Steve O'Neill, and three of his brothers, escaped a life in the coal mines by playing Major League Baseball. Baseball Almanac likes to take a look "beyond the stats" and we hope you enjoy the following historical baseball article about Steve O'Neill:
A NICE GUY WHO WON BALLGAMES
Nice Guys Finish Last is the name of Hall-of-Fame manager Leo Durocher’s autobiography and is a reference to things Leo said in a 1946 interview. Skipper of the first-place Dodgers at the time, “The Lip” acknowledged what a nice bunch of guys the Giants were but also noted that his cross-town rivals were in 7th place and sinking.
It’s questionable whether or not Durocher actually uttered the phrase, “Nice guys finish last” but Leo’s point was clear; he didn’t buy the conventional wisdom that if a team’s players were model citizens and the clubhouse was a bastion of peace and harmony, wins would pile-up like one-notes rolling off the presses at the Treasury Department.
Durocher’s disdain for then-Giant’s manager Mel Ott’s laid-back, easy-going style was also evident. As a manager, Leo was head S.O.B. and admired players who pushed the limits of baseball civility. Subsequently, his teams were usually among the most-raucous in the major leagues.
Bean balls. High hard tags. Large, sweeping take-out slides. Brawls. Vicious bench-jockeying. Umpire-baiting.
Durocher won a lot of games as a manager (2008 in a 24-year career), so it’s hard to argue, isn’t it? Being a jerk has its’ benefits, right?
Perhaps, but being a “nice guy” in the baseball world doesn’t necessarily doom a manager to the nether-world of perpetual second-division finishes. A case-in-point is the career of Steve O’Neill.
Stephen Francis O’Neill was born in 1891 and grew-up in the coal mining region of northeast Pennsylvania. O’Neill’s ability to play baseball kept him out of the coal mines as it did his brothers Jack, Mike and Jim. All four of the O’Neill boys logged time in the major leagues with Steve’s career being the most successful.
Steve O’Neill played 17 years in the majors with stops in Cleveland, Boston (AL), New York (AL), and St. Louis (AL). Used almost exclusively as a catcher, O’Neill appeared in 1,590 games and had a career batting average of .263. He was one of the stars of the 1920 World Series, hitting .333 for the champion Indians.
A fine defensive catcher and a patient handler of pitchers, O’Neill turned to managing after his playing days were over. Beginning in 1929 as a manager in the International League, O’Neill gained a reputation for patiently cultivating young players. When the Indians beckoned him to pilot their club in 1935, O’Neill stayed in the majors until his retirement in 1954.
O’Neill’s record in the big leagues was impressive; his all-time winning percentage was .559 (1,040 wins, 821 losses). As-a-matter-of-fact, O’Neill’s teams never had a losing record. Not bad for a guy Commissioner Ford Frick said didn’t have an enemy in baseball.
O’Neill’s managerial style was laid back and non-demonstrative. When he took over a mutinous Phillies club in 1952 from a martinet named Eddie Sawyer, O’Neill lifted the stringent rules and the club responded. The newly-relaxed Phils had the best record in majors the 2nd half-of-the season and had fans wondering “what-if” O’Neill had been skipper earlier.
“Stout Steve” may have been easy-going but he was no dummy who just happened to luck his way into managing some good teams. Ted Williams, who could be brutally honest, said O’Neill was “the finest manager in Major League baseball.” O’Neill managed the Red Sox in 1950 and ’51, a talented team that had the misfortune of being in the same league as the powerful Yankees at the height of their dynasty.
O’Neill’s “soft touch” helped nurture youngsters Lou Boudreau, Bob Feller, Hal Newhouser and Robin Roberts into Hall-of-Fame stardom. The fiery Newhouser, in particular, benefited from having O’Neill as a mentor. A combative sort, The Tigers star had a tendency to squabble with umpires, never a good idea for someone who needs a fair strike zone.
Leo Durocher would have probably choked at the sentiment, but O’Neill was spotted by a sportswriter helping to coach a little league team a few days after getting let go by the Phillies in 1954 (the Phils were in 3rd at the time and would fall to 4th after O’Neill’s departure).
Durocher would have also probably bristled at the fact that “Nice Guy” Steve O’Neill’s lifetime winning percentage was higher than his (.559 to .540). Leo did manage longer, giving him more of a chance to lose more games but O’Neill’s 19-year managerial career was substantial and no flash-in-the-pan.
In addition, Steve O’Neill’s winning percentage as a manager was better than Hall-of-Famers Casey Stengel (.508), Sparky Anderson (.540), Whitey Herzog (.532), Miller Huggins (.555) and Connie Mack (.486).
So Leo, sometimes nice guys don’t finish last. Sometimes, pleasant fellows like Steve O’Neill win a lot of ballgames. Sometimes they even touch people in ways that go beyond the stadium. When O’Neill passed away in 1962, it was reported that dozens of grown men wept at his funeral over the loss of a person they cared for deeply.
There is a place in baseball for nice guys.
Guys like Steve O’Neill.
A Baseball Almanac exclusive written by Yahoo! contributor Chris Williams.
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