SEATTLE — Hundreds of people gathered Monday to salute a Seattle legend whose place in the city’s sporting pantheon was established in an era without Seahawks, Mariners, Sonics or Sounders.
Eddie O’Brien, 83, who played basketball and baseball at Seattle University before a five-year major-league career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, died Feb. 21 of complications related to Parkinson’s disease.
He was remembered fondly in a 75-minute service at St. James Cathedral on Capitol Hill, and in a reception at Campion Hall on the Seattle U. campus.
“Ed was a doer and a giver,” said his twin brother Johnny in a eulogy. “He was more interested in other people accomplishing something than he was self-aggrandizement.
“I scored a lot of points at Seattle University, and I wouldn’t have scored half of them if it weren’t for Ed.”
He said Eddie was the decision-maker and “I was the follower. I enjoyed that because he always made good decisions.”
The O’Briens came west from South Amboy, N.J., helped the then-Chieftains to an NCAA basketball tournament and an NIT, and Eddie became athletic director of the school from 1958-80. He continued to be active with the now-Redhawks in his later years, working hard for the transition back to Division I athletics.
Among the iconic moments the O’Briens brought to the school was an 84-81 victory in 1952 at Hec Edmundson Pavilion over the Harlem Globetrotters, when Johnny, a 5-foot-9 center, scored 43 points. The game was a benefit for U.S. representatives to the ’52 Helsinki Olympics, and Louis Armstrong played at halftime.
SU’s president, the Rev. Stephen V. Sundborg, celebrant at the service, called Eddie O’Brien “perhaps one of the five best-known persons ever associated with Seattle University.”
Said O’Brien’s stepdaughter Shelly in a talk at the reception, “It was just plain impossible not to love Ed.”
Johnny O’Brien’s eulogy was lighthearted but poignant. He recalled his brother telling people they were graduates of St. Mary’s High School in their New Jersey hometown, “taught by the Sisters of Mercy, who showed very little.”
Branch Rickey, the baseball icon whose elevation of Jackie Robinson marked the breaking of the game’s color barrier, initially tried to steer the O’Briens to St. John’s University. But they ended up at Seattle U., when baseball and basketball coach Al Brightman, who had played with the Boston Celtics, recruited them west at a semipro tournament in Wichita, Kan.
But Rickey was persistent, and having moved from the Dodgers to the Pirates, signed the twins to contracts with Pittsburgh for $25,000 each in 1953 after their Seattle U. playing days were done.
On a plane flight back to New Jersey, Johnny said, his brother asked him for his bonus check. He said they used the twins’ money to pay for a down payment on a house and a new car for his father, who died four years later.
They went to see an attorney, who told them what was in their father’s will: “To my sons John, Ed, James and William, I give my love and the sum of $1 each. To my beloved daughter Teresa, I leave the rest of my estate.”
“So,” Johnny O’Brien said, “Ed delighted in telling people we were not the bonus babies of the Pittsburgh Pirates, our sister Teresa was.”
Eddie hit .236, playing primarily shortstop, center field and third base, but had some promise as a pitcher when he decided to return to his alma mater, his brother said.
“I’d say, ‘How you making out financially?’ ” Johnny recalled. “He said, ‘The Jesuits take a vow of poverty. Anybody who works for them should do the same thing.’ ”
The brothers ran O’Brien Baseball Services, coaching more than 6,000 kids in fundamentals of the game, and Eddie was active in the Forgotten Children’s Fund for holiday gifts.
“He was five foot, eight and a half inches tall,” his brother said. “But he lived a seven-foot-seven life.”