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Jim O’Rourke, Bridgeport native and Yale law grad, got first hit in National League

Jim O'Rourke statue

Editor’s Note:  The 2013 induction ceremonies into the National Baseball Hall of Fame took place on July 28th in Cooperstown, NY. Despite the storied history of the Hall, most of the followers of the game here in Connecticut are probably unaware that anybody from our state is included among its members. Yet there are three “old time” players and two executives enshrined there. This is the third in a series of columns for SportzEdge by Joel Alderman, paying tribute to these men from Connecticut for their contributions to baseball and our state.

Jim O’Rourke, a Bridgeport baseball legend, with a law degree from Yale, is credited with making the very first hit in the National League in 1876, and years later became the oldest player to take part in one of its games and the first to play in each of four decades. This past Sunday (July 28th) his memory was honored in ceremonies at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

jim_orourke1Many who have attended a game in the Ballpark at Harbor Yard, just off Exit 27 on the Connecticut Throughway, have probably seen a very handsome and realistic life-size statue of O’Rourke in baseball gear, without really knowing anything about the person whose likeness it represents.

Through this column, we hope to pass on to our SportzEdge readers some things to take pride in about this Connecticut native son who left an indelible mark in baseball and Bridgeport history.

Although he was elected in 1945 by the Committee on Baseball Veterans, there was no Hall of Fame ceremony for those chosen that year, due to wartime travel restrictions. His induction was ultimately formalized only last month in Cooperstown, NY, in front of an audience of 2,500 that included about fifty of his descendants. It was also seen by countless television viewers on the MLB (Major League Baseball) cable network.

O’Rourke was raised in Bridgeport from the time he was born there in 1852. While playing for the New York Giants he was accepted by the Yale Law School, even though he did not have an undergraduate degree. He negotiated a contract with a unique clause in which the Giants would pay his tuition. While studying law at Yale he also coached the college baseball team.[i] He graduated in 1887 and passed the Connecticut Bar exams a few months later. He thus became a lawyer, which would be his career after baseball.

His first and last games in the National League were historical on three counts:

1)    Playing for Boston in Philadelphia in the debut of the league, on April 22, 1876, O’Rourke singled to left field for the initial hit in National League history.

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Statue of Jim O’Rourke, outside of the Ballpark at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport. Photo courtesy: Susan Clinard of Clinard Sculpture Studio, Hamden.

2)    In 1903 at the age of 54 he was summoned by manager John McGraw of the Giants to return to the diamond after 27 years for one final appearance. He was behind the plate for all nine innings as the New York team clinched the pennant with a win over Cincinnati. To this day, he is the oldest player to take part in a National League game and, after going 1-for-4 at the plate, is still the oldest to hit safely in either the National or American League. (The only one older than O’Rourke was Satchel Paige, who was to come back to pitch a few innings when he was 59, although that was not in the National but the American League.)

3)    And he was the first to have played major league ball in four different decades, the 1870s, 1880s, 1890s and 1900s.

O’Rourke was born in 1850 of Irish immigrant parents from County Mayo. While working on the small family farm, he joined the Bridgeport Ironsides in 1866, and the following year moved on to the Unions, both youth teams. In 1868 he joined the semi-pro Stratford Osceolas. [ii]

Before the formation of the National League he played in the National Association with the Middletown Mansfields and the Boston Red Stockings. The unverified legend is  that the Boston manager, Harry Wright, urged O’Rourke to drop the letter “O” from his name because the Protestant backers of the team might not tolerate an Irish Catholic. The story has it that he stood on his principals and refused, “I would rather die than give up my father’s name. A million dollars would not tempt me,” he said ,according to his SABR biography. [iii]

In 1873 Boston was on an exhibition tour in England. While there O’Rourke won a throwing contest with a heave of 369 feet on the fly. [iv]

In addition to his baseball talents, he became known as “Orator Jim,” because of his eloquence and speaking ability, skills he put to good use in his later law career.

Although he was elected to the Hall of Fame 68 years ago, there was no ceremony then due to wartime travel restrictions. His plaque was on display at the Hall without benefit of an official induction.

This year he was included among twelve inductees who never had a ceremony and whose plaques were read to the audience by a returning Hall of Famer outside and in front of the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown. Barry Larkin, the ex-Cincinnati Reds shortstop, who entered in 2012, was chosen to deliver these words from his engraving:

JAMES H. O’ROURKE

“ORATOR JIM” PLAYED BALL UNTIL HE WAS PAST FIFTY, INCLUDING TWENTY-ONE MAJOR LEAGUE SEASONS.   AN OUTFIELDER AND CATCHER FOR THE BOSTON RED  STOCKINGS OF 1875, HE LATER WORE THE UNIFORMS OF THE CHAMPIONSHIP PROVIDENCE TEAM OF 1879, BUFFALO, NEW YORK AND WASHINGTON.

This was the first time since 1965 that there was no living person to enter the Hall of Fame. So officials decided it would a good opportunity to complete the process for the “Class of 1945.”

Jeff Idelson, the Hall’s president, said “I’m pleased that we’re finally able to implement our program of inducting 12 of our Hall of Famers, who never had that opportunity. . . It made sense to do it this year.”[v]

There was so much that O’Rourke accomplished, both in and out of baseball, that there are two books devoted to him.[vi]

He hit .274 for the 1888 league champion New York Giants, who were to defeat the St. Louis Browns, winner of the American Association, for the world championship. There was no American League at that time.

Primarily an outfielder, O’Rourke also played every other position, including pitcher and catcher. He had a career batting average of .311. He played in 1,999 major league games and finished with 2,643 lifetime hits.

After his National League career he returned to Bridgeport to practice law, but was not through with baseball. He had a brief stint as a National League umpire and also worked some college games. In 1896 he established the Naugatuck Valley League, later to become the Connecticut State League, that included a team he formed and played for, the Bridgeport Victors.

The last known time Orator Jim played was September 14, 1912. He was then president of the Connecticut State League, yet, at the age of 62 caught a full game for the New Haven Wings against the Waterbury entry.

The once-elegant house at 274 Pembroke Street in Bridgeport where the O'Rourke family once lived, as it looked shortly before it demolished in 2009.

The once-elegant house at 274 Pembroke Street in Bridgeport where the O’Rourke family once lived, as it looked shortly before it was demolished in 2009.

For many years the O’Rourke family and its descendants lived in a specially built Victorian style house at 274 Pembroke Street.  After the property was taken over by the city for the Bridgeport Landing project, a group was formed by Michael Bielawa of Woodbury, a baseball historian, author, poet and Community Relations Librarian for the Bridgeport Public Library.

Bielawa and others formed the appropriately named The First Hit, Inc. Its aim was to perpetuate the story of Jim O’Rourke, move his house to a field in the north end and convert it to a baseball museum. Unfortunately the drive for funds fell short and there were too many logistics to overcome. For a while First Hit, Inc. prevailed upon the city to let the house stand until it was the only one left on the block. Eventually the deteriorating and vandalized structure was demolished in 2009.

While the effort to preserve his house did not work out, another venture was quite successful. It took several years but Bielawa and his group raised nearly $70,000 and commissioned Hamden sculptor Susan Clinard[vii] to create the 900 pound bronze statue of O’Rourke referred to in the beginning of this column. It was placed on the plaza in front of the Ballpark at Harbor Yard and unveiled before a Bluefish game against the Long Island Ducks on August 27, 2010, with former baseball Commissioner Faye Vincent as the keynote speaker.[viii] The event commemorated the 160th anniversary of O’Rourke’s birth.

At the foot of the statue is an open book, also in bronze, on which is written one of O’Rourke’s most famous quotes: “Baseball is for all creeds and nationalities.” This was a belief he lived by,

“He was able to overcome the incredible prejudice he faced early on, and it later led him to sign Harry Herbert, the first African-American player in Bridgeport,” Bielawa told the New York Times.[ix] Herbert played for O’Rourke’s teams in the Connecticut State League for four years.

The dedication of the statue was not the first time the Bluefish had honored Orator Jim. On September 2, 2005, they held a James Henry O’Rourke Night. The first pitch was thrown out by Paul Conan, of Walden, NY, who is a great-great grandson of O’Rourke.

There is another memorial in Bridgeport, a small plaque on Seaview Avenue in Newfield Park. In O’Rourke’s time it was known as the Newfield Baseball Grounds, the home field of his Bridgeport Orators.

On January 8, 1919, O’Rourke died at age 68, just a week after contracting pneumonia. He is buried in the family plot at St. Michael’s Cemetery in nearby Stratford. He left a legacy as Bridgeport’s greatest baseball player and its only member of the Hall of Fame.

Next time you go to the Ballpark at Harbor Yard, why not pause for a few minutes to admire the detailed and highly accurate statue of James Henry O’Rourke? You might even look straight at it and think words such as: “Thanks, Jim. You helped make it possible for us today to appreciate the great game of baseball.”

N O T E S

 


i    Mike Roar, Orator O’Rourke, The life of a Baseball Radical; (Jefferson, North Carolina); McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005, 124-132

 ii   Bill Lamb, Society for American Baseball Research; SABR Baseball Biography Project, Jim O’Rourke

iii   Bernard J. Crowley; James Henry O’Rourke,Baseball’s First Stars (Orator Jim;” (Cleveland); SABR, 1996, 324

iv   The Boston Herald, August 30, 1874

v     Barry M. Bloom; Without living inductees, Hall to honor early greats; MLB.com;  July 27, 2013

vi    a) Michael J. Bielawa; From FarField to Newfield; The Baseball Dream of Orator Jim O’Rourke (Fairfield. Conn;     Audubon  Copy Shoppe; 1999;

b) Roar

vii    Phyllis A.S. Boros; Statue of Hall of Famer James O’Rourke to be unveiled Friday at Harbor Yard ballpark;         Connecticut Post; August 26, 2010

viii   Clinard Sculpture Studio, Eli Whitney Museum Barn, 920 Whitney Ave., Hamden, CT

ix     C.J. Hughes; Famous and Forgotten: A Baseball Legend From Bridgeport; The New York Times; August 18, 2004