Thursday, May 21, 2009

Random Thursday: Eddie and Johnny O'Brien

As The Common Man wandered, blindfolded, through the baseballreference-verse, this week he stumbled upon the O’Brien brothers on the list of Seattle University products who played in the majors. Indeed, Eddie and Johnny O’Brien, identical twins, are the sole Seattle U Redhawks to make the majors.

Johnny and Eddie were both born on December 11, 1930 in South Amboy, New Jersey. There they excelled athletically and earned scholarships to Seattle U, where they played baseball but really excelled on the basketball court. Johnny was an All-American, the first player to score 1000 points in a season, and the two led the Redhawks to victory over the (then) undefeated Harlem Globetrotters. They caught the eye of Branch Rickey, then the general manager of the Pirates. Rickey signed the two brothers for $40,000 in 1953 (whether this was 40K a piece or as a package deal is unclear, but the brothers, who had been business majors, surely got a good deal).

This made the brothers bonus babies, and according to MLB rule, they stayed on the Pirates’ roster for all of 1953. The bonus rule had been implemented in 1947 to keep the Yankees from stockpiling all the great minor league talent. Essentially, if you signed an amateur for more than $4,000, that player had to stay on your major league roster for two seasons. It’s how the Dodgers acquired Sandy Koufax, the Senators coaxed Harmon Killebrew out of Idaho, and the Tigers tamed Al Kaline. Thus did the O’Brien twins arrive at spring training in ’53, just 22 years old and assured of a job in the major leagues.

Eddie played 89 games that year, all of them at SS, and couldn’t hit his way out of a paper bag (.238/.289/.280, 50 OPS+). Johnny also played 89 games, almost entirely at 2B, and hit a slightly better .247/.309/.330 (67 OPS+). While Johnny appears to be slightly above average defensively for a second baseman, Eddie is below adequate at short, which kind of makes sense, if you think about it (since they’re identical). The brothers will both take 1954 off to serve in the military (the Korean War is on), but will return in ’55. Eddie is just as bad that year (almost exactly as bad, in fact) but Johnny has his best year, playing more than half the time, getting 304 plate appearances, and providing adequate offense (.299/.346/.378, 94 OPS+) and is right around average defensively.

From afar, it’s hard to tell exactly what Rickey was expecting out of his identical keystone combo. The Common Man hasn’t found college stats from 1952, so it’s hard to tell exactly how impressive the O’Briens looked. But if The Common Man were to guess, he’d say that Rickey saw two young men who were interested in baseball, and who had tremendous athletic talent, even if their baseball skills were rough. Figuring their innate athleticism may blossom, and seeing a great publicity opportunity (an identical twin double play combination), Rickey figured to roll the dice. The Bucs are in the middle of a nine year run of finishing under .500, and a three year streak in which they’ll lose at least 100 games. What do they have to lose? Alas, the experiment was not successful.

The next year, Johnny fell off a cliff and only managed 114 plate appearances because of a microscopic .173/.209/.183 batting line that was good for just an 8 OPS+ (this has to be one of the biggest drop-offs in history, doesn’t it?). With his brother not playing well enough to justify a spot in the lineup (and thus no “identical double-play combo” appeal), Eddie only gets 58 plate appearances that year and continues to underwhelm. Trying to hang on, Eddie and Johnny switch to pitching. Once again, Johnny outperforms his brother, turning 8 effective appearances in ’56 into a mop-up gig in ’57. And on one terrific September day against the Cubs, Eddie pitches a six-hit complete game (with 8 Ks) to win the opening game of a double-header. In the nightcap, Johnny relieves in the 6th inning and gives up three runs in one inning of work, and gets hung with the loss.

In 1958, the brothers are split up and quickly make their way out of the league. Johnny goes into politics and becomes the King County Commissioner, then becomes the head of security at the Kingdome. Eddie heads back to the University of Seattle, where he serves as athletic director from ’58-’68. In 1969, Eddie is hired as the bullpen coach for the fledgling Seattle Pilots, and becomes one of Jim Bouton’s central antagonists in Ball Four, described as a “gold-plated pain in the ass.” To the best of The Common Man’s knowledge, both brothers are alive and well and living in Seattle today. They remain one of nine sets of twins to play in the majors, and one of two (the other Jose and Ozzie Canseco) to play together. They are the first and only twins to turn a double play…which is something, I guess.

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