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Remembering Jim O'Toole

A Reds legend has passed

The Cincinnati Reds announced today that they have learned of the passing of Reds Hall of Fame pitcher Jim O'Toole.  He was 78 years old.

James Jerome O'Toole was born on January 10, 1937 on the South Side of Chicago.  He was one of five children and his father, a Chicago police officer, taught him boxing.  But Jim preferred baseball, which he learned on neighborhood sandlots growing up.  He had a tryout with his hometown Chicago White Sox at the age of 17, but nothing came of it, so he attended the University of Wisconsin instead.  He has a brief collegiate pitching career as a Badger, but in 1957 he was pitching in a semi-pro league that brought him to the attention of Reds scouts.  The Reds made him an offer that included a $50,000 bonus, and Jim accepted.

1958 was the only full minor league season Jim experienced on his way up.  He appeared in 35 games for the AA Nashville Volunteers, pitching 180 innings and finishing with a 20-8 record and a 2.44 ERA.  His impressive season included 21 complete games and four shutouts, and Jim also had the honor of being named the starting pitcher in his league's All Star Game.  Given this impressive resume, it's not surprising that Jim was called up to the major league Reds when rosters expanded that September.  His big league debut occurred on September 26 against the pennant winning Milwaukee Braves.  Jim pitched seven innings but took the loss.

Two days later, Jim was given a once in a lifetime experience: an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.  In his words: "Then Parade Magazine flew me to New York because I was minor league player of the year and I go on the Ed Sullivan Show. Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra were there too and they were getting ready to face the Braves in the Series. So here I was 21 years old telling Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra how to pitch to the Braves."  From his big league debut to an appearance on one of the most popular shows of the era, that must have been some week for 21 year old Jim O'Toole.

From that point on, Jim had earned a spot in the Reds rotation.  After a shaky 1959, he showed steady improvement in 1960 and 1961.  He credits some of that improvement to the hiring of Fred Hutchinson as manager in 1960.  Jim also credits some of that improvement to the stabilizing influence of his wife, Betty Jane Wall, his high school sweetheart whom he married on July 2, 1960, while the Reds were in Chicago playing the Cubs.  This blessed event plays a central role in one of the funnier moments in Reds history.  Mike Havey of SABR tells it best:

O’Toole expected Jay Hook to pitch on July 3, but instead found his name on the lineup card. Following his Irish Catholic post-wedding festivities, Jim was not in the best of shape to pitch on a hot, humid July day. He claimed that he tried to get thrown out of the game in the first inning by loudly disputing one of umpire Jocko Conlon’s calls. Conlon was having none of it, "I know you got married last night and want to get thrown out. But if we all have to suffer in this heat, you do too.  I’m not throwing you out, now get your ass back out there and pitch." The Cubs instead sent O’Toole to the showers early by knocking him out in the fifth, and he lost the game 5-2, his first career loss to the Cubs. When asked after the game why he pitched O’Toole the day after his wedding, Hutchinson deadpanned, "I didn’t set his wedding date."

1961 was one of Jim's best years statistically, and it was also a great year for the Reds as a team, as they won 93 games and the National League pennant, losing the World Series to the New York Yankees in five games.  Jim went 19-9 in the regular season with a 130 ERA+.  He had the honor of starting Game 1 of the World Series, but unfortunately took the loss in both his Series starts.  Despite that, Jim considered the experience of pitching on baseball's biggest stage to be the highlight of his career.

As a player, one characteristic that many teammates and competitors was his cockiness.  Even Jim described himself that way, once describing himself as "a cocky guy who is usually able to back it up."  Despite that reputation, Jim was also well known to be an extraordinarily nice man.  Havey again: "Mike Holzinger, a 1964 bat boy, recounted that "'O’Toole was really nice to us bat boys … he always took care of us … He had a great personality, liked to laugh. You always knew when he was around.'"

Throughout the rest of his career, Jim continued to put up solid numbers.  He only made on All-Star team, in 1963, but he was a reliable innings eater who could be depended on to take the ball every four days.  After a down year in 1965 that saw him throw less than 130 innings, he bounced back considerably in 1966, although still threw far fewer innings than he had been used to earlier in the decade.  That offseason, the Reds traded Jim to the White Sox, likely to make room for some up and coming pitching prospects.  In Chicago, Jim struggled with injury and didn't pitch after mid-July.  After spending 1968 in the minors attempting a comeback, he retired for good in 1969.  In the end, Jim O'Toole had a ten year MLB career, with an extremely impressive five year peak in the early 1960's.

Off the field, Jim was a devoted family man.  He used his 1961 World Series share to purchase a home in Cincinnati, and he and his wife filled it with 11 children.  After his baseball career ended, he embarked on a new career selling homes, where he became his company's top salesman.  He was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 1970, his first year of eligibility.  By all accounts he remained a faithful Reds fan for the rest of his life.  A great player and even better man, Jim O'Toole will be missed.