CHARLIE SWEENEY - The road to the Hall of Fame passes through Murderer's Row....
Way back before the Pacific Coast League was formed in 1903, California was a hotbed of talent just waiting to be tapped into by the ‘old’ National League. Records are pretty sporadic for players in the early 1880s, but from all accounts, a young pitcher named Charles Sweeney had the goods to make it big. Sweeney was one of the very best players to come out of the California State League during the very early days of the game. In 1882, he made a name for himself in the CSL by possessing a devastatingly nasty curveball (one of the first ever hurlers to throw that pitch) to go with a blazing fastball, although he was barely 20 years old. Hall of Famer Tim Keefe, who had seen Sweeney pitch while on a visit to the West Coast, once called him "the best pitcher I have ever seen."
Unfortunately, Sweeney was also one of the most troubled players in history. His extremely volatile temper was more than a curse, it was practically his complete downfall. In fact, when Ty Cobb started to make a name for himself - and was becoming notorious for his hair-trigger temper - a sportswriter once claimed that he had seen Charlie Sweeney play and that Ty had nothing on Charlie!
On May 14, 1883, Sweeney was on the mound for a team from San Francisco - the Niantics - pitching against a strong Haverly team. After uncharacteristically giving up eight runs in the third inning, his manager moved him to second base in favor of a new pitcher. Sweeney grudgingly moved to second base but was fuming the entire time. When the Niantics took the field in the fifth inning, Sweeney refused to take his new position again. The rules at the time stated that no substitute could be inserted since Sweeney, himself, had been inserted as a substitute at second base and only one substitution per position, per game, was allowed, so the team was forced to go with the eight players they had on the field, awkwardly attempting to position them to fill all the gaps. As a result of this disadvantage (not to mention Sweeney’s lousy pitching performance) the Niantics lost the game 21-3. Sweeney didn’t even bother to tell his manager that he was through with the team - he just walked off the field and never returned.
His talent was well-known, however, and he was quickly snatched up by the Providence Grays of the old National League. When he arrived, he was pleased to learn that two of his friends from the CSL, catcher Sandy Nava and third baseman Jerry Denny, were already with the squad. He took a particular shine to Nava (whom many credit as being the first Hispanic player in professional baseball) who, although a weak hitter, would become Sweeney’s ‘designated catcher’, as the pitcher insisted that Nava be behind the plate for most, if not all, of his outings. Sweeney was also joining the great Charles ‘Old Hoss’ Radbourn in the Grays’ pitching ‘rotation.’ Sweeney would compile a mediocre 7-7 record with Providence in 1883 but the best was yet to come. Or was it…….?
Sweeney got off to a great start with Providence in 1884 and, on June 8, his fastball, coupled with his amazing curveball, completely baffled Boston as he struck out an unheard-of 19 batters (called ‘strikers’ at the time. A catcher was called a ‘behind’.) This was something akin to superhuman in the old deadball days of contact hitting. The record stood for several decades, although subsequently tied, until Roger Clemens broke it with his 20 strikeouts in a game in 1986. Following that incredible pitching performance, Charlie Sweeney was the toast of the town of Providence! He was wined and dined by worshipful fans and was becoming a local hero very quickly. According to some accounts, Radbourn, who had been the team’s ace prior to Sweeney’s arrival, had a bit of a jealous streak upon seeing Sweeney’s newfound fame and adulation. He didn’t have to wait long, however, to see it all come crashing down on Charlie Sweeney.
On July 23, Sweeney was pitching a nice game and leading Philadelphia 6-2 in the seventh inning when Providence manager Frank Bancroft, having noticed Sweeney frequently massaging his arm as though it was hurting him, decided to move him to the outfield so that Radbourn could mop up for him. Sweeney went ballistic and refused to give the ball to Old Hoss. In those days, many pitchers considered it an insult if he wasn’t allowed to finish what he started, especially when he had pitched as well as Sweeney had. As he had done the previous year with the Niantics, he stormed off the field, after having assumed his position in left field, thus ensuring the Grays would have to play with only eight men in the field. Bancroft, incensed, found Sweeney in the clubhouse changing into his street clothes and read him the Riot Act. Sweeney, in turn, called Bancroft what the papers termed an ‘opprobrious name’ and left in a huff. This childish behavior went a great deal toward Hoss Radbourn’s Hall of Fame pitching career. Once he was again the only ace of the staff, he was dominant the rest of the year and posted an amazing 59 victories (some credit him with 60.)
Sweeney was still in demand, however, and the St. Louis Maroons of the Union Association, which would last just the one season of 1884, picked him up. He had won 17 games with Providence with a 1.55 ERA and prospered again with his new team, going 24-7 with a 1.83 ERA. In total, he was 41-15 in 1884 and was easily among the very elite of professional pitchers. He even batted .307.
It was after this season that Charlie Sweeney began to go downhill quickly – both his baseball career and his life. After his huge 1884 season, his arm became sore. That blossomed into full-blown pain and he could never throw his famous fastball as fast again. His curveball became predictable as a result and in 1885, he went 11-21 with St. Louis, this time in the National League. His arm went almost completely dead in 1886 when he started only eleven games and went 5-6. He still holds the record for surrendering seven, count’ em, SEVEN! home runs in a single game in 1886. After 1887, nobody took up his contract and he was forced to retire after a brilliant, yet sporadic, career.
For a few years, Sweeney wandered from one job to another until, in 1894, he took a job as a bartender in a San Francisco saloon which was owned by the ‘King of Portero Hill’, Frank McManus. This was the beginning of the end for Charlie Sweeney – and where murder enters the picture. Or, at least, what was called ‘murder.’
As it happened, Frank McManus was a feared gangster who had most of the San Francisco politicians in his back pocket. He ruled the notorious ‘Irish Hill’ neighborhood of the city, which was located near the modern-day western end of the Bay Bridge (for those of you not familiar with SF, sorry, but I am a proud Bay Area native and this stuff matters to me!) McManus’ brother, Con, started a fight with Sweeney that fateful night that ended in Con McManus' death. Sweeney fired three shots, two of which ‘took effect’ according to newspaper reports. It was reported that when Charlie Sweeney heard that Con McManus had died, he broke down and ‘cried like a child’, swearing that he never meant to kill McManus but that he had been provoked. It goes without saying that he was also frightened because everyone knew that Con’s brother, Frank, owned much of the city and would likely be looking for Sweeney.
Upon hearing that his brother had been killed, Frank McManus did, indeed, declare that he would kill Charlie Sweeney. Sweeney, meanwhile, had been arrested, booked and incarcerated for the killing, even though it was likely in self-defense. At one point, McManus showed up at the prison where Sweeney was being held and demanded to see him. When he was refused, McManus stuck his foot in the door as it was being closed on him and tried to force his way in. He was finally turned away.
McManus arranged for a funeral for his brother but the priests refused to say High Mass at the service because of McManus’ reputation. McManus, being the louse he was, threw cobblestones through the stained glass windows of the church and threatened the priests’ lives. Frank McManus was finally apprehended while carrying a ladder on his back in front of the San Francisco Examiner building. He was attempting to post a huge sign protesting the non-actions of the priests.
There’s more to this story but I won’t bore you any more other than to say that Sweeney’s trial was a farce and a travesty of justice. Despite the fact that the evidence was overwhelming that Con McManus was the aggressor in the fight that led to his death, nobody would testify against ‘King’ Frank McManus and Sweeney was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison in San Quentin. He was released after three years. It was also brought to light in the media that McManus had intimidated and bribed jurors but nothing came of that.
Sweeney died of tuberculosis three years after his release at the age of 38 in 1902. “King” Frank McManus was already dead by then of congestive heart failure in 1896.
Charlie Sweeney. Amazing talent. Yet another player of Hall of Fame potential who denied himself because of his temperament and attitude. Oh, and okay... maybe a sore arm, too.