Here lies Don O’Riley, who pitched in the majors for two seasons. His playing career was cut short by a motorcycle accident, and his life, tragically, was cut short by gun violence. O’Riley played for the Kansas City Royals (1969-70).
Donald Lee O’Riley was born on March 12, 1945 in Topeka, Kan. He went to school in Kansas City, Mo., and attended Northeast High, lettering in track, basketball and football. The Kansas City Athletics took notice of him and his work in the 3&2 League, a baseball program in the K.C. area. O’Riley pitched for the champion Folgers team in 1964. In the one box score I could find, O’Riley struck out 14 batters to pick up his 5th win of the season on July 18. His work was even more impressive when you consider that it was his first year of pitching. Previously, he’d been the other end of the battery, working as a catcher. Folgers needed another starter, so he made the conversion to the mound. Thanks to scout Whitey Herzog, the A’s signed O’Riley in the fall of 1964 and assigned him to the Class-A Burlington Bees of the Midwest League, where he made his debut in 1965.
O’Riley was given the role of a relief pitcher right from the start, and he took to it pretty well. In his first season, the 20-year-old had a 7-1 record in 39 games with a 2.01 ERA. He struck out 103 batters in 94 innings. He did make 4 starts during the season and tossed 2 complete games. Most young pitchers would rather be starters than relievers, but O’Riley accepted his role.
“I like to come in from the bullpen,” he explained in a 1965 interview. “Right now, I don’t think I have enough experience to start all the time. I like to go in with men on; you know you have to throw strikes.
“Last year in the 3&2 I had good stuff, but I didn’t know how to use it. You have to use your head in pro ball – you can’t blow it past the guys. You’ve got to think with the hitter. These guys play every day, and they’re tougher to fool,” he added.
Burlington’s pitching staff put up ridiculous numbers in 1965 – most of their starters had ERA’s under 2.00 – but manager Gus Niarhos thought O’Riley was a definite major-league prospect. “He has an outstanding curveball – and he knows how to get it over. He can throw every day,” he said.
O’Riley stayed in Burlington for another season and moved up to the Peninsula Grays of Hampton, Va., to pitch in the Carolina League in 1967. After compiling a 2.13 ERA in 42 games for the Grays, he was promoted to AA Birmingham at the end of the season. Birmingham was in a pennant race in the Southern League, and they needed the bullpen help. After that, O’Riley was put on the fast track. He pitched in the Arizona Fall League in 1967 and then had a good year for the AAA Vancouver Mounties of the Pacific Coast League in 1968.
Though the Athletics had departed Kansas City to move to Oakland, O’Riley still broke into the majors for a hometown team. He was selected by the Kansas City Royals in their expansion draft, in the fall of 1968. At the time of the draft, O’Riley was on an offseason job for a local construction company. He joked to his coworkers that if the Royals took him, he’d celebrate by buying a beer. He did. And less than two days later, after meeting with Royals manager Joe Gordon, he was traveling to Florida to work on his pitching. He later posted good numbers in the Venezuelan Winter League.
“I’d like to stick with baseball as long as baseball wants me,” he said. “I owe a lot of persons for the help they’ve given me over the years. I’ll try to justify the faith of my friends and of the Royals.”
O’Riley started the 1969 season in the team’s AA Omaha affiliate. He was turned into a starting pitcher for the first time in his professional career, and he responded by leading Omaha in wins when he was promoted to the majors on June 19. He and Galen Cisco were brought up in part of a pitching staff shakeup. O’Riley’s debut almost never happened, as he and Omaha teammate Steve Boros were injured in a car accident days before the promotion. Fortunately, he suffered nothing more than some cuts.
O’Riley began his MLB career with 2 hitless innings against the Seattle Pilots on June 20. He didn’t allow an earned run in his first 3 appearances, totaling 5-2/3 innings. Then the bottom dropped out. He gave up runs in bunches, with the big blow occurring in a 12-2 rout by the Minnesota Twins on June 29. He was knocked out of the game after facing three batters, all of whom scored. That sent his ERA above 7. O’Riley had some good performances, picking up his only career save against the Pilots on July 4 and hit first win with a scoreless 1-1/3 inning of work against the White Sox on July 11. He was optioned back to Omaha on August 1, and he stayed there until a September call-up. He ended up with 12 wins for the Omaha Royals, which tied Paul Splittorf for the team lead.
O’Riley got a measure of revenge against the Oakland A’s on September 8, his first game after returning from the minors. He entered into a bases-loaded situation in the eighth inning and prevented any runs from scoring. The Royals won the game 7-3, and one of the offensive heroes was Joe Keough, who singled in 2 runs and scored late to cement the win. Both O’Riley and Keough had been drafted from the A’s to the Royals in the same expansion draft. O’Riley ended the year with a 1-1 record in 18 games in the majors and a 6.94 ERA. He gave up 32 hits in 23-1/3 innings, walked 15 and fanned 10.
O’Riley almost quit baseball entirely in 1970. While working at the Royals spring training camp, new manager Charlie Metro told him, “You haven’t shown anybody anything.”
“I was ready to head back to Kansas City,” the pitcher said. “What I would do I didn’t know, I just wanted to get out of baseball.” His wife eventually talked him out of an early retirement.
As it turned out, O’Riley lasted longer with the Royals than Metro did. He started the season in Omaha as a starter and was brought up to the big-league club in late June. By the time he rejoined the Royals, they already had a new manager in Bob Lemon.
O’Riley started a couple of games and gave up 3 earned runs each time while pitching into the fifth inning once and the fourth the other time. After that, he was back in the bullpen, where he pitched a little better than he had the previous season. He control was better, and he gave up fewer hits. He was sent back to Omaha in August with a 5.40 ERA in 9 games, but it was an improved performance.
He attributed that improvement to being able to get his breaking pitches over the plate. “I give them two kinds of fastballs to look at – the sinker that I hold with the seams, the rising one that I grip across the seams. And I have a big breaking curve that I throw sidearm and a quick-breaker that looks like a slider. That’s it. That’s all I throw. But that’s enough – when I get them over.”
After the season was over, the Royals traded O’Riley and outfielder Pat Kelly for first baseman Gail Hopkins and outfielder John Matias. The Sox released him at the end of spring training in 1971. O’Riley underwent arm surgery and spent the summer rehabbing and working out with the Royals in the hopes of making a comeback.
O’Riley signed with the Atlanta Braves organization and pitched for their AAA team in Richmond in 1972 and 1973. He was fairly successful as a starter in ’72, with a 6-8 record and 3.66 ERA in 19 games. He went 0-2 with a 6.00 ERA in 18 games in 1973, and those were his final games in professional baseball. In 1974, he chipped a bone in his elbow in a motorcycle accident, bringing his baseball career to an end.
In his two seasons with the Royals, O’Riley appeared in 27 games, with 2 starts. He had a 1-1 record with 1 save and a 6.17 ERA in 46-2/3 innings. He struck out 23 batters and walked 24, and his WHIP was 1.757.
Don O’Riley was killed on May 2, 1997, in a shootout with a robber in Kansas City. He had been working in a convenience store for about a year when it was held up by Robert L. Muse, 21. The two exchanged gunfire, and O’Riley was shot in the head. Muse was wounded and apprehended by police. He was charged with second-degree murder and robbery. He received a life sentence and, as of June 2020, is still in prison.
O’Riley was 52 years old and was survived by his parents, a brother and sister, his wife, son and two stepsons. He is buried in Floral Hills Memorial Gardens in Kansas City.
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