Erin go Bragh slide, Kelly, slide
St. Patrick’s Day: I like it when my day to write this column falls on a holiday.
My first wife was born on St. Patrick’s Day, which made it easy for me to remember her birthday (editor’s note: no ex-wife wisecracks). My second wife’s birthday is Valentine’s Day, which I can also remember, but can’t get dinner reservations.
Everyone in Lewiston, Maine, where I grew up, who wasn’t French was Irish. Gerry Murphy was the best athlete in my class at Lewiston High and Peggy Lahey the most popular girl. Jack Shanahan and Greg McMorrow made us laugh.
My five cousins, who lived next door, four boys and a girl, were Irish, as my Aunt Mary married Jack Finn. They were all good athletes, Mary Jane not the least.
I wanted desperately to be Irish and Catholic. My pretend name when I was little was “Tommy Burns.” I always made the sign of the cross before I took a foul shot in basketball.
Alas, I was a Swede and Protestant, the only Swede in my high school — and my girlfriend was Chinese. I constituted diversity.
The Red Sox had a player named Troy O’Leary not long ago, but he was African-American, not Irish. Derek Jeter, on the other hand, is Irish, on his mother’s side.
St. Patrick’s Day anticipates the revels of spring, celebrated as it is just a few days before spring’s official beginning. The big league baseball teams are in warm places for their spring training. The local teams are practicing indoors itching to get outside.
The Irish have had a key place in the history of baseball, especially early on. It’s possible generally to trace immigration patterns in the U.S. by studying baseball and its history.
In the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th, baseball was a powerful force of assimilation for immigrants finding a new home in America. It’s fitting that “home” is the central symbol of the game.
The game’s progenitors were English: Alexander Cartwright laid out the diamond in 1845; journalist Henry Chadwick popularized the game and invented the box score; the Wright brothers, Harry and George, were the first great pro players for the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869 and later in Boston.
German-Americans entered the game early in the 20th century — Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig. Then came the Italians — Rizzuto, DiMaggio, Berra, Garagiola, and the Slavs – Al Simmons (Aloysius Syzmanski), Stan Musial, Bill Mazeroski and Carl Yastrezmski (Maz and Yaz).
Black players were here all along, playing uneasily alongside whites until the color barrier was erected in the late 1880s after which their own teams and leagues were established in a segregated society. There are 35 Negro Leaguers in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
The heyday of the Irish was late 19th and early 20th centuries, after baseball had lost its old-stock gentlemanly roots. They were both victimized by their stereotype as rowdies prone to drunken excess, and celebrated as colorful characters and fierce competitors.
According to historian Stephen Reiss, the Irish brought to America “a manly athletic tradition and quickly became avid sports fans and athletes in their new country.”
Their first great hero was Michael “King” Kelly, a first generation Irish-American, who played for 16 years (1878-93), batted over .300, stole 350 bases. Kelly was one of those colorful figures, a vaudevillian in the off-season, who inspired the popular song, “Slide, Kelly, Slide.”
Wee Willie Keeler, who “hit ’em where they ain’t”; Hughie Jennings; Big Dan Brouthers, the pre-eminent power hitter before Babe Ruth; and Big Ed Delahanty were turn-of-the-century Irish-American stars. Delahanty died in a fall (or jump) from the International Bridge over Niagara Falls after a night of carousing in 1903.
The Irish were skilled tacticians and innovators in the game. Many went on to manage when their playing days were over. At one point in the first quarter of the 20th century, 11 of the 16 managers in the game were Irish.
John McGraw of the New York Giants and Connie Mack of the Philadelphia A’s were chief among them. Both were sons of Irish immigrants.
McGraw, sometimes called “Little Napoleon” and “Muggsy” (but never to his face), managed the Giants for 31 years (1902-1932) and won 10 pennants and three championships. He was a diminutive man, a fierce, ill-tempered, profane battler who was ejected from 131 games in his career.
The mild-mannered Mack (born Cornelius McGillicuddy) was his opposite. He never wore a uniform, managing the A’s in a starched collar and suit for over 50 years (1900-1951). He won more games than any other manager (3,731), and lost more (3,948).
Nolan Ryan and Mark McGwire are Irish-American players of distinction of a more recent time.
So on this St. Paddy’s Day, I’ll hoist a cold one and toast the Irish and spring and the great National Pastime. I’ll make a little sign of the cross to solicit safe passage and good fortune this season for the Ol’ Towne Team, the Red Sox.
After I send birthday greetings to my ex, of course.