Tag Archives: Jack O’Connor

“Yet, not one of them can Play Ball like Wallace”

3 May

Jack O’Connor needed to vent.  The St. Louis Browns manager had just led his club to one of the worst seasons in major league history—a 47-107 record.

 

oconnorcoke

1910 Coca-Cola ad featuring O’Connor

 

Having just piloted a team that batted .218—the leading hitter was 36-year-old Bobby Wallace, who hit .258, and whose best pitcher, Joe Lake, posted an 11-17 record, O’Connor had reached a few conclusions about the game.  He told a reporter for The St. Louis Republic:

“The only thing every free-born American, with a constitution and public schools, thinks he can do is to play ball and manage a ball club.  Yet playing ball and managing ball clubs are two of the most highly specialized professions in the world.”

O’Connor said of the second-guessers:

“Of some 10,000 boys and men who are playing ball one way or another not 50 can play one position well enough to be called first-class ballplayers.

“One million young Americans see (Ty) Cobb play ball every year; yet not one of them can even imitate him.

“All that Walter Johnson, the greatest of pitchers, has is speed.  Now any strong-armed young man has speed.  Yet in 10,000,000 strong-armed young men not one has speed like Johnson has.

“How do you figure it?

“I guess that 10,000,000 young men and at least 100,000 professional ballplayers have seen Wallace perform in the 17 years he has been playing. Yet, not one of them can play ball like Wallace. Not one can even throw like him.”

And, no doubt, with the Browns’ .218 team batting average on his mind, O’Connor said:

“Batting is simple.  How many boys and men have seen Lajoie in the past 15 years—yet why can’t some one of them bat like Larry?

wallace

Bobby Wallace

And with a 47-win season on his mind, O’Connor concluded:

“I have always held that ballplayers are born, not made…so many smart fellows who have good heads and the ball instinct think that they can take good-looking athletes with legs and arms and eyes and make ballplayers of them.  The smart fellows make the mistake of imaging that the object of their solicitude has the head and instinct that they—the instructors—have…Many boys have everything but instinct.  That is the quality that is hardest to find.”

Despite the Browns’ horrible record, it was O’Connor’s role in trying to assist Lajoie, his former teammate, to win the batting title over Cobb on the final day of the season—ordering third baseman Red Corriden to play so far back that Lajoie bunted in five straight at-bats—that led to his firing.

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Baseball’s “Fountain of Youth”

16 Apr

John Brinsley “J.B.” Sheridan wrote for several St. Louis newspapers and The Sporting News from 1888-1929.

In 1917 he asked in The St. Louis Globe-Democrat:

“How is it that two young chaps come up together, one lasts a year or two, the other keeps on playing until he meets his sons and the sons of his pals coming up?”

Sheridan noted that Bobby Wallace was 43-year-old and in his twenty-fourth season–albeit as a reserve who appeared in just eight games for the Cardinals–while contemporaries like Jimmy Collins were out of the game for nearly a decade.  (Sheridan failed to mention or notice that Wallace was three years younger and started his professional career at age 20 while Collins began his at 23):

“Wallace has had a great career in baseball.  Only one man, A. C. (Cap) Anson has played longer than Wallace in the major leagues (Sheridan didn’t mention Deacon McGuire who also had Wallace beaten in years of service with 26—but he only played a total of 20 games in his final eight “seasons”) Anson did twenty-seven seasons, but had he not been his own manager he would not have done so many.  The old man could hit to the end, but for the last ten years of his major league career Anson was so slow and stiff that it is doubtful if any manager, other than himself would have employed him.”

Booby Wallace

Booby Wallace

Sheridan neglected to mention that “slow and stiff” Cap Anson managed to play in more than 1100 games in those last ten seasons when no manager “other than himself would have employed him,” and hit better than .330 in five of them–and would contradict himself on the “slow and stiff” part later in the same article.

He said, “Jack O’Connor did twenty-two years in the majors and was useful to the end.” (O’Connor only hit better .250 twice in his last ten seasons, never appearing in more than 84 games during that period)”

Despite the many misstatements, Sheridan’s article included interesting character sketches of several 19th and early 20th Century players (the veracity of those sketches can be judged with the above misstatements in mind).

“O’Connor was a really wonderful man.  He always retrained his diet during the playing season, but gave it full rein during the off season.  O’Connor had some appetite, too.  Usually he put on 20 pounds of extra weight every winter and regularly took it off every spring.  O’Connor must have taken off 500 pounds of flesh in the twenty-two years of his baseball playing.  He ate and drank like Gargantua during the winter, but denied himself like a monk in the spring, summer and fall.

(Napoleon) Lajoie, who did his 20 years [sic 21] in the majors, was like Wallace and (Jake) Beckley, an iron man.  (Lajoie) came from Breton peasant stock…The Bretons lived off the rocks and fishing grounds of Brittany, beaten by Atlantic spray long before the dawn of history.  No wonder then, that Lajoie is a hardy man (who) needed no conditioning in his youth.  He threw a couple, hit a couple and was ready for the fray.”

Sheridan said O’Connor’s former battery-mate Cy Young was “another physical wonder” despite being “rather soft and inclined to obesity later in life.”

“Cy never cared much for beer, the beverage of the old-time ballplayer, but he did not mind a little ‘red eye’ now and then In fact, the old boys say the farmer could pack more whiskey about him than any man they had ever known.”

As an example of Young’s prowess Sheridan said O’Connor told him a story about a night out in Boston:

“I drank beer while Cy drank whiskey. Drink for drink with me, but the last thing I remembered that night was that Cy put me to bed.

“I got up the next morning looking for sedlitz powder and something cooling.  I got the powder and I went into the breakfast room to get a grapefruit.  Then I saw Young behind a big plate of beefsteak with onions.  I turned and ran for the fresh air…Cy ate the entire steak, all the onions, a lot of bread and butter, stuck a strong cigar in his mouth and joined me on the sidewalk.

“What made you quit so early last night, Jack?  I was just getting’ goin’ good, when you said ‘Let’s go home I’m sleepy.’”

Jack O'Connor

Jack O’Connor

Sheridan compared Young’s career to that of Bill Dinneen:

“Dinneen came into the game seven [sic–nine] years after Young, was Cy’s teammate for four years [sic–five and part of a sixth] then dropped out (Dinneen played three more seasons with the St. Louis Browns, but his career was over after 12 seasons at age 33)

“Dinneen ate too well, and what ballplayers call the ‘old uric acid’ got him in the arm.  Yet Dinneen was one of the finest physical specimens that ever played ball.

“Some big fellows look strong but prove to be soft and unenduring.  Jack Chesbro was one of these.  Chesbro had three great years as a pitcher, and then broke down.  Jack was a soft-boned boy, with bad ankles and could not stick the route.

“Some men hold out in arm, legs and bone, but lose the keenness of vision essential to good batting, Willie Keeler, was one of these.  Keeler’s legs were good to the end and his arm worked all right, but his eyes went back on him and he had to quit…(Art) Devlin was one of the three great third basemen of his time.  He was a star, but endured only a few years.  Bad Digestion stopped him when he was at the height of his fame, and when he should have been good for many more years.”

Sheridan claimed to know the secret of a ballplayer’s longevity: the waters of Hot Springs, Arkansas.

“Each January 1 for twenty-two years saw (Young) at Hot Springs…O’Connor and (Jake) Beckley were always at Hot Springs, too.  These three men never missed a season at the Arkansas resort, while they were playing ball…Fred Clarke, too, was a great advocate of Hot Springs as a training resort, and the Pirates always fitted in there when Clarke was manager.  That took (Honus) Wagner, another long liver, there too.

“Anson always took a season at Hot Springs.  It is pretty well established that the Arkansas resort is the location of Ponce de Leon’s famous “Fountain of Youth.”  It may or may not be a coincidence, but the fact remains that Young, O’Connor, Beckley, Anson, Clarke, Wallace and Wagner, men who played from seventeen to twenty-two years of major league baseball, have all been frequenters of or habitues of Hot Springs.”

Cy Young, third from left, with Bill Carrigan, Jake Stahl and Fred Anderson at Hot Springs in 1912

 Cy Young, third from left, with Bill Carrigan, Jake Stahl and Fred Anderson at Hot Springs in 1912

The St. Louis sportswriter was certain the springs were a magic “Fountain of Youth, “and said he was only aware of one exception to his rule:

“Every iron man of baseball, except Lajoie, has been a yearly visitant.”

“The Deterioration in the Morale of the Players”

10 Jun

The Chicago Tribune had had enough:

“The deterioration in the morale of the players has been followed by deterioration in that of the spectators.  The latter relish the obscene profanity and the slugging exploits of the hulking brutes of the baseball field.”

The Tribune provided an “account of the more disgraceful of the many rows witnessed by spectators of baseball games,” during the just-ended 1899 season:

“May 2—Row at Pittsburgh—St. Louis game.  (Frank) Bowerman was put out of the game.  (Jack) O’Connor was taken off the field by the police, and the crowd chased umpires (Tom) Burns and (William) Smith.

May 19—Umpire Burns put (Giants’ William “Kid”) Gleason out of the game at St. Louis.  Gleason’s protest was so strong Burns forfeited the game to St. Louis.

June 1—Row on the grounds at Washington.

June 16—After a long wrangle and continued rowing on the field at New York.  Umpire Burns forfeited the game to Brooklyn.

June 16—(Fred) Clarke and (Clarence “Cupid”) Childs fight on the field in Louisville.

June 27—Rowdy action of players caused the crowd at the Pittsburgh game to mob umpire (James “Chippy”) McGarr.

July 18—(Tommy) Corcoran slugged (John) McGraw at Baltimore after being first attacked, and his action started a riot.

July 26—(Emerson “Pink”) Hawley, (Fred) Tenney, and (Hugh) Duffy engaged in a game of fisticuffs at Cincinnati.

Aug 16—(Oliver “Patsy”) Tebeau, McGraw and (George “Candy”) LaChance fought at Baltimore

Aug 18—Riot at Baltimore game started by (Tim) Donahue throwing a handful of dirt at (Steve) Brodie’s face.

Sept 1—Childs and Aleck Smith fight on the field in Louisville.

Sept 7—Riots at St. Louis and Brooklyn.

Sept 15—Clarke taken off Philadelphia grounds by police.

Sept 16—Chicago players jerked (Ed) Swartwood around the diamond because he called the game in the eighth inning on account of darkness.

Oct 9—(George “Win”) Mercer assaulted (Al) Mannassau at Washington.

Oct 14—(Jimmy) Scheckard assaulted umpire (John) Hunt, refused to retire, and Hunt forfeited the game to Brooklyn.”

Cupid Childs, repeat offender

Cupid Childs, repeat offender

Al Mannassau, assaulted by Win Mercer in Washington

Al Mannassau, assaulted by Win Mercer in Washington

In addition to the fans, The Tribune blamed team owners:

 “For the multifarious minor acts of blackguardism and rowdyism of which the hired men of the club owners were guilty there is no room.  It is sufficient to say that they, like the graver offenses mentioned above, did not wound the feelings or jar on the nerves of the proprietors of these baseball roughs.  Those proprietors seem to have come to the conclusion that audiences like these ruffianly interludes.”

Like hundreds of predictions before and thousands more to come over the years, The Tribune saw dire consequences for baseball given the current state of the game:

“There was a time when Chicagoans went to see the games of the Chicago club because they had a feeling of proprietorship in that organization.  That day is over.  Men do not go to see games out of local pride, nor do they go to see fine playing.  They go to listen to the language of the slums and to witness the horseplay and brutalities of the players or performers.  When these have lost their attractions professional baseball will disappear. “

“Bill Abstein Denies he is a Bonehead”

20 Feb

Pittsburgh Pirate owner Barney Dreyfuss and manager Fred Clarke felt all they needed to win a World Series was a first baseman.  Since winning the National League Pennant with Kitty Bransfield in 1903, only one Pirate first baseman hit better than .260 (Del Howard .292 in 1905).

In 1908 the Pirates finished second with four different first basemen, Harry Swacina, Alan Storke, Jim Kane and Warren Gill; none played more than 50 games, none hit better than .258 and they combined for 29 errors.

The man who took over in 1909, and was with the Pirates for their World Series victory, might have preferred to have never been given the job.

Bill Abstein had played eight games at second base and in the outfield for the Pirates in 1906, before returning to minors.

-Abstein had put up respectable, but by no means spectacular, numbers with the Shreveport Pirates in the Southern Association and Providence Grays in the Eastern League from 1906 to 1908—but as early as August of 1908 The Pittsburgh Press said he was the answer to the Pirates problem at first base:

“Fred Clarke is very eager to secure Bill Abstein from Providence.  Bill is rated the best first baseman in the Eastern League, and he would no doubt strengthen the Pirates where they are weak.”

When Abstein joined the Pirates before the 1909 season The Press said:

“The acquisition of bill Abstein has rounded our infield nicely.  He’s the best first baseman we have had in years and he certainly fits in nicely.”

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Abstein, Providence 1908

In a letter sent to Dreyfuss with his contract, Abstein told the Pirate owner:

“Fred Clarke will not have to worry about a first baseman after he sees this big German hustling around the bag.”

In keeping with his career performance, Abstein had a respectable season for the pirates.  He hit .260 and drove in 70 runs.  His 27 errors were only a slight improvement over 1908’s first baseman by committee.

The Pirates won 110 games and won the National League Pennant by six and half games over the Chicago Cubs and met the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.  The series would be the beginning of the end of Abstein’s Major League career.

09pirates

1909 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates, Abstein 11th from left.

Abstein struggled at the plate (6 for 29 with nine strikeouts) and in the field (5 errors total, 2 each in games 3 and 4).  The Pirates won the series in seven games, but despite the victory, Abstein quickly became the subject of ridicule in Pittsburgh.

An Associated Press article after the series said:

“During the games with Detroit Abstein appeared to forget all that he knew about base ball.  He ran the bases foolishly, made a number of costly errors, failed to hit and disobeyed orders.  In fact, his playing was worse than that of any other man on either team.  The other Pirates, seeing that Abstein was the ‘goat’ for the combination, kept up the cry against him…Before the series was ended many of the Pirates shunned Abstein and it was reported he would be traded.”

The Pittsburgh Press was less generous:

“Bill Abstein denies he is a bonehead and says baseball is largely a case of ‘if-you-can-get-away-with-it,’ well it’s a cinch that Bill couldn’t in the National League.”

The Pirates were unable to trade Abstein and finally put him on waivers.  He was claimed by his hometown St. Louis Browns.

Even though the Pirates had actually won the Worlds Series and even though Abstein was gone, that didn’t mean the Pirates, and The Pittsburgh Press, wouldn’t continue to pile on.

Barney Dreyfuss told The Associated Press shortly after Abstein was claimed by St. Louis:

“We have discarded the weakest offensive player we had—Abstein—and hope to improve the team by doing so.”

Dreyfuss also claimed:

“Fred (Clarke) told me as early as last June that we should get someone else for Abstein’s place in 1910, as Bill mixed up the team’s plays too frequently.”

The Pittsburgh Leader said:

“(Abstein) had deplorable batting weaknesses which the opposing pitchers were certain to fathom in time.”

The Pittsburgh Press was even less generous:

“Bill Abstein is reported to be making a hit with the Browns by his work in the spring practice.  Just wait about three months friends, before declaring Bonehead Bill a wonder.”

When the Pirates sold pitcher Vic Willis the St. Louis Cardinals in February of 1910, newspapers reported that Willis and Abstein had “engaged in a bitter fight,” during the series.

Abstein quickly wore out his welcome in his own hometown of St. Louis.  Abstein made 11 errors in 23 games at first base and hit .149; he was released on June 2, 1910.  It appears Abstein was no more popular with Browns Manager Jack O’Connor than he was in Pittsburgh.  O’Connor was quoted in The St. Louis Times in May:

“How did Abstein get away with it last year?  How could he make plays like he has been making for me and get away with it all year for Pittsburgh?  I never dreamed that some of the plays made by him were even possible.”

His Major League career over, Abstein returned to the minor leagues for seven seasons.  He had one above average year with the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League in 1914; in 202 games he hit .308, with 234 hits and 40 doubles.

Abstein moved on, Pittsburgh apparently did not.  For years, Pittsburgh newspapers took every opportunity to take a shot at the first baseman.  In 1915 The Pittsburgh Press, in an article about the revolving door the Pirates still had at first base–in the five post-Abstein seasons, the Pirates had four different starting first baseman–(emphasis theirs):

“No one will ever forget the way Bill did NOT play the bag in the Worlds Series.  In fact, Bill did NOT play the bag all the time he was stationed there.”

Pittsburgh finally seemed to move on by the time they won their next world Championship in 1925.  Abstein died in St. Louis in 1940.