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Reds' Jim O'Toole remembered with humor

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Posted at 7:36 PM, Dec 31, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-31 19:36:53-05

CINCINNATI -- Jim O'Toole, the late former Reds pitching star, received a full-house sendoff Thursday morning at St. Rose Church in East End.

His son, Jim, said his father, who wore No. 31 for the Reds, was always good-naturedly pointing out the serendipity and coincidence of "31" and "3 and 1" in the things he encountered.

"He would be pleased that today we thought there would only be one priest here (celebrating the Mass of Christian Burial)," said his son, Jim, in an end-of-mass eulogy, "but there were three -- and one deacon."

That brought a good laugh to the full pews and standing-room only crowd.

And, as another O'Toole son, Bill, observed, the funeral mass was celebrated "for No. 31 on the 31st."

James J. O'Toole, 78, the Chicago native who started who Games 1 and 4 of the 1961 World Series and also the 1963 Major League Baseball All-Star game ahead of Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn and Don Drysdale -- all future Hall of Famers -- died last Saturday, the day after Christmas and the day before the official celebration of the Feast of the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph).

That, too, was appropriate, given the significance of the feast day to the pitcher and his wife, Betty. They signed their courtship notes with a "JMJ" and raised 11 children.

"I never saw a man who raised 11 kids make it look so easy," said one of the O'Toole sons, no doubt triggering a smile from his mother, Betty, in the front pew. She knew, as do most mothers, who does most of the work.

Jim Jr. told of his left-handed father kiddingly tying his first-born son's right arm to the crib in hopes of raising a southpaw.

"It didn't work -- believe me, it didn't work," said the younger Jim, smiling. "But he got his wish with my brother, Frank, a southpaw (and a good pitcher). They had a special bond because of it."

No. 31 was signed by the Reds two days before Christmas in 1957, and debuted for them at age 21 on Sept. 26, 1958 (he lost a 7-inning four-hitter, 2-1 -- one earned run -- to the Milwaukee Braves' star righthander Lew Burdette, who won his 20th game that night for the defending World Champions and World Series-bound Braves). O'Toole was 98-84 over 10 seasons, finishing with the Chicago White Sox in 1967. He was 19-9 in 1961, when he finished second in the National League with a 3.10 earned run average. He twice won 17 games and had a career ERA of 3.57.

After the 1961 World Series, the O'Tooles built a home in Anderson Township with Jim's loser's share from the Series (the Reds lost it four games to one to the New York Yankees).

In 1962, Jim told a reporter he was 12-15 as a bachelor, 24-15 as a husband, and 8-2 as a father. As is also recalled on Jim's "SABR bio project page" on Baseball-Reference.com:

"August 1961 (brought) the arrival of James Jerome Burke O’Toole, the first of 11 children in 13 years from the union of Jim and Betty O’Toole."

A Betty quote from 2007 also appears there:

"In 1967 and 1970 we didn't have a child,” she said. "Jim told people he had pneumonia those years.”

Despite a long battle with cancer, Jim had a "miraculous" final week of life, his children recalled at Thursday's mass.

It was Frank who at Wednesday's wake approached a family friend -- a former Reds official -- and related to him that Frank had only a few days earlier helped his ailing father up from his chair. As Big Jim was taking his son's hand, he said to him, "Frank, you know I can still kick your (behind)."

The Reds Hall of Fame has lost one of its favorite sons. The Hall held an impromptu reception at 100 Joe Nuxhall Way on Thursday afternoon, New Year's Eve; 130 people showed, and witnessed a slide show in all-star theater. Songs by Frank Sinatra, No. 31's favorite, scored the tribute; there were toasts from the family in the "Great Teams" room, and plenty of tears, laughs and good times in the place Big Jim loved so much.

Jim once told me that it was his honor -- and another happy coincidence -- that his plaque in the Reds Hall hangs right next to that of his former skipper and mentor, Fred "Hutch" Hutchinson, himself a feisty righthander with the Detroit Tigers.

Hutchinson particularly liked O'Toole because "O'Toole believes he's better than the hitters he's facing, and I don't have a problem with that," even though the young O'Toole came across as "cocky" to some of the writers covering the club.

There was one memorable occasion when Hutch penciled No. 31 into the lineup, even though he knew the lefthander might take some lumps that day.

It was at Wrigley Field against the Cubs, July 3, 1960, the day after O'Toole married his high school sweetheart.

"Hutch, I got married last night," O'Toole protested.

"I know -- I was there," Hutch answered. "I told you not to get married during the season. Now get out there and pitch."

That story, too, was told in one of Thursday's eulogies.

Left unsaid was Jim's favorite punch line, which he told me back in 2003 as we were preparing his foreword to "Opening Day: Celebrating Cincinnati's Baseball Holiday."

"It was a terribly hot, humid day -- suffocating -- and, given the circumstances, it was one time I didn't want to be out there," Jim said. "I tried every which way to get thrown out of the game -- I called (home-plate umpire) Jocko Conlan every name in the book -- but he said to me, 'O'Toole, I know you got married last night. If I've got to stay out here, so do you! Now get your (posterior) back out there and pitch!'"

And so, No. 31 did. The Cubs knocked him out in the fifth inning. Reads the still-viewable headline online in the July 4, 1960, Chicago Tribune sports section: "O'Toole Soaked in Hit 'Shower,' 7-5; (Ron) Santo Connects off Bridegroom."

Appropriately, the back page of the eight-page pamphlet distributed at Thursday's mass is Jim and Betty's wedding picture. As happy as the couple looks in this photo, one can readily see that nobody could have told Jim at that moment that he was going to suffer his first loss to his hometown Cubs the next day.

On page 7 of the pamphlet is the photo that would have made Jim proudest: A group shot of the couple and their 11 children.

Here the 11 children are, for the record: Jim Jr., Holly, John, Lucy, Peggy, Billy, Frank, Jerry, Josie, Mary and Dinah.

The O'Tooles have 38 grandchildren.

Also for the record is this: St. Rose of Lima, the church's namesake, died at 31, as No. 31 himself once noted.

On page 2 of the pamphlet is the day's "lineup": lead celebrant -- Father Barry Windholtz; servers -- grandsons Frank, Jimmy and Casey O'Toole, and pallbearers -- sons Jim, John, Bill, Frank and Jerry, and grandsons Adam, Peter and Shane O'Toole.

For some reason, I checked my car's odometer when I pulled out of the parking lot after Mass at St. Rose, and again at the west end of East Pete Rose Way where comes into view Great American Ball Park; next door is the plaque of James Jerome O'Toole, the best friend the Hall ever had.

The distance between the church and first-view of the park?

3.1 miles.

John Erardi has covered baseball in Cincinnati for 30 years. He is a two-time Associated Press Ohio Sports Writer of the Year and co-author of six books on the Reds, including "Big Red Dynasty" and "Crosley Field."