April 20, 2023
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
“The game will live forever.”
That’s what Frank O’Rourke told a newspaper reporter in Allentown, Pa., in 1952.
And many began to think the Hamilton, Ont., native would too.
When he was approaching 93, he was still evaluating talent for the New York Yankees, which made him the oldest scout ever to work for a major league team (according to Rod Nelson, head of the SABR Scouts Research Committee) and no one born in Canada has ever toiled longer in professional baseball.
But, alas, even this eagle-eyed iron man proved mortal.
He passed away on May 14, 1986, about six months shy of his 95th birthday. Failing health had forced him to retire the previous year, ending his more than 40-year tenure as a pro scout with the Cincinnati Reds (1941 to 1951) and the Yankees (November 1951 to 1985). Prior to that, he had been a player, player-coach or manager dating back 75 years. Through it all, the scrappy Canuck, who once played with Ty Cobb and against Babe Ruth, never lost his passion for the sport.
“Clearly, baseball was his true love,” wrote William Kennedy, the sports editor for the Elizabeth Daily Journal in his obituary for O’Rourke.
But just who was this Canadian baseball lifer who devoted more than seven decades to professional baseball?
A copy of O’Rourke’s birth registration indicates he was born in Hamilton, Ont., on November 28, 1891, even though his birth year has been widely listed as 1894. According to his SABR bio written by Bill Nowlin, O’Rourke’s parents, John and Ida, were Pennsylvania natives and John, who’s listed as a mason and a bricklayer in Hamilton city directories, likely had a job north of the border when his future big league son was born.
The second youngest of six children, O’Rourke had an older brother and four sisters and was raised in a Roman Catholic family. It’s unclear how long he lived in Hamilton, but his family is listed in the 1892-1893 Hamilton City Directory but is not in the 1893-1894 edition (nor any of the directories that immediately follow), so it appears his time in Hamilton was two years at the most. Over the years, O’Rourke told reporters that his childhood and teenage years were spent in Sandusky, Ohio, Slatington, Pa., and Elizabeth, N.J.
How or when O’Rourke was introduced to baseball was not revealed in the numerous resources reviewed for this article, but the sport was very popular among kids in the Northeastern U.S. when he was growing up, so he likely honed his skills on the sandlots with children his age.
During his high school years, O’Rourke became a standout in the sport and it wasn’t long before scouts began to take notice. 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, who had told pro clubs that his birth year was 1894, 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 O’Rourke was clearly overmatched at the big league level, batting 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 for the rest of the season. He returned 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 in 1919, which inspired the rival Toronto Maple Leafs to sign him after the season.
O’Rourke would enjoy his greatest professional success as a player 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. capital 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 the ensuing January.
He served in a reserve role for the Sox and batted .264 in 67 contests and after the season, he was selected off waivers by the Tigers who assigned him to Toronto. The resilient Canadian once again excelled in Toronto, hitting .321 in 1923 and .322 in 1924.
“Frank O’Rourke does not believe in half measures,” Toronto Star sportswriter Charles Good wrote in his paper’s May 17, 1924 edition. “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.
O’Rourke batted .276 in 47 games as the Tigers’ second baseman to finish the 1924 season and he put together his best major league campaign as the club’s regular keystone sacker in 1925 when he batted .293, rapped out 40 doubles and led American League second baseman in fielding percentage.
By 1926, the 5-foot-10, 165-pound infielder had toiled for parts of 16 professional seasons and 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 elite major league second baseman.
So you can understand why on April 28, 1926 when, despite feeling horribly weak, he had to be forcibly escorted from the Tigers clubhouse and taken to the hospital to be examined. At the hospital, he was diagnosed with the measles and 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 was forced to stay away from his teammates for one 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 16 seasons of shuttling between the minors and majors, had finally established himself as an all-star caliber infielder. He was shifted to third base for much of the rest of the season. This softened his devastation which eventually gave way to determination, and if you research O’Rourke, you’ll discover that he wasn’t the type to wallow, but rather fight. He loved playing baseball and he’d use this latest slight as motivation.
But after his batting average dipped to .242 that season, O’Rourke was dealt to the St. Louis Browns as part of a seven-player trade on January 15, 1927. In his first year with the Browns, O’Rourke emerged as a tough-as-nails 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. In fact, he became so valuable to the Browns that he earned the respect of Babe Ruth. The Bambino once said that O’Rourke was “the only guy we worry about when we are playing the Browns.”
O’Rourke followed up his 1927 season by recording a career-high 62 RBIs in 1928 and earned praise from his manager Dan Howley as one of the league’s “smarter” infielders. For an encore, he collected 147 hits – his most as a major leaguer – in 1929.
In his later years, O’Rourke liked to tell the story of how he got a raise after that season.
“The most I ever got was $10,000 for a season [as a salary],” O’Rourke told The New York Times in 1982. “After I played 154 games in 1929 with St. Louis, I didn’t like their contract offer. When I reminded them that in the season before I had played every game on the schedule, I got a raise all right – one dollar.”
O’Rourke served as player/manager of the American Association’s Milwaukee Brewers in 1933. Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame
O’Rourke would suit up for parts of two more seasons with the Browns before becoming the player-manager of the American Association’s Milwaukee Brewers.
According to the Toronto Star, O’Rourke applied for the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs managerial job in November 1933, but was passed over for Ike Boone. O’Rourke then accepted the player/manager’s gig with the Leafs’ International League rival Montreal Royals.
After one year with the Royals, O’Rourke had player-manager stints in Charlotte (Class-B) and El Dorado (Class-C) and he suited up for his final professional game in 1939 when he was 48.
Two years later, he found his true second calling when he was hired as a scout by the Cincinnati Reds. He served as the club’s chief scout in the Eastern U.S. and poured his heart and soul into unearthing new talent.
A June 26, 1951 article penned by Paul Seibel in The Evening Times, a Sayre, Pa., newspaper, described what was likely a typical day for the baseball lifer.
“O’Rourke sat on a hard plank a couple inches above the ground behind the backstop of the Barton baseball diamond that was dug out of the weeds and bushes that surround Cannon Hole, a mile off Route 17. For that’s Frank O’Rourke’s job now. As a scout for the Cincinnati Reds, he combs the bushes of the hinterlands looking for young prospects that he might entice into an organized baseball contract,” wrote Seibel.
The article also gives us an idea of how many miles O’Rourke travelled in his efforts to uncover the next young star.
“Frank has been tramping the highways and by-ways for 15 years as a Reds scout (*Author’s Note: This is incorrect. He was only a scout for 10 years at the time.) and is required to take in as many baseball games as possible, from sandlots to high school, college and the minor leagues,” wrote Seibel.
Among the players O’Rourke is credited with helping the Reds sign were future all-stars Ewell Blackwell and Ted Kluszewski. But O’Rourke possessed more than just a keen eye for talent, he was also a versatile instructor. For example, in 1947, the Reds asked him to come to spring training to teach 24-year-old third baseman Grady Hatton the finer points of fielding the position.
“He (Hatton) is a vastly improved third sacker as a result of the expert coaching received this spring from Frank O’Rourke,” noted sportswriter Bob Husted in The Dayton Herald on March 29, 1947.
The following spring, the Reds enlisted a then 56-year-old O’Rourke to oversee practices for their Class-B Interstate League affiliate Sunbury Reds until they hired a player/manager.
It should be noted that during the Second World War, O’Rourke left the Reds for approximately two years to support the war effort by working as a foreman in the Eastern Aircraft Division of General Motors in Linden, N.J.
In November 1951, with a desire to spend more time with his family (his wife Elizabeth and daughter Frances) in Hillside, N.J., he accepted a two-year contract from the Yankees to serve as the club’s Eastern scout. For more than three decades, O’Rourke would evaluate talent for the Bronx Bombers and he’s credited with signing, among others, future big leaguers Al Downing, Jack Cullen, Johnny Kucks and Bill Henry.
Cullen, a 5-foot-11 right-hander, can recall O’Rourke coming to his home in Belleville, N.J. to convince him to sign. After breaking his nose in four places in a collision with a baserunner, Cullen had not pitched much in his senior season at Belleville High School. But in 1959, the 19-year-old youngster attended a tryout camp with about 200 teenagers at Yankee Stadium that was likely run by O’Rourke.
“Out of that 200, they formed a Yankee rookie team and we played some games against some all-star teams from New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania,” recalled Cullen in a September 2019 phone interview.
Cullen, who was a Yankees fan growing up, doesn’t recall much about his meeting with O’Rourke.
“I think it was mentioned that he played with Ty Cobb,” said Cullen. “We talked a little bit about that.”
Cullen said his father was present to assist with the negotiations.
“They offered me a two-year contract, not a whole lot of money, I didn’t get a big bonus,” remembered Cullen.
After the Yankees signed him, they gave him the option of going to their Class-D affiliate in Auburn, N.Y. or their other Class-D club in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“I said, ‘There’s not much of a choice there to me. I prefer to go where it’s warm,’” recalled Cullen.
The strong armed right-hander, who would eventually post a 3.07 ERA in 19 big league games over parts of three seasons with the Bombers in the 1960s, reported to the Yankees’ Florida State League club along with infielder Gene Domzalski, a Wilkes-Barre, Pa., native, who was also signed by O’Rourke.
Domzalski had been a standout running back at the University of Wyoming who also played on the school’s baseball team. After his school year ended in 1958, he competed in the South Dakota Basin League, a high calibre summer league similar to the Cap Cod League of today, before returning to Pennsylvania that August.
“I wanted to be home, before I had to go back in late August for football,” recalled Domzalski in an October 2019 phone interview. “I was a football player and that was my first love. I was home for a couple of days and I got a call from Frank O’Rourke and he said, ‘I’m going to be in the Wilkes-Barre area on such and such a date for a couple of games I’m scouting and I was wondering if you could come up and see me?’”
Domzalski agreed to meet O’Rourke, who was then 66 years old.
“Frank was put together like a tackle at that time, and he was rough and gruff,” remembered Domzalski. “I met him and we shook hands and he was a guy you didn’t want to mess around with. He was straight with you. He said to me, ‘We’d like to know if you would like to go down to New York and work out with the Yankees at Yankee Stadium?’”
The young Pennsylvanian was on a tight schedule to get back to Wyoming, but he felt like this was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
“So I took a bus down to New York and I had an uncle living in Brooklyn and he picked me up and I went and worked out with the Yankees,” he recalled. “And I met Casey Stengel and Mickey Mantle and all those guys and they were playing a day game against Cleveland.”
After the Yankees contest that day, Domzalski was asked to suit up with other Yankees prospects in a game in Connecticut. He performed well in that game, but then he went home to Pennsylvania.
A couple of days later he got a call from the Yankees asking him to meet with O’Rourke at Hotel Sterling in downtown Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He agreed to the meeting but he brought along his brother, Edward, who was seven years older than him, and worked in human/employment relations.
“I met him [O’Rourke] down there and we had lunch and we talked a little bit and I said, ‘I’m ready to go back to Wyoming. I’m really looking forward to playing football.’ We had to open up against Kansas State in about three weeks. So we were talking for a little bit, and then he said, ‘Well, we’d like to know if you’d be interested in signing a contract?’ And my brother looked at me and then I looked at him,” remembered Domzalski. “I really wanted to play football to be very honest, but I did have a knee injury that occurred the year before and I wasn’t 100 per cent, but I thought I could still play but the New York Yankees were something special. I had opportunities with Cleveland and Pittsburgh before that – no money involved just to sign and play ball – but Frank offered me a bonus contract.”
Domzalski’s brother negotiated with O’Rourke and they eventually settled on a $15,000 signing bonus that would be paid over two years. Domzalski sensed that O’Rourke included the signing bonus begrudgingly.
“He was old school and he was the same way in negotiations,” said Domzalski. “The old guys like O’Rourke . . . I think they were a little upset that there was money that was being used for bonuses. They never knew what bonuses were like. They were paid very meager salaries in the days that they played . . . I think Frank was one of those guys who never made a whole lot of money in baseball so when it came to bonuses I think he was pretty tight with them.”
That would be the last time Domzalski would see O’Rourke. He would play parts of three seasons in the Yankees organization before becoming a very successful baseball coach at Wilkes University.
“He was a hardnosed guy,” said Domzalski. “He believed in playing hardnosed baseball and he probably would’ve been a pretty good manager.”
But Domzalski and Cullen were just two of the gems that O’Rourke would uncover in his scouting region that included Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Ontario. And not only was O’Rourke a regular at high school, collegiate and professional games in his territory, he also organized tryout schools and camps that entailed a lot of work.
“After we close a school or leave a ballpark, our day just begins,” O’Rourke told The Morning Call, an Allentown, Pa., newspaper of what goes on behind-the-scenes of a tryout camp or baseball school. “We list our findings. Can the player hit a curveball? Can he move to his right on a grounder? Is he a team player? Does he have a baseball mind? Does he have a strong arm?”
And though O’Rourke loved his job as a scout, he sometimes lamented the fact that people didn’t appreciate how many hours those in his profession had to put in.
“They don’t realize that we get up early in the morning, eat breakfast and then begin our rounds,” said O’Rourke. “Sometimes we don’t eat again until 6 o’clock at night. Many days we see four games – two in the afternoon and a twi-night doubleheader. Then it’s back to our room and more reports.”
It’s clear, however, that O’Rourke took great pride in being a scout for the storied Yankees. In the off-season, he often shared that pride in speeches he delivered at fundraising banquets around New Jersey.
“The young player moving up to the Yankees knows he has something to live up to,” O’Rourke told The Morning Call, an Allentown Pa., newspaper, in June 1952. “Today’s Yanks are not as great as the 1927 championship team, but on what other club could you pull a minor leaguer to the majors in the midst of a pennant drive and make him a valuable cog.”
O’Rourke cited examples like the Yankees promoting Whitey Ford in 1950 and Mickey Mantle in 1951.
Ex-big leaguer Bobby Malkmus, who has scouted in the New York region for more than four decades and was still doing so for the Cleveland Indians at age 88 in October 2019, can recall crossing paths with O’Rourke.
“I knew he was a good scout with the Yankees,” said Malkmus in a phone interview. “But in those days, the scouts didn’t hang out together. It was done secretly so that you wouldn’t steal their draft picks. But he was always friendly and he did a lot of scouting in New York.”
And as it did with the Reds, O’Rourke’s versatility also proved valuable to the Yankees. On top of heading tryout camps, he also assisted manager Phil Page in spring training drills for the Binghamton Triplets, the Yankees’ Class-A Eastern League affiliate, in 1953.
In different interviews during his scouting career, O’Rourke voiced his displeasure at baseball’s focus on the home run and how he had been instructed to look for power hitting prospects. He obliged, but it was obvious that he had soft spot for gritty, all-out players – in other words, players with the same skill set as him.
“Pete Rose of the Phillies is a rough and ready player,” said O’Rourke in a 1982 interview with The New York Times. “He beats you in some kind of way. He’s the most aggressive player around today. He reminds me of Ty Cobb, my teammate and manager in Detroit, one of the greatest hitters and smartest players in history.”
Like many ex-big leaguers after they hang up their playing spikes, O’Rourke liked to reminisce about the game’s good ole days.
“I hope no player ever approaches the [home run] record of Ruth’s because he is an institution. Kids who never saw the Babe know he was tops,” O’Rourke told The Morning Call, an Allentown, Pa. newspaper, in 1952. “Today they’re moving fences in to encourage the long ball. That makes a home run cheap. In Ruth’s era, the fences were not moved and the ball was more dead. That’s why his record was really a remarkable feat.”
O’Rourke was also one of the founding members of the New York Professional Baseball Scouts Association, an organization that remains active and vibrant today. He was the organization’s first treasurer and he was still attending meetings in 1983 at the age of 91.
By that time, Major League Baseball had introduced its centralized Scouting Bureau. O’Rourke said this made the conversation about prospects at scouts association events a little looser, but it was still guarded.
“If somebody asks you about a kid, you’ll say you’ve seen him, but you won’t say how great he is,” O’Rourke told The New York Times in 1983.
Like a lot of baseball lifers, O’Rourke evolved into a colorful storyteller. One of his most popular subjects was Cobb, his former teammate and manager.
“I only had a couple of run-ins with him,” O’Rourke told the Press and Sun Bulletin, a Binghamton, N.Y. newspaper, in March 1953. “But we got along pretty good. He gave me a brand new car once. The fans gave it to him and then he turned it over to me.”
Twenty-five years later, he shared further reflections about the Georgia Peach.
“We were good friends. I liked him,” O’Rourke said in an article that appeared in a Kentucky newspaper in June 1978. “He liked to win, and I respected him for that. To me, he was a gentleman at all times. He was a hustler and a fighter. He just wouldn’t take backtalk from anybody . . . He was like Reggie Jackson last year. The moment he stepped on the field, there was a roar against him.”
During his scouting years, O’Rourke at first lived in Elizabeth, N.J. before moving to nearby Hillside, with his wife and daughter. He regularly attended a local Roman Catholic church, was a trustee of the Union County Park Commission and a member of the Union Elks. He was also a member of the Union County Baseball Association and he helped organize the local youth program. For his efforts, he was inducted into the Elizabeth Hall of Fame in 1952 as one of its first 13 members. He was also later elected to the Union County Baseball Association’s Hall of Fame.
Even into his nineties, O’Rourke could be spotted scouting players at two or three games a day. When he finally retired prior to the 1985 season, he was 93 – an age that SABR Scouts Research Committee chair Rod Nelson says makes O’Rourke the oldest active scout in baseball history.
Between playing, coaching and scouting, O’Rourke spent more than 70 years in professional baseball before he passed away on May 14, 1986 in a nursing home in Chatham, N.J. He was predeceased by his wife, Elizabeth (1972) and survived by his daughter, Frances.
Ten years after his death, he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont. Last year, he was finally inducted into the Hamilton [Ontario] Sports Hall of Fame.
“The game will live forever,” O’Rourke once said.
It will, indeed – and the legacy of this fiery Canadian baseball lifer’s scouting excellence will too.
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BaseballReference.com, BR Bullpen, Joe DeLucca bio
BaseballReference.com, BR Bullpen, Bobby Malkmus
BaseballReference.com, Jack Cullen
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