The Irish stars in the early history of baseball


The Irish potato famine of the 1840s and 1850s was probably the greatest human tragedy of the 19th century. The famine sparked a massive wave of emigration to America, with more than two million Irish men, women, and children leaving their homeland for the New World. Their presence on American shores added a distinctive Irish flavor to the so-called “melting pot,” as Irish immigrants raised families, built communities, and made a place for themselves in their adopted country.

Hundreds of thousands of these Irish immigrants were young men, and their arrival created a potential new source of participants for America’s most rapidly growing sport. Baseball was an activity that the immigrant Irishman could engage in to become part of his adopted country. Through it, the Irishman could fit in and excel at something distinctly American. While the older generation could not always understand this strange new pastime and its appeal, their young men embraced it with enthusiasm. Professional baseball, which took root in America shortly after the Civil War, was attractive to the ambitious immigrant, and it did not take long for the Irish to gain a foothold in the increasingly popular sport.

The National League began play in 1876, just as the sons of Irish famine refugees were reaching adulthood, and the number of Irish players in the league grew with each passing year. One Irishman of note was Roger Connor, a Connecticut native whose Irish-born father had frowned on his son’s interest in the new American game. Roger was nonetheless determined to make good in baseball. A handsome, muscular first baseman, the hard-hitting Connor soon became the most popular player in New York, where the fans called him “Dear Old Roger.” Connor, proud of his ancestry, wore a bright green shamrock stitched to his uniform shirt. When he retired from the game in 1897, he held the career record for home runs, a mark which was later broken by Babe Ruth. 

Connor, however, was only one of a legion of Irish stars in early baseball. It has been estimated that more than 40 percent of all major league players during this era were Irish Americans; among them were pitchers Jim (Pud) Galvin and Tim Keefe, the first two major leaguers to win 300 games, and Hugh Duffy, whose .440 batting average in 1894 has never been surpassed. So many of the batting champions and pitching leaders of the era were Irishmen that there are almost too many to name.

The grandest Irish-American player of them all during this era was Mike Kelly, the “King of Ballplayers.” Born to Irish immigrants in Lansingburgh (now part of Troy), New York, on New Year’s Eve in 1857, Mike Kelly treated every day as a party. This multitalented player, who saw action at both catcher and shortstop as well as in the outfield, joined the Chicago White Stockings in 1880 after two years with the Cincinnati Reds. He drove manager Cap Anson crazy with his carefree behavior, but his on-field brilliance keyed the Chicago attack and led the White Stockings to five pennants in seven years. Before long he was “King” Kelly, baseball’s first matinee idol and hero to Irish-Americans across the nation.

The King smoked cigarettes on the bench, and once, when asked if he drank alcohol during games, replied cheerfully, “It depends on the length of the game.” He invented new ways to slide into bases, raising large clouds of dust as the fans cheered, “Slide, Kelly, slide!” He was also known to hide an extra ball in his uniform shirt for special occasions. One day, Kelly was in right field late in the game as the setting sun cast twilight over the field. The batter belted a liner to right, and Kelly made a spectacular headlong dive in the darkness, rising with the ball in his hand as the crowd cheered his game-saving play. Anson complimented him on the catch. “What catch?” asked Kelly in his Irish brogue. “The ball went a mile over me head.” He had “caught” the extra ball, not the game ball.

The Chicago team was built around Irish-American ballplayers, with pitcher Larry Corcoran (who threw three no-hitters during his short career), catcher Frank (Silver) Flint, and third baseman Tom Burns also attaining stardom. However, Kelly always commanded the most attention. Sold to Boston in 1887 for the then-record sum of $10,000, Kelly was so popular that the Irish fans of the Hub bought him a house, complete with a horse-drawn carriage to convey their hero to the game each day. Sometimes the Boston Irish put the carriage aside and carried Kelly to the ballpark on their shoulders. The King’s stardom fizzled out after a while – whiskey and high living ended his career in 1893 and his life one year later – but Mike Kelly remains a symbol of Irish-American supremacy of early baseball.

The Irish also dominated the umpiring ranks. The umpiring profession was a thankless one at the time, with only one arbiter present to keep order in games often marked by chaos and rowdiness. Arguments, fan violence, and even fistfights between players and umpires were common during the 1880s and 1890s, and only the strongest umpires survived. Many failed, but skilled, dedicated Irishmen such as “Honest John” Gaffney and “Honest John” Kelly prospered. Gaffney, who conducted each game with patience and tact rather than physical intimidation, was the first man to be called “King of Umpires.”