The Irish stars in the early history of baseball


Perhaps the most colorful umpire of the period was Tim Hurst, who grew up in the coal mining country of Pennsylvania and brought a sharp wit and quick fists to the National League in 1892. Hurst, who had learned to box while working in the mines, gave his decisions in a thick Irish brogue and took no nonsense from anyone. He once flattened an unruly fan with his mask during an argument, then did the same to a police officer who tried to intervene. In 1897, after receiving a constant stream of abuse from several Pittsburgh Pirates, the umpire invited three players to meet him under the stands after the game. Hurst took them all on at once and emerged the victor. Despite his temper, Hurst knew the rule book inside and out, and many players considered him the most skilled arbiter in the league.

Hurst agreed with that assessment. He wore a cap with the letter B on it; when asked why, Hurst replied, “Because I’m the best.” He kept control of the game, though some players found the quick-witted Hurst so entertaining that they started arguments with him just to hear him talk in his colorful Irish accent.

The Baltimore Orioles, who dominated the National League during the mid-1890s, were almost totally Irish in character. Manager Ned Hanlon, an outstanding judge of talent with a penchant for hiring his fellow Irishmen, built the also-ran Orioles into a contender with a series of trades and free-agent signings. His scrappiest player was John McGraw, a third baseman whose parents had left County Tipperary years before and settled in the farming community of Truxton, New York. McGraw weighed only 121 pounds when he arrived in Baltimore at age 18, but his will to succeed was second to none, and he made himself into a star under Hanlon’s direction. The speedy McGraw taught himself to foul off pitches, one after another, until he took a walk or found a pitch he could slap into the outfield for a single. Despite his youth, he made himself the field leader of the Orioles, urging his teammates to “Get at ’em!” 

McGraw, who was known to trip opposing baserunners or grab their belts to prevent them from rounding third, led the way in bullying opponents, manhandling umpires, and generally causing mayhem in the pursuit of winning. To McGraw, winning was everything, whatever the cost. He and his fellow Irish Orioles – outfielders Joe Kelley and Wee Willie Keeler, shortstop Hugh Jennings, second baseman “Kid” Gleason, and others – followed McGraw’s example and battled their way to the top of the league. The Orioles were the most unpopular team in the circuit, but brought three pennants to Baltimore from 1894 to 1896. Many of these same Irish stars (though not McGraw) followed Ned Hanlon to Brooklyn several years later and won two more pennants in 1899 and 1900.

A new circuit, the American League, began play in 1901 with several Irish Americans in key roles. Jimmy Collins, star third baseman for the Boston club of the National League, jumped to the new league and became the playing manager of a new contender, the Boston Americans (now called the Red Sox). Collins, who imported several Irish stars from the old league, won two pennants and defeated Pittsburgh in the first modern World Series in 1903. Another important figure was Connie Mack, whose name was Cornelius McGillicuddy at his birth in 1862. Mack, whose immigrant father fought in an all-Irish regiment during the Civil War, was a soft-spoken and gentlemanly manager who bore no resemblance to the fiery John McGraw apart from his Irish ancestry. Mack took charge of the Philadelphia Athletics in 1901 and led the team to nine pennants and a then-record five World Series titles in a career that lasted until 1950.

John McGraw was appointed manager of the moribund New York Giants in 1902, and, following the example of his mentor Hanlon, built the Giants into a powerhouse with a largely Irish roster. However, the Irish dominance of baseball had abated by this time, with the percentage of German Americans on major league teams surpassing that of the Irish by 1900. Indeed, the Chicago Cubs, chief rivals of the revitalized Giants, were an almost totally German team; McGraw publicly sneered at the “Dutchmen” in Chicago, but the Cubs won four pennants and two World Series from 1906 to 1910. McGraw’s “Hibernian Giants” rebounded with pennants in 1911, 1912, and 1913, but lost all three World Series. The Irish no longer ruled the game, and as other ethnic groups (Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Scandinavians among them) entered the fray, the Irish became merely one of a number of nationalities represented on major league rosters.

Though Irishmen began to disappear from the playing ranks, they remained a force in the managerial end of the game. Slightly more than half of all major league managers during the 1910-1920 period claimed Irish descent, and Irish-American managers won 13 of the first 16 American League pennants beginning in 1901. John McGraw, who led the Giants until 1932, and Connie Mack were only two of the many successful Irish-American field leaders who left their mark on the game during the first half of the 20th century. From 1932 to 1960, the New York Yankees won 18 pennants and 14 World Series titles under two outstanding managers, the fully Irish Joe McCarthy and the half-Irish Casey Stengel.