In his new memoir "Rolling Up The Rug : An American Irish Story", Michael Scanlon recalls watching DiMaggio play baseball on Saturdays and watching the Irish games of Gaelic Football and Hurley on Sundays. The short excerpt is entitled "Becoming a Yank." The book is available on Amazon.
In the late 1920’s my mother and father abandoned the land of their birth because, in many ways, the land had abandoned them. Along with many thousands of others struggling on farms in rural Ireland, they sailed for America seeking a better life.
Like the long wave of immigrants before and after them, they never completely abandoned their roots, and never stopped singing their Irish songs filled with nostalgic longing for the valleys, streams and meadows of their youth. But, over a period of time, their natural Irish gregariousness found an easy fit in the hustle and bustle of city life.
After my mother arrived in America, she brought over her younger brother, John, and her sister Margaret. My father brought over his younger sister, Amelia, and then his older brother, Pat. Some years later he sponsored his niece, Dolores McLoughlin. All of them, like my mother and father, eventually married, raised children and grandchildren and great-grand children of their own and became part of the great ongoing and unfolding story of America itself.
Like many immigrant families in America, our family had a foot in both worlds: Irish and American. My parents read two newspapers: The Irish Echo and The New York Daily News. Every March 17th they walked proudly up Fifth Avenue in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. My father never missed his meetings of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Division 9, and my mother was part of the Ladies Auxiliary. But no meeting was as important to my father as those of his trade union — the Transportation Workers of America. And on Election Day, going to the polls to vote the straight Democratic ticket was almost as sacred to Mom and Pop as going to Sunday Mass.
Although they always remained “Irish to the backbone,” my parents never stopped proclaiming how great America was. Of course, in those days of boundless optimism just after World War II, it was easy enough to be patriotic. America had just defeated Tojo in Japan and, once again, we rescued mighty Britannia – this time from the scourge of Nazism. And it did not go unnoticed in our family that many of those young soldiers who strapped rifles to their backs in World War II were born and bred Irishmen like our own uncle Frank McDermott who no sooner landed in New York in the 1930’s from his small farm in County Cavan, than he was drafted into the United States Army to become an instant member of the “Greatest Generation.” After his time in the U.S. Army, Uncle
Frank needed no other proof that he was a full blown American.
To become a “full blown American ” was a wish of my father as well. I recall an incident that brought home this wish to me.
One sweltering summer’s night a year after the war ended, as I stood outside our apartment building, I noticed a huge glowing light flooding the dark sky. My mother explained that the brightness came from Yankee Stadium where they were holding the big prize fight. An Irish puncher from Pittsburgh named Billy Conn had come to town to challenge the great Joe Louis in an outdoor battle for the heavy weight boxing championship of the world.
In those school-boy days when sports were just about everything to us neighborhood kids, you got used to that kind of excitement and you came to expect that everything big and important happened just a few blocks away. Not only was the great Yankee Stadium nearby, but from my roof I could look across the Harlem River to see the outline of the mighty Polo Grounds where the New York Giants played baseball. It felt like living at the center of the universe.
Often on Saturdays, the owners of the New York Yankees handed out free grandstand tickets to us neighborhood kids. They dubbed us, “Yankee Juniors.” But even when we couldn’t get into the stadium for free, we happily paid the 60 cents to bake in the hot bleacher seats just to see the great DiMaggio play his last games as a Yankee. And later, in the early 1950’s, when Mickey Mantle replaced the aging Joltin’ Joe in center field, we packed the stadium and roared with the crowd as this new young lion smashed home runs and ran the bases in bullet speed no one had ever seen before. The New York Yankees won four World Series in five years.
Baseball was the absolute king in our neighborhood. On summer weekends, platoons of fathers and sons marched through our local streets on their way to a ball game. On the streets right outside our apartment houses we kids played many variations of baseball: punch ball, curb ball, off-the-point and the king of all games, stickball – where we used a broom handle to hit a hard pink rubber ball, a spaldeen. The sewer covers were our bases.
Neither Mom nor Pop followed baseball, so I never went to a ball game with my father. Instead, on some Sundays after Mass, our parents took us on a rattling bus to the end of the Bronx to watch the Irish games at Croke Park. This was a sprawling place with a field – or a “pitch” as the Irish called it – and a restaurant bar owned by a big Kerry man, John O’Donnell. Later it became known as Gaelic Park.
With us kids in tow and amidst much banter, Mom and Pop joined their Irish friends in the sun-drenched, splintery stands to enjoy the national games of Ireland – Gaelic Football, a free-wheeling variation of soccer and rugby, and Hurling an all-out battle between two bands of swift warriors armed with wooden battle-axes, the hurley sticks.
“Up the field, Mayo!” “Up, Galway!” the crowd roared at the sound of the leathery smack of the stick against the ball. Out of pure “divilment” (as my mother would say) my father would cup his hands and chime in loudly amidst much laughter, “Up, DOWN! Up, DOWN!” – although I don’t think County Down in the north of Ireland ever mounted a team of any kind in those days.
After the games, my parents and friends would stroll over for drinks at the huge, wrap-around bar followed by a dinner of ham and cabbage in the spacious dining room with a dance floor. Up on the stage, the likes of the ever-smiling Mickey Carton and his Irish band played waltzes, foxtrots, jigs and reels. People danced, songs were sung. It was a time for hard working New York Irish men and women to be among their own for a while, to share a few stories, trade news about the old country and have a few laughs before the new work week began on the morrow.
On these Sundays I took along my baseball and mitt hoping to find another Irish American boy dragged along by his parents to watch the Irish games. My new friend and I would play “catch” behind the stands, wishing we were watching the Yankees instead of being captive to the Irish “footballers” as Mom called them.
Then on one particular Sunday we drove upstate with other families from our parish for a picnic. In the late afternoon a bunch of us boys chose up a game of baseball and I was in the batter’s box.
“C’mon,” I shouted to the pitcher, “give me something good to hit.”
“One more strike and you’re out!” he shouted back.
I stepped back from home plate and saw a man standing near first base. He was wearing a tan shirt and trousers and leaning his arm against a tree. He smiled as he watched me. It was my father. I pretended not to see him. I stepped into the batter’s box determined to make him proud by slamming that ball into the outfield. The next pitch came sailing right down the middle of the plate and I let go with the fiercest swing of my life. Damn! I missed the ball again.
“Strike three. You’re out!” the pitcher shouted with glee.
I threw the bat to the ground and stole a look down first base. My father stood gazing at me with the same smile on his face as if I had just hit a home run. He shrugged, winked and nodded as if to say,
“Attaboy, you show ‘em!”
I had seen American fathers yell at their sons for making even small mistakes on the baseball field. My father must have known a swing and a miss was not a good thing. His reaction puzzled me.
But then with the passage of years I came to realize something more about that day. As Irish proud as he was, my father also wanted to be more “American.” And I came to realize that a bridge to that American world for my father and for other Irish people I knew was often through their own children.
And so, as I recall the smile on his face that day, the approving wave of his hand, I see now it didn’t matter to him whether or not I hit that baseball. What mattered was he had a son who was stepping up to the plate and becoming part of the game – the American way of things. That’s what he wanted for himself – and what he most certainly wanted for his family.
* “Rolling Up the Rug: An American Irish Story” is available here.