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James Norman Riley lived a life of firsts. He was a member of the Seattle Metropolitans, the first American hockey team to win the Stanley Cup. He was the first, and to this day, the only athlete ever to play professional hockey in the NHL and Major League Baseball. If that wasn't enough, he also served in the First World War.
When I first got interested in hockey history, Jim Riley was someone who immediately piqued my interest. I was surprised by the fact that so little was known about a man who had won a Stanley Cup and had played major league baseball, albeit briefly.
One of the benefits of living in Canada’s capital region is having access to the collections at Library and Archives Canada. This allowed me to consult census records and Jim’s First World War service records, which provided details about his early life in Canada.
Jim was born to parents John Riley and Margaret Byers in Bayfield, New Brunswick ,on May 25, 1895. It is unclear at which point he left Bayfield, appearing on the 1901 census, but not in 1911, and he was in Calgary by 1914, where he played with the Calgary Victorias. The following year he headed further west to Victoria and played his last season of hockey in Canada before moving to Seattle, where he would spend 8 years playing professional hockey with the Metropolitans. Jim's best hockey years were spent in the Queen City, where he was a consistent scorer and helped the team win the Stanley Cup in 1917.
With Canada fully committed to the war, Jim knew he had to return to Canada for military service. On April 12, 1918, he married a woman named Myrtle in Seattle and headed to Vancouver where he enlisted three days later. Having lived solely in the United States for two years, he had no address in Canada and wrote "Arena Rink" on his application forms. Trained as a tinsmith, he was placed with the Canadian Engineers unit and set sail for Seaforth, England, on August 8th, arriving there one week later. During his time overseas, he was twice promoted, and had reached the rank of Sergeant by the time he was discharged on October 7th, 1919, when his unit was demobilized.
Jim Riley in his WW1 Uniform (Photo courtesy Riley Family)
Following his service, Riley went back to what he loved—sports. Most veterans looked to settle down and establish careers after enduring the hardships of war, but Jim was just getting started with what would be a long and successful sporting career.
Thanks to fellow SIHR members, I had Jim’s hockey statistics. But with websites like baseball-reference.com still a thing of the future, I was referred to well known baseball historian Marc Okkonen who provided with the photo of Jim with Terre Haute. Marc then referred me to the late baseball historian and SABR founding member Ray Nemec, who provided me Jim’s minor league baseball stats. Neither man knew that Riley had played hockey, much less that he had won a Stanley Cup.
Jim would return to Seattle in the winter months, continuing to play with the Metropolitans until the team ceased operations in 1924. During this time, he also began his lengthy baseball career which would lead him on a twelve year journey crisscrossing the continent with stops in Vancouver, St-Louis, Terre Haute, Salt Lake, Shreveport, Washington, Mobile, Dallas, San Antonio, Topeka and Baton Rouge.
Jim with the Terre Haute baseball team (photo courtesy Marc Okkonen)
Following a good year in Vancouver, Jim got a chance with the big leagues, and played a total of 4 games with the now defunct St-Louis Browns before being shipped off to Terre Haute, Indiana. With another good minor league year underway in Shreveport in 1923 where he batted 328, he got his second shot at the majors with the Washington Senators, but again had a brief stay, and was back in Shreveport after just 2 games. Unscathed by the experience, Jim forged ahead in the minors and put in some of his best years, batting over 300 from 1924 to 1927 and getting a career high 27 home runs in 1925. Being sent back down to Shreveport had another upside for Jim in the form of a batboy named Thomas, whose widowed mother Martha would become Jim's second wife and lifelong partner.
After being away from the game for two years to focus on baseball, he briefly returned to hockey in 1926, playing exhibition games with the Dallas Texans, and making his only NHL appearances putting in 3 games with the Chicago Black Hawks before being traded to the Detroit Cougars, where he only played 6 games. After one more year away from the rink while playing ball in Dallas, Jim reappeared in Los Angeles to play 2 games for the Richfields in 1929, which concluded his hockey career.
A rare photo of Jim with the Chicago Blackhawks (Photo courtesy Riley family)
Information about his life after sports was my biggest challenge. I knew he had died in Seguin, Texas, so I wrote to the library and the city seeking information, which produced an obituary and a death certificate. This provided me with the full name of his step-son Thomas, which led me to his obituary and the name of his children, Jim’s grandchildren. Luck was on my side with one surname being uncommon, so I started making phone calls. After a chat with a friendly Texan lady who could only recall that Jim was her late husband’s friend, I hit paydirt with the second call, which was the home of Jim’s granddaughter.
The family provided me with newspaper clippings and the rare photo of Jim in his Blackhawks uniform, as well as the pictures of him in his military uniform and with his golf trophy.
After having lived in Dallas for many years, James and Martha settled in Seguin, Texas, around 1960. Now in his mid to late sixties, James retired from his position in public relations with the National Distillery, where he had worked for over 25 years.
Although baseball and hockey were now long in his past, Riley was still very active playing golf, and was said to have "shot-his-age" into his sixties and seventies, which is no small feat for any golfer, showing why he had won an amateur golf title in Vancouver in the 1920s. He also won the U.S National senior division left-handed Golf Tournament in North Carolina in the 1960s, where he was awarded the Sterling Silver Bowl.
Jim with one of his golf trophies (Photo courtesy Riley Family)
On May 25th 1969, his 74th birthday, James succumbed to cancer in Seguin. Martha later moved to Kerrville, Texas, and passed away in 1973. In June of 2015 while on a business trip, long after my search for Jim began, I visited the Guadalupe Valley Memorial Garden, Garden of Good Shepherd A, plot C47, where he and Martha are buried together under a grave marker adorned with maple leaves. A nod to his Canadian roots?
Jim and Martha Riley's grave marker
It's hard to believe that despite all of James Riley's sporting accomplishments, he has received so little recognition. With the help of Jim’s family, I nominated him for full induction into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, which had already recognized Riley with the designation of "Sports Pioneer" in 2000. Unfortunately, the nomination was not successful, largely due to the lack of information regarding his life and times in New Brunswick.
Yes, I am aware of Andy Kyle who played 1 game for the Toronto Ontarios of the NHA, the predecessor of the NHL, and that he played 9 games for the 1912 Cincinnati Reds of the National League. He too deserves recognition for being the first to play at the top levels of hockey and baseball, and will likely be part of a future article.
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Between 1999 and 2003, I operated a website called losthockey.com where I posted profiles of obscure NHL players.
In the days before online databases, newspapers and vital records, I spent hours digging through microfilm, cold calling, and mailing letters in the hopes of uncovering leads. Sometimes I would get lucky and locate family members who were willing to share their relative's story.
Like all things on the internet, my work was appropriated and reproduced on websites such as findagrave.com (especially by this person) and in books, often verbatim, always uncredited.
So I have decided to reclaim my work by posting the profiles here, but with extra context detailing the process I followed. Enjoy!