Orator Jim O’Rourke was 25 when he got the first hit in National League history on April 22, 1876. He got his last National League hit when he was 54 years old. Between those two hits, he earned the adoration of his fans, the loyalty of his fellow players, the enmity of his managers and a law degree from Yale University.
Irish ballplayers then had well-deserved reputations as drinkers, gamblers and brawlers, but Orator Jim was different. Off the field he studied law and fought for players’ rights. His eloquence earned him the nickname, ‘Orator Jim.’ According to his obituary:
Words of great length and thunderous sound simply flowed out of his mouth.
Orator Jim O’Rourke was born Sept. 1, 1850 on a farm in East Bridgeport, Conn., the son of Irish immigrants. His older brother John also became a ballplayer. When the boys weren’t helping run the farm, they played baseball.
Orator Jim joined the Bridgeport Unions at the age of 15. A year later he played for one of the region’s best amateur clubs, the Middletown Mansfields of Middletown, Conn. The team was named after the owner’s great uncle, General Joseph Mansfield, who was killed at the Battle of Antietam. The Mansfields went professional in 1872, but before Orator Jim signed on the team had to find someone to help his widowed mother with the farm chores. The Mansfields folded after one year, unable to compete professionally. Orator Jim went to play with the Boston Red Stockings, (later the Braves) in 1874.
Harry Wright, the Protestant owner of the Red Stockings, asked him to change his name to ‘Rorke’ or ‘Wright,’ because the Irish were so unpopular in Boston. Orator Jim refused, saying:
I would rather die than give up my father’s name. A million dollars would not tempt me.
It wouldn’t be the last time he tangled with management.
He helped the Red Stockings to two consecutive pennants in the old National Association. Then the league folded and the team joined the new National League in 1876 as the Red Caps. That year, Orator Jim held out for more money.
As Opening Day approached, the owners caved and Orator Jim signed for double his previous year’s salary – $1,600. He had just enough time to get to Philadelphia to hit a single off Lon Knight in the first inning for the National League’s first-ever hit.
His hitting and fielding helped the team to two more pennants in 1877 and 1878. In 1879, he jumped to the Providence Grays, which beat out the Red Caps for the pennant. The next year, Orator Jim decided to jump back to the Boston team, where his brother John was playing.
The two cleancut brothers soon became folk heroes to Boston’s Irish fans. The Chicago Tribune called them ‘two fastidious young men.’ When the team forced players to pay for their own uniforms, the ‘O’Rourke fan club’ came up with the money for the brothers.
In 1881, Orator Jim went to the sad-sack Buffalo Bisons as player-manager. He improved the Bisons to a third-place team, supervising the construction of its new ball park at the same time.
A Bisons player asked for an advance on his salary, and Orator Jim replied,
I’m sorry, but the exigencies of the occasion and the condition of our exchequer will not permit anything of the sort at this period of our existence. Subsequent developments in the field of finance may remove the present gloom and we may emerge into a condition where we may see fit to reply in the affirmative to your exceedingly modest request.
During his third season with the Bisons, Orator Jim’s nine-year old daughter Anna died of a sudden illness. The Bisons finished fifth and he started looking for a way to play closer to his growing family in Bridgeport. He found a way in 1885, signing with the Gothams (later the New York Giants) for a then-astronomical $4,000 a year plus law school tuition.
The Giants’ second-place finish was overshadowed by the National League owners’ imposition of a $2,000 salary cap. Though the cap was honored in the breach more than the observance, it strained relations with the players. Three Giants — Orator Jim O’Rourke, Tim Keefe and Monte Ward — responded by creating the Professional Base Ball Players Association, the first sports union.
In 1887, Orator Jim graduated from Yale Law School and was admitted to the Connecticut bar. He was approaching 40 when the Giants won the world championship in 1888 and 1889. Winning didn’t mollify the players, who chafed under management’s attempts to control them. At the end of the 1889 season, Ward, Keefe and Orator Jim O’Rourke led an exodus of Giants’ star players to the new player-controlled Players League.
Most National League and many American Association starters joined them. Giants management tried to prevent their departure by seeking an injunction, but Orator Jim prevailed in court. That year, the Players League Giants played in Brotherhood Field, 10 feet away from the National League Giants ballpark. Orator Jim, 40 years old, had an excellent season, hitting .360 with 115 RBIs. The league failed after the first year, and the next year Orator Jim was back with the National League Giants.
His final year with the team in 1892 ended badly. He fought with the manager in a clubhouse confrontation that resulted in his suspension. He was reinstated but didn’t appear in the lineup for the rest of the year. He ended his career in 1893 with the last place Washington Senators.
Still More Baseball
He returned to Bridgeport to practice law, but couldn’t get baseball out of his system. He tried to umpire for the National League in 1894, but didn’t last through June. It was ‘too trying,’ he said. He then formed a team that played on his family farm, the Bridgeport Victors. The team included an African-American neighbor, Harry Herbert, and his son Jimmy, who later played for the New York Highlanders, later the New York Yankees.
Orator Jim played for the Victors and threw himself into the civic life of Bridgeport. He ran for office, served as fire commissioner and paving commissioner, got involved with the Elks, Knights of Columbus and Connecticut Bar Association. In 1896 he formed seven more teams to create the Naugatuck Valley League, later the Connecticut State League.
But Orator Jim couldn’t forget the sting of his last losing season with the Washington Senators. He wanted to play on one more championship team. In 1904, he asked his old friend, Giants manager John McGraw, to let him on the team. On Sept. 22, 1904, 54-year-old Orator Jim O’Rourke caught all nine innings in the game that clinched the pennant for the Giants. He also went 1-for-4, becoming the oldest player to hit safely in the Major Leagues.
(There was no World Series that year, because the Giants refused to play the American League champions, the Boston Red Sox.)
He played his last game at the age of 62, catching for the New Haven Wings on Sept. 14, 1912.
On New Year’s Day in 1919 he came home from visiting a client during a blizzard and caught pneumonia. He died seven days later. Bridgeport deeply mourned his loss. In 1945, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
With thanks to the SABR Baseball Biography Project. This story was updated from the 2014 version.