James Henry Mullen, born in Avoca in 1877, was the first of the 11 children of Irish immigrants Martin and Annie Mullen. Known as Jimmy, he worked as a breaker boy, was a regular at St. Mary’s Church, was tough, wiry, never backed down and loved baseball.
In most ways, he was typical of Irish boys in Avoca in those days. But in two ways he was different from his buddies Eddie Earley, Frank McAndrews and Wille Cranston. One, Jimmy went to college. He played second base for Manhattan College in New York City for two seasons and two, he reached the major leagues, the only Avoca-born ballplayer to do so.
Earley played three seasons in the minor leagues, McAndrews, six, including a season as the full-time right fielder for the Scranton Miners. Cranston played 16 seasons in the minors, four of them at the highest level, then “AA” ball. At Denver, one season he was fifth in batting in the Western League at .335. Curiously, he never got a call up.
Mullen’s rise to Major League Baseball was quick. He started with the Moosic Poplars, where he played alongside his first baseman brother Tosh — who spurned several offers to sign professionally, because, it was said, he was shy and quiet and didn’t want to leave Avoca. Jimmy earned a reputation for his speed and daring on the base paths and slick fielding at second base. In 1902, he was playing second for Manhattan. By 1905, he was with the Washington Senators. Granted his major league career was brief and obscure —118 games in two seasons with Washington and the Philadelphia Athletics and a batting average of .197.
But back in Avoca his admirers didn’t look at the lowly batting average, but at the highly respected man who never forgot where he came from.
After the Senators let him go, Jimmy played 12 seasons in the minor leagues in Baltimore, then in the Eastern League, Newark, Toronto, Utica, Memphis and Scranton, but he always came home to Avoca. In 1910, he injured his ankle in Toronto and came back to Avoca for 10 days while it healed.
When Toronto sold him to Utica after he had a rough season in 1911, a Toronto sportswriter wrote: “He made few mistakes, hit fairly well, especially in pinches and never made an error of the head. He had baseball brains and used them, and whether on or off the field was one of the most likable ballplayers in the league. He served Toronto long and faithfully in face of a great deal of criticism from blatant asses who wouldn’t know a ballplayer from a cart horse.”
At Utica, he was the everyday second baseman as the Utes won the New York State League pennant. After the season, the Scranton Catholic Club hosted a reception for Utes manager Minooka’s Mike O’Neil. Mullen was the principal speaker.
The Utes sold him to Memphis where Mullen was named team captain and at age 37 had his best season hitting at .289. Memphis sold him to Scranton. He retired after the 1916 season after a near fight with Miners manager Bill Coughlin. They had to be pulled apart. Mullen packed his stuff and stormed out.
He was 39 then, but he wasn’t done with baseball. He played for, and managed, the Avoca team in the Intercounty League, winning a pennant. Mullen agreed to a game with East End, the leaders of the Wyoming League, as the opening day feature of the North Wilkes-Barre Carnival. The game, between the pennant winners of the two highest caliber leagues in NEPA, draw 4,000 fans.
Mullen said, “We’ll prove to the fans of Luzerne and Lackawanna counties that Avoca is best team in this part of the state.” With Avocan Eddie Cochran pitching a shutout, Avoca won 4-0. The lineup included players Mullen recruited from the Eastern, Piedmont and Georgia leagues.
Mullen stayed in baseball for as long as he could. In 1927, at age 50, he played first base for Pittston in the County League.
He died in 1956 at age 79 and is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery.
His obituary noted he lived at 800 Carroll St. in Avoca. He was a life member of Pittston Knights of Columbus 372. He was survived by his wife, the former Nellie Gilroy; daughter, Mrs. Georg Conroy, son James Jr., Falls Church, Virginia; four grand children, brothers Thomas, Edward and George and sister Anne, all of Avoca.