The 100 Greatest Cardinals: 31-40
NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 30: TIP O’NEILL
Three of the 15 major league players to win baseball’s triple crown have yet to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
One of them is Miguel Cabrera, the most recent to lead his league in batting average, home runs and RBIs over a single season. But he’s still under contract with the Detroit Tigers through 2025 and will have to wait out the standard five years of retirement before he’s eligible.
Paul Hines was the first to win the triple crown in 1878 as an outfielder for the Providence Grays. That was back in the day when four homers and 50 RBIs could still lead the league. He’s not enshrined at Cooperstown either.
And then there’s James Edward “Tip” O’Neill, a Canadian pitcher-turned-outfielder who authored one of the finest seasons for one of the most dominant teams of the era.
In 1887, the “Woodstock Wonder” won the American Association triple crown by batting .435 with 14 home runs and 123 RBIs. He also established new major-league records for on-base percentage (.490), slugging percentage (.691), hits (225), runs scored (167), doubles (52), and total bases (357). His 19 triples and 1.180 completed his clean sweep of statistical categories.
O’Neill led the St. Louis club, which was still known as the Browns, to its third straight pennant that year and did it again the following season with his second batting title.
A .326 career average, four pennants, a World Series championship, the second-highest single-season batting average of all time, and a feat only 14 other players have so far duplicated seem like the makings of a solid Hall of Fame resume.
Could it be, then, that a series of bad calls by an umpire in the fall of 1887 is what’s keeping O’Neill from Cooperstown?
St. Louis player-manager Charlie Comiskey had lured O’Neill away from the New York Gothams (later known as the Giants) to replace ambidextrous pitcher Tony Mulane in 1884. Though he got off to an 11-4 start, an arm injury forced Comiskey to move O’Neill into the outfield. He never pitched again.
O’Neill batted .350 the next season to help the Browns win their first American Association championships and tie the Chicago White Stockings (later the Cubs) in a seven-game World Series.
That’s right. The 1885 World Series finished in a 3-3-1 tie and under a considerable cloud of controversy.
Darkness stopped Game 1 in the eighth inning with the score knotted at five runs apiece. Game 2 at St. Louis’ Sportsman’s Park was stopped in a state of confused chaos.
The hometown cranks and Comiskey had already been riled by a series of questionable calls by umpire Dave Sullivan, who was from Chicago. Their fervor reached its boiling point in the sixth inning.
Chicago put a runner on third base with two outs, trailing the Browns, 4-2. White Sox slugger Mike “King” Kelly hit a ground ball to third baseman Bill Gleason who made a clean throw to first to get the forceout “by at least 10 feet,” so reported the Chicago Tribune.
Inning over? Disaster averted? No.
Sullivan, anticipating the throw would go home to prevent the run from scoring, wasn’t watching first and blindly called Kelly safe, which set off a 15-minute argument. When play resumed, Kelly stole second and scored the tying run on a single by Cap Anson.
Two batters later, with two White Sox on base, Ned Williamson chopped a dribbler down the first-base line that Sullivan initially ruled foul. As players sometimes do, Comiskey played it safe and completed the play with a casual throw to his second baseman, Sam Barkley, who was covering first. Seeing that Williamson had beaten Comiskey’s throw down the line, Sullivan dismissed his own foul-ball call and ruled the runner safe at first as Fred Pfeffer crossed the plate with the go-ahead run.
Under vehement protest from Comiskey, Sullivan again reversed his call, deciding the ball landed foul after all and that the pitch should be replayed. Kelly, Anson and the rest of the White Sox bench entered the debate and, intimidated by the charge of Chicago players, Sullivan kowtowed once again and reversed his call.
The Tribune reported that 200 angry fans spilled onto the field and that Sullivan had to be whisked away by police to the safety of a hotel room. And it’s from there that he ruled the game a forfeit to Chicago since, he claimed, Comiskey pulled the Browns from the field.
A federal judge refused to undermine the dignity of his court by ruling on such trivial matters as baseball, though Browns owner Chris von der Ahe would continue to claim the championship for St. Louis. The players agreed to end the squabble by splitting the winner’s bonus equally.
This brings this story back around to O’Neill.
In 1886, the year prior to winning the triple crown, he batted. 328/.385/.440 with 28 doubles, 14 triples, 106 runs scored and a league-best 107 RBIs. Behind him, the Browns repeated as American Association Champions and went on to defeat the White Sox, 4-2, in a six-game World Series rematch.
Though O’Neill wrapped up his time in St. Louis with a .344 average, he and others among his American Association contemporaries have been shut out of the Hall of Fame by a general lack of familiarity among the voters. More precisely, their credentials have been dismissed by a perception that the so-called “Beer and Whiskey League” was inferior to the rival Senior Circuit.
That perception might not have persisted had St. Louis held to win that controversial Game 2, some baseball historians have argued. The victory would have given the Browns two championships in four World Series against NL opponents and, therefore, may have bolstered the competitive credibility of the American Association as well as O’Neill’s Hall of Fame worthiness.
O’Neill died 21 years before the baseball shrine was established in Cooperstown. He’s still remembered in his native Canada, however, where municipal baseball fields in Woodstock and Springfield, Ontario still bear his name.
Each year, the Canadian Hall of Fame recognizes the top native baseball player in Major League Baseball with the Tip O’Neill Award. Winners include the likes of former Cardinals outfielder Larry Walker and seven-time winner, Joey Votto of the Cincinatti Reds.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1885-89, 91
.344/.406/.490 with Browns | 2x batting champ | Triple Crown ‘87 | WS ring | 25.4 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.81