Chicago Daily News negatives collection, SDN-001317. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society. Photo is of Ryan in his final major league season, with the Washington Senators; taken at South Side Park in 1903.
Nineteenth-century baseball is a popular study among historians; it has its own committee within SABR. Students of the early days keep a short list of stars who are, by common consent, worthy Hall of Famers, but are unlikely, at this date and under the current format, ever to be elected. Jimmy Ryan is on every historian's short list, and at the top of many.
Ryan was the greatest star in Cubs history before 1900, except Anson. His career was not flashy; only in his greatest season did he lead the league in any major category. His excellence was based on consistency and longevity, and at his retirement he was in the top ten in nearly all the important lifetime categories.
James Edward Ryan was born in Clinton, Massachusetts, February 11, 1863. He played college ball at Holy Cross (Worcester, Massachusetts), and professional ball with Bridgeport (Connecticut), of the Eastern League. He had played only 29 games for Bridgeport before Anson acquired him for Chicago. Anson had good luck with his pioneering scouting system, his two greatest stars were discovered through such efforts. Anson had personally scouted John Clarkson, and a surrogate recommended Ryan.
Ryan played his first major-league game October 8, 1885, and appeared in three games that season. In 1886 he was a semi-regular outfielder, playing 86 games and appearing in all six games of the World Series against the St. Louis Browns, hitting .238.
Jimmy was not a big man, 5'9", 160 lbs. He was considered a slugger by the standards of the time, with four seasons of ten or more home runs. He was a right-handed batter, and a left-handed thrower, having one of the strongest arms ever seen in the league. For a few years, in the `80s and early `90s, he did double duty as a relief pitcher. Ryan played all outfield positions, but was primarily a center fielder until Bill Lange became a regular in 1894, after which Jimmy moved to right.
Ryan was a regular for the first time in 1887, hitting .306, the first of his thirteen .300-plus seasons. On September 13 he went six-for-six in a 16-13 victory over the Phillies, earning the pitching win in relief.
Ryan's best year was 1888, batting .332, leading the league in slugging percentage (.515), hits (182), doubles (33), and home runs (16). He also did his most extensive mound work this year, appearing in eight games, two starts, with a 4-0 record. On July 28, he hit for the cycle in a 21-17 win over Detroit. He also pitched that day in relief, the first player to cycle and pitch in the same game.
In 1889 Ryan had career highs in runs (145), and home runs (17). He hit a record six home runs leading off games. That record was finally broken by Bobby Bonds -- eighty-four years later, in 1973. Ryan would hit twenty leadoff home runs in his career, a record Bonds would also break.
Ryan jumped to the Chicago entry of the Players League in 1890, but was back with the White Stockings the following year. He would play fifteen seasons for them, sixteen for Chicago teams. Always popular and gregarious in public, Ryan showed a difficult temperament in private, and was in constant conflict with managers, the front office, and fellow players. He had an expansive, unpredictable personality, often unsettling at close quarters. In the most notorious incident associated with his career, he physically beat sportswriter George Bechel of the Chicago Evening News after Bechel wrote a story criticizing Ryan's play.
On July 1, 1891, Ryan became the only Cub to hit for the cycle twice, the Cleveland Spiders his second victim.
Ryan's career, and his life, nearly ended on August 6, 1893, he was the only serious injury when the train carrying the team back to Chicago derailed. His injuries were such that the railroad settled for $10,000 against possible legal action. Defying all odds, Ryan was back with the team in 1894.
On August 5, 1894, Ryan played the hero when a fire broke out in the grandstand at the West Side Grounds, sparking a panic and stampede amongst the fans. Ryan and fellow outfielder Walt Wilmot broke down a barbed-wire fence with their bats, allowing customers to escape onto the playing field.
Ryan became involved in the feud between Anson and team ownership that eventually resulted in Anson's dismissal as manager. Anson accused Ryan of undermining his authority, not a difficult charge to make, their relationship had become a stormy one. Ryan was named team captain by new manger Tom Burns, an appointment resisted by the rest of the players. A strike of sorts was organized, and Burns caved in, naming the players' choice, Bill Lange, instead.
On April 14, 1899, Ryan was honored before the game with a fan testimonial, and presented with a gold watch. After a .277 season in 1900, his lowest mark to that point, Ryan was released. He managed in the minors the following year, and made a playing comeback with the AL Washington Senators in 1902, batting .320 over 120 games, at the age of 39. He finished his major league career with the Senators in 1903, leaving a lifetime average of .306.
At the end of his eighteen major league seasons Ryan's career totals ranked third in games (2012), third in at-bats (8164), fourth in doubles (451), fourth in home runs (118), fifth in runs (1642), fifth in base hits (2502). His defensive numbers in the outfield have stood the test of time best of all. He had nine seasons of twenty assists or more. After a century, he still ranks first in NL history in outfield assists (356), and is third overall in major league history.
Ryan's Cubs team rankings in major categories: batting average, tenth (.321); at-bats, ninth (6818); runs, second (1410); base hits, eighth (2127); total bases, ninth (3070); doubles, eighth (362); triples, first (142); extra-base hits, ninth (603); RBI, ninth (914); stolen bases, third (369).
Ryan managed in the minors in 1904, then returned to Chicago for good. He owned, and played on, a semipro team based in the Rogers Park neighborhood. Anson's semipro team was a frequent opponent, the the two grew closer in their later years. Like Anson, Ryan pursued a civic career (with more success); he was serving as a deputy sheriff at the time of his death, in Chicago, October 28, 1923, aged 60. His final resting place at Calvary Cemetery in Evanston remains unmarked.