I attended the unveiling of the James O’Rourke statue yesterday at the Ballpark Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, CT. This tribute was a long time coming and well overdue. He was born in Bridgeport, CT and was a star of early baseball – one of the earliest 19th century inductees to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He lived and practiced law in Bridgeport, where he later died. He is interred nearby in in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Stratford, CT.
O’Rourke’s house stood alone for years at Steelepointe hoping to be saved as a historic site. Sadly, it was demolished in 2009. My friend, Dave Wanta and I, fantasized about acquiring some sort of funding, to allow us to move the house, renovate it and establish a baseball museum with a sports bar. I did say fantasize – but it would have been great.
I arrived early, at 4:30, in order to take some photos and witness the unveiling. I mistakenly thought that the ceremony started at 5:00. It turned out that it really was scheduled to start at 5:30 although it didn’t start on time. While I was waiting, I noticed a car parked next to where the ceremony was to take place. In the car, was none other than Faye Vincent, the “Last Commissioner of Baseball” and keynote speaker. I had heard that he was going to give the keynote address and brought along my copy of his book, hoping that I might be able to get it signed. Little did I think that I would be afforded a one-on-one opportunity for a brief chat. The first thing that he asked me was if I had read the book, to which I replied, of course. I told him that baseball needs many more people like him involved in the game to set it right. That the current state of baseball is a mess. He smiled and said “it’s hard to fix but it’s also hard to hit a baseball”. He was, and still is, one of the great ambassadors of the game. The game truly misses him.
By the time that the ceremony got started, a nice-sized crowd had assembled. The ceremony included the usual speeches thanking those involved and speakers included: Mayor Bill Finch of Bridgeport; Bernie Crowley, President, First Hit, Inc; Michael Stone, Development Director, Bridgeport Landing Development, LLC; Susan Clinard, the sculptor; Rev Thomas Lynch and Rev Ernest Esposito; Michael Bielawa, Vice-president, First Hit, Inc and Keynote Speaker, Faye Vincent.
There were a couple of interesting quotes (I’ll paraphrase as best I can).
Susan Clinard, sculptor of the statue, said that she often “talked” with O’Rourke (the statue) as she was working. She said that she had “told” him that if any pigeons try to sit on his head and, … well, that’s what the bat’s for. Kudos to her for the statue. It is an incredible work of art that will be enjoyed by many for years to come.
Faye Vincent shared a story about another one of baseball’s “great orators“, Yogi Berra. Attending the funeral of Larry Doby (the American League’s first black player), Vincent had Yogi Berra seated to his left, Phil Rizzuto to Yogi’s left and Ralph Branca to Vincent’s right. In Vincent’s words, “a bunch of paisans”. Vincent said that Branca turned to Yogi and said that it was nice that that he was attending Doby’s funeral. Yogi responded with ”You know why I go to funerals? If I don’t go to yours, you won’t go to mine”. ”He said it,” Vincent said. ”I heard it.” Vincent then turned to Yogi and said, “Yogi, you’re doing it again”.
Finally, the statue was unveiled. I have to admit that I have seen many statues on my baseball quest but this one is definitely one of my favorites. In the words of one of my friends, Arthur Mayer, “ It is a great statue – people should at least drive by to see it. You feel the statue will actually move.” Mayor Finch said that if you look closely, you can even see it wink. The attention to detail is amazing and the artistic presentation is inspiring. Susan Clinard is a true artist and per Mayor Finch, “It’s good that we were able to get her to do this statue early in her career, we wouldn’t be able to afford her later.” The statue is a wonderful work of art that will inspire future generations of baseball fans and is a beautiful tribute to the legacy of James Henry O’Rourke.
If you’re in the area, just take a quick detour off of I-95 in Bridgeport and stop by the Ballpark at Harbor Yard and check it out. I promise that you will be impressed, if not moved.
For anyone unfamiliar with James “The Orator” O’Rourke, here’s a brief look at his life and career highlights:
- Born on September 1, 1850, Bridgeport, CT.
- Graduated from Yale Law School and practiced law in Bridgeport, earning the nickname “Orator Jim” because of his verbosity on the field, his intellect, and his degree—uncommon in a game at the time (even today).
- Legend has it that O’Rourke, a child of Irish immigrants, was asked to drop the “O’” from his last name when he signed a contract with Boston and its Protestant backers, but refused, saying “I would rather die than give up my father’s name. A million dollars would not tempt me.”
- Played for Boston, Providence, Buffalo, New York and Washington all of the National League (also the Player’s League with New York).
- On April 22, 1876, had the first base hit in National League history.
- Played on six pennant-winning clubs in seven years, from 1873-79.
- Career high single season batting average of .362 in 1877.
- Captured the National League batting title in 1884 by hitting .350.
- Helped New York to its first two league championships 1888 and 1889 .
- Made a final appearance in 1904 with the New York Giants under manager and friend John McGraw, becoming at age 54 the oldest player ever to appear in the National League and the oldest player to hit safely in a major league game.
- Returned to the minors as president of the Connecticut League, and in 1912 returned to the field to catch a complete minor league game at the age of 60.
- Later, as an executive, hired the first African American minor league baseball player in history.
- Elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945.
Died January 8, 1919 in Bridgeport, CT of pneumonia.
James Henry O’Rourke’s Career Statistics