His toughness was legendary.
On many occasions, Frank O’Rourke “took the field so crippled up that every move caused him intense pain,” wrote Toronto Star sportswriter Charles Good in 1933.
For 13 professional seasons, the Hamilton, Ont.-born infielder had persevered through sprained ankles, sore arms and the deep body bruises that accompany being perennially amongst the league leaders in hit by pitches to finally establish himself as an all-star caliber, major league second baseman.
Perhaps even more difficult to overcome had been the label that he was too small and frail to be a regular at the highest level. And though the 5-foot-10, 165-pound Canadian was fiery leader and fan favourite wherever he went, the book on him was that he had more grit than talent.
So you can understand why on April 28, 1926, O’Rourke, who was at long last the Detroit Tigers regular second baseman, wasn’t about to surrender his position without a fight. Prior to the game that day, he felt dizzy and was experiencing coughing spells. His face was red and blotchy and though he refused to acknowledge it, he was running a high fever.
As he warmed up, his legs were wobbly and his teammates noticed he was sweating profusely, but when they approached him, O’Rourke waved them away. It had taken him 13 seasons to finally have job security in the big leagues and he’d be damned if he was going to give anyone the opportunity to wrestle it away from him.
Soon, however, his coughing became more frequent and as he played catch, it became harder for him to see the ball. His legs began to buckle and he knelt on the ground. His teammates rushed to his side and motioned for the trainer. O’Rourke was almost indestructible to them, so they were deeply concerned as they helped cart him into the clubhouse and then into an ambulance.
At the hospital, the doctors noted his high fever and splotchy skin and diagnosed him with the measles. They began treatment immediately, but due to the highly contagious nature of his infection, he’d have to be isolated from the other patients and once he was well enough to go home, he’d be forced to stay away from his teammates for another week.
Meanwhile back at Navin Field, the Tigers summoned a quiet 22-year-old prospect named Charlie Gehringer to fill in for O’Rourke at second base. The rest, as they say, is history. Gehringer’s sweet left-handed stroke and smooth hands in the field proved that he was ready for stardom. And 11 months after New York Yankees first baseman Wally Pipp had a headache and was replaced by Lou Gehrig, who proceeded to play 2,130 consecutive games for the Bronx Bombers, O’Rourke returned to discover that he had been “Wally Pipped” by Gehringer.
Over the next 17 seasons, Gehringer wouldn’t relinquish his post as the Tigers starting second baseman and he evolved into one of the best keystone sackers in major league history.
Returning to find Gehringer in his position initially battered the spirit of O’Rourke, who after 13 years of shuttling between the minors and majors, had batted .293, rapped out 40 doubles and led American League second basemen in fielding percentage in 1925. He was now once again relegated to a utility role. But devastation eventually gave way to determination, and if you research O’Rourke, you’ll discover that he wasn’t the type to wallow. In most photos, he wears an easy smile and a twinkle in his eyes. He looks like a man who loved playing baseball and he’d use this latest slight as motivation. Sure, he was no longer the Tigers’ starting second baseman, but he was still in the big leagues and that had been his dream since he was a child.
As soon as he was old enough to swing a bat, O’Rourke ate, drank and slept baseball. Though his birth year has been widely listed as 1894, some reports indicate that he could’ve been born as early as 1891. The date he was born (November 28) and his birthplace (Hamilton, Ont.) have not been disputed. According to SABR, O’Rourke’s parents, John and Ida, were Pennsylvania natives and John may have been working in Hamilton when O’Rourke was born.
The second youngest of six children, O’Rourke had an older brother and four sisters. It’s unclear how long he lived in Hamilton, but it appears that his childhood and teenage years were spent primarily in Washington Township, Lehigh County, Pa., and Elizabeth, New Jersey.
It wasn’t long before scouts started taking notice of O’Rourke’s skills on the diamond. One report indicates that he was playing for the Lawrence Barristers of the Class-B New England League in 1911, before he was signed by the Bridgeport Orators of the Connecticut State League the following year.
A heady infielder with great range, O’Rourke also excelled at the plate in Bridgeport. He was batting .354 when the National League’s Boston Braves signed him on June 7, 1912. But the teenager was clearly overmatched at the big league level and he’d bat just .122 in 61 games.
The Braves released him and he hooked on with the Wilkes-Barre Barons of the Class-B New York State League, where he batted .248, .301, .274 and .284 respectively over the next four seasons.
He was manning third base for Utica in the same league in 1917, when the National League’s Brooklyn Robins gave him his second big league opportunity that July. He’d hit .237 and swipe 11 bases in 64 games while playing regularly at the hot corner for the Robins and he’d return to Brooklyn for four games in 1918 prior to being sold to the Class-B Eastern League’s New London Planters.
He registered 166 hits in 141 games for the Double-A International League’s Binghamton Bingoes the following campaign, which inspired the rival Toronto Maple Leafs to sign him after the season.
O’Rourke would enjoy his greatest professional success in Toronto. In 1920, he hit .327 and recorded 201 hits, which convinced the Washington Senators to purchase his contract in September. O’Rourke hit .296 in 14 big league games to finish out 1920 and he returned to the Senators in 1921 to be their everyday shortstop.
The gritty infielder’s all-out hustle made him a fan favourite in the U.S. capitol, where he demonstrated great range, but also committed a league-leading 55 errors. At the plate, he batted .234 and knocked in 54 runs, but the Senators didn’t see him as a long-term solution at shortstop and they shipped him to the Boston Red Sox with Joe Dugan for Roger Peckinpaugh the ensuing January.
He served in a reserve role for the Sox and batted .264 in 67 games in 1922 and after the season, he was selected off waivers by the Tigers who assigned him to Toronto. The resilient Canadian once again excelled in Hogtown, hitting .321 in 1923 and .322 in 1924.
“Frank O’Rourke does not believe in half measures,” wrote Good in the May 17, 1924 edition of the Toronto Star. “Whenever he does a thing, he does it with his whole heart and soul.”
Good later described O’Rourke as “probably the most aggressive and forceful athlete that ever wore a Toronto unie.”
Not surprisingly, this “aggressive and forceful athlete” sometimes flashed a wild temper, one that earned him a five-game suspension after an altercation with an umpire in July 1924. But that outburst might have endeared him to the equally fiery Ty Cobb, the Tigers player-manager at the time, who convinced his club to purchase O’Rourke from the Leafs for $25,000 on August 4, 1924.
“Ty Cobb has acquired a hustler, a winning type of ballplayer and an athlete who knows what’s what,” wrote Good after O’Rourke was sold to the Tigers. “He will be missed by the fans and players with whom he has always been a great favourite.”
O’Rourke batted .276 in 47 games as the Tigers’ second baseman to conclude the 1924 season and put together an all-star caliber season as club’s regular keystone sacker in 1925 before he was replaced by Gehringer in April 1926.
After his batting average dipped to .242 in 1926, O’Rourke was dealt to the St. Louis Browns as part of a seven-player trade on January 15, 1927. In his first season with the Browns, O’Rourke emerged as a scrappy leader, registering career highs in walks (64) and stolen bases (18). He also topped the American League in hit by pitches (12) and for his efforts, he finished 13th in AL MVP voting.
He followed that up by recording a career-high 62 RBI in 1928.
“One of the great players of baseball is Frank O’Rourke, third baseman of Dan Howley’s St. Louis team,” wrote Toronto Star sports editor W.A. Hewitt in an August 21, 1928 column. “Much of the success of the Browns in the American League race this year can be traced to O’Rourke’s determined playing and great fighting heart. He has been an inspiration to his fellow players just as he was when he was playing shortstop for Toronto.”
O’Rourke led the Browns to an 82-72 record and a surprising third-place finish that season. For an encore, he collected 147 hits in 1929. He’d suit up for parts of two more seasons with the Browns before becoming the player-manager of the American Association’s Milwaukee Brewers.
He served in that capacity until 1934 when he was appointed player-coach with the International League’s Montreal Royals. Player-manager stints in Charlotte (Class-B) and El Dorado (Class-C) followed and if we accept that he was born in 1894, O’Rourke suited up for his final professional game when he was 45.
But it wasn’t until 1941 that O’Rourke found his true second calling when he was hired as a scout by the Cincinnati Reds. Often attending multiple games on the same day, he poured his heart and soul into uncovering new talent and evaluating players.
In 1952, he wanted to work closer to his family (his wife Elizabeth and daughter Frances) in New Jersey and he accepted a scouting position with the New York Yankees. O’Rourke proceeded to evaluate talent for the Bronx Bombers for more than three decades and he’s credited with signing Al Downing, Jack Cullen, Johnny Kucks and Bill Henry, among others.
While he was living in Elizabeth, New Jersey, O’Rourke was also active in baseball at the grassroots level. He was a member of the Union County Baseball Association and he helped organize the local youth program.
Even into his late-eighties, O’Rourke could be spotted scouting players at two or three games a day. When he finally retired in 1985, he was 91 years old (if we accept that he was born in 1894) – an age that reportedly makes him the oldest active scout in baseball history.
Between playing, coaching and scouting, O’Rourke spent 75 seasons in professional baseball, which may also be a record for the longest tenure in pro ball.
O’Rourke passed away on May 14, 1986 in a nursing home in Chatham, New Jersey. He was predeceased by his wife and survived by his daughter. Ten years after his death, he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Baseball to him was not a means of livelihood,” Good once wrote of O’Rourke. “It was a game, a battle of wits and skill. And he had no use for the player who didn’t give his best at all times.”
That’s a good way to remember to this tough-as-nails baseball lifer, who battled for every break he got in the game he loved so dearly.
*Bill Nowlin’s SABR bio on O’Rourke was an excellent resource for this article.