On This Day- Irish professional Baseball players



When twenty-one year old Belfast-born P.J. Conlon was drafted by the New York Mets in 2015 he became the first Irish-born player to be associated with a Major League Baseball franchise since Corkman Joe Cleary, nicknamed ‘Fire’, in 1945.

There was a time when there were so many Irish-born or Irish-American professional baseball players that there was a theory the Irish were ‘peculiarly adapted’ to the sport, a very Darwinian notion indeed. The ‘golden era’ for Irish baseball players was from 1870-1900, which coincided with a huge influx of Irish immigrants, and the ‘coming of age’ of the post-Famine wave of Irish migrants. In the 1880s, for example, it is reckoned that up to a third of all professional ball players were Irish or of Irish extraction

Ireland boasts a total of forty-seven officially and statistically recognised Major League Baseball players, that’s more than any other country in Europe. Only Britain, with forty-three, is even close.

One of the best was Patsy Donovan, from Cobh, although it was known as Queenstown when he made his Major League debut in 1892. He played for a number of teams, including the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals. He played in the big leagues for eleven years, before he went into management, where he took charge of the Boston Red Sox for a couple of season. After he left their organisation he spotted a kid named George who, he thought, had potential. He persuaded the Red Sox to sign George. A few years later they traded him to the New York Yankees. You might know George by his more familiar nickname, of Babe Ruth. Donovan went on to coach a high school team, St. Phillip’s Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. There, one of the young players under his charge, although no Babe Ruth, was of considerable significance. He name was also George, as it happens, George Herbert Walker Bush.

Irish ball players tended to be colourful. They had names like Curry Foley, Cyclone Ryan and Sleeper Sullivan. Or they played with one arm, like the pitcher Hugh Daily. He lost his left hand in a gun accident. He had a special pad made to cover the hand, and caught balls by trapping them between the pad and his throwing hand. He once punched his catcher for tossing a ball back to him too hard.

Then there was first baseman ‘Dirty’ Jack Doyle, from Killorglin in Kerry, who played for seventeen seasons for teams like the New York Giants (now in San Francisco), and the Chicago Cubs. He was called ‘Dirty’ because he was constantly getting caught up in fights, with opponents, umpires, fans, and even his own teammates. He regularly waded into the stands to attack fans who were abusing him, and was arrested for this on a couple of occasions. He also hit twenty-six career home runs, so he could play bit as well.


The Irish Baseball League recognises Cavanman Andy Leonard as the most accomplished Irish-born Major Leaguer. He was a member of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, America’s first professional team, and the Irish League’s Most Valuable Player Award is called after him.

By the time of the Great War Irish professional ball players had almost died out. Paddy O’Connor from Kerry was the last. He played for ten years. His final game was with the Yankees in July 1918.

Then, in 1945, the drought ended when Joe Cleary, pitched in a game for the Washington Senators, against the Boston Red Sox. It was a memorable inning. But for all the wrong reasons. Cleary came on as a relief pitcher in the fourth inning of the second game of a doubleheader.So, he was probably a lot fresher than the players around him, but it didn’t show. He holds the unenviable record of having the highest career ERA of any pitcher ever to toss a ball over home plate in Major League Baseball. I won’t even begin to explain what an ERA means, but it’s a way of measuring how good a pitcher is and it’s a bit like a golf score, the lower the better. Top baseball pitchers would be hoping for a career ERA of between three and four. Joe Cleary’s, based on a single inning, was one hundred and eighty-nine.

He gave up a total of seven runs in one third of an inning. As if that wasn’t bad enough when he was dragged from the pitcher’s mound he was replaced by a man called Bert Shepard, who only had one leg. Cleary later owned a bar in New York and to his dying day, in 2004, was never allowed to forget his five minutes of fame in the big leagues. His response was always a simple ‘at least I was there’.

Jack O’Neill, one of two brothers from Maum in Co. Galway to play for the St. Louis Cardinals, and one of forty-seven Irish-born Major League baseball players, died eighty-three years ago, on this day.

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On This Day – 15 June 1919 – Alcock and Brown land in Ireland



In April 1913 the Daily Mail, then a brash teenager, offered the substantial prize of £10,000 to ‘the aviator who shall first cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane in flight from any point in the United States of America, Canada or Newfoundland to any point in Great Britain or Ireland’. Nowadays if you wrote something as dull and long-winded as that for the Mail you would be fired before you had lit your pipe and started into the Times crossword.

Back in 1913 aerial flight was in its infancy and thanks to the intervention of the Great War there were no takers for the prize until well after the 1918 armistice. During the conflict two British prisoners of war, John Alcock from Manchester and Arthur Whitten Brown born in Glasgow, but also a Mancunian, had plenty of time to think about that £10,000 and what they might do with it.  Alcock had come to grief in an air raid over Turkey, Brown was a guest of the Kaiser after having been shot down over Germany. Given the state of health and safety in Great War aviation, they were lucky to be alive.

Both men became involved with the Vickers corporation in the post-war competition to be the first to make a non-stop transatlantic flight. Alcock was taken on first, as a pilot. Brown was then added to the crew as navigator.  Their main rival was a team from the Handley Page company. The relationship between the two companies was of a Tony Blair-Gordon Brown character, without the spin. Spinning is not good in aviation. The Vickers crew adapted a Vimy twin-engined bomber for the race, replacing the bomb bays with additional gasoline tanks. They carried nearly nine hundred gallons of aviation fuel.

Alcock and Brown took off from Lester’s Field, Newfoundland at 1.45pm on 14 June. They flew at between sea level and twelve thousand feet, depending on weather conditions. Brown’s navigational instincts were vital for their survival as their airspeed indicator malfunctioned early on and he had to estimate the distances being covered every hour in order to avoid flying miles off course.

They made landfall after less than sixteen hours in the air, spotting what they thought was a green field near Clifden in County Galway. It turned out to be bog. Both men emerged unscathed from the experience, having covered more than three thousand kilometres in an average speed of one hundred and eighty-five kilometres per hour.  One of the first locals to greet them was reporter Tom Kenny owner of the Connaught Tribune, who grabbed an interview before the Daily Mail correspondent could reach Derrygimlagh bog and ask the two men ‘how do you feel?’ The scoop went worldwide. Kenny’s son Des later established the world-famous Kenny’s Bookshop in Galway.  News of the successful flight was relayed from the Marconi transatlantic wireless station just a few hundred yards from where Alcock and Brown had made landfall.

The pilot and navigator were feted internationally. They did well to survive the hospitality of their Clifden hosts, and within days they were knighted by King George V. Alcock did not live very long to enjoy his share of the fame and the prize money. He died the following December at an air show in France at the age of twenty-seven. Brown lived through World War Two and died in 1948 at the age of sixty-two.

They weren’t actually the first to fly the Atlantic. A fortnight beforehand the ocean had been successfully negotiated by a US navy flying boat piloted by Lt.Commander Albert Cushing Read. But that had taken twenty-three days and involved half a dozen stops, so it didn’t qualify for the Daily Mailprize.

John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown set off into the unknown, for a date with history, and crash-landed in a Clifden bog, ninety-nine years ago, on this day.


On This Day – 8.6.1845 Death of Andrew Jackson



Who do you think might have finished a speech with the following words?

‘Andrew Jackson, we thank you for your service. We honour you for your legacy. We build on your memory.’

Given that the man he was praising had once been bigamously married, had presided over the exclusion of undesirable elements from the eastern USA, had a volcanic temper, closed down the nineteenth century equivalent of the Federal Reserve, and defied the courts, you probably won’t be shocked to hear that the speaker was the forty-fifth President of the United States. One of the first things Donald Trump did when he took over the Presidency was to have a portrait of Andrew Jackson hung in the Oval Office. He even said that he was ‘looking at a book on Jackson’. Which doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that he actually went so far as to read it.

Jackson was seventh President of the USA, serving from 1829 to 1837. Had he been born just two years earlier, that would never have happened, because he would have been Irish, and therefore constitutionally ineligible to be US President. His parents, Andrew and Elizabeth Jackson were northern Presbyterians who lived in Co. Antrim. Two of Jackson’s older brothers, Hugh and Tom were actually born in Ireland. Andrew Jackson never knew his father, his namesake had died at the age of just twenty-nine as a result of an accident, three weeks before the birth of the future President. So not a great start in life, the early part of which was spent being dirt poor.

His initial fame came about as a result of his military prowess. He was one of the few American successes in the ‘Revolutionary War 2.0’ a rerun of the War of Independence fought with Britain in 1812. This resulted in the British sacking Washington, and burning the White House, but Jackson defeated a British force at New Orelans, and became an instant hero. There wasn’t a lot of competition really.

He should have become President in 1825. He won the popular vote. But then again, winning the popular vote in a US Presidential election, unlike say, France, or even Ireland, is no guarantee of the Presidency. He was essentially shafted in a dodgy deal between his two rivals, John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, gifting Adams an undistinguished four years in the White House. Jackson, however, won the 1828 election. Although himself a wealthy man he campaigned against entrenched economic elites.

Sound familiar?

He guaranteed a good attendance at his inauguration by inviting everyone back to the White House afterwards. The problem was that most of them seem to have taken him up on the offer, and the building was soon swarming with his supporters. This earned him the derisive nickname ‘King Mob’.

The action for which Jackson is best remembered is the forcible removal of a number of Indian nations from their traditional homes in eastern states like Georgia, to the alien territory of Oklahoma. The US Supreme Court, under the great jurist John Marshall, effectively ruled against the removal policy, in two separate decisions in 1831 and 1832. Jackson’s alleged response was ‘John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.’ Although he probably never said it he certainly did nothing to help the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw and Seminole, who were removed across the Mississippi, with great loss of life, on the infamous Trail of Tears.

When asked what his greatest achievement was as President, Jackson is reputed to have said, ‘I killed the Bank’. This was the Second National Bank, a sort of early nineteenth century Federal Reserve, an American Central Bank. It was due to have its charter renewed in 1832. Jackson vetoed the bill, and Congress didn’t have the votes to override the veto. Result, death of bank, transfer of federal funds to other institutions, injudicious lending by those banks, and a huge financial panic in 1837. So much for the lessons of history.

The great French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of Jackson in his monumental work Democracy in America

‘Supported by a power that his predecessors never had, he tramples on his                           personal enemies, whenever they cross his path … he takes upon himself the                                    responsibility of measures that no one before him would have ventured to                          attempt. He even treats the national representatives with a disdain approaching to              insult’

Sound familiar?

Andrew Jackson, acknowledged founder of the Democratic party, and seventh President of the USA, died one hundred and seventy-three years ago, on this day.


On This Day – 1.6.1970  The death of Arkle is announced





There aren’t many animals who have a bronze statue built in their honour, whose skeleton is on permanent display, and who had a stamp minted bearing their image. But in Ireland, when that animal is a horse, it’s a little easier to understand. Not any old horse, mind you. Not a scrubber like Sir Ivor, or Nijinsky, or even an under-achiever like Dawn Run. They were good. They were very good, on the flat, and over hurdles or fences. But they weren’t Arkle.

The distinguished racing commentator Peter O’Sullevan once described the horse as a ‘freak of nature’, the like of which we would never see again. So far he hasn’t been proved wrong. Arkle was, and remains the best horse ever to jump fences for a living. That’s not just my opinion, that’s official. He has a Timeform rating of two hundred and twelve, that’s the highest ever awarded to a steeplechase horse. Only one other animal, his stable companion, the hurdler Flyingbolt, comes within twenty points of that rating.

Arkle was a Meathman, born in Ballymacoll stud near Dunboyne in 1957, and was named after a Scottish mountain that bordered an estate owned by Anne, Duchess of Westminster, who acquired the horse, and in whose colours he raced. He was trained by one Irish racing legend, Tom Dreaper, not far from Ashbourne,  and ridden by another, the great Pat Taafe.


I should declare an interest. I’m old enough to have seen him in action. As a child I have a clear recollection of Arkle in one of his Cheltenham Gold Cup victories. It was his third outing, in 1966. He made a mess of a fence on the first circuit and almost came a cropper. Second time around, as he approached the same fence, we wondered how he would handle it this time. He cleared it with enough room to spare to have allowed a double-decker bus to have driven underneath.

In any other National Hunt racing generation the Irish-born, English-trained, Mill House would have dominated. He looked set fair to rule the mid-1960s when he won the Gold Cup in 1963. He also beat Arkle in the Hennessy Gold Cup that year. It was the first of a number of duels between the two. Mill House was hot favourite for the 1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Blue Riband of National Hunt racing. Only two other horses competed in the race that year. Which is to say that they were entered. No one could compete with Arkle and Mill House. The two great horses stayed together for almost the entire race, until Arkle pulled ahead over the closing stretch, to win by five lengths.

Those were different times. Ireland was still a relatively impoverished poor relation, independent of Britain for barely forty years, and not making a great fist of it either. Irish horses and trainers didn’t ownCheltenham the way they often do in more recent times. Arkle versus Mill House (despite the latter’s place of birth) became Ireland versus England. Arkle’s victory meant that he became a national talisman, in the way that Jack Charlton’s soccer teams of the 1990s did.

He came back twelve months later, on this occasion as favourite, and beat Mill House all over again. This time the margin was twenty lengths! He started the 1966 Gold Cup at odds of ten to one ON! In case you are not well versed in betting odds, that means you had to invest ten quid for the joy of receiving one quid of bookie’s money when he won. Which, of course, he did, by thirty lengths this time!

Outside of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, where handicapping played a role, he would often find himself carrying ridiculous weights. If Pat Taafe had just been riding Arkle he could have been tucking in to five course meals every night and still making the weight. For example, he won the 1964 Irish Grand National by only a single length. The fact that he was carrying two and a half stone more than his nearest rivals might have been a contributory factor.

But he wasn’t just a horse either. Arkle was almost human. He, allegedly, drank Guinness twice a day, and got on with people better than most other people. He was afforded the ultimate Irish accolade when he became known simply as, ‘Himself’.

His last race was the December 1966 King George VI Chase at Kempton park. He was carrying half a ton more than anyone else, fractured his pedal bone, and still almost won. After four months in plaster Dreaper and the Duchess decided enough was enough, and he never raced again. He died in 1970 at the early age of thirteen, when he might, conceivably, have still been winning races.

The death of Arkle, or just plain ‘Himself’, one of the most beloved of horses in a horse mad nation, was announced thirty-eight years ago, on this day.