Saturday, October 25, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

A One-Game Wonder Remembered

Darby's Harry O'Neill played one inning in the big leagues and was killed on Iwo Jima.

A One-Game Wonder Remembered

Memorial Day always makes me think of Harry O'Neill.

A major-league ballplayer, a World War II hero . . . O'Neill's story, I've often thought, might make a nice newspaper takeout, perhaps even a book or screenplay.

His short life was as sweet as any imaginable. And as bitter.

"Porky" O'Neill reached the big leagues as a catcher. But while he got to wear the uniform of his beloved hometown team, the Philadelphia Athletics, his career consisted of a single game - a single inning, really, with no at-bat, in a meaningless 16-3 loss.

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He wore another iconic American uniform, too, as a Marine first lieutenant. Again, things didn't turn out well. A Japanese sniper's bullet ended his decorated career as well as his life.

I found his name while looking up the surprising number of big-leaguers with one-game careers. He was from Delaware County, and the juxtaposition of hero and tragic victim that marked his life intrigued me.

Over the years I've searched for more. I located his baseball and service records. I found old Marine pals, classmates at Darby High and Gettysburg College, men who played for him at Upper Darby Junior High, even his aging sister-in-law and niece.

I know the facts but not the story. Time has buried the intimate details of Harry Mink O'Neill's charmed and cursed life.

He had no children. His widow died long ago. His friends are either gone or in their 90s.

Born in South Philadelphia in 1917, O'Neill grew up on Pine Street in Darby. A neighborhood friend recalled him as a big, friendly youngster, a great athlete who, in football, "dared you to knock him over."

Six-foot-3 and 200 pounds as a teenager, he became a three-sport star at Darby (Class of 1934) and Gettysburg ('39).

His college manager was Ira Plank, brother of A's Hall of Fame pitcher Eddie. Plank told A's owner-manager Connie Mack about his big catcher, and, on the day O'Neill graduated, Mack signed him for $200 a month.

He spent several months as the A's third-string catcher. His parents, a relative recalled, made frequent trips to Shibe Park to watch him play.

Unfortunately, the only chance they got was during batting practice or when he warmed up relievers in the bullpen.

Finally, on July 23, 1939, in the eighth inning of a getaway game in Detroit, O'Neill entered as a defensive replacement for Frankie Hayes.

He never got to hit, never got into another game. Sometime between then and season's end, he was assigned to the old Interstate League, where in 1940 he played with the Allentown Wings and Harrisburg Senators.

O'Neill must have soured on baseball. He took a job as a history teacher and coach at Upper Darby Junior High, now Beverly Hills Middle School.

"Harry brought a great deal of new systems, and we were greatly disappointed when he left," one of his ex-football players wrote to me. A photo of their team shows O'Neill, looking oddly contemporary in a hooded sweatshirt, sitting at the rear of several rows of small but earnest-faced boys.

Friends said he had planned a return to baseball. But Pearl Harbor intervened, and in December of '42 he enlisted in the Marine Reserve. He was stationed in San Diego and not long afterward married Ethel Breen of Colwyn.

Lt. O'Neill commanded a half-track platoon with the Regimental Weapons Company of the 25th Marines. That unit hopscotched from one Pacific-island battle to another. During fighting on Saipan, he was wounded by a shell fragment and returned to a naval hospital in San Francisco.

"My wounds were only bad enough to put my pitching arm out of action for a short time," he wrote in a July 1944 letter to his only sibling, older brother Bill.

He was released and reassigned in December. On Feb. 19, 1945, the 25th Marines arrived in a death trap, a stark, black-sand island called Iwo Jima.

O'Neill survived the worst of the horrific fighting there, but on March 6, as he prepared to bed down on a starlit night, a sniper's bullet killed him instantly.

"He was dead by the time he hit the ground," the Marine next to him recalled.

O'Neill was buried in Plot 1, Row 24, Grave 1158 at the Iwo Jima cemetery, which eventually bore nearly 7,000 Marines. In July 1947, his remains were reinterred in Drexel Hill's Arlington Cemetery.

"We are trying to keep our courage up, as Harry would want us to do," his mother, Suzanna, wrote to Gettysburg College in 1945. "But our hearts are very sad, and as the days go on, it seems to be getting worse."

For years afterward, a relative remembered, Suzanna O'Neill walked the streets of Darby, holding several cats on a leash, as if afraid those, too, might be taken away.

Though he was one of just two major-league players killed in World War II (Washington's Elmer Gedeon was the other), O'Neill has been largely forgotten.

His Baseball Encyclopedia entry is painfully brief. He is in Gettysburg's Hall of Fame. And at the middle school where he taught, there is a faded photo in the lobby. Generations of kids have passed it unknowingly.

It's hardly an adequate salute.

Perhaps someday O'Neill's story will be more fully told.

Until then I'll keep searching. And, every Memorial Day, remembering.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
About this blog
Reporter Frank Fitzpatrick, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is covering his eighth Olympic Games and has yet to win a medal in anything except caffeine consumption. He has also been the beat writer for the Phillies, Eagles and Penn State football.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
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