Listening to stories from the major leagues in the 1950s is everything anyone could ever hope for during an entertaining afternoon.
As a very little boy nearly 50 years ago, I began hearing about the O’Brien twins. How Johnny and Eddie beat the Globetrotters while at Seattle U, how Johnny scored at will on passes from his brother, how they played major-league baseball. And how they did all of this while being only 5 feet 9.
I heard enough about them that I felt like I knew them, but I could not have imagined ever meeting them. I thought about that during a recent two-hour lunch with Johnny O’Brien, finally meeting the legend my grandfather, father and uncles had told me about. My only regret was not doing this before Eddie passed away four years ago.
Johnny began telling me stories, and he started to worry that he was taking up too much of my time. I told him I could sit there for hours listening to him. I heard stories about Elgin Baylor, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Hank Aaron and more.
Listening to this warm, funny and remarkably humble legend was a labor of love and one of the highlights of my career.
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I felt like I did nearly 30 years ago when I interviewed Mark Koenig, the last living member of the 1927 New York Yankees, when I listened to stories of him partying with Babe Ruth and spending time at Lou Gehrig’s house. I knew that was something I would never forget and would one day tell my grandkids about.
I had the same feeling about talking to Johnny, and the first thing I did afterward was call my dad, and share some of the stories with him. Ones like these:
What, I’m pitching?
It was 1956, and when O’Brien got the call to get his arm loosened up in the eighth inning, he assumed it would be as a defensive replacement at second base for Curt Roberts. But Pirates manager Bobby Bragan had a different idea.
“I go to second base and there is Roberts standing there. I look over at the dugout and Bragan’s pointing at the mound. It was Bragan’s idea, not mine. So (catcher) Hank Foiles comes out to the mound. I tell him I can throw hard and I have a knuckleball I throw hard that goes straight down. He goes OK, 1 is a fastball, 2 is a curve, 3 is a slider and 4 is … and I say why are you putting all those pitches in there, I only throw two. On the first warmup pitch, I hit the screen and (Cincinnati manager) Birdie Tebbets comes out and starts yelling, ‘He can’t pitch, he can’t pitch.’ But in the National League, there wasn’t a pitching roster and we could pitch anyone we want.
“The first player I face is Frank Robinson, the Hall of Famer. I throw a fastball as hard as I can on the first pitch and he swings and misses it. Pitch 2, fastball again. I throw it as hard as I can and he fouls it off. Pitch 3 (Foiles) wants me to come inside with a fastball and I knock Robinson down. And he gets up and Foiles puts down a 2. And I am thinkin, ‘Holy Christ.’ ”
But the ball dipped as it was supposed to, “and I struck him out. So my first batter ever, I strike out a Hall of Famer.” O’Brien ended up pitching a scoreless inning, striking out two, but not before he hit Ed Bailey on the foot. “He heads to first base and yells, ‘You little bastard, get back to second base where you belong.’ ”
O’Brien pitched in 25 games in his big-league career. He and Eddie are the only twins to each have a win in the majors.
Protecting the catcher
In 1958, when the Pirates were down to one catcher, Danny Kravitz, manager Danny Murtaugh had a request of O’Brien. “He said, ‘Hey sport, why don’t you put on the Tools of Ignorance. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding, I’ve got a wife and three kids.’ He says, ‘If Kravitz gets hurt, you’re it.’ So I am catching batting practice and I am getting hit all over, ball marks everywhere.”
The Pirates are playing the Giants and one of biggest brawls in big-league history ensues and O’Brien races to the scene.
“I think I set a world record trying to keep Kravitz out of that fight because I didn’t want him to get hurt. … So that saved me from catching in the major leagues.”
‘He’s killing Jackie Robinson’
After finishing at Seattle U in 1953, the O’Briens joined the Pirates. Branch Rickey, the legendary Dodgers executive, had just become general manager of the Pirates.
“We are in spring training in Havana, Cuba, and Branch Rickey, with that gravelly voice says, ‘Edward, what position did you play at Seattle U?’ He says, ‘I was a center fielder, Mr. Rickey.’ He says, ‘Wonderful, you’re my shortstop.’ Then it’s, ‘John, what position did you play?’ and I tell him shortstop and third base. ‘Wonderful, you’re my second baseman.’
“So they start hitting balls (to Eddie), and Rickey’s going, ‘That’s Pee Wee Reese, that’s Pee Wee Reese’ (comparing Eddie to the Dodgers’ Hall of Famer). Then he says, let’s have a double play, and I come out and (Eddie) drills me. I said, Ed, you’re not a center fielder anymore, you just get the ball (easy) to me. They hit another one, and again, boom, he drills me again. So I say, ‘Mr. Rickey, that might be Pee Wee Reese, but he’s killing Jackie Robinson.’
“We became great friends with Rickey. He had us out to dinner at his house and he was the world’s worst driver. The yellow line, he had one tire on it as his guide. And he would say, ‘This is a wonderful town. Everyone honks as they go by.’ ”
Beware the curveball
Johnny O’Brien’s first major-league at-bat came against Dodgers star Carl Erskine, who struck out O’Brien on a nasty curveball. “And (catcher) Roy Campanella says, ‘Basketballs don’t curve, do they?’ So right away, I found out they knew about Seattle U.”
Hammerin’ Hank got him
O’Brien gave up Hank Aaron’s 87th home run and Willie Mays’ 182nd.
“Willie one day said, ‘I got you in my book (of home run victims),’ and he asks, ‘Did you ever strike me out?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I struck you out.’ He says, ‘We’re even then.’
“I had a locker next to Henry (when they were teammates in Milwaukee). Henry only weighed 172 pounds. He said, ‘Johnny, I’ve hit a lot of home runs, but I never hit one when I was trying to.’ … When Henry tied Babe Ruth (as the leader in career homers), I sent him a telegram. It said, ‘Dear Henry, if it wasn’t for me, you would still be one short.’ ”
No complaints from these customers
O’Brien had offseason jobs while in the majors, as did most players not lucky enough to get a bonus check from winning the World Series.
“We’re playing the Dodgers in Vero Beach (Fla.) in spring training, and Carl Furillo asked what I did in the offseason. I said I worked for the coroner in Seattle, picking up stiffs. He said, ‘What, you were picking up dead bodies? How can you do that?’ I said, ‘I never got a complaint from one of my customers.’
“Furillo said we didn’t win it last year, so (Roy Campanella) is doing this, (Gil) Hodges is doing that and Jackie (Robinson) is working here. Here was a team where seven of nine starters wound up in the Hall of Fame, and they all had to get a job if they didn’t win the World Series.”
Johnny’s on the spot
The Pirates were perennial losers when the O’Briens were playing there. That worked in Johnny’s favor once when the twins and their wives were out on a date.
“A cop pulls us over and he said, ‘You went through that light. A red light.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry officer, I thought it was amber.’ He says, ‘Give me your license,’ and says, ‘We got a peculiarity here. This is a state of Washington driver’s license and a Pennsylvania plate on your car.’ He says, ‘Where are you from?’ and I say, ‘New Jersey.’ Now it gets more interesting. He says, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’m working here for the summer, and I’m playing second base for the Pittsburgh Pirates.’ He hands me back my license and wallet, and says, ‘Go ahead, you have enough problems already.’”
He made his coach proud
In the 1955-56 offseason, Johnny O’Brien took a job as coach of a high-level AAU basketball team. He had 11 players on his team and when he got a call about a possible 12th player, he was adamant about not adding any players.
It didn’t matter that the player was pretty good, O’Brien was not going to budge. After some persuading, O’Brien said the kid could at least work out with the team at one practice.
And on the first trip through the layup line, that player, 6-foot-5 Elgin Baylor, did a reverse jam.
“And I decided right then that we could have a 12th player,” O’Brien said. “I was a real good coach. All I had to do was two things: put Elgin in the game and keep air in the ball.”
Baylor led Seattle U to the NCAA title game two years later, before starring in the NBA and landing in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
So Johnny O’Brien was the first person in Seattle to coach Baylor, the only player to pass O’Brien as Seattle U’s best. It seems rather fitting.