Canada is not really famous as a hotbed of baseball. It’s much more noted for hockey. But over the century and a half of Major League Baseball, there have been a number of quality players from Canada. Tip O’Neill was one of the best.
For Americans “Tip O’Neill” conjures up the political leader of the 1970s and 1980s. He was from Massachusetts and served as Speaker of the House. According to my research, his dad was a baseball fan and his nickname for his son Thomas was “Tip” in honor of the Woodstock Wonder.
James O’Neill (the ballplayer, not the politician) was born in 1858 in Springfield, Ontario, Canada which is near Woodstock (and let’s admit it, “Springfield Wonder” just doesn’t have the same ring). He was a natural and by 1878 was pitching for his local team, the Woodstock Actives (the family apparently had homes in both towns). He was good enough to get the attention of the New York Gothams, who signed him in 1883. He went 5-12 with a 4 ERA, walked more than he struck out, and hit all of a buck 97. Needless to say, he didn’t stick around.
The still struggling American Association (formed in 1882) was trying to establish itself as a true rival to the powerful National League in 1884. The team in St. Louis, the Browns (now the Cardinals), needed help and picked up O’Neill as both a pitcher and an outfielder. He went 11-4 as a pitcher, hit .276 (second on the team), and found himself becoming the regular left fielder. He blossomed during the next several seasons becoming one of the best players in the AA and helped lead his team to postseason play in 1885, ’86, ’87, and 1888. In 1886 he led the Association in RBIs. He was also adept at “tipping” balls for fouls until he got the pitch he wanted, leading to the “Tip” nickname.
His career year was 1887. He hit .435, had 14 home runs, and 123 RBIs to win the Association’s Triple Crown (the only Association player to win one). Additionally he led the league in doubles with 52, triples with 19, hits with 225, 357 total bases, and runs with 167. No other player in Major League history has ever led the league in all those categories in the same season. It was the first time someone had slugged 50 doubles. He also had 50 walks, which at the time were counted as hits, giving him an average of .492 (the .435 is without the walks and is now considered the official average for the season). His modern numbers included an OBP of .490, a slugging percentage of .691, an OPS of 1.180, and an OPS+ of 213. All led the league. He also hit for the cycle twice in the 1887 season.
He led the Association in both hits and average the next season, then continued to hit .300 or better for three more years. He never again had 50 doubles (his peak was 33). He had double figure home runs (10) and triple digit RBIs (110) once more each.
In 1890 he jumped to the Player’s League where he hit .302 and led the league in games played. When the league folded after one season, O’Neill went back to St. Louis for one last decent season, then finished his career in Cincinnati in 1892. He hit .250 and retired.
His numbers are good. For his career he hit .326, had an OBP of .392, slugged .458, for an OPS of .851 (OPS+ 144). He hit 52 home runs, 92 triples, and 222 doubles in 1385 hits (1947 total bases). He scored 879 runs and knocked in 757 in 1052 games. In postseason play he hit only .240, but had 5 home runs and 25 RBIs in a win, two losses, and a tied series.
After retirement, O’Neill stayed in baseball. He was President of the Western League and promoted baseball in Canada. He was killed in a streetcar accident 31 December 1915 in Quebec. He was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in the first class (1983) and the Hall’s award to the best Canadian ballplayer is named for O’Neill.
With the possible exception of Cy Young, every 19th Century player is obscure, especially Association players. Most fans don’t even know the American Association was ever a Major League. So O’Neill falls victim to the double problem of playing forever ago and playing for a league no one knows existed. Still he was a heck of a player and one I’d vote to send to Cooperstown (You know, you can make a pretty fair team out of non-Hall of Fame 19th Century players). He wouldn’t be my first choice (Deacon White would be) but he’d be way high up the food chain.