By the spring of 1943, the bloody realities of World War II had encircled the globe, leaving few regions free from the destruction that wouldn’t end for another two years. In Europe, Russia’s Red Army survived five months of German siege and won the Battle of Stalingrad, an exceptionally inhumane but transformational victory for the Allies that changed the trajectory of the war on the Eastern Front. In the Pacific, American forces finally drove the Japanese from Guadalcanal. In North Africa, American and British tank units continued their methodical pursuit of Edwin Rommel’s famed Panzer corps.
Situated along a rail line in Alabama’s Appalachian foothills, Anniston was home to Fort McClellan, a major stateside Army facility born three decades earlier during the Great War, and a newly constructed ordnance depot. On weekends, the city’s downtown restaurants and shops filled with soldiers given respites from training. On Sundays, Anniston families would routinely invite soldiers to church services and treat them to lunch afterward. The steel and iron foundries on Anniston’s western side, which for decades manufactured train car wheels and soil pipe, feasted on government contracts for the military’s war effort.
That spring, Tommy O’Brien, a 24-year-old Annistonian with a wife, a child, a military deferment and a half season’s service with the Anniston Rams, faced a life-altering decision: remain at his defense-industry job or report to spring training with the Atlanta Crackers. Nearly 30 of his Atlanta teammates had already been drafted into the military or enlisted. If he and two other holdouts rejoined the Crackers, draft notices might follow. His inclination was to jettison baseball and remain at his post. Given the military’s needs, there was little the Crackers’ president, Earl Mann, could do. War trumped baseball. “If they don’t want to play, it’s all right,” he told The Atlanta Constitution. “We’ll try to get somebody else.”
O’Brien played — but not for the Crackers. He instead joined the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose roster had been decimated by the military and whose top prospects, notably future Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, who was flying planes for the Navy, weren’t available. It’s unclear whether O’Brien gamed Mann to force his move to a Major League club. An outfielder and third baseman who dabbled in football at the University of Tennessee, O’Brien’s prodigious bat might have warranted a Major League call-up without the war’s interference. But it’s indisputable that O’Brien benefitted from the sport’s wartime deficiencies that gave big-league opportunities to players stuck on farm-team rosters.
The proof is jarring. O’Brien, who avoided the draft when a military doctor deemed one of his knees too balky for service, played 232 games over three wartime seasons with the Pirates. He singled to center against the Chicago Cubs in his first MLB at-bat; two months later, he recorded seven hits, including two doubles and two triples, in a doubleheader against the New York Giants. He twice hit better than .300 despite limited playing time. But in 1946, the first full season after hostilities’ end, O’Brien was shoved back to the minors, where he’d stay until 1949, a victim of the postwar return of baseball’s talent.
It’s ludicrous to consider Tommy O’Brien’s baseball career without understanding his place in Anniston’s sports lore. He exemplified the small-town tales of hometown athletes whose exploits slowly, if ever, fade. That was, and still is, Tommy O’Brien. A red-headed boy from a working-class family who excelled in three sports, O’Brien was often labeled by 1940s-era sports writers as the best athlete ever at Anniston High School. Long considered a lock to play football at the University of Alabama, O’Brien fell into a prolonged and controversial recruiting tussle between the coaching staffs of the Crimson Tide and Volunteers. His waffling in 1943 — baseball vs. a defense-industry job and deferment — was reminiscent of the indecisiveness that clouded his senior year of high school. The choices were too abundant, the options too sweet.
If he chose football, then teenaged O’Brien could have played for any of the South’s leading college teams. But which one? If he chose baseball, professional scouts were well aware of his talents, especially at the plate, and were prepared to offer hefty signing bonuses. In the spring and summer of 1939, O’Brien was repeatedly linked in news stories to each school: reports that he’d picked Alabama, or picked Tennessee, or rejected one, or rejected the other, or been seen on campus in Tuscaloosa or Knoxville, if not both. In August, with football season approaching, he still hadn’t decided, crimson or orange. “I didn’t ask for all this,” he told The Anniston Star. “I’m just an ordinary boy and what to do has got me worried. I have not committed myself to Alabama or Tennessee, in spite of all that has been said.” O’Brien was particularly upset with a Birmingham News report claiming he would select baseball and sign with the New York Yankees. “They got none of that information from me,” he said. The Star even anonymously quoted one of O’Brien’s friends: “Honestly, I feel sorry for the boy. Everybody is trying to advise him to go to this school or that. He’s just a nice kid who happened to be good.”
He chose Tennessee. But he didn’t stay long.
A star on the Vols’ freshman team in 1939, O’Brien entered his second semester in Knoxville as a potential star for the Tennessee varsity. But he told coach Bob Neyland in early May that he was quitting the team, withdrawing from school, returning home to Anniston and choosing a career in baseball. That he’d suffered from bouts of appendicitis and wasn’t a fan of college coursework played sizeable roles, too. “All I know is that he decided he couldn’t pass his work,” Neyland told the Knoxville News-Sentinel. “He had wanted to play baseball for a long time, so he decided he wouldn’t be able to keep himself eligible for football (and) cast his lot with the Atlanta club.” Neyland admitted that O’Brien was “the greatest backfield prospect that we had in years,” but that his health and academic weaknesses got in the way. The Vols simply couldn’t count on the greatest athlete from Anniston High to be ready to play. Reporters in Knoxville turned O’Brien-bashing into an art form, especially since luring him from Alabama had cost Tennessee a pretty penny. “I’m not gonna say exactly what I got,” O’Brien told The Star years later, “but I got a pretty good chunk of money from them, a free apartment and a job for my wife.”
The “Atlanta club,” the Crackers, signed him immediately. But the enigmatic nature of O’Brien’s career didn’t dissipate. The Crackers gave him a signing bonus — reports varied between $1,500 and $5,000 — but only two at-bats before shipping him to Class B Spartanburg, a cash-strapped team that waited three weeks before deciding he wasn’t ready. Back to Atlanta he went. That retreat created a serendipitous moment, one neither the Rams nor O’Brien could have predicted months earlier, when the Crackers optioned Anniston’s hometown star to the team that played at Johnston Field.
Southern newspapers, unmoved by O’Brien’s hometown fortune, proved unrelenting. Tom Anderson, sports editor of The Knoxville Journal, suggested that O’Brien “could use a lesson in gratitude” after the player had reportedly claimed he would never again play in Knoxville. “It is conservative to estimate that Tommy cost (Alabama and Tennessee) in excess of a thousand bucks, while neither got anything whatsoever in return since the boy never completed his freshman year.” The Knoxville News-Sentinel posited that in east Tennessee, the Vols’ loss of O’Brien “is a worse calamity” than a Franklin D. Roosevelt loss in the next presidential election. The Birmingham News dubbed him “Tailspin Tommy O’Brien” and laughed at the “roundabout way” in which he joined his hometown team. The Nashville Banner enjoyed reporting that “Spartanburg found Tommy O’Brien not good enough for Class B ball.” When O’Brien hit .250 in his first 48 games with the Rams, famed Birmingham sports writer Zipp Newman joined his colleagues’ criticisms. “This time last year, he was one of the most sought-after high school backs in the country. College scouts from four corners of our country were seeking him … All that is left for Tommy to do now is join up with some professional football team. The kid’s a great back and is just unfortunate that his venture into college football didn’t pan out.”
The lone exception was, predictably, The Star, whose reporters had documented O’Brien’s exploits from the beginning. Writer Marshall Johnson admitted that a tutor couldn’t solve O’Brien’s academic shortcomings in Knoxville. But Johnson also chose to give O’Brien credit for putting off baseball’s paycheck — Detroit and the Chicago White Sox had sought him early on — in order to use football talents for a college degree, a laudable but unsuccessful trade-off for a married man and a father. “It was all too much for Tommy, so he gave up the dreams of gridiron glory and accepted the hard facts of life, that a man has got to go to work some day.”
The third-year Rams wasted no time getting O’Brien into the lineup. On the morning of his Anniston debut, June 23, The Star boasted that “Anniston baseball fans will get a chance this afternoon to see why baseball scouts were so anxious to lure Tommy O’Brien, one of the Anniston High School greats, away from the University of Tennessee campus.” Rams manager Bill Rodda planned to start his new player at third base in the doubleheader against Mobile, hoping to jump-start his last-place club’s fortunes. O’Brien responded by scoring a run in each game and going a modest 1 for 6. When the season ended, the woeful Rams were the Southeastern League’s worst team — they finished 61-82 — but O’Brien, though no defensive whiz, proved worthy of the midseason acquisition. He led Anniston with 10 home runs and a .498 slugging percentage, and his .307 batting average was second-best on the team.
With better timing, a whole season — or two — with the Rams, and a role on one of Anniston’s SEL playoff teams, O’Brien might have become the undisputed face of the franchise, especially since he returned to Anniston when his playing career ended. He was the local star who played professionally in his home town, but not long enough to craft a legacy. His good showing in Anniston earned minor-league promotions in 1941 and 1942, when Atlanta manager Paul Richards tried to convince a Knoxville reporter that the former Vol football star possessed legitimate Major League talent. “I wish that you could see O’Brien catch hold of a ball like he has several times this season,” Richards said. “You really would see some power.” That talent elevated him the following year to the Major Leagues.
In 15 years in professional baseball, O’Brien played five seasons in the big leagues, including parts of two years with the Boston Red Sox in 1949 and 1950. (His final MLB appearances were with the Washington Senators.) It was his time in in Boston, where he befriended Ted Williams but played sparingly over 58 games, that he remembered most fondly. “Mainly because of (owner) Tom Yawkey,” O’Brien said. “He’s dead now, but Tom Yawkey was a great man.” Despite his prickly persona, Williams “wasn’t anything like people thought,” O’Brien said. “It’s kind of funny, but when I was with the Red Sox, I was the only one he’d warm up with. He’d say, ‘C’mon, Bush. Get a glove and warm me up.’ That’s all he ever called me, ‘Bush.’”
A few months before he passed away, O’Brien told The Star’s George Smith that football, not baseball, was his best sport and that he shouldn’t have given up on the game. But, regrets? “Foot, nawh! I don’t have a single regret with with I’ve done,” O’Brien said. “I was under contract for 17 years and I had a good time. Boy! I had a good time. To tell you the honest truth, I ain’t never had to do much hard work. Baseball is a great life. The only thing I didn’t like was living out of a suitcase. That part of it was brutal.”
O’Brien died in 1978 a month before he turned 60. He’s buried in Anniston’s Edgemont Cemetery.