Long before Rocky Marciano left the streets of Brockton, Massachusetts to win the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, another native of that town showed such promising pugilistic talent that folks thought he too might become a world champion in the ring. But Buck O’Brien could do more than just knock out people with his fists. He was also a gifted tenor who made a good living as a professional singer in and around his home town. O’Brien could also throw a heck of a spitball.
The right-hander didn’t play professionally at first. He learned to throw the wet one while pitching for local factory-sponsored teams. In fact, he didn’t sign his first pro contract until 1909, when he was already 27-years-old.
After he won 64 games during his first three seasons of minor league ball, the Red Sox signed him in September of 1911. O’Brien then wowed everyone in Beantown by going 5-1 with a 0.38 ERA for Boston during the final month of that season. That great final month proved to be a harbinger of good things to come in 1912. All O’Brien did was go 20-13 to help lead one of the great Red Sox teams of all time to a 105-47 first place finish in the American League.
That team’s best pitcher was a young right-hander named Joe Wood, who was nicknamed Smokey. It was said at the time that Wood threw a baseball faster than any man alive. The great Ty Cobb told sportswriters that Wood’s fastball and O’Brien’s spitter were two of the toughest pitches for him to hit. Unfortunately the two Red sox pitchers pretty much hated each other. Their mutual animosity came to a head during Game 5 of that year’s World Series against the Giants. Boston manager Jake Stahl surprised everyone by starting O’Brien, who had lost a close contest in Game 2 instead of Wood, who had won the Series opener with a gem of a game. O’Brien himself may have been most shocked to get the ball. Fully expecting to have the day off, the pitcher had partied hard the night before and showed up for Game 5 with a terrific hangover.
The Giants loaded the bases against O’Brien in the first inning and then he balked in a run. Before the inning was over, he had allowed five runs. On the train ride back to Boston for Game 6, Wood told O’Brien he had given Game 5 away and the two went at it, not just on the train right there and then but again the next day as well.
Whatever the reason, after that balk and his fisticuffs with Wood, O’Brien was never again an effective big league pitcher. When he struggled to a 4-9 start the following season, Boston sold him to the White Sox for $5,000. He went 0-2 for Chicago and then never again pitched in another big league game. He died in 1959, at the age of 77.