Born James Edward O’Neill, the man later known simply as “Tip” was among the first Canadian born athletes to make his mark on the American pastime. A superb athlete, O’Neill began his professional baseball career as a member of the independent 1882 New York Metropolitans
. The following year O’Neill made his major league debut as a member of the 1883 New York Gothams
of the National League. Originally slotted as a pitcher, O’Neill struggled during his initial campaign with the Gothams, posting a record of 5-12 and an ERA of 4.07. In 1884 however, his promise began to show thru on the mound and at the plate. O’Neill went 11-4 in ’84, lowering his ERA to 2.68, and hitting a respectable .276 in 311 at bats. ’84 also marked the his first significant playing time in the field, as O’Neill logged 64 games in the outfield.
With a breakout campaign in 1886, Tip O’Neill showed himself as one the league’s top offensive performers. Leading the league in RBI with 109, O’Neill collected 190 hits, scored 106 runs, and finished the season with an impressive .328 batting average. As solid as was the ’86 campaign, it paled in comparison to that which O’Neill would produce in ’87, a season few since have approached. In just his second season of 500+ plate appearances (577), O’Neill dominated the offensive leader boards. His .435 batting average led the league and remains second only to the .439 mark logged by Hugh Duffy in 1894. “The Woodstock Wonder” also led his league in Runs (167, tied for 4th all-time), Hits (225), HR (14), RBI (123), and OPS (1.180, 26th all-time), secured the Triple Crown, and threw in 30 stolen bases for good measure. Although O’Neill put together a run of four straight .300+ campaigns (1888-1891), he never again approached the dominance displayed in 1887. After a disappointing stint in 1892 with the Cincinnati Reds O’Neill called it quits having amassed (1385) hits, (879) runs scored,and a lifetime batting average of .326. (all stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com
For all the impressive numbers generated during Tip O’Neill’s 10 year career, there remains one off the field incident which most resonates in review of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee (1993). Exhibition style games were a big source of revenue for 19th century baseball clubs, and the St. Louis Browns, like so many others, played their fair share. There is one infamous game however, left unplayed, which is most remembered today. From the New York Times, September 12th 1887:
The World Champion St. Louis Browns refuse to play the Cuban Giants. Prior to this there have mainly been dissensions by only a player here or there.
The Browns were in open revolt on 9/11. Von der Ahe had arranged for the Browns to play the Cubans on 9/12 at West Farms, near New York. He was promised a big guarantee. Over 15,000 were expected to addend. Von der Ahe booked the train fares and went to dinner. He was approached there by Tip O’Neill who laid the following letter on the table.
To Chris Von Der Ahe, Esq.:
Dear Sir: We, the undersigned members of the St. Louis Baseball Club, do not agree to play against negroes tomorrow. We will cheerfully play against white people at any time, and think, by refusing to play, we are only doing what is right, taking everything into consideration and the shape the team is in at present.
W.A. Latham, John Boyle, J.E. O’Neill, R.L. Caruthers, W.E. Gleason, W.H. Robinson, Charles King, Curt Welch.
Von der Ahe arose from his chair and found the players huddled in a corridor. When Von der Ahe demanded to know the meaning of the letter, Yank Robinson sneaked to the rear of the crowd, Silver King opened his mouth but words couldn’t come out and even Arlie Latham, whose jaws are always moving, couldn’t get a word out. Von der Ahe granted the players’ request though.
According to J. Thomas Metrick, as published in Chris Von Der Ahe & the St. Louis Browns (pg 72):
The night before the game (scheduled exh vs the all-black New York Cubans), as Von Der Ahe was enjoying a meal at a hotel in Philadelphia, Tip O’Neill stopped by to place a letter on the owner’s table and then hustle away from the scene.
After from retiring from in 1892 Tip O’Neill went onto help bring baseball to Montreal in 1898 in the form of the Montreal Royals of the Eastern League. James Edward O’Neill died of a heart attack on December 31st 1915, and is remembered to with the annual presentation of the Tip O’Neill Award to the Canadian baseball player “judged to have excelled in individual achievement and team contribution while adhering to the highest ideals of the game of baseball.” BaseballHallofFame.ca. Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.