World War II hero’s legacy lives on in Cooperstown
Though his major league playing career was brief, consisting of only a single game in 1939, O’Neill is best remembered today as one of only two major leaguers – along with Elmer Gedeon - who lost their lives during World War II.
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Born in Philadelphia, O’Neill was a three-sport star at nearby Gettysburg College, excelling at baseball, football and basketball. In March 1939, he was named a co-winner of Gettysburg’s prestigious Charles W. Beachem athletic award, based on outstanding athletic ability, commendable scholarship and Christian character.
So it came as no surprise when it was announced that the three-year catcher for the Bullets, affectionately nicknamed “Porky,” had signed a professional playing contract with the Philadelphia Athletics on June 5, 1939, soon after his graduation exercises were complete. O’Neill’s baseball coach at Gettysburg was Ira Plank, brother of Hall of Famer and fellow Gettysburg alum Eddie Plank.
Instead of heading to the minors upon his deal with the A’s – a franchise in the midst of a nine-year stretch of losing at least 90 games per season – the 22-year-old O’Neill immediately joined the major league club as a third-string backstop, replacing Hal Wagner, who was shipped to the minors. O’Neill was now playing behind starter Frankie Hayes, who would be named to his first of six All-Star teams that year, and veteran backup Earle Brucker.
Among these litany of events was “Connie Mack Day,” a contest pitting the Athletics – the first major league team to play on Doubleday – against the Penn Athletic Club of Philadelphia. The exhibition, an annual event in Philadelphia, was moved to Cooperstown in 1939 because of the centennial celebration. But unfortunately for fans of the 76-year-old “grand old man” of the game, the guest of honor wasn’t able to attend due to illness.
O’Neill, who after much disuse inactivity was now seeing playing time for the second straight day – albeit in an exhibition – was the starting catcher and batting eighth in the lineup. Recent Yale University graduate Eddie Collins Jr., the son of the 1939 Hall of Fame inductee, was also in the starting lineup in right field for the A’s.
In the Athletics’ 12-6 triumph on this swelteringly hot afternoon before an estimated 2,500 fans, with Pennsylvania Governor Arthur H. James the guest of honor, the big leaguers clubbed five home runs, including a memorable one by Bill Nagle that cleared the leftfield bleachers and landed in a tomato patch. O’Neill was 0-for-4 at the plate with four putouts and a passed ball in the nine-inning affair that took two hours and 15 minutes.
According to The Otsego Farmer, a local Cooperstown weekly newspaper, O’Neill played a small part in a noteworthy event: “During the fourth inning, a foul ball hit by O’Neill of the A’s came over the net into the stand and hit little Robert Stanley Johnson on the head. A boy in front of the lad got the ball but quickly gave it to ‘Bobby.’ Our hat is off to the boy who caught the ball and gave it to the boy who was hit.”
During the summer of 1939, while O’Neill was still on the roster of the A’s, it was reported that the Darby (Pa.) High School grad was named head football coach and assistant basketball and baseball coach at Upper Darby Junior High School. And this was where he remained until America’s involvement in World War II.
In September 1942, O’Neill had enlisted in the Marine Corps and entered Marine Officers’ Training School, trading in his familiar baseball togs for a military uniform. Lieutenant O’Neill would later receive the Purple Heart as the result of a 1944 shrapnel wound in Japan. After returning to duty, the former big league baseball player received a fatal injury on March 6, 1945 in Iwo Jima, Japan, at the age of 27. It wasn’t until April that O’Neill’s wife Ethel received from the War Department killed in action.
In a heartfelt 1945 letter currently stored at Gettysburg College, O’Neill’s mother replies to her son’s college football coach extending condolences.
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum