Dream Derailed


Mike Sielski | Bucks County Courier Times | July 2009

“I think I came here because your time was so short. I can see you’ve done well. It would have killed some men to get so close. They’d never do anything but talk about how close they were.”
– from “Shoeless Joe” by W.P. Kinsella

DREXEL HILL – There is nothing on or near Harry O’Neill’s grave marker that hints at the full scope of his story. He is buried at Arlington Cemetery here, underneath a giant pine tree that shades his stone and softens the heat of a July afternoon. The cemetery is set amid a neighborhood of row houses, not far from the Laundromats and beer distributors that line West Chester Pike, but from Harry O’Neill’s grave, past a canopy of verdant trees, there is a clear view of a lovely little street of single-family homes.

“It’s a beautiful spot,” says one of the directors of Toppitzer Funeral Home, headquartered at the cemetery.

The words on O’Neill’s marker provide the rudimentary details of his life: that he was born on May 8, 1917; that he was a 1st lieutenant in the 4th Marine Division; that he served in World War II; that he died at age 27 on March 6, 1945. The date of his death offers a small clue about him, for it suggests that he was killed in action. And he was, at Iwo Jima.

What the marker does not mention is this: Seventy years ago, on July 23, 1939, Harry O’Neill played his only game as a major-league baseball player. More specifically, he played his only inning as a major-league baseball player, catching the bottom of the eighth for the Philadelphia Athletics in an otherwise unmemorable 16-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers. He never batted that day in Detroit, and he never played in an official major-league game again.

If that aspect of O’Neill’s story sounds familiar, it’s because another player’s similar tale has been immortalized in literature and film. In 1982, Kinsella published “Shoeless Joe” and introduced the world to Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who played one inning of one game for the New York Giants in 1905 before retiring from baseball to become a doctor. Seven years later, Burt Lancaster played Graham in “Field of Dreams,” the now-famous screen adaptation of Kinsella’s book. Sports Illustrated recently marked the 20th anniversary of the release of “Field of Dreams” by calling it “the quintessential moving-image expression of why we love baseball.” In fact, the popularity of the film led authors Brett Friedlander and R.W. Reising to write a biography of Graham, “Chasing Moonlight,” that was published earlier this year.

Harry O’Neill hasn’t been resurrected as a character in an Academy Award-nominated movie, and he doesn’t have his own link on barnesandnoble.com. For being one of two major-league baseball players to die in combat during World War II, for his unique journey from Philadelphia to a deadly battle on a faraway island, he has a beautiful spot in a cemetery. That is all. In fact, the shards of Harry O’Neill’s story survive still in only a few sources – in dust-covered boxes of microfilm that contain blurry replicas of broadsheets and tabloids, in a Pennsylvania college’s archive, and in the fading memories of old men.

* * *

Born in South Philadelphia but raised in the Delaware County neighborhood of Darby, Harry O’Neill cut the admirable figure of the All-American athlete. He played three sports – football, basketball, baseball – at Darby High School and at Gettysburg College. By the time he was a senior at Gettysburg, he stood at least 6-foot-2 (depending on newspaper reports) and weighed 200 pounds. In his senior-year photograph in the Spectrum, the college’s yearbook, he wore a look of wariness on his oval face, his hair swept in a part from right to left and held there, presumably, by a dollop of pomade.

As he had been at Darby High, O’Neill was an excellent three-sport athlete at Gettysburg, but baseball was where he was at his best. During his junior season, 1938, he singled in a run in the ninth inning to beat Penn State, 5-4 – an upset as surprising then as it would be today – and “behind the plate, he showed himself to be a heady receiver,” according to the 1939 Spectrum. He batted .500 in his senior season with six extra-base hits, including a long home run against Lebanon Valley College. He graduated in 1939 and was immediately a major-league prospect, and the A’s signed him on June 5 for a monthly salary of $4,200.

Al Brancato, who played 21 games that season for the A’s as a third baseman and shortstop, has only a vague recollection of O’Neill. “I thought he came up at the end of the year,” says Brancato, who just turned 90 and still lives in Delaware County. “I’m surprised I don’t remember.”

At the time O’Neill joined them, the A’s were 17-24. They would finish the 1939 season with a 55-97 record, the midpoint of a horrid nine-year stretch in which they never lost fewer than 91 games in any season. O’Neill’s signing would seem to have been a nice opportunity for some good press and public relations for the A’s: Here was a local kid signing with his hometown franchise. Why not play him once or twice just for the sake of novelty? But even on a team going nowhere, O’Neill would have to wait 48 days before he caught a single pitch.

* * *

The game in which O’Neill played was the A’s season distilled into nine awful innings. Earle Mack – the son of Connie Mack and the team’s interim manager – used 19 players in the game. By the end of the fourth inning, the Tigers had a 12-1 lead, and James C. Isaminger, who covered the game for the Philadelphia Inquirer, pointed out that the 9,772 fans at Briggs Stadium were “enjoying the cool breezes” and their team’s easy victory.

Of the reporters from the four Philadelphia newspapers covering the game – the Inquirer, the Daily News, the Bulletin and the Record – Isaminger was the only one who took notice in print that Earle Mack inserted Harry O’Neill into the game to replace Frankie Hayes.

“Henry O’Neill, of Gettysburg, Pa., went behind the plate in the eighth for his major league christening,” Isaminger wrote in his game story. “He did not bat and had little to do behind the plate.”

With O’Neill catching him, pitcher Chubby Dean walked two Detroit hitters in the bottom of the eighth but did not allow a run. After the game, the A’s split into two traveling parties. One went back to Philadelphia. O’Neill was part of the second, which took a train to Cooperstown, N.Y., to help celebrate “Connie Mack Day” at the Baseball Hall of Fame by playing an exhibition game against the Penn Athletic Club, a semipro team.

The next day, as Pennsylvania Governor Arthur H. James and 3,500 other spectators at Abner Doubleday Park looked on, the A’s beat the Penn Athletic Club, 12-6. O’Neill, however, went 0-for-4. Based on that performance, apparently, Earle Mack didn’t consider O’Neill worth a second look.

* * *

The last man to see Harry O’Neill alive lives in Vineland, N.J., in a little red-brick rancher with an American flap flapping in the front yard and Marine memorabilia – caps, photos, metallic emblems – strategically placed around his living room. Private 1st Class James Kontes doesn’t like to talk much about his experience at Iwo Jima, but he has agreed to share what he remembers about the day O’Neill died.

Three weeks before his brief moment in the majors came and went, O’Neill already had begun preparing for his life after pro baseball. Upper Darby Junior High School had hired him as a history teacher and as its head football, baseball and basketball coach. After one school year there, he gave the game one last try, playing minor-league and semipro ball in Harrisburg. He then enlisted in the Marines in September 1942 – less than a year after Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor.

Once he graduated from the Marines’ Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Va., O’Neill was assigned to the 4th Marine Division, training at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. His wife, Ethel, visited him there in January 1944, staying until her husband and the rest of the 4th Division boarded the U.S.S. Calloway, bound for the Pacific Theater.

As part of the division’s 25th Weapons Company, O’Neill followed the fighting from island to island – Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian – returning to a San Francisco naval hospital for a month after sustaining a shell-fragment wound to his right arm.

“Everybody liked Harry,” says Kontes, 90, who adds that O’Neill didn’t often mention his short time as a major-league player. “After each operation, we’d come back to the base to get more training and get ready for the next one.”

On Feb. 19, 1945, the 4th Marine Division landed on the black, volcanic sand of Iwo Jima. The Japanese, hunkered down along the beach, were waiting for them. “At the end of the fighting, the American dead totaled 6,821,” according to Larry Smith, who authored an oral history of the battle. “It was the only campaign the Marines ever fought in which they took more casualties than the enemy.”

The 4th Division had launched an assault on the morning of March 6, and by the evening, the men had struggled to advance forward through small-arms and mortar fire from Japanese forces. Deep in a crater, as the sun began to set, Kontes found himself next to O’Neill. Neither of them knew a sniper’s sight was trained on them.

“We were standing shoulder to shoulder,” Kontes says, “Harry was on my left. We were looking out at the terrain in front of us. And this shot came out of nowhere.

“I think the guy must have been in a tree or something. That was their favorite place to shoot from. They got Harry. They took him out because he was taller. He didn’t suffer. The corpsman and a couple of guys showed up with a stretcher and picked him up and carried him away.”

* * *

On May 31, 1945, in her family’s modest home at 618 Pine St. in Darby, Harry’s mother, Susanna, took hold of a pencil and a small slip of white paper.

Henry Bream, Harry’s football coach at Gettysburg College, had contacted Susanna and her husband to offer his condolences over their son’s death. Bream’s gesture clearly had touched Susanna. In response, she wrote him a thank-you note.

Dear Mr. Bream,

Mr. O’Neill and I thank you for your kind words of sympathy.

We are trying to keep our courage up, as Harry would want us to do, but our hearts are very sad and as the days go on it seems to be getting worse. Harry was always so full of life, that it seems hard to think he is gone. But God knows best and perhaps someday, we will understand why all this sacrifice of so many fine young men.

It gives us some comfort to know you thought so well of Harry and that he had so many nice friends.


Susanna O’Neill

Gettysburg College keeps a copy of Susanna’s note to Bream on file in the special collections room of its library. Ethel O’Neill has since died, and she and Harry had no children. So aside from the note, there are only so many people and places left now where one can flush out the skeletal story of Harry O’Neill’s life with some flesh and color.

“It should be a big deal,” Al Brancato says. “You’d think I’d remember something like that.”

Some still do. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a column about O’Neill before Memorial Day. Baseball historian Gary Bedingfield is including a chapter about O’Neill in his upcoming book about professional ballplayers who fought and died in World War II. And the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society in Hatboro has a black-and-white, 8 1/2 x 11 photograph of O’Neill in its archives, though a scribble of pen across the top misidentifies him as “Henry O’Neill.”

It is perhaps the only existing photo of Harry O’Neill in his Philadelphia A’s uniform, and there is a bitter irony in the moment that the photo captures. His right foot is twisted and perched on its toes, like a ballet dancer’s. His hips have rotated counterclockwise. His right arm has jerked across his chest as if he has thrown a punch. His eyes stare straight ahead, following something in the distance. In the photograph, Harry O’Neill has just done the one thing that he never had the chance to do in the majors.

He has just swung a bat.

Writer bio: Mike Sielski, a graduate of Upper Dublin High School and LaSalle University, is a sports columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He wrote for The Allentown Morning Call, Bucks County Courier Times and The Wall Street Journal before joining the Inky in 2013.