Jim Lillie

28 May

The Sporting Life described Jim Lillie as “one of the most sensational of right fielders,” and “the rival of Mike (King) Kelly in the position.”  The New Haven Register said he earned his nickname “grasshopper”  as a result of his “agility in the outfield.”

His career was brief, and his short post-baseball life was tragic.

The 21-year-old Connecticut native was said to have been discovered by “Orator Jim” O’Rourke “on the lots and commons of New Haven.”  He played his first professional game on May 17, 1883 with the Buffalo Bisons in the National League.  Lillie appeared in 50 games, hitting .234. In November his hometown newspaper, The New Haven Register, got his position wrong (saying he was used primarily as a catcher—he caught in two games), but said “his record was highly credible,” and that he had already signed for the 1884 season.

Jim Lillie

Jim Lillie

Lillie spent two more seasons in Buffalo; leading the team in games played both seasons.  In 1884 he led National League outfielders with 41 assists; his 40 errors also led the league.  He committed 33 errors the following season; he hit .223 and .249 for the Bisons.  When the team disbanded after the 1885 season, his contract was assigned by the National League to the Kansas City Cowboys, who had been admitted to the league on a trial basis.

He had, for him, a typical season in the field: 30 errors (third in league), 30 assists (second) and 199 putouts (third).  He also had one of the all-time worst performances at the plate; hitting .175 in 426 at bats, with only nine extra base hits (all doubles), he finished the season with 82 total bases—for identical .197 on base and slugging percentages.

The 30-91 Cowboys were dissolved in February of 1887, with the players being sold to the league.

Lillie remained in Kansas City, and had the best season of his career with the Cowboys, now in the Western League.  He also met an 18-year-old woman named Nellie O’Shea, the daughter of a wealthy Kansas City contractor and said The Kansas City Star, “a young lady highly spoken of.”

Lillie, playing primarily in left field, hit .369; a hitter’s haven, the Western League leader, Jimmy Macullar hit .464, and Lillie’s average was good for 34th best in the league.

On December 29, 1887 Lillie married Nellie O’Shea.

He joined the Fort Worth Panthers in the Texas League around June 1 of 1888, but left the team in less than two weeks.  The Dallas Morning News said he was released, The New Haven Register said he left Texas to be with his wife and go to work for his father-in-law, “(Lillie) promised her to settle down,” and planned on returning to baseball for the 1889 season.

He never had the chance to return to the game.  On September 10, 1888, the Lillie’s child was stillborn.  Two days later, a fire broke out in their home.  The Associated Press said:

“(Nellie) was making preparations for supper when the accident occurred…She had moved the gasoline stove too near the cooking stove and in filling the reservoir with gasoline some of it became ignited.  The flames at once enveloped her…(Lillie) entered at that moment or (she) would have been burned to death…Lillie did not notice his own condition until after he had summoned  a physician.”

Mrs. Lillie lingered for nearly three weeks before dying of her injuries on October 4.  Lillie, who had attempted to remove his wife’s burning clothes, had his hands burned “down to the bone,” and initial reports said he’d have to have some of his fingers amputated.  There’s no record of how well his hands recovered, but he never played baseball again.

He stayed in Kansas City and according to The Kansas City Star “managed (Nellie’s) estate.”  Within two years he would contract typhoid fever, and he died November 9, 1890.  The Star said his last words were to a friend at his bedside:

“I am afraid, Charlie, it is three strikes and out.”

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