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The Life of Harry M O'Neill 1 Lt

MORNINGBYTES BY FRANK FITZPATRICK,INQUIRER REPORTER 5/28/2009

Memorial Day always makes me think of Harry O'Neill.

A major-league ballplayer, a World War II Hero...O'Neill's story, I've often thought might make a nice newspaper takeout, perhaps even a book or screenplay.

His short life was as sweet as any imaginable. And as bitter.

"Porky" O'Neill reached the big leagues as a catcher. But while he got to wear the uniform of his beloved hometown team, the Philadelphia Athletics, his career consisted of a single game - a single inning, really, with no at-bat, in a meaningless 16-3 loss.

He wore another iconic American uniform, too, as a Marine first lieutenant. Again, things didn't turn out well. A Japanese sniper's bullet ended his decorated career as well as his life.

I found his name while looking up the surprising number of big-leaguers with one-game careers. He was from Delaware County, and the juxtaposition of hero and tragic victim that marked his life intrigued me.

Over the years I've searched for more. I located his baseball and service records. I found old Marine pals, classmates at Darby High and Gettysburg College, men who played for him at Upper Darby Junior High, even his aging sister-in-law and niece.

I know the facts but not the story. Time has buried the intimate details of Harry Mink O'Neill's charmed and cursed life.

He had no children. His widow died long ago. His friends are either gone or in their 90's.

Born in South Phila. in 1917, O'Neill grew up on Pine Street in Darby. A neighborhood friend recalled him as a big, friendly youngster, a great athlete who, in football, "dared you to knock him over."

Six-foot-3 and 200 pounds as a teenager, he became a three-sport star in Darby (Class of 1934) and Gettysburg ('39).

His college manager was Ira Plank, brother of A's Hall of Fame pitcher Eddie. Plank told A's owner-manager Connie Mack about his big catcher, and, on the day O'Neill graduated, Mack signed him for $200 a month.

He spent several months as the A's third-string catcher. His parents, a relative recalled, made frequent trips to Shibe Park to watch him Play. Unfortunately, the only chance they got was during batting practice or when he warmed up relievers in the bullpen. Finally, on July 23, 1939, in the eighth inning of a getaway game in Detroit, O'Neill entered as a defensive replacement for Frankie Hayes. He never got to hit, never got into another game. Sometime between then and season's end, he was assigned to the old Interstate League, where in 1940 he played with the Allentown Wings and Harrisburg Senators.

O'Neill must have soured on baseball. He took a job as a history teacher and coach at Upper Darby Junior High, now Beverly Hills Middle School. "Harry brought a great deal of new systems and we were greatly disappointed when he left," one of his ex-football players wrote to me. A photo of their team shows O'Neill, looking oddly contemporary in a hooded sweatshirt, sitting at the rear of several rows of small but earnest-faced boys.

Friends said he had planned a return to baseball. But Pearl Harbor intervened, and in December of '42 he enlisted in the Marine Reserve. He was stationed in San Diego and not long afterward married Ethel Breen of Colwyn.

Lt. O'Neill commanded a half-track platoon with the Regimental Weapons Co. of the 25th Marines. That unit hopscotched from one Pacific-island battle to another. During fighting on Saipan, he was wounded by a shell fragment and returned to a naval hospital in San Francisco. "My wounds were only bad enough to put my pitching arm out of action for a short time," he wrote in July 1944 letter to his only sibling, older brother Bill.

Filter Harry M O'Neill 1 Lt's Timeline by the following Memory Categories

Military Service

War:
World War II
Branch:
Marines