by Scott Kindberg
July 26, 2011
‘Jamestown Is No. 1’
As the 91-year-old posed for photographs near the dining room of Emeritus of Lakewood - the Southwestern Drive complex he calls home - O'Neil's navy blue baseball cap, complete with a red J on the front, was pulled down on his forehead just the way it must have been during his professional playing days, which began in the late 1930s.
But the cap's bill couldn't hide the smile on his face or the twinkle in his eye. The lone surviving member of the first professional team to call Jamestown's Municipal Stadium home was beginning a week-long trip down memory lane and he seemed to be enjoying every minute of it.
"I'm honored,'' he said.
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O'Neil grew up in Kentucky, played minor league baseball in 1939 and 1940 in such outposts as
Tallahassee, Greeneville, Winston-Salem and Bristol before arriving in Jamestown in 1941 and its brand-new ballpark.
An all-star shortstop, O'Neil helped the Falcons to the PONY League title that season. The stadium was filled to capacity virtually every game and the Falcons rarely disappointed their fans.
"We'd go down (to the park) about 5-5:30 for pregame practice,'' O'Neil recalled, "and there would be so many people there we'd have trouble getting in."
Powered by players withnames like Johnny Newman, Frank Carswell, Frank Heller, EarlRapp and John Pollock, the Falcons made an evening on Falconer Street a happening.
"If we needed runs, we had six or seven kids who could hit the ball out of the joint," said O'Neill, who admitted he "could hit, but I couldn't hit it very far."
Still, he left quite an impression and was voted by the fans as the team's most popular player. So what was originally thought to be a one-year hiatus in Jamestown turned into a lifetime love affair with the community. While his baseball career spanned six decades (1939-1984) as a player - he was a member of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1946 - as a manager, as a general manager and as a scout, his permanent home never really changed.
Eventually, O'Neil married the former Jeannette Swanson and they had a daughter, Bonnie. "I stole one of the (Jamestown) girls for my wife,'' he said with a smile.
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Friday will mark the 70th anniversary of Diethrick Park (formerly known as Municipal Stadium and College Stadium). To commemorate the anniversary, the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame has purchased replica 1941 Jamestown uniform tops and caps that will be worn by the Jammers when they entertain the Aberdeen Ironbirds at 7:05 p.m.
O'Neil, who played on the very same field 70 years ago, will be wearing a No. 1 jersey while throwing out the first pitch.
"I can't believe it,'' he said. "(The stadium) was brand-new then and, to me today, it still hasn't changed."
So in a 45-year career that included 1,850 games as a player and countless games as a manager, general manager and scout - did you know he signed current Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia in 1976? - O'Neil will return "home'' again.
Asked what he plans to do with his throwback uniform top, O'Neil said he'll hang it next to the Phillies jersey he owns.
That's only appropriate. After spending a half-hour with him, I came away convinced that while playing in the major leagues in Philadelphia provided him with his biggest professional thrill, being part of Jamestown's long and storied baseball history is pretty close.
"Jamestown is No. 1,'' he said. "I've played in some good towns but not like Jamestown."