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.