Saturday, May 18, 2024
Heroes and Villains, Sports

James O’Rourke

Bridgeport’s Scholar-Athlete

James Henry O’Rourke

1850 – 1919

  “Orator Jim” O’Rourke, one of the most colorful, popular and accomplished baseball ballplayers of the 19th century was born in East Bridgeport, Connecticut on September 1, 1850. His parents, Hugh and Catherine, had migrated from County Mayo, Ireland, and eventually settled in the section of Bridgeport being developed by P. T. Barnum. Jim attended Waltersville School (where his sister Sarah would one day teach) and Strong’s Military Academy. As a teenager Jim played ball with local clubs, including the Stratford Osceolas, while cultivating a statewide reputation as an outstanding batter. In 1872 Jim joined the Middletown Mansfields, thus becoming a member of America’s first professional baseball league, the National Association. Jim’s father, Hugh, had passed away roughly three years earlier so the twenty-year old ball player refused to leave his widowed mother until the Mansfields’ business manager agreed to hire a farmhand to take Jim’s place. The following season, 1873, O’Rourke became a member of the powerhouse National Association Boston Red Stockings. Jim and his teammates were among baseball’s first international ambassadors, touring Ireland and England with the Philadelphia Athletic Club during 1874. Partly due to Boston’s continued domination of the NA, the National League was formed. The East Bridgeport native made baseball history when he recorded the first hit in the National League, while a member of the Boston Red Caps, on April 22, 1876. 

Orator Jim played for a total of 8 major league teams during 23 seasons: Middletown Mansfields (NA), Boston Red Stockings (NA), Boston Red Caps (NL), Providence Grays (NL), Buffalo Bisons (NL), New York Giants (NL), New York Giants (Players League) and the Washington Senators (NL). O’Rourke’s lifetime major league batting average (combining the NA and NL) is .313. 

Noted for his ornate language, Jim entertained and confounded teammates, opponents and umpires alike, “Words of great length and thunderous sound simply flowed out of his mouth.” Always an advocate of education, before signing with the New York Giants, O’Rourke negotiated that the club pay his college tuition. Attending classes during the off season Jim graduated from Yale Law School in 1887. Following his major league playing days the Orator attempted a brief stint at umpiring, but the thankless, and often dangerous, role of diamond arbiter was not to Jim’s liking.

Returning to the Park City fulltime, O’Rourke helped organize the Connecticut State League in 1895, serving as league official, team owner, manager, and player. As a direct result Bridgeport retained a professional baseball team for over a third of a century. Proximity to Yale allowed Jim to umpire Ivy League ball games and he also devoted his expertise to consulting baseball hierarchy at the national level. Jim is credited with signing Harry Herbert in 1895, Bridgeport’s first African American to play pro ball. O’Rourke built a minor league stadium, Newfield Park, on his family’s farmland in the city’s East End in 1898. His on field contributions to the national pastime went unabated in Bridgeport for over sixteen seasons. During that time he batted .301 with his team, the Orators. At age 54 Orator Jim caught a complete game, the pennant clincher, for the 1904 New York Giants. He played his final professional game with the New Haven White Wings at age 62. During a stormy winter day, while walking to meet a client, Attorney O’Rourke caught a cold which quickly turned to pneumonia; he died January 8, 1919. Because of his outstanding play, as well as contributions to the game both on and off the field, James Henry O’Rourke was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945.

Some of James O’Rourke’s Baseball Accomplishments

  • Among baseball’s first international ambassadors, 1874
  • First hit in the National League, 1876
  • Jumping to the Providence Grays with George Wright caused team owners to devise the Reserve Clause, 1879
  • Jim and John O’Rourke were the first brothers to play together in a ML outfield, 1880 (In addition to his brother, Jim’s son, James “Queenie,” also played major league baseball)
  • First person to play ML ball in four different decades, 1870s, 1880s, 1890s, 1904
  • First person to get multiple extra-base hits in a single inning during a World Series game, 1889
  • Oldest person to catch a complete ML game
  • Home Run Champion of 1874, 1875 and 1880
  • Batting Champion of 1884 (.347)
Michael Bielawa
Michael Bielawa is a baseball historian and poet. He is the author of Bridgeport Baseball; Wicked Bridgeport; Wicked New Haven; and From Fairfield to Newfield: the Baseball Dream of Orator Jim O’Rourke. He is a Youth Services Librarian at the Bridgeport Public Library.