Grave Story: John Reilly (1858-1937)

When many 19th-Century ballplayers retired, they “took to the white apron” – in other words, they became bartenders. Others became police officers or fireman, but as far as I can tell, only one became an in-demand lithographer. That would be “Long” John Reilly, one of the premier sluggers of his era. Reilly played for the Cincinnati Reds (1880, 1890-91) and the Cincinnati Red Stockings (1883-89) of the American Association.

John Good Reilly was born in Cincinnati on October 5, 1858. His father, Frank A. Reilly (also listed as Riley or O’Reilly), enlisted in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War and became captain of the U.S.S. St. Louis, an ironclad gunboat. According to the story on Find A Grave, the St. Louis was hit by Confederate artillery at the Battle of Fort Donelson, Tenn., on February 14, 1862. Reilly, 42, was killed in the fighting.

John Reilly’s mother, Ellen, sent her son to her grandfather in Illinois when he was seven years old. He returned to Cincinnati when he was 13 to attend school. He went to the School of Design and then became an apprentice lithographer at Strobridge Co., a print shop that was particularly known for its circus advertisements. Reilly’s choice of an artistic career affected his baseball career. When he started playing ball in 1879 with an amateur team in Latonia, Ky., he was originally a catcher. However, as he graduated from an apprentice to a professional artist, Reilly wisely decided that he should switch to a position that would be less risky to his precious hands. Biology had a little something to do with it as well. Reilly grew up to be 6’3” – hence the nickname of “Long John.” With that height, he was a natural first baseman, capable of using his great reach to snag errant throws.

John Reilly’s grave in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati.

Reilly fell in with the Mohawk Browns, a well-known Cincinnati amateur team that also developed Hall of Famer Buck Ewing. It was there that, according to the New York Clipper, famed third baseman Bob Ferguson saw Reilly and predicted greatness for the young ballplayer. He played winter ball in San Francisco in 1879 and returned to Cincinnati to sign with the Cincinnati Reds of the National League for 1880.

Years after retirement, Reilly admitted that when he initially balked about playing in California, and he reconsidered only when he thought about all the new sights he could see and draw. “While I was out there I made hundreds of pencil sketches – some of which I still have – and each one has a memory attached to it that I prize more highly than any elaborate photograph that could have been taken,” he explained in a 1921 interview. “But I guess I must have played pretty good baseball out there, too, for when the team came back to Cincinnati the Reds picked me to play first base.”

Reilly’s rookie season was not one to remember. The 21-year-old batted .206 in 73 games, with just 16 RBIs and 12 extra-base hits – 8 doubles and 4 triples. His fielding percentage at first base was a below-average .947. Still, there was something about Reilly that made people take notice. “If the Cincinnatis are wise that will keep John Reilly on their playing team. He is a heavy batter, to say nothing about the advantage of having a long-legged first baseman,” wrote The Boston Herald.

Frankly, Reilly could be forgiven for having a bad season – he was lucky to have survived the year at all! He was one of about 300 passengers on the SS Narragansett, a paddle steamer on the Stonington Line, that departed the North River Pier in New York City on June 11, bound for Providence. At 11:30 that evening, the boat collided with the SS Stonington, a sister boat that was headed to New York City. The Stonington was able to dock with heavy damage but no casualties. The Narragansett, though, caught fire and burned, with many of her passengers trapped in their staterooms. More than 50 people died, and the survivors had to jump overboard to be rescued.

Pitcher Will White, the captain of the Reds, sent numerous telegraphs, trying to get news of his missing first baseman. The initial news coverage reported that Reilly was feared lost, but he was found, safe and relatively sound, on June 13. His story is incredible enough that it deserves its own story. But all things considered, a .206 batting average was among the least of his worries.

The Cincinnati Reds – at least that iteration of the Cincinnati Reds – folded and were removed from the NL at the end of the season. It left the city with a lot of local ballplayers, like Reilly, White, Joe Ellick and amateurs like Ren Deagle, without an outlet, and talk sprung up about forming independent local teams that would be removed from “League tyranny,” as the Cincinnati Enquirer put it. Reilly, at least, had steady employment outside of baseball, though he did find time to play some semi-pro ball. In 1882, he left Ohio to play for the New York Metropolitans of the League Alliance. Stats from the league are not on Baseball Reference, but an 1889 profile of Reilly in the New York Clipper stated that he played in 157 games, had 175 hits and tallied 130 runs. He also appeared at a fireworks display at the Polo Grounds on August 5. He was slated to engage in a “great walking match” with Mets teammate Ed Kennedy. There was also to be a concert by the Seventh Regiment band and a boxing match between John L. Sullivan and Tug Wilson. Admission for all that was 25 cents.

The formation of a new league for the 1883 season gave another chance to many unemployed ballplayers and created some strong competition for the National League. The American Association began operations with eight clubs, including many of the cities where teams had been booted from the National League. The new Cincinnati Red Stockings secured the services of many of their local players, like pitchers White and Deagle. Manager Pop Corkhill was to be the first baseman until Reilly signed, at which point Corkhill moved to catcher. The signing of Reilly was troubling from a legal standpoint, as he had previously signed with the National League’s New York club before jumping to the new league. The Conference Committee, which resolved contract disputes, declared him property of the Reds.

A John Reilly pencil sketch. Source: Cincinnati Art Galleries

The 1883 Red Stockings finished third in the American Association with a 61-37 record, but they led the AA with 34 home runs. No other team in the eight-team league had more than 20, but Cincinnati had the advantage of not one, but two legitimate sluggers in the lineup. Charley Jones was second in the league to Philadelphia’s Harry Stovey and his 15 home runs. Finishing in third place for the season was John Reilly, with 9 homers. Reilly was one of a handful of players in the league who played in all 98 games, and he also had 21 doubles and 14 triples, with 79 RBIs and 103 runs scored. He also had an offensive hot streak that saw him hit for the cycle twice in an eight-day span.

Not only was he a new hitting star, but he was also a revelation at the field. Reilly, like Charlie Comiskey would do in St. Louis in a few years, played off the bag. His long legs enabled him to cover much more ground than other first basemen, who tended to play close to the base and let the second baseman handle most of the grounders. “His great reaches after the ball while he still keeps his foot on the bag have been the delight as well as a source of wonderment to the lovers of the national game in Cincinnati,” commented the New York Clipper.

Reilly’s play inspired a fan to write the following ode:

Is that Long John Reilly,
With dukes like a bell;
Is that that Long John Reilly,
We’ve often heard tell?
If that’s Mr. Reilly,
They sphake of so highly
Why, darn it, John Reilly,
You play the base well.

Reilly was just getting warmed up. In 1884, an odd year with three major leagues, Reilly hit .339 and led the AA with 11 homers, 247 total bases, a .551 slugging percentage, an OPS of .918 and an OPS+ of 189. Of course, most of those categories didn’t exist in 1884, but even by conventional stats it was an impressive year. He had 19 triples, 114 runs scored and 91 RBIs.

Reilly’s home run numbers ebbed and flowed, but he remained one of the team’s most productive batters. In 1885 and ’86, be batted .297 and .265, respectively, and each year he scored 92 runs with 11 triples. Though stolen base totals are not available for the first part of his career, he was known as a threat on the bases as well. “It is a hop, skip, jump and a slide and Long John is generally seen standing on his shoulder safe on the bag while the second baseman is making ineffectual lunges with the ball at the place where he ought to be, but isn’t,” commented the Clipper in 1886.

John Reilly (6’3″) and teammate Hugh Nicol (5’4″).

In his off-the-field life, Reilly was unlike most ballplayers of his era. He was very well-read, and it was said he could have been an author if graphic arts hadn’t caught his attention first. He was honest, too. Once in 1885, team captain Pop Snyder fined Reilly $10 because he told the umpire that he hadn’t been hit with an inside pitch after the ump told him to go to first base. And his preference was to find a scenic area to draw rather than late-night or early-morning poker games with teammates. It didn’t always make him friends. Veteran Red Stockings outfielder (and infamous drinker) Fred Lewis essentially ended his pro career in 1886 when he punched Reilly in the nose and demanded his release. Some remark from Reilly set off the troublesome Lewis, who swore he would not play with a lot of “back-cappers.” Reilly later came to blows with teammate Hugh Nicol, whose temper was larger than his 5’4” body. Nicol, though he was about a foot shorter and 30 pounds lighter than Reilly, insisted on scrapping with the big first baseman. Teammate Elmer Smith later wrote that Reilly finally threw a punch that glanced off Nicol’s forehead and landed on the jaw of manager Guz Schmelz, who was trying to break up the fight. Both men went down in a heap. Reilly apologized to his manager daily until the end of the season.

Reilly’s twin passions of art and baseball coexisted for a surprisingly long time. Despite the fact that he could have lived a comfortable life based solely on his artwork, he was always one of the first Red Stockings to return his signed contract for the coming season. It wasn’t until 1887 that he delayed – not for financial reasons, but because he had been offered a full-time position as a lithographer. He signed with the Reds in late February with assurances that once he left his offseason work as an artist, he would hit the gym and be back in shape by March 15. He was true to his word, too, because he clobbered 10 home runs in ’87, along with 35 doubles and 14 triples for a .309/.352/.477 slash line. He had 96 RBIs and stole 50 bases as well. The Reds, who finished a distant second place to the St. Louis Browns, were trailing the Brooklyn Grays 6-5 when Reilly came to bat against Adonis Terry in the bottom of the eighth inning. “Then Long John Reilly swung his bat and the ball went into the ditch in left field and hasn’t been found yet,” The Standard Union said of the game-deciding blast.

Source: The Sunday Leader, April 14, 1889.

Reilly’s last great season came in 1888, when he led the American Association with 13 home runs, 103 RBIs, 264 total bases, a .501 slugging percentage and an OPS of .864. He also batted .321 and stole 82 bases. His .321 batting average was second in the league to Tip O’Neill’s .335 mark with St. Louis, and it was more than 50 points higher than any other Cincinnati regular. He brought an exciting 14-inning game against visiting Baltimore to a thrilling conclusion with a massive walk-off home run to center field.

In 1889, Reilly’s production began to tail off. His batting average fell to .260, and his 5 home runs were bested on his own team by the likes of catcher Jim Keenan and rookie sensation Bug Holliday. His stolen bases fell by nearly half to 43. While his work at first base was still a marvel, the big hitter, now 30 years old, was starting to slow down. By that stage in his life, he was past the point where he needed baseball anymore. It was estimated by some reports that he was worth about $15,000 (about $445,000 in 2021). There were others who were wealthier, like Bob Caruthers and Nat Hudson, but they had gotten their money through inheritance. Reilly was largely a self-made man. Clearly, the desire was still there.

The Cincinnati Reds moved to the National League in 1890, getting out of the American Association just before the league folded following the 1891 season. Reilly hit an even .300 while facing all new pitchers and led the NL with a whopping 26 triples. He also broke up a no-hitter by Boston’s John Clarkson with a home run to right field – one of 6 homers Reilly hit all season. He also hit for the cycle for the final time of his career, this time off Louisville’s Guy Hecker.

The Reds struggled in the National League, and manager Tom Loftus tinkered with the lineup to try and find a winning combination. In 1891, he even tried moving Reilly to center field to give Keenan more playing time at first base, but Reilly was clearly not an outfielder. “He need never be vaccinated while he is in center, for he wouldn’t catch anything – not even the small-pox – if it brushed against him,” cracked the Chicago Tribune. Keenan didn’t do any better at first base, and the Reds fell to seventh place with a 56-81-1 record. Reilly batted .242, the worst performance of his tenure with the Reds. While he still managed 20 doubles and 13 triples, he homered just 4 times, and it seems like his power had been depleted.

By the end of the 1891 season, the Reds and Reilly had parted ways. There were reports throughout the rest of the year that he would sign or had already signed with other teams. None of the rumored contracts amounted to anything, however. Reilly, at the age of 32, decided to devote himself full-time to a job as a lithographer. He also had a significant inheritance when his grandfather, John Good, died in 1892. Good had owned extensive real estate in southern California and left his family with a million-dollar estate. The same grandfather who took young John Reilly in for his widowed mother now helped to ensure that Reilly had enough of a nest egg that he could be a full-time artist.

In his 10 years of professional baseball, Reilly slashed .289/.325/.438, with 1,352 hits that included 215 doubles, 139 triples and 69 home runs. He drove in 740 runs and scored 898 times. His stolen base totals at Baseball Reference are available for just six of his seasons, but he still ended up with 245 thefts. His career fielding average at first base was .972, higher than league average. He led the American Association in fielding in 1884 with a .984 mark, and he was usually among the top fielding first basemen in the league.

During his career, Reilly hit for the cycle three times, which ties him with Adrian Beltre, Babe Herman, Bob Meusel and, most recently, Trea Turner for most all-time.

John Reilly, still at work as an artist in 1921. Source: Louisville Courier-Journal, May 29, 1921.

Despite rumors of his imminent return to the game, about the only time that Reilly returned to baseball was when Cincinnati Reds business manager Frank Bancroft asked him to make some cartoons that could be added to the team’s scorecards. He remained employed by Strobridge Lithographic Works and saved his ballplaying to the game held at the company’s annual picnic. “To tell you the truth, I am rather afraid to trust myself to go out and look at the gang play ball,” he told a reporter in 1894. “I am afraid it might tempt me to leave my trade, at which I am now doing well, and go back to the diamond.”

Source: The Cincinnati Enquirer, June 1, 1937.

The memory of Long John Reilly the ballplayer lingered for a good long while, as a feared power hitter and occasionally as the butt of one of Arlie Latham’s many stories about the “good old days” of baseball. At the same time, posters for circuses and other traveling shows covered walls and fences across America. If the poster came from Strobridge, and if there is a signature of “JGR” somewhere in the corner of the illustration, then it was drawn by John Good Reilly. He also produced watercolors, and influential painters like James Roy Hopkins and Frank Duveneck had Reilly’s paintings in their private collections.

Even into the 1920s, Reilly remained a prolific artist, though he wasn’t quite the first baseman he used to be. At a Strobridge picnic, one of the other artists hit a hot grounder to first base that Reilly couldn’t handle. Someone in the crowd joked, ‘As a first baseman you’re a fine landscape artist!”

“It was the first time that I realized I was getting old,” Reilly said in 1921, when he was 63.

John Reilly died on May 31, 1937, at the age of 78, in his home at 403 Stanley Avenue in Cincinnati. He never married and kept up his profession until a year or so before his death. He left behind a wealth of art, some of which can be viewed and purchased today. He is buried in Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Cemetery. John Reilly was elected into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 2002.

“If the civil service authorities want to find out whether a man had the heart disease or not, just have him appointed a base ball manager, and if he doesn’t drop dead inside of a week he is a sound man.”

John Reilly

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