 average, the highest of his career. Even conceding the fact that .300 hitters were a dime a dozen in 1894, Ryan’s mark was still 52 points above the league average. That season he enjoyed one of his finest days as he slapped out five hits in five trips, two of them doubles, and scored six times as the Colts made the Pirates walk the plank, 24-6, on July 25.
As the years went by, Ryan continued to excel. On June 29, 1897, the Colts set a major league record for runs scored when they pummeled Louisville, 36-7. Jimmy’s contributions were a grand slam homer, a double and five runs scored.
The departure of Anson in 1898 left Ryan the senior member of the team, which had been relabeled “Orphans,” being without their “father,” Anson. Two years earlier, Giant manager Bill Joyce had said of Ryan, “Baseball patrons in Chicago should appreciate that man, for there are no better players to be found anywhere. I have admired him for years, not only for his ability on the field but as a man.” And Chicago fans did appreciate him. On April 27, 1899, at the home opener, a contingent of fans presented him a gold watch. Jimmy showed his thanks by singling in the third inning and driving in the winning run with a two-run double in the fifth as Chicago nipped the Reds, 4-3. The Chicago Tribune commented that “the crowd cheered his every play.” For the season, the blond Irishman hit .30 1, for his sixth straight year over the .300 plateau.
On August 8, 1900, Jimmy stole four bases in a 5-3 loss to the Phillies for a career high. But when his average dropped to .277 the Orphans decided he was over the hill and released him.
Following a one-year tour as player-manager of the St. Paul Western League franchise, Jimmy made a comeback in 1902 with the Washington Senators of the youthful American League. Although Ryan was now 39 years old, his .320 batting average was the envy of many a younger player on the team. However, after Jimmy dropped to .249 the following year, he retired from active play. He managed Colorado Springs of the Western League in 1904, then left professional ball for keeps.
Now that their big league days were behind them, Ryan and Pfeffer mended fences with Anson, and together they attended the 1906 World Series between the Cubs and the White Sox. But ball playing was still in Jimmy’s blood, so the following year he formed his own semi-pro team in Rogers Park, a neighborhood on Chicago’s north side. He played regularly for Rogers Park as late as 1915, when he was 52!
Ryan’s last public appearance came on September 16, 1923, when he and the graying Fred Pfeffer attended the dedication of Cap Anson’s monument at Oakwood Cemetery on Chicago’s south side. On October 29 he died of a heart attack on the front porch of his home in Rogers Park. Serving as a Cook County deputy sheriff at the time of his death, Jimmy left a widow but no children. Requiem Mass was celebrated at Saint Gertrude’s Roman Catholic Church, followed by burial at Calvary Cemetery in Evanston, Illinois.
If a player is best judged by comparing him to his contemporaries, then so be it with Ryan. When Jimmy retired, he left behind a .310 lifetime batting average, 2,531 hits, 451 doubles, 157 triples and 118 home runs at a time when the ball was so dead it practically possessed rigor mortis. Ryan’s RBI count was limited to 1,093 by the fact that he generally hit in the leadoff position. Nevertheless, he attained totals of 89 in 1890, 86 in `96 and 85 in `97.
Among players who retired up to and including the year 1910, only Anson, George Van Haltren, George Davis, Ed Delahanty, Jesse Burkett, Jake Beckley, Lave Cross and Willie Keeler collected more hits. Prior to the advent of the lively ball in 1920, only nine others gathered 100 or more career home runs Harry Stovey, Dan Brouthers, Sam Thompson, Roger Connor, Ed Delahanty, Hugh Duffy, Mike Tiernan, Honus Wagner and Gavvy Cravath. And among those, only Connor (136), Thompson (128), Stovey (120) and Cravath (119) exceeded Ryan, which places Jimmy in truly select company. On the all-time Cub roster, Ryan is tenth in batting average (500-game minimum), sixth in hits, sixth in doubles, first in triples, tenth in home runs, second in runs scored, and sixth in RBI.
Finally, who leads National League outfielders in career assists? Not Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Max Carey or Roberto Clemente. Ryan’s 356 outfield assists in a Cub uniform are still the NL standard. Add to this his Players’ League and American League statistics, and his career total is 404. Tris Speaker, the all-time leader with 450, appeared in 2,700 games in the outfield to Ryan’s 1,943.
Following Jimmy’s death, he was gradually forgotten while contemporaries with lesser credentials were being elected to the Hall of Fame from 1936 onward. Outfielder Tommy McCarthy (1884-1896), who entered in 1946 with 1,496 hits and a .292 bat mark, is the most obvious example.
In 1982 Jimmy was elected to the Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame (a recent innovation by the new ownership) by a vote of the fans. While it is gratifying that he has at least been honored locally, beatification is not the equal of sainthood, which is conferred only at Cooperstown.