Brooklyn Boro

Darby O’Brien almost had a career

October 27, 2023 William A. Gralnick
Head shot of writer William Gralnick
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September is a lean month for Sunshine Boys birthdays. I found but two choices. One was Johnny Podres. Like many on that wonderful 1955 team, Podres has been covered to his cuticles. What could I tell you that someone hasn’t already told you? Nada. Ah, but the other choice, now that person is almost virgin territory. So little is written about him that multiple websites are begging people to send them new information.

Here’s what I got. Some people are just “almosts.” Darby O’Brien almost wasn’t in September. He was born on the 1st day of the 9th month. He almost wasn’t part of Brooklyn, playing midwest semi-pro ball, though he did make it. When he did make it, there weren’t yet Dodgers in Brooklyn, they were the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, a team of great talent and renown. His almost had his15 minutes of fame, more like seconds. There were in an eulogy and it wasn’t even his.

Let’s unpack all of that. O’Brien was born Sept. 1st, 1863 in Peoria, Illinois. He was a Civil War baby. He must have had an unexceptional childhood and teenage years because finding information about him was like looking for hen’s teeth. He must have had a talent for baseball. He had grown into a strapping six-foot-one-inch young man, weighing in at 185 pounds. In a scratch semi-pro league he was spotted by a scout and on April 16th, 1887 he took the field for the New York Metropolitans. He batted and threw as a righty. He was a good outfielder and a good hitter. He was traded to the Brooklyn Bridegrooms and played outfield for them from 1888–1892. Yes, it was a short career, but hold on we’ll get to that.

In that short career, he posted solid numbers: In 709 games over six seasons, O’Brien posted a .282 batting average (805-for-2856) with 577 runs batted in, 20 home runs, 394 runs batted in, 321 stolen bases, and 231 base on balls. He finished his career with a .933 fielding percentage. The website, the Squander, added this.  (The Squander)

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In sports today, even in the minors, there is competent medical care. In the major leagues of most sports, a team of medical professionals is with the team and conducts regular med checks, and is quick to make a referral if something is off-kilter. Not so at the end of the 19th century. In 1893 O’Brien reported to camp with a cough, feeling weak and definitely out of sorts. When he reported to spring training for the 1893 season, the team found that he was too ill to play and sent him to Colorado to try to recover. They played a benefit game to raise money for him. By June 15 he was a goner, dead at the age of 29 from typhoid fever.

In the People Ask section of Google we get the answer to an “inquiring minds want to know” question. What would a guy like O’Brien have made? 

The weekly pay for players in 1885 ranged between $12 and $18. Pitchers and catchers earned the higher $18 salary while infielders were on the lower end and made $12. If you are an economist, or just curious, this will interest you. $100 in 1889 is equivalent in purchasing power to about $3,322.73 today, an increase of $3,222.73 over 134 years. The dollar had an average inflation rate of 2.65% per year between 1889 and today, producing a cumulative price increase of 3,222.73%.

Bottom line? For his less than a decade of baseball, O’Brien didn’t get rich.

The crowning lack of glory came in an obituary. It was run in the NY Telegraph and was for the “Babe Ruth” of the 1880s, Buck Ewing. This is how it read as printed by the newspaper:

The eulogy said, “as a matter of baseball history,” Ewing “probably made” the longest hit on record, in an 1889 game with the Cleveland Spiders.

“Cleveland’s left field fence was so far away from home plate that no one had ever batted the ball over it, and no one expected that a hit would go over it. ‘Darby’ O’Brien, long since dead, was pitching for Cleveland. He tried to fool Ewing with a low curve on the outside corner of the platter.”

“Buck swung with all his weight on the ball, and when it cleared the top board of that far away left field fence by so many feet that there was enough daylight to have prolonged the afternoon for another hour or so. The crowd in spite of its partisanship stood up and roared.

“The ball was found in the garden of a Cleveland millionaire hundreds of feet from the fence…The measures are in existence to this day, but there is little doubt that it was the longest hit ever made in the history of professional baseball. Also, New York won because of the hit.” — NY Telegraph/Baseball History Daily

But it turned out the Telegraph got it wrong. Darby O’Brien wasn’t pitching that day. John O’Brien was. For Darby, it was a good mistake in that he didn’t give up the homer that the eulogizer was crooning about.

Darby O’Brien, as we said in Brooklyn, “Coulda been a good one.” He went to the grave with good numbers that undoubtedly would have gotten better over another eight to ten years, had he only lived.

One thing for certain though, this sad story ends with a very Happy September Birthday to the 29-year-old master Darby.

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