Who would win Tip O'Neill award all the way back to 1879?

By Neil Munro

Canadian Baseball Network

The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame describes this award with the following introduction: 

The Tip O’Neill Award is named after Woodstock, Ontario native James “Tip” O’Neill, who was one of Major League Baseball’s first legitimate stars. With the St. Louis Browns in 1887, O’Neill set single season records in hits, doubles, slugging percentage and total bases, while recording an astounding .492 batting average. Walks were counted as hits in 1887, but if O’Neill’s average was calculated by today’s standards, it would be .435, the second highest in big league history to Hugh Duffy (.438). The award is presented annually by the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame to the player judged to have excelled in individual achievement and team contribution while adhering to baseball’s highest ideals.

While O’Neill’s batting average was officially listed as the remarkable .492 back in 1887, baseball revisionists have since scaled it back to a still most impressive .435. During the 1887 season, the category of base hits was interpreted to include bases on balls as well as base hits. The result was a flood of record batting averages that year. As a result, the category of base hits was restored to its definition (the one used every season before and since 1887). O’Neill had 50 walks that year to go along with his legitimate 225 base hits which resulted in his inflated batting mark. 

Nonetheless, his 1887 batting surge was remarkable in many other respects. He bested Louisville’s Pete Browning for the revised batting crown (by 33 points) and led the American Association is runs scored (his tally of 167 is fourth best in major league history), base hits, total bases (357), doubles (52), triples (19), home runs (14) and RBI (123). He not only was the triple crown winner but he continues to be the only major leaguer ever to lead his league in double, triples and homers in the same season. It is fitting indeed that his name commemorates and is presented annually to Canada’s most outstanding player.

The award was only inaugurated following the 1984 season, and its first winner was Houston’s Terry Puhl. Puhl batted .301 in 1984 but he had several statistically better years before the award was established.  Here is a complete list of the award winners since that season.

Perhaps some consideration should be given to calling it the Larry Walker Award in that he has won it a record nine times. Indeed Walker was not named the winner following his 1999 campaign in which he batted .379 with 37 home runs and 115 RBI. Jeff Zimmerman was the Tip O’Neill Award winner in his rookie season of 1999 in which he posted a 9-3 won-loss record to go along with an ERA of 2.36 in 65 pitching appearances.

Joey Votto, last year’s award winner, now has six Tip O’Neill crowns on his trophy shelf with the possibility of garnering several more in that he still has many productive seasons in his future. Justin Morneau ranks third having captured three Tip O’Neill Awards.

However, it is worth remembering that many of Canada’s greatest performers were retired from the big leagues long before the award was actually instituted. Let’s make a hypothetical conjecture of the possible allotment of the Tip O’Neill Awards to Canada’s top baseball performers prior to 1984. It should be noted that in many seasons there are several deserving candidates while in others just one or two players actually had saw enough action in the big leagues to warrant any consideration as the award recipient.

Between 1876 and 1879, there was just one active major leaguer from Canada and we assume one obvious winner.

Starting in 1880, several outstanding players appeared in the big leagues and competition for the hypothetical award intensified. Indeed, Bill Phillips (the 1879 winner), Arthur Irwin, Pop Smith and George Wood would all have received strong consideration. My speculation is that Phillips would have captured three trophies (1879, 1880 and 1885) as would George Wood (in 1881, 1882 and 1883).

Bob Emslie’s 1884 campaign would easily bring him the honours for that season despite the good years posted by Wood, Phillips and Bill Mountjoy. Emslie won 32 games for the Baltimore Orioles of the American Association, completing every one of his 50 starts that year.

By 1886, Tip O’Neill himself solidified his reputation as a batting star of major proportions and likely would have taken his own trophy home each season from 1886 to 1891 with the exception of 1890 when Spud Johnson would have nosed him out. Johnson batted .346 that year and led his league in RBI.

Between 1892 and 1909, we lacked a strong contender of the likes of O’Neill and Wood, so most of the award winners would have to be content with just one trophy. John O’Brien would likely have taken the crowns in 1895, 1896, 1897 and 1899 but he was the only Canadian to appear as even a semi-regular player in that span.

Bunk Congalton would take back to back awards in the 1906 and 1907 seasons.

Once again during the decade from 1910 to 1920, several outstanding Canadians debuted on the big league stage. Russ Ford would almost certainly have captured three awards (in 1910, 1911 and 1914). In his sensational rookie campaign of 1910 he won 26 games against just 6 losses, while hurling 8 shutouts and posting an ERA of 1.65 fanning 209 batters.

Just the same, 1911 should have seen Doc Miller and Ford share the award in that the former batted .333 while leading the National League in base hits (192).

Jack Graney breaks through in 1915, taking the award each year from 1915 through 1920 except 1918 when he was slowed considerable by injuries. This despite the fact that even though he appeared in only 62 games in 1920; however he did make an appearance in the World Series that season.

Bob Steele wins the 1918 award with five  pitching wins in 115 innings.

In the 1920s, Frank O’Rourke dominates that competition for the mythical Tip O’Neill Award, taking home the hardware in 1921 and 1922 and then in each year from 1924 through 1930 (for a total of nine trophies to match Larry Walker’s haul). It has to be noted that there just was not much competition for the award in that decade. For example, there would have been a toss-up to determine the 1923 winner between Harry O’Neill (three games and two innings pitched) and Jim Riley (three hitless at-bats in two games played).

Vince Barton breaks through with back to back crowns in 1931 and 1932 for his efforts with the Chicago Cubs.

After Gus Dugas takes the 1933 award by default (batting .169 in 37 games), George “Twinkletoes” Selkirk debuts in right field in Yankee Stadium, eventually replacing Babe Ruth there (as well as inheriting his fabled number 3, in that the Yankees did not retire that number until 1948). Selkirk easily wins the Tip O’Neill Award each season from 1934 to 1937, and again in 1939 and 1940.

In 1938, Selkirk loses out to Rookie Jeff Heath (who batted .343 with 21 HR and 112 RBI).

Selkirk had dropped off to a .254 batting average in 1938 after establishing himself as a consistent .300 hitter with good power numbers. That season also witnessed outfielder Goodie Rosen putting up outstanding batting and fielding totals but not in the same fashion as Heath’s outstanding year. Rosen would eventually win the award himself in 1945.

Heath would go on to put up all-star caliber batting marks for a decade before succumbing to a season-ending injury in 1948 and then a career ending broken leg in1949. In 1941 he batted .340 to go along with 24 HR and 123 RBI (losing the AL RBI crown by just two to Joe DiMaggio in the season of his fabled 56-game hitting streak. Heath also had the rare accomplishment of slugging 20 or more doubles, triples and home runs that year as well.

Despite having a solid season in 1942, Heath would lose out to pitcher Phil Marchildon (17 wins for the lowly Philadelphia A’s who could only muster 55 team victories in the whole season). Heath would come back to capture the trophy in 1943 and likely also in 1944 when he batted .331 but saw only limited playing time as a result of an injury.

Heath would be back in the winner’s circle in 1946 and then lose out to Marchildon again in 1947 as the A’s ace racked up 19 wins as the Philadelphia club cracked the .500 barrier notching 78 wins against 76 losses). Heath captures his final Tip O’Neill Award in 1948, despite strong competition from another stellar Canadian pitcher with the Connie Mack club – Dick Fowler. Fowler posted 15 wins against just 8 losses that season. Fowler does break through to take home his own trophy in 1949 (another season in which he won 15 times). In the end, Jeff Heath wins six imaginary Tip O’Neill Awards in an era that featured many star Canadian major leaguers.

The 1950 season saw the appearance of yet another top flight Canadian hurler with the Philadelphia A’s club in the person of Bob Hooper. Hooper takes home the Tip O’Neill Award four straight seasons from 1950 to 1953 (in part because there were no other serious contenders playing then).

Hooper might have even won five straight trophies but I’m giving the 1954 award to either Ozzie Van Brabant (nine games and 27 innings pitched) or Reno Bertoia (batting .162 in 54 games as a sub).

Outfielder Glen Gorbous captures back to back trophies in 1955 and 1956 (he was the lone Canadian big league in 1956 but posted decent batting figures in 1955). Then, Bertoia breaks through to take home four straight awards between 1957 and 1960. He gets some competition from pitcher Ted Bowsfield in 1958 and 1960 until Bowsfield is the undisputed winner in 1961 posting 11 wins with the expansion L.A. Angels.

Bowsfield loses out (barely) to Ken Mackenzie of the expansion N.Y. Mets in 1962. Bowsfield had niine wins and eight losses for the surprising Angels who contended for the American League title but MacKenzie’s 5-4 record with that terrible 1962 Met club (its only pitcher to post a winning record) wins the award in my books.

Then again, starting in 1963 and for the next two decades, we see a resurgence of Canadian baseball stars. Pete Ward is the easy choice to win in 1962 (22 HR, 84 RBIs, .295 batting average) and 1963 (23 HR, 94 RBIs and a .282 batting mark). Ward looked like he would begin a streak of these mythical awards but he a car accident in 1964 reduced his batting prowess substantially.  

The Chicago slugger still wins in 1965 (against stiff competition from relief pitcher Ron Taylor, but starting in 1966, Fergie Jenkins emerges with a lock on the Tip O’Neill trophy. After having a good season pitching in relief in 1966, Jenkins becomes the starting ace for the Cubs and reals off six straight years with 20 or more wins (and six consecutive Tip O’Neill Awards). Several other Canadian hurlers did post fine seasons during that span, including Taylor, Claude Raymond, John Hiller and Reggie Cleveland. It’s just that none of them really displayed the same level of excellence as the future Hall of Fame workhorse from Chatham, Ontario.

Finally in 1973, during a rare letdown of sorts for Jenkins (a mere 14 wins that year) John Hiller took home the hardware with what was one of the very best seasons ever produced by a relief ace. Hiller set the then major league record for saves (with 38) while recording a sparkling 1.44 ERA in 125 innings of relief for the Tigers. Hiller was almost as impressive in 1974 (17 wins in relief) but Jenkins had rebounded (this time with Texas in the AL) and posted a career-high 25 victories in 328 innings of work.

Jenkins, Hiller and Reggie Cleveland continue to contend for the award from 1975 to 1977 until Terry Puhl surfaces as a regular with Houston in the 1978 season.

Jenkins wins in 1975, while Hiller wins in 1976 and Reggie Cleveland (a sentimental choice) takes the 1977 award. Puhl then reels off four straight awards from 1978 to 1981 with his strong batting performances (especially in light of having to play in the Astrodome, a pitchers’ paradise).

Jenkins comes back in 1982 to win his tenth and final Tip O’Neill Award winning 14 games back with the Chicago Cubs.

Terry Puhl bounces back in the 1983 season to capture his fifth hypothetical trophy (batting .292) before he wins the real thing in 1984. The combination of six Tip O’Neill Awards leaves Puhl in sixth place among all Canadian baseball stars among the real and imaginary trophy winners.

The final blue ribbon list of winners is:
Fergie Jenkins – 10 awards
Larry Walker – 9 awards (all of the legitimate variety)
Frank O’Rourke – 9 awards
Joey Votto – 6 awards (and counting)
Terry Puhl – 6 awards
George Selkirk – 6 awards
Jeff Heath – 6 awards
Tip O’Neill – 5 awards of his own trophy
Jack Graney – 5 awards