Tommy O'Brien

This article was written by Bill Nowlin

Outfielder Tommy O'Brien filled in admirably as a backup for the Pittsburgh Pirates during the World War II years of 1943 through 1945, but with Ralph Kiner coming up in 1946, the Pirates sent him to Hollywood in the Pacific Coast League. He returned to the big leagues with the Boston Red Sox in 1949 and 1950. In all, he spent 16 seasons playing professional baseball.

O'Brien was born in Anniston, Alabama, on December 19, 1918, to native Alabamans Edward Cornelius O'Brien and Margaret "Maggie" Teresa (Peacock) O'Brien. Her parents came from neighboring Georgia; Edward's came from Ireland. Anniston was known for its iron and steel foundries and neighboring Fort McClellan. Edward O'Brien worked as a machinist in one of the iron foundries. Tommy was the third of the couple's seven children.

Tommy was right-handed and grew to 5-feet-11, listed at 195 pounds. He attended Mechanicsville elementary school and Anniston High School. After graduating, he was recruited by the universities of Alabama and Tennessee, both schools paying for him to visit their respective campuses. Meanwhile, he was working for a chemical company in the city, when he was approached by a Red Sox scout who talked with him and urged him to talk things over with his parents about signing and let him know the following day. At 1 a.m., the scout got a call from the football coach at the University of Alabama, complaining that the Red Sox were taking away O'Brien, who they hoped to use as their tailback. Roger Birtwell of the Boston Globe wrote, "The Red Sox owed a gentleman's debt to the University of Alabama. The Sox had been tipped off that a freshman named Jim Tabor, a promising baseball prospect, was having trouble with his studies, and mightn't be able to return the next autumn."[1] The scout reportedly backed off. Later, the scout read that O'Brien had chosen the University of Tennessee, where he played football and baseball.

During the summer of 1939, he played semipro baseball with the Goodyear team in Gadsden, Alabama, defending at third base and batting .425.[2] He also married Jewel Morrison late in June.

The Tennessee Volunteers played the USC Trojans, and lost, at the Rose Bowl in January 1940, while O'Brien was just starting his freshman year.

He spent only part of one year at Tennessee. He'd played well at both baseball and football and was said to have received an offer to sign with a pro football team "but declared that he had selected baseball as his business and intended to stick to it."[3] He had missed much of the springtime battling an attack of appendicitis, and was apparently in a precarious position academically ("he decided he couldn't pass his work," said football coach Bob Neyland) and since he would likely not be eligible to play football, he cast his lot with professional baseball.[4]

Already married, he quit school in the springtime and on May 6, 1940, signed with the Class A-1 Atlanta Crackers (Southern League). It soon became clear he needed to put in some time in Class-B ball, so he was optioned to the Anniston Rams (Southeastern League), where he played in 84 games, batting .307 with 10 home runs. He also got into 20 games with the Sally League teams in Charleston and Savannah (Atlanta had a working agreement with Savannah). In August, the O'Briens had their first child, a daughter.

In 1941 he put in a full season for the Savannah Indians, batting .285 with 11 homers. Atlanta brought him back for all of 1942, and he got into 129 games, batting .261 with six home runs and 59 RBIs. Pittsburgh scouts saw something in him and believed he might actually hit for a higher average in the big leagues. That he did.

First, however, he thought about giving up baseball. During the offseason he worked in an ordnance plant at Anniston. On April 15, after spring training, he suddenly decided he would return to baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates purchased his contract from Atlanta. He was obviously in shape, because he stepped right into play, debuting on April 24 at Wrigley Field and singled pinch-hitting for manager Frankie Frisch. Three days later, he pinch-hit in a game against Cincinnati that was 1-1 heading into the bottom of the eighth. The Pirates had scored once to take the lead. O'Brien came up with the bases loaded and singled to left field, driving in two insurance runs. He struck out on the 28th, then got his first start on the 29th, playing right field and going 1-for-3. . O'Brien had come to the Pirates on a 30-day trial basis; on May 22, they elected to keep him.[5]

O'Brien got into 89 games and hit for a .310 average. Only 16 National Leaguers hit .300 or better in 1943, and O'Brien was one of them. His best day was June 6, a Forbes Field doubleheader against the New York Giants. O'Brien was 5-for-5 in the first game, and 2-for-3 in the second, with one run batted in during each game. The seven base hits were all hit in successive at-bats. He was something of a Giant killer. On July 27 he was 3-for-5 with three RBIs against New York. He hit .353 with eight RBIs against the Giants in 1943

He was back for 1944, but during spring training received word from his draft board to report for a pre-induction physical in April. On May 16 he received the word that he had been rejected for military service because of a knee injury. He himself said he hadn't been aware of it, that it didn't affect his playing baseball, and that it must have occurred when he was playing football for Tennessee.[6]

He did almost nothing but pinch-hit until late May 1944, when he filled in for several games in left field. Then it was back to pinch-hitting, and finally a substantial amount of work in right field. He appeared in 85 games, batting .250 but with a .343 on-base percentage that was comparable to his .352 in 1943. He drove in 20. On May 17, his sixth-inning pinch-hit triple with three on gave the Pirates a rain-shortened 7-5 lead over the Dodgers. Jim Russell then drove him in with a single, before the game was called. July 14 was a fun day for him at Wrigley; he homered twice in the same game, two of the five homers he hit in his three seasons with Pittsburgh. And on September 23, in the top of the 13th at the Polo Grounds, he did in the Giants again with a pinch-hit, two-run single; the Pirates won, 6-4.  The hit gave Rip Sewell his 20th win of the season.

O'Brien only appeared in 58 games in 1945, missing most of June and July due to surgery for a recurrence of his appendicitis (he'd had a flareup in August 1943, too). When he did play, he hit for a .335 batting average (.374 on-base percentage) and drove in 18 runs.

In March 1946, he was sent on option to the Hollywood Stars; the Pirates had a working agreement with the Stars.[7]

He didn't exactly batter down Coast League fences, as some had thought he would. O'Brien hit .276 in 119 games with 17 homers and 73 RBIs.

As part of a three-way deal that brought Wally Westlake to the Pirates from Oakland, O'Brien was purchased by the St. Louis Cardinals and in 1947 was placed with the Rochester Red Wings in the Triple-A International League. He could only muster a .239 batting average, with five home runs.

In 1948, though, he blossomed with Birmingham. The Red Sox had bought rights to his contract from the Cardinals and placed him with the Barons in Birmingham. He had career highs in base hits (206), batting average (.359), homers (19), and runs batted in (137).

In September, the Red Sox bought O'Brien's contract. The Barons played the Fort Worth Cats in the postseason Dixie Series, dropping the first game and then winning four in a row. O'Brien's solo home run in the top of the ninth was the icing on the cake of their 3-1 win.

With Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, and Al Zarilla as the main three men in Boston's outfield, O'Brien was limited to the role of backup outfielder. He played in 49 games, about a third of them in pinch-hitting roles, but never caught fire. He hit for a .224 average, with 10 RBIs.  For the second year in a row, the Red Sox lost the pennant on the very last day of the season.

O'Brien began the 1950 season with the Red Sox, and got into nine games with a couple of two-hit games early on, but then went six games in a row without a hit (which left him hitting .129). The Washington Senators thought they could use him as part of a platoon against left-handed pitchers and on May 8 traded Clyde Vollmer to Boston for Merrill Combs and O'Brien.

For the Senators, he appeared in just three games in May, with one hit in nine at-bats. So how is it that he wound up playing in 93 games for Boston's Triple-A ballclub at Louisville?  It was just one of those things. Arthur Siegel of the Boston Traveler explained: "The Sox wanted a favor...They wanted to waive Tom O'Brien to Louisville, but figured that the clubs wouldn't waive if the Sox asked…After all, O'Brien might be big league timber…But if the Senators asked waivers, then O'Brien definitely was minor league stuff…[Senators owner Clark] Griffith consented…Just to make the whole affair legal, Griffith would send Vollmer to Boston, on the grounds that he would be replacing Outfielder O'Brien…Vollmer wouldn't help, but, on the bench, he couldn't hurt. So Vollmer came to Boston…Sat on the bench."[8]

With Louisville, O'Brien hit .263, homered 15 times, and drove in 49 runs.

Tom O'Brien played five more years in the minor leagues. In 1951 he played for Louisville again, batting .277 in 110 games. He returned to the Southern Association and played in 1952 and 1953 for the Birmingham Barons. He hit .315 with 19 homers in 1952, but appeared in half as many games in 1953, with a .254 average and seven home runs.

His final two seasons were in Class-D baseball, in Orlando as a player/manager with the Orlando C.B.'s of the Florida State League, a Washington Senators farm team. He only inserted himself into nine games in 1954, hitting .348. In 1955 he played in 55 games and batted .373.  The team won the pennant both years. O'Brien definitely went out on top.

After baseball, O'Brien worked as a plant employee for General Electric in Anniston. He died in Anniston on November 5, 1979. He is buried in the city's Edgemont Cemetery.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed O'Brien's player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

[1] Roget Birtwell, "The Tale of O'Brien," unidentified 1949 article in O'Brien's player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

[2] Associated Press, "O'Brien Signs with Crackers," Knoxville News-Sentinel, May 6, 1940: 9.

[3] "Pirate Personalities," Pittsburgh Pirates press notes, 1946.

[4] Bob Wilson, "Sport Talk," Knoxville News-Sentinel, May 9, 1940: 18.

[5] United Press, "Pirates To Keep Rookie Gardener Tom O'Brien," The Repository (Canton, Ohio), May 22, 1943: 7.

[6] United Press, "O'Brien Is Rejected for Military Service," Macon Telegraph, May 17, 1944: 9.

[7] Al Wolf, "Stars Acquire Two Players," Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1946: 7.

[8] Arthur Seigel, "Vollmer, Marshall Show Importance of Manager," Boston Traveler, July 25, 1951: 25.  Suddenly, and unexpectedly, Vollmer had a burst of power and went home run happy with the Red Sox in 1951, hitting 13 homers in one month.