INSTANT REPLAY: The life of Riley...and his connection to the North Shore
Maybe infielder Jim Riley had a gun for an arm and a bullet of a shot from his wing position.
If so, it was most appropriate that it was a firearm which brought to light his unequalled achievement in the history of sports and his North Shore connection to boot.
You see, it was the North Van RCMP’s confiscation just last month of a 1910 Luger used in WWI (see story page 10) that led to the unexpected revelation of a significant local link to a great sports trivia question.
Who, I ask, is the only one ever to play both major league baseball and NHL hockey? And a Stanley Cup winner as well.
Grab a coffee (or pour a glass of whiskey – you’ll see why shortly), pull up a chair and learn the fascinating story of James Norman Riley whose feats on the ice and diamond took place way back in the early part of last century.
Jim was born the sixth of nine children to Nova Scotia-born parents John Henry and Margaret Ann (Byers) Riley on May 25, 1895, in Bayfield, New Brunswick, where the mainland’s eight-mile-long Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island now starts.
The family moved to Calgary about 1906. By 1914, 19-year-old Jim was playing for the Victorias, winners of the Calgary division of the Alberta Senior Hockey League. In 1915 Jim and elder brother William played first base and outfield respectively for the semi-pro Calgary Empires.
Jim’s first truly pro gig was with Victoria Aristocrats of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association in 1915-16 which also featured Seattle Metropolitans, Portland and defending Stanley Cup champions Vancouver Millionaires. The next season, Riley joined Seattle and helped the Mets beat Montreal in the 1917 Stanley Cup finals played in Seattle, the first time a U.S.-based team hoisted the Cup since competition began in 1893.
He played seven of the next eight seasons for Seattle, becoming one of the league’s most prolific goal scorers. “Big Jim” (5’10 ½” and 185 pounds, big for that era) produced 23 goals in 24 games in 1920-21, second best in the league; and followed up with another second-best 16 in 1921-22 and a third-best 23 in 1922-23. He was a PCHA first all-star in 1922-23 and a second all-star each of the three previous seasons.
Yet the one season he did not play – 1918-19 – was a huge year in his life. Jim’s three younger brothers had all enlisted in the Canadian Army voluntarily – both Harvey (who went by “Pete” after returning from the war) and Austin in 1915; then Vern at age 14 in 1916. The 1916 Prairie census shows Harvey and Austin already overseas.
However Jim was conscripted under the Military Service Act of 1917, a controversial order that helped fuel the Easter Riots in late March 1918 in Quebec. And it was on March 11 – the same day the Metropolitans faced the Millionaires in Vancouver in the first of a two-game, total-points playoff for the 1918 PCHA title – that Jim was required to take his military medical examination.
The next day The Vancouver Daily Sun reported, “In what was undoubtedly one of the most fiercely-fought ice hockey games the Northwest has ever witnessed, Vancouver and Seattle battled to a 2 to 2 tie at the [Denman] Arena last night before eight thousand wide-eyed fans.”
Riley, a right winger in those days of seven-a-side hockey, scored Seattle’s first goal at 14:37 of the second period for a 1-0 lead.
Back in Seattle on March 13, Vancouver upset the regular-season champs 1-0 to take the series. A month later on April 12, Jim married Myrtle Harrington in Seattle.
While Myrtle remained in Seattle’s Rainier Beach area near the waterfront on Lake Washington at 9520 Rainier Ave. (noted on Jim’s attestation papers), Jim had to return to Vancouver. On April 15 he was duly enlisted and sent to North Vancouver to train with the 6th Field Engineers at Mahon Park and the nearby Forbes Ave. armoury, the 1914-built, red-brick structure now named for Lieutenant-Colonel J.P. Fell, the company’s first commanding officer.
Riley’s assignment to the Engineers was likely due to listing himself as a tinsmith. His occupation noted earlier on that 1916 census was “metal worker.”
In his time here, he rose quickly from sapper to corporal and left for Eastern Canada on May 16, 1918, along with 48 others, as part of the 76 Draft of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
Eventually he arrived in England. He played third base for a military team there but because of Spanish flu quarantines, he never got to the front lines in Europe. He also missed out on the 1919 Stanley Cup final between Seattle and Montreal Canadiens which was never finished thanks to the influenza epidemic. Players on both teams were afflicted and Montreal defenceman Joe Hall died four days after the series was cancelled.
Jim, discharged from the army in the fall of 1919, was back in time to start the ’19-20 hockey season with Seattle.
About then, Jim’s parents and some of his siblings arrived in Vancouver from Calgary, taking up residence at 1064 Pendrell St. in the West End. This became the Riley “headquarters” until the widowed father, retired as a carpenter, moved to North Van at 1523 Grand Boulevard in 1940 and soon after to 248 East 19th St. near other family members. The Riley patriarch died here on Nov. 10, 1949, at 92.
Despite being in the prime of his hockey career, Jim also signed to play pro ball with Bob Brown’s Vancouver Beavers in 1921.
He was an immediate sensation at second base. After tearing up the class-B Pacific Coast International League with a .303 average and nine homers in 56 games, he was sold to the St. Louis Browns on June 25 for $5,000, a handsome sum for the times. Upon suiting up for the American League club on July 3, he completed the amazing accomplishment of going all the way to the majors in his first pro season.
He struck out in his first at bat against future hall-of-famer Red Faber and after four hitless games was sent to Terre Haute, a class-B team in Indiana, where he batted .296.
He eventually played 11 years in the minors with a stellar career average of .301 and also played two more games in the majors in 1923 with Washington Senators.
Just what happened to Jim’s first wife is unknown, but he married Martha Baker the widowed mother of the batboy for the Shreveport, Louisiana, team for whom Jim played in 1923 and ’24.
After playing both baseball and hockey through 1924 and now married again, he gave up hockey until he had the opportunity to lace up his skates with the NHL Chicago Black Hawks and Detroit Cougars for a total of nine games in the 1926-27 season, thus completing his very special major league and NHL double.
The tail end of his baseball career was with teams in Texas so when he retired from the diamond in 1932, and with U.S. prohibition repealed in 1933, he got a public relations job in San Antonio with National Distillers Products Co., distributors of fine whiskey.
I don’t drink but if I did I’d lift a glass of Old Overholt whiskey in celebration of the answer to a great trivia question which has a footnote right here on the North Shore.
This is episode 475 from Len Corben’s treasure chest of stories – the great events and the quirky – that bring to life the North Shore’s rich sports history.