It's that time of year again when baseball fans can all feel equally hopeful that this is finally the year for their team.
And that this is finally not the year that all the rich teams (like the Yankees) will ultimately dominate the season and make it to the World Series in October.
This year will be a different one in baseball. League officials have added yet another playoff team to the mix, so when all is said and done 10 teams will have a crack at the World Series.
There is a tendency to gripe about changes like this, but for all the talk of tradition in the so-called national pastime, change has always been an integral part of baseball.
In fact, it was 141 years ago this St. Patrick’s Day that plans were set in motion which would ultimately make Co. Cavan native Andy Leonard one of the first great Irish-born stars of American baseball.
It was on March 17, 1871 that representatives from the National Association of Base Ball Players met to form what is considered by most to be the first organization dedicated to American baseball.
At the time, the Irish were a central part of the game. This is what author Charley Rosen explores in his new book The Emerald Diamond: How the Irish Transformed America’s Greatest Pastime (Harper).
In the book, Rosen explores how the Irish shaped and influenced the game of baseball in its earliest days, when the boys of summer on the diamond often had parents back in tenements who had to come from Ireland during the Famine.
The Irish in the earliest days of baseball are a story full of future Hall of Famers and forgotten heroes.
Inevitably, the sports also reflects broader themes in Irish American history.
Consider the career of 1870s star Jim O’Rourke. Known as “The Orator,” O’Rourke was a standout outfielder for the Middletown Mansfields of Connecticut, one of 10 teams which made up the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP).
O’Rourke was then wooed by the rival Boston Red Stockings, who were willing to pay handsomely for his services.
There was just one catch.
O’Rourke “would have to conceal the obvious Irishness of his name by dropping the 'O' and playing as Rourke,” Rosen writes.
O’Rourke would later claim that “a million dollars would not tempt me.”
O’Rourke was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1945.
Of course, by and large, things weren’t always so tense. This allowed Irish American players to change the game in many ways.
During the NABBP’s first season, the Philadelphia Athletics were crowned the league champions, and they were led by Tyrone native Fergy Malone, a catcher who hit a whopping .343 for the year.
William Arthur “Candy” Cummings, meanwhile, is generally “credited with being the first pitcher to throw a curveball,” Rosen notes.
During the 1874 campaign, Rosen adds, a group of NABBP players got together to bring the game across the Atlantic. Jim O’Rourke, Andy Leonard and a host of other players participated in a three-week tour of England, which included a two-day stop in Dublin.
Antrim native John McMullin and Cork-born Tim Murname were also on the squad, which was led by manager and Donegal native Dick McBride.
The large numbers of Irish on baseball’s earliest teams made sense in many ways.
Though it is often considered a pastoral, rural game, the fact is baseball has been exclusively a big-city sport until recent years.
Having Irish players on the field made it more likely that Irish immigrants and their children in Philly, New York, Boston and Chicago would pay money to see games.
As the 19th century wore on, the Irish shined even brighter on the diamond.
Mike “King” Kelly was one of the most exciting players in the 1880s. Pitcher and Cork native Tony “the Count” Mullane won 30 games numerous times in a season, while St. Louis native James “Pud” Galvin won over 300 total games and was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame.
Of course, Galvin also ingested Brown-Sequard Elixir, a 19th century performance enhancement derived from monkey testosterone.
So, maybe the Irish are also to blame for baseball’s steroids scandal.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at facebook.com/tomdeignan