Top 100 Indians: #62 Steve O'Neill

Steve O'Neill - Library of Congress

There's an old saying that goes "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," and that saying has been commandeered many times when it comes to baseball players. If a hitter can't lay off the breaking ball down and away at age 23, he's not going to be able to do it at age 27. But no saying is completely ironclad, and this player's career is one of the exceptions to that axiom.

Stephen Francis O'Neill

Catcher, 1911-1923

Height: 5'10" Weight: 165 lbs

Throws: Right Bats: Right

How Acquired: Purchased, August 20, 1911: from Philadelphia Athletics,

Left Via: Trade, January 7, 1924: Traded with Bill Wambsganss, Dan Boone and Connolly to the Boston Red Sox for George Burns, Chick Fewster and Roxy Walters

O'Neill was born in Minooka, Pennsylvania, a town just outside Scranton. Steve was one of thirteen children in his family, and had to quit school when he was ten to go work in the coal mines. But he and his brothers (three of whom would also play in the majors) would play baseball on the weekends, and that turned out to be his ticket out of the mines.Steve's big chance came when his older brother Mike, who was managing Elmira (NYPL), got him on his club as a backup catcher. Steve, who was 18 years old, impressed scouts from the Philadelphia A's, and he signed with Connie Mack's club.

O'Neill was farmed out to Worcester of the New England League in 1911. He was then sold to Cleveland after catching the eye of former A's player Harry Davis, who had just been hired manage the Naps. The 20-year-old O'Neill beat out incumbent Ted Easterly for the starting job despite not hitting a lick. But Steve's defensive covered many offensive sins, and so O'Neill held down the starting job. He was known throughout the AL as having an arm you didn't try to run against, and given the style of play at that time, being able to slow or even stop the other club's running game was a huge deal. He also was adept at blocking pitches in the dirt, making a curve ball a possibility with a runner at third base.

O'Neill and Ray Chapman broke in to the majors at about the same time, and they became good friends. O'Neill was a regular in Chapman's vocal quartet, was at his bachelor party, and was the butt of some of Chapman's practical jokes. For instance, one spring training in New Orleans, Chapman goaded him into trying to hit a golf ball over the fence at Pelican Park. Unbeknownst to O'Neill, Chapman pulled out a fake ball, and when Steve swung from his heels, the fake was obliterated.

When Tris Speaker became Cleveland's manager in 1919, the days of O'Neill getting by just on his defense came to an end. Speaker challenged the now 27-year-old catcher to have his hitting match his glove, and surprisingly, the words became reality. Speaker's advice? Pretty simple stuff:

"Well" Speaker said, "in the first place go up there figuring you'll get a hit, not that you won't. In the second, try to out think the pitcher. And in the third, stop swinging at bad pitches."

Now I think Speaker probably gave this advice to just about every slumping hitter on the club, but O'Neill took that advice to heart and became an all-around player after 7 seasons of being a one-dimensional player. In 1919 he hit .289/.373/.427, bumping his OPS over 150 percentage points. And that season wasn't a fluke; over the next three seasons, he produced an OPS+ of 121, 110, and 117 while being a full-time catcher.

One of those peak seasons was in 1920, a famous year in Cleveland sports history. It was of course the season when O'Neill's good friend Ray Chapman died after getting beaned by a pitch. O'Neill fainted during the viewing of Chapman's body, and supposedly got into a fight* with manager Tris Speaker before the funeral. But O'Neill and the rest of the club managed to recover to win the pennant and the franchise's first world championship. O'Neill at one point in time was behind the plate for 100 consecutive games; he played in 149 of the Indians' 154 games, something that boggles my mind.

O'Neill would continue his great run through the 1922 season, and would be dealt after a down 1923 campaign to the Boston Red Sox in the deal that brought George Burns back to Cleveland. Still only 32, O'Neill managed a .371 OBP despite only hitting .238. After a stint in the minors in 1925-1926, he returned to the majors with the St. Louis Browns in 1927. After a life-threatening car accident in 1928, his career was over at the age of 36, having caught 1532 games in the majors (29th all time).

After his playing days were over, O'Neill stayed in the game as manager, first managing in the minors, then taking over for Walter Johnson in Cleveland in 1935. During his 2.5 years with the Indians, his teams finished 3rd, 5th, and 4th. During his tenure as Tribe manager, the Indians signed a young catcher named Jim Hegan because Hegan's neighbor, former Indian Dewey Metiever, was a teammate of O'Neill's and arranged a tryout, thus linking the two longest-tenured catchers in franchise history.

O'Neill would also manage the Tigers from 1943-1948 (winning the 1945 World Series), the Boston Red Sox in 1950-1951, and the Philadelphia Phillies in 1952-1954 (marking the only time in his long major-league career that he'd been a part of a National League club). He retired from managing after the '54 season to live in Cleveland, his adopted home. He would do some scouting work, and also would work for the Cleveland Recreation Department. He died in 1962 at the age of 70.

*See the Jack Graney profile for more details.

Sources

1. The Pitch That Killed, Mike Sowell

2. Hit by Pitch: Ray Chapman, Carl Mays and the Fatal Fastball, Molly Lawless

3. Deadball Stars of the the American League, ed. David Jones

4. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James

Career Stats

Year Age Tm Lg G PA R H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
1911 19 CLE AL 9 33 1 4 1 0 0 4 3 .148 .281 .185 .466 30
1912 20 CLE AL 69 233 17 49 4 0 0 12 28 .228 .272 .247 .518 47
1913 21 CLE AL 80 253 19 69 13 3 0 10 24 .295 .329 .376 .705 104
1914 22 CLE AL 87 286 28 68 12 2 0 15 35 .253 .292 .312 .605 79
1915 23 CLE AL 121 426 32 91 14 2 2 26 41 .236 .293 .298 .590 76
1916 24 CLE AL 130 419 30 89 23 0 0 24 33 .235 .288 .296 .584 72
1917 25 CLE AL 129 428 21 68 10 2 0 41 55 .184 .272 .222 .494 47
1918 26 CLE AL 114 420 34 87 8 7 1 48 22 .242 .343 .312 .655 90
1919 27 CLE AL 125 463 46 115 35 7 2 48 21 .289 .373 .427 .800 119
1920 28 CLE AL 149 578 63 157 39 5 3 69 39 .321 .408 .440 .848 121
1921 29 CLE AL 106 405 39 108 22 1 1 57 22 .322 .424 .403 .827 110
1922 30 CLE AL 133 478 33 122 27 4 2 73 25 .311 .423 .416 .839 117
1923 31 CLE AL 113 407 31 82 12 0 0 64 34 .248 .374 .285 .659 75
CLE (13 yrs) 1365 4829 394 1109 220 33 11 491 382 .265 .348 .341 .689 91
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/18/2013.

Selected Awards/Leaders

AL MVP: 1922-6th ; 1913-24th

AL WAR Position Players: 9th, 1920-4.5

AL oWAR: 8th, 1920-4.3

AL dWAR: 4th, 1917-1.3; 7th, 1916-1.2; 8th, 1919-0.9; 10th, 1918-0.8; 243rd, Career-9.1

AL On Base Percentage: 6th, 1922-.423; 7th, 1921-.424; 10th, 1920-.408

AL 2B: 4th, 1919-35; 7th, 1920-39

AL Bases on Balls: 6th, 1922-73; 8th, 1920-69

AL Strikeouts: 6th, 1917-55

AL Hit By Pitch: 4th, 1918-7

AL Sacrifice Hits: 243rd, Career-130

AL Putouts as C: 2nd, 1915-556; 2nd, 1916-540; 2nd, 1919-472; 2nd, 1920-576; 3rd, 1918-409; 4th, 1917-446; 4th, 1922-450; 73rd, Career-5,967

AL Assists as C: 1st, 1915-175; 1st, 1918-154; 2nd, 1916-154; 4th, 1917-145; 4th, 1919-125; 4th, 1920-128; 4th, 1922-116; 5th, 1912-108; 4th, 1914-134; 3rd, Career-1,698

AL Errors as C: 1st, 1916-21; 1st, 1922-15; 2nd, 1919-14; 2nd, 1920-17; 3rd, 1915-24; 4th, 1914-24; 4th, 1923-14; 35th, Career-217

AL Double Plays Turned as C: 1st, 1914-22; 1st, 1916-36; 1st, 1917-19; 1st, 1919-16; 1st, 1920-20; 2nd, 1915-17; 5th, 1912-9; 5th, 1913-9; 2nd, Career-198

AL Caught Stealing Percentage: 2nd, 1913-49.0; 2nd, 1918-50.6; 3rd, 1919-49.6; 90th, Career-45.3

AL Range Factor/Game C: 2nd, 1915-6.36; 3rd, 1914-6.43; 4th, 1916-5.42; 4th, 1921-4.62; 5th, 1918-4.98; 5th, 1922-4.35

Cleveland Indians Career Leader

  • 27th WAR Position Players (20.7)
  • 30th oWAR (19.4)
  • 9th dWAR (8.6)
  • 13th Games Played (1365)
  • 22nd At Bats (4182)
  • 20th Plate Appearances (4829)
  • 20th Hits (1109)
  • t-36th Total Bases (1428)
  • 18th Doubles (220)
  • t-37th Triples (33)
  • t-30th Runs Batted In (458)
  • 18th Bases On Balls (491)
  • 38th Strikeouts (382)
  • 18th Singles (845)
  • t-35th Runs Created (496)
  • t-41st Extra Base Hits (264)
  • 17th Hit By Pitch (39)
  • 17th Sacrifice Hits (108)

Cleveland Indians Season Leader

  • t-30th On Base Percentage (.424, 1921)
  • t-32nd On Base Percentage (.423, 1922)

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