Brian Campf recently acquired this postcard photograph of an African American player in catcher’s gear, ca. late 1910s or early 1920s.
At first I couldn’t link him to any known players, then I thought of Sam Bennett, an outfielder who had converted to catcher by 1920. Here he is, on the right (from the Indianapolis Freeman in 1915), compared to our mystery catcher:
Finally, though, I happened on a photo of a different catcher from the same era.
The 1921 Columbus Buckeyes, an expansion team managed by John Henry Lloyd, found themselves mired in the second heading into the season’s final stretch. Desperate to overhaul his roster, Lloyd conducted a massive raid on the Atlanta Black Crackers of the Negro Southeastern League. He secured no fewer than seven players from the southern club, thus surpassing C. I. Taylor’s raid on the San Antonio Black Aces the previous summer, which netted six players.
The Ohio State Journal commemorated Lloyd’s march through Georgia with this photo spread, featuring the Buckeyes’ 6’4” first baseman Robert Hudspeth (who had actually been part of an earlier mass raid in 1920, when the Indianapolis ABCs stole six players from the San Antonio Black Aces) and below him the faces of the seven players from Atlanta.
The same layout was printed in the Chicago Defender two weeks later; I don’t know if it was prepared by the Columbus Buckeyes and sent to various newspapers, or if the Defender reprinted it from the Ohio State Journal, or what.
The new players were pitchers Willie Gisentaner, Ben Harris, and Lewis Hampton, infielders “Big Preacher” Davis and Charles “Two Sides” Wesley, outfielder Clarence Smith, and catcher Charles O’Neill.
Let’s compare Brian’s catcher with the catcher here, Charles O’Neill:
For my money, that’s a match. According to Brian, Mark Firnoff, co-chair of SABR’s Pictorial History Committee, also thinks they are “very likely” the same person.
When he moved north to the Buckeyes in 1921, O’Neill had played for the Black Crackers for just about a calendar year. Here is a Black Crackers game account that gives us a little information about him as a player:
In July 1920 he and Big Preacher Davis had moved from the Jacksonville Stars (a.k.a. “Gators”) to the Black Crackers. (O’Neill, incidentally, was known as “Little Preacher.”) At the moment the earliest hint of O’Neill I can find is this line score from an April 29 game in Atlanta:
Brian tells me that the postcard was printed on paper that was manufactured from 1904 to 1918. Obviously it’s possible that unused stock remained for several years after the paper ceased to be made. It’s also quite possible, of course, that O’Neill began playing sometime before 1920, and that I just haven’t found him yet.
Going forward in time from 1921 , after the Columbus Buckeyes folded O’Neill headed east to join the Original Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City, the splinter team that remained when John Connor and Barron Wilkins moved the Bacharachs to New York City for 1922. Within a few months O’Neill had rejoined his old manager, John Henry Lloyd, with the New York Bacharachs.
It’s worth nothing that both Lloyd and Dick Lundy, manager of the Original Bacharachs, were originally from northeastern Florida—which is, of course, where O’Neill first appeared as a professional. It may be that O’Neill was known to both of them in part because of the Jacksonville connection.
In 1923 O’Neill went back west to start the season with the Chicago American Giants; soon released, he appeared in one game for the Toledo Tigers, and then (as far as I know) he disappeared from baseball history.
Even keeping the Jacksonville connection in mind, I’ve never been able to establish anything solid about O’Neill’s biography; but now, it appears, we have a fantastic photograph of him. Hopefully there’s more to come.