This article was written by Jeff Obermeyer
This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 27, 2007)
We always remember the exploits of our favorite sports stars. Their accomplishments are relived and dissected by casual fans and historians alike. The same holds true for those who reach a certain level of notoriety, that one great (or infamous) season, series, or moment that defines a career. For most players history is not so kind, as memories fade quickly and all that remains are a few lines of statistics.
There is another type of fame, however. Some players aren’t remembered for what they accomplished as much as for just being in the right place at the right time, becoming a footnote in history and the answer to a trivia question. As a SABR member and a hockey fan, one of my all-time favorite questions is this: Who is the only man to play in both the National Hockey League (NHL) and in Major League Baseball? His name is Jim Riley, and the unique combination of these two very dissimilar sports begs a closer look at his career. 1
James Norman Riley was born on May 25, 1895, in Bayfield, New Brunswick, to John Henry Riley and Margaret Byers. His father was American and his mother Canadian, both of English descent.2 Not much is known of his early life.
Like many young Canadian men of the era, hockey exerted a strong pull on Riley, and he traveled east to Alberta to seek his fame and fortune. After playing one season of amateur hockey with the Calgary Victorias of the Alberta Senior Hockey League in 1914-15, Riley was ready to turn pro. During this era professional hockey was dominated by two leagues. In the east was the National Hockey Association (NHA), a six-team circuit of Canadian clubs in Ontario and Quebec, while the west had the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA), a three-team league with member cities in British Columbia, Washington, and sometimes Oregon. Jim headed west, signing with the Victoria Aristocrats for the 1915-16 season.
In the summer following that first pro season, Riley picked up a bat and ball and got a tryout with the Tacoma Tigers of the Northwestern League, the earliest reference to his baseball career. At 5′ 11″ tall and 185 pounds Riley was a big man by the standards of the era, and while Tiger manager Russ Hall was impressed with his size, he felt the youngster needed a little more experience before making the move to professional ball, so it was back to the ice.
Riley remained in Washington that fall, joining the Seattle Metropolitans of the PCHA, and it was there that “Big” Jim really made a name for himself on the ice. Riley played seven seasons with the Metropolitans between 1916 and 1924, a run that included two league championships and four all-star team selections.3 He also finished second in the league goal-scoring race twice, lighting the lamp 23 times in 1920-21 and 16 times in 1921-22.
In the spring of 1917 the Metropolitans hosted the Montreal Canadiens of the NHA in the Stanley Cup finals, taking the series in four games to become the first American-based team to win hockey’s highest honor. Riley was kept off the score sheet in the series, though he did appear in all four games.
The 1917-18 PCHA season ended on March 13, 1918, and less than a month later Riley was married. He and his new wife, Myrtle Laura Riley, didn’t have much time for a honeymoon, however. They wed on April 12 and just three days later Jim traveled north to Vancouver to be sworn in to the Canadian Army, serving in England for a year as part of an engineering detachment and quickly being promoted to sergeant. While he couldn’t find an ice rink overseas, he did play baseball and quickly made a name for himself as one of the top third basemen among the military teams.
Riley’s baseball career really took off in 1921, opening the season at second base with the Vancouver Beavers of the Pacific Coast International League and terrorizing opposing pitchers. By late June he was drawing rave reviews in the press, including this mention in The Sporting News:
Jim Riley, the famous Seattle hockey star, is another slated for promotion. Riley is the Babe Ruth of the circuit and let it be mentioned also that at the keystone bag he has no peer in this company, although only breaking in this season. Riley started the season batting just above the pitchers. Today he’s in the clean-up hole on the Vancouver squad and delivering all the time.4
His .303 average and nine homers in 56 games caught the attention of the scouts as well, and on June 28 the St. Louis Browns acquired his rights. Less than a week later the struggling Browns called him up.
His major league debut came on July 3, 1921, in St. Louis during a matchup with the Chicago White Sox, replacing Jimmy Austin late in the game. Austin started the game at shortstop, and when he came out second baseman Marty McManus moved to short and Riley took over at second. Big Jim failed to get a hit in his lone plate appearance and the Browns fell, 5-1.
Riley started at second in both ends of a July 4 double header against Detroit, going 0-for-6 at the plate and committing an error in the second game. The following day Tiger pitching again kept him off the bases and he picked up another error. In the wake of his hitless four-game performance Jim was sent back down to the minors, finishing out the season with the Terre Haute Tots of the Three-I League. He quickly got back on track, hitting .296 with the third-place Tots.
Fortunately for Riley, the hockey and baseball seasons did not overlap, so he still had a stable hockey career to fall back on while his baseball skills developed. In 1922, after finishing second in goal scoring in the PCHA, he reported back to Terre Haute and hit .313 over 114 games before being sent to Salt Lake City in the PCL, where he batted a respectable .268 against much stiffer competition.
In 1923, Jim got another shot at the majors. Though he was a right-handed fielder (he hit left), he was moved to first base while with the Shreveport Gassers of the Texas League. Though the Gassers finished at the bottom of the standings, Riley had a great year, batting .328 with 11 homers and 74 RBIs. His play again attracted the scouts, and this time it was the Washington Senators who came calling, sending two players to Shreveport for his rights. He was called up late in the year to fill in for an injured Joe Judge at first base, appearing in the last two games of the season and going 0-for-2 with a run scored and two errors. It was his last appearance in the majors.
At the close of the 1923-24 PCHA season Riley retired from professional hockey. While in Shreveport in 1923 he met a woman named Martha Baker, the widowed mother of the team’s batboy, whom he eventually married sometime in late 1924 or early 1 925.5 It’s likely that this relationship was a factor in his choice to concentrate on baseball and not return north to play hockey. After another outstanding season in Shreveport (.312-26-127), Riley moved to the Southern Association to play with the Mobile Bears in 1925. His numbers in Mobile were almost identical to those he put up in Shreveport (.320-27-125) and his future looked bright.
In 1926, Riley was acquired by the Dallas Steers of the Texas League, replacing youngster Swede Lind at first base. He didn’t disappoint, hitting .329 in an impressive 626 at-bats, driving in 111 runs. The Steers were the class of the league, finishing atop the standings at 89-66 and eventually knocking off the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern League in the Dixie Series, four games to two (with one tie). It was Riley’s first baseball championship, and he now had a title in each sport.
Once the baseball season ended, Riley once again heard the call of the ice, lacing up his skates for a couple of exhibition games with a team called the Dallas Texans. The PCHA had folded in 1925 and its players were scattered throughout hockey, so it didn’t appear that Jim would have an opportunity to play professionally again.
When Riley played hockey in Seattle, the Metropolitans had been managed by Pete Muldoon. Muldoon was a sportsman through and through-a former professional boxer and lacrosse player, he also was an accomplished skater who often amazed crowds by skating on stilts. Shortly after the demise of the PCHA, he moved to the NHL as the coach of its newest franchise, the Chicago Black Hawks. When Muldoon heard that one of the players from his 1917 Stanley Cup team was skating again, he came calling with a contract in hand.
Riley signed with the Black Hawks and made his NHL debut on January 19, 1927, against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a game won by Chicago in overtime, 4-3. He only lasted three games with the Black Hawks, but his return impressed one of his former teammates who was also coaching in the NHL, Frank Foyston. Foyston and Muldoon worked out a cash deal that sent Jim to the Detroit Cougars on January 3 I. In Detroit he was reunited with four of his former Seattle teammates and played in six games with the Cougars, picking up a pair of assists and 14 penalty minutes.
Riley retired from hockey again6 and spent the next three seasons in the Texas League, splitting time between Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio. He also played with Lincoln of the Nebraska State League in 1928 and 1929. His average and home run totals steadily diminished, and he was shipped off to Topeka of the Western League part way through the 1930 season. He sat out in 1931 before returning to the field with the Baton Rouge Senators of the Class D Cotton States League in 1932. There he had a bit of a resurgence, hitting .284 with the first-place Senators until the league folded on July 13, ending both his season and his professional baseball career.
With his playing days behind him, Riley and his family remained in the Dallas area, where he worked in a public relations capacity with a distillery. He was said to be a scratch golfer and remained so in his later years. The family moved to Seguin, TX, in the early l 960s, where they remained until Jim’s passing on May 25, 1969, his 74th birthday, of lung and stomach cancer. He is buried at Guadalupe Valley Memorial Park in New Braunfels, TX. His wife Martha passed away in 1973.
As is often the case, our sports heroes are not always recognized for their accomplishments while they are alive, and the same holds true for Jim Riley. In 2000, 31 years after his death, Riley was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in the special “Sports Pioneer” category for his accomplishments on the ice and in the field, a fitting tribute to one of the first two-sport athletes.
JEFF OBERMEYER works as a Subrogation Operations Manager/or Farmers Insurance. During the offseason he does hockey research, and his book Hockey in Seattle was published by Arcadia in 2004.
Chicago Daily Tribune
Lost Hockey: www.losthockey.com
The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball
Seattle Hockey home page: www.seattlehockey.net
The Sporting News
Total Baseball, 8th Edition
Total Hockey, 2nd Edition
1. Andrew Kyle appeared in the major leagues in 1912 with Cincinnati and played professional hockey in the National Hockey Association (NHA) in 1917 with Toronto. While the NHL grew out of the NHA in 1918, the two leagues were not the same. The NHA folded prior to the creation of the NHL. The NHL does not recognize any statistics or records from the NHA period as being “official.”
2. This is per Riley’s description of their heritage during the 1930 census, taken while he was living in Texas. Riley listed his profession as “Ball Player.”
3. Riley was named a PCHA Second Team All-Star three times between 1920-22 and a First Team All-Star in 1923.
4. Garvey, A.P. “A Tale of Baseball Breaks,” The Sporting News, June 30, 1921.
5. The fate of Riley’s first marriage to Myrtle is unknown.
6. Riley appeared in a handful of hockey games in California with the Cal-Pro League in 1928-29.