The genial and dedicated man who was to be crowned “The King of the Sandlots” was born in South Providence on December 14, 1878 along with his twin brother Edward. Their parents were Edward and Ann (Lynch). Tim was an enterprising paperboy in his youth, but received little formal schooling. Fortunately he was a proficient baseball player and had great skill for organizing. By the age of twenty he was the coach of his parish youth team, the St. Michael’s Institute, whose star pitcher was Andy Coakley.
In 1902, a group of local sandlot team managers, including James “Connie” Beagan of Mount Pleasant, Joseph Mulvey of South Providence, and Tim, formed the Providence Junior League, Tim was chosen to direct it, and under his leadership it would evolve into the nationally famous “Tim O’Neil Leagues.”
During the next sixty years these age-graded baseball leagues, numbering as many as nine at one point, furnished recreation, competition, excitement, and instruction to tens-of-thousands of Rhode Island boys. Though players and teams represented all of Rhode Island, from Woonsocket to South Kingstown and Bristol to Burrillville, most of the games were played on Providence ballfields due to Tim’s close working relationship with Joseph J. McCaffrey, Providence’s superintendent of playgrounds from 1913 to 1940. During some seasons Tim had more than a thousand ball-players under his guidance.
When the program’s silver jubilee was observed in 1927, Judge Emil Fuchs, then owner of the Boston Braves, was one of many distinguished attendees. Fuchs was so impressed with O’Neil’s program, that he persuaded the major leagues to appropriate $50,000 to encourage similar local baseball programs throughout the country in association with the American Legion. In April 1928, the Providence Journal hailed this development with the headline, “Tim O’Neil’s Idea to Pervade U.S.”
Starting with his protégé Andy Coakley in 1902, more than a dozen major leaguers played in the Tim O’Neil Leagues. That roster includes Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Gabby Hartnett, Jack Flynn, the legendary Providence College coach of the 1930s, Johnny Cooney, James J. Cooney, Sr., James E. Cooney, Jr., Clem Labine, Max Surkont, Chet Nichols, Mike Rourke, Dave Stenhouse, Art Quirk, and Davey Lopes. To that list should be added umpire Hank Soar and Red Sox manager Lou Gorman. Thirteen of these athletes are members of the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame; as are many other Rhode Island leaders from all walks of life.
For over sixty years, on Saturdays from early May to late September, hundreds of contests were played, with some games attracting more than a thousand spectators. Accounting for the fact that the number of teams and leagues varied from year-to-year with few at the beginning and at the end of the program, one can still safely estimate that at least 20,000 games were played in the Tim O’Neil Leagues during their existence.
Tim O’Neil directed this massive project as a volunteer while earning his living in the jewelry and emblem business. His stated purpose was “to build better citizens through baseball,” and his frequently asserted motto was “there is no such thing as a bad boy!” Tim’s attitude towards youth guidance prompted him to become very active in the Boy Scout movement late in his career, and Eagle Scouts served as his pallbearers when he died on February 28, 1947 after a long illness. Tim never married, a not unusual choice for Irish-American men of his era. He was survived by two sisters, Mrs. Edward Burke, with whom he lived, and Miss Annie M. O’Neil. His brothers predeceased him.
Tim received numerous awards during his lifetime, including the dedication in his honor of the ballfield in Roger Williams Park. In his his final years he was assisted by noted sports columnist Warren Walden and by the sports department of the Providence Journal, especially such staffers as H. Webster Youlden and Larry Gallogly.
By the early 1960s, changing times and demographics, coupled with the televising of major league games and the demise of the urban neighborhoods that were the heart of Tim’s program, reduced the number of leagues to one--the Amateur League--and then to none. The last of the great neighborhood baseball teams, the RWSO-IBAA squad from South Providence (featuring two of those O’Neil alumni who made their way into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame) dissolved at the end of the 1956 season after capturing the Independent Amateur League crown.
Now, in 2013, Tim O’Neil joins all those Hall of Famers that he influenced by his long-overdue and well deserved induction into that elite league of eminent Rhode Islanders.
- Dr. Patrick T. Conley