Category: Archive

National pastime was once the domain of Irish

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Dave Hannigan

Barely 20 years after his birth in Cork, Tony Mullane bestrode professional baseball, and to his legion of fans in Cincinnati, he was known as "The Apollo of the Box" or "The Count." Looking more like a leading man than one of the greatest pitchers of the era, his dark, wavy hair and perfectly waxed moustache offset an impressive physique honed as a teenager in the bare-knuckle boxing rings of Pennsylvania. His ability to throw the ball equally well with either hand made him one of the sport’s highest-paid players, drawing down $5,000 a season while his team-mates made do with a mere $800. Not bad going for the 1880s.

"The dashing Mullane, who whipped his fastball past bewildered batsmen with the insouciance with which he laved blarney into the ears of trembling maidens, was the ace for a succession of clubs," writes William Curran in "Strikeout: A Celebration of the Art of Pitching."

"Tony was functionally ambidextrous although he probably pitched right-handed most of the time. He was the complete athlete and could hit and pitch with the best. The love of good women — lots of them — kept this indefatigable Corkman alive until he was 85."

In the week when America is consumed by the historic Yankees-Mets World Series, it may seem difficult to believe that Irishmen once so dominated baseball that the theory grew up that they must have some genetic advantage over people of other nationalities. Indeed, only Yankees right-fielder Paul O’Neill among the teams’ starting players is obviously of Irish descent.

But more than a century ago, one-third of all Major League players were either born in Ireland or of Irish descent. Even as late as 1915, 11 of the 16 professional teams boasted Irish managers.

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From Granard native Tommy Bond, who pitched for the Hartford Dark Blues in the first National League competition in 1876, to Dubliner Jimmy Archer, a temperamental catcher with the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago Cubs nearly four decades later, the annals are speckled with Irish immigrants and their descendants, all striving to carve out careers in America’s pastime. If some, like Caherciveen’s Bucky O’Connor, credited with one appearance for the Cubs in 1916, never quite made it big, the names of others have been writ large.

"By the 1890s, the Irish had achieved a conspicuous place in the sport," writes Benjamin Rader in "Baseball: A History of America’s Game."

"So many Irish were in the game that many thought they had a special talent for ballplaying. In the face of this influx, ethno-religious conflicts sometimes smoldered into open eruptions. John Warner of the Boston Beaneaters, for example, was notorious for his efforts to make life miserable for Irish Catholic players. Nonetheless, the Irish seem to have held their own and more. Mainstays of the brawling Baltimore Orioles included Irish-Americans Ned Hanlon (their manager), John ‘Muggsy’ McGraw at third base and first baseman Jack Doyle."

Jack Doyle had been christened John Joseph when he was born in Killorglin, Co. Kerry, on Oct. 25th, 1869. Much like his contemporary Mullane, he had been taken to the new country as a young boy, spending his formative years in Holyoke, Mass., a place so populated by his compatriots that it was commonly referred to as Ireland Parish. Having cut his teeth in semi-pro tournaments around New England, Doyle broke into the big time with Columbus in 1889, and remained involved in the pros, as player, manager, umpire and, finally, scout for nearly 70 years.

An excellent hitter, he averaged .299 in 17 seasons with several clubs, including the New York Giants, the Chicago Cubs and the Orioles. Doyle’s reputation for bending the rules and attempting to win at all costs saw him nicknamed "Dirty Jack." Given that there are several accounts of him fighting with fellow players and umpires, and being arrested for going into the crowd to assault abusive fans, the moniker appears well-deserved. Ironically, the only other job Doyle ever held outside baseball was a two-year spell as Holyoke police commissioner.

Other Irish players led less contentious lives but still left their imprint in the sport’s folklore. A good enough right-fielder to eke out 17 years in the major leagues, it was as chief scout for the Boston Red Sox in 1914 that another Corkonian, Patsy Donovan, earned his footnote in history. A contact in a Baltimore orphanage run by the Xaverian Brothers tipped him off about a prodigy with the then financially-strapped Orioles called George Herman Ruth. On the urging of Donovan, originally from Queenstown (now Cobh), Boston snapped up the left-handed teenager who could pitch and hit and so put in place the conditions that would give rise to the infamous curse of the Bambino.

Even Donovan’s bit part in the Babe Ruth drama pales next to the contributions of Connie Mack (an abbreviation of Cornelius McGillicuddy), John McGraw and Charles Comiskey. Three more sons of Irish immigrants, as players, managers and in the case of Comiskey and Mack, owners too, they continued to influence the direction of the game decades after the golden age of the Irish in baseball ended in the early years of the 20th Century. Expansion into the Midwest gradually brought Germans to the fore, and though Irish names would always resonate, they never did dominate again as, in time, baseball grew ever more ethnically diverse.

Despite the various notions reckoning something innate caused the Irish to excel, the truth behind their initial success was much more mundane. Like any immigrants, the Irish families that fetched up in America clustered together in the big cities where work was most plentiful and available. Their arrival in huge numbers in the decades after the Great Famine coincided with the rise in popularity of baseball and, inevitably, their children took up the game. Those kids who later made it into the professional ranks, however, still had to contend with some of the anti-Irish feeling prevalent in sections of 19th Century society.

In 1873, the manager of the Boston Nationals asked the wonderfully titled "Orator" Jim O’Rourke, a versatile outfielder who made the Hall of Fame, to change his surname to something a little less Gaelic. "I would rather die than give up my father’s name," said the Connecticut-born O’Rourke. "A million dollars would not tempt me." Progress seems to have been made on that score because within 30 years, Roger Bresnahan, another Hall of Famer who introduced the shinguard to the major leagues, traded under the nickname of "The Duke of Tralee." A catcher with the New York Giants and the St Louis Cardinals, he often pretended to have been born in his parents’ hometown in Kerry, rather than his actual birthplace, Toledo.

The pity was that some of the Irish themselves were also guilty of discrimination. For all his charisma, and his storied womanizing, Tony Mullane was a racist who behaved disgracefully when playing on the same team as the legendary black catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker. And some baseball historians blame the Irish, among others, for excluding many races from the game for far too long. A sobering post-script to an otherwise distinguished chapter in our sports history.

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