The catcher who was nearly electrocuted in a major league game

Helmar baseball card featuring Mel Harder, Steve O’Neill, and Bob Feller, together on the late 1930s Cleveland Indians.

On a late summer afternoon in Cleveland in 1919, O’Neill was crouching behind the plate in the ninth inning, with two outs and an Indians’ victory nearly at hand. The skies were dark from storm clouds that drifted over from Lake Erie to cast a spooky shadow over League Park. Ray Caldwell was pitching, making his first start for Cleveland after signing a contract earlier that week. Caldwell was a talented pitcher with a hard fastball. He was so highly regarded that the Senators once offered Walter Johnson for him. Caldwell was a boozer, one of the most notorious elbow-benders in baseball. He fell short of stardom because he drank every day, nearly all day, except for the hours he was in a baseball uniform. Caldwell needed one out to secure a complete game victory, but just as he prepared to deliver his pitch a lightning bolt struck him (or possibly struck the ground near him), tossing him to the grass. Sixty feet away, O’Neill hopped up and down on his feet, startled by a shock coming from the ground. His mask and hat had been blown off his head. Home plate umpire Billy Evans later said, “We all could feel the tingle of the electric shock running through our systems, particularly in our legs.” Amazingly, Caldwell remained on the mound and finished the game, and O’Neill stayed behind the plate despite his “hot foot” from Mother Nature. Several ballplayers have been struck and killed by lightning, but this is the only confirmed instance of lightning striking players in a major league game.

Despite having played his final game before FDR took residence in the White House, O’Neill remains one of the greatest catchers in Cleveland history, and one of the most popular players to ever wear the team uniform. He hailed from a mining town called Minooka in Pennsylvania, one of four sons in the family who played professional ball. All four of the O’Neill boys made it to the big leagues, but Steve was by far the most talented.

O’Neill was among the best defensive catchers of his time, and he caught at least 100 games for nine straight seasons, making him one of the most durable receivers of his era. Known more for his glove and arm than his bat, O’Neill did his share with the lumber in Cleveland’s 1920 World Championship season, batting .321 in the regular season, and hitting .333 in the Fall Classic.

O’Neill and Hall of Fame pitcher Stan Coveleski teamed as a battery 237 times, or 87.1 percent of Coveleski’s starts, the highest figure for any combo who made at least 100 starts together. O’Neill and Coveleski, the Irishman and the Pole, combined for three victories in the 1920 Fall Classic when the Indians captured their first title. He was an important figure in baseball history beginning in 1911 when he made his debut, to the mid-1950s when he managed his final game. In one of his final seasons as a player, with the Yankees, O’Neill was the man who caught Babe Ruth when he collapsed on a train from stomach pain, which turned out to be a nasty case of syphilis. Fastballs, curves, or sick teammates, O’Neill could catch them all.

After he hung up his mask, in 14 seasons as a manager, O’Neill never had a losing record, and won the World Series with Detroit in 1945. As a skipper, he was a disciplinarian with a tendency to fiddle with his lineup, and a knack for playing hunches.

The Helmar card featured above depicts pitchers Mel Harder and Bob Feller with O’Neill, who was their manager in 1936 and 1937.

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