Last week Miguel Cabrera won the 17th Triple Crown in Major League history, and the first in 45 years, leading the American League with a .330 batting average, 44 home runs, and 139 RBIs.
125 years ago today (October 9, 1887), St. Louis Browns left fielder James Edward “Tip” O’Neill became the second Triple Crown winner in baseball history, batting .435 and hitting 14 homers and 123 RBIs to lead the American Association in all three categories.
For that 1887 season, O’Neill also led the American Association in runs (167), hits (235), doubles (52), triples (19), and total bases (357). He led the combined major leagues in all categories but triples, home runs, and RBIs. (Oddly, he didn’t even finish in the top ten in bases on balls.)
No other player in baseball history has led his league in doubles, triples, and home runs.
Though nineteenth century statisticians didn’t keep track of on-base percentage or slugging percentage, O’Neill in 1887 led the majors in both categories. He also topped the major leagues in other yet-to-be-invented stats such as wins above replacement (among position players) and adjusted OPS+ (211, 34 points better than second-place Pete Browning of the Louisville Colonels).
O’Neill’s 1887 season was an anomaly. The following year he was the American Association leader in batting average (.335) and hits (177). After 1888 he never again led the American Association in any offensive category. His OPS in 1887 was 1.180; in nine other Major League seasons he never cracked .900.
O’Neill hailed from Ontario. Though he was never elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, he does reside in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, which gives out the Tip O’Neill Award each year to the best Canadian Baseball Player. (Joey Votto and John Axford tied for the award last year; Larry Walker has won the most career Tip O’Neill Awards, with nine.) Massachusetts Congressman Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, who served as Speaker of the House from 1977 through 1987, was nicknamed “Tip” in honor of the nineteenth century ball player.
The American Association would fold four years after O’Neill’s historic season. Though it has always been considered a major league, the Association never outgrew its little brother status. Eight of the league’s teams would leave to join the more established and respected National League. (The American League didn’t come around until 1901.)
The American Association played a World Series against the National League, but only one Association team ever won (O’Neill’s Browns in 1886). In 1887, O’Neill and the Browns lost the series 10-5 to the Detroit Wolverines. (Detroit actually clinched the series in 11 games, but the teams were contractually obligated to play 15.)
The St. Louis Browns joined the National League in 1891 and became the Cardinals in 1900 (after one season as the Perfectos, a name they never should have abandoned). In 1902 the American League’s Milwaukee Brewers moved to St. Louis and called themselves the Browns. That team became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954.