Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown: St. Patrick’s Day Edition
The following is from Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown #125, which was first published way back in 1996.
St Patrick Invented Baseball
I have suspected for some time that I’ve always felt at home in the country of baseball, partly because of my ancestry. Both of my grandfathers, long gone from the planet long before I arrived, were Irish.
So what? Well, if you look closely at the hairs on baseball’s head, you will see a lot of green at the roots. Go back to the days when Cy was Young, the “rowdy ball” era of Mack and McGraw. There, fighting, gambling and drinking seemed as essential to the sport as pitching, hitting and running.
On St Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1871, at Collier’s Cafe on the corner of 13th St and Broadway in Manhattan, the pretense that baseball was purely an amateur sport officially came to an end. That evening, the old National Assn. of Base Ball Players split between those clubs determined to keep alive the gentlemanly game pioneered by the Knickerbockers, and a brand-new National Assn. of Professional Base Ball Players.
— BASEBALL, Ward & Burns
Brawls and rhubarbs were not just anticipated on the part of the players, managers and umps — fan violence was a problem for baseball, too. Notre Dame didn’t pick up that nickname “Fighting Irish” in a vacuum.
Nor was gambling solely a fan activity, although early on baseball had the goal of keeping the players away from the bookies. I think baseball appealed to gamblers partly because it’s a hard game to fix. (The White Sox of 1919 proved it was possible, if the stakes were high enough.) When I visited Ireland, I was told that the Irish “bet on anything that moves.” So baseball must have attracted Irishmen like a grand sweepstakes — or a bingo!
As for drinking — well, the Irish may not be an alcoholic nation, but baseball seemed to be, for a long while, and drugs still ruin more careers than curve balls. One of the first such casualties was one of baseball’s first great stars, Mike “King” Kelly, who was also one of the game’s first Irish Catholic stars.
This issue is a tribute to the green roots of baseball, and is not for the politically correct. OK, maybe St Patrick didn’t invent it, but I bet he’d have been a big baseball fan.
“SLIDE, KELLY, SLIDE”: HE DID
|Cap Anson only regretted signing Michael J. Kelly to a contract after the games were over. Between the lines, Kelly was a dazzling, versatile player who could hit (he led the NL twice), run (stealing six bases in one game, 84 in the second season that steals were counted — and so often that he inspired a song), and field, all with flair.But to Anson’s chagrin, Kelly drank as hard as he played. Asked if he ever drank while playing, Kelly replied “It depends on the length of the game,” and one game was delayed while Kelly and several fans (in the luxury boxes of the day, the front row) toasted each other. [BASEBALL, Ward & Burns] A.G. Spalding sold the King of Chicago to Boston for the unheard-of sum of $10,000. Kelly received $2,000 for playing, and another $3,000 for “use of his picture,” and he made a few bucks off-season reciting Casey at the Bat on vaudeville stages.But without Anson’s restraints, Kelly fell off the wagon and then off the diamond. He complained of unfair treatment by the press, claiming that he was often quoted on & off the field, and his slightest mistakes were magnified. Being a star had its price, even then.Out of baseball, Kelly opened a saloon on New York. Bad choice, unless you are Sam Malone. Kelly was dead at age 36.My poem on King Kelly (right) appeared in Notes once before, three years ago, back in issue #6 — back in the early days when Notes came in a different color each week. Frequently, green.||
[This story has appeared in Notes before, but it fit so well with the themes of this issue … and then Mike Schacht sent me this little ad from Leland’s SCD.]
When my father died, I was the one who went through his things for Mom, to sort out anything valuable from the junk. I was 26 and had performed this task before, the “archeologist” sifting layers of someone else’s past, wondering about the meaning of the stuff collected over a lifetime. Poems and photos and rings and holy cards from the funerals of friends and relatives.
In my father’s stockpile I found an old stickpin, something I’d seen years before. It had been his father’s pin, perhaps excavated from my grandfather’s belongings after he had died.
My paternal grandfather, Mike Carney, was an Irish cop in Pittsburgh at the turn of the century. He died before I was born, but I was told that he was the first in my family to get hooked on baseball and the Pirates. Baseball was an occupational hazard for him, a rough sport played by rough men cheered on by rough fans. Policemen were admitted to games free if they were in uniform, to help keep order in the grandstand. Mike Carney took in as many games as he could.
No doubt he was on hand in 1909, when Forbes Field opened. It was built in just four months. Sure, steel was handy, but I like to think that the construction crews were motivated like the cathedral builders of Europe, by a sort of religious fervor — the fervor of a city in a pennant race. The Pirates, descendants of the Alleghenies, had been there a few times before, winning in 1901, ’02 and ’03. But in 1909 they won 110 games, led by Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke and Howie Camnitz and a kid pitcher with a great nickname, Babe Adams.
Forbes Field opened on June 30. The Pirates lost that day, but Mike Carney came home with a souvenir metal stickpin. It was a few inches long, a tiny catcher’s mitt with a baseball inside, engraved with the historic date. He kept the pin until he died, and so had my father.
Perhaps the pin was worn on those special days, when my grandfather took his whole family to the old ball game, dressed in their Sunday best (because they rode the streetcar) to see Pie Traynor and the Waner brothers. I imagine my father as a teen, and his brother and sister being tremendously excited on those trips to Oakland, while Gram Carney packed a lunch and went along for the ride and understood none of it.
When the pin became mine in 1972, it brought back memories of the Mike Carney who was my father. Games of catch, or hitting fungoes on warm summer evenings at North Park. Dinnertime debates over whether Dick Stuart was the new Ralph Kiner. Dozens of trips to Forbes Field with my family, with lunches packed by my Mom, to eat between the games of a Sunday doubleheader. Always taking along pencils to keep score, while we rooted for the Bucs.
Memories of 1960. That summer I was a teenager, and when the Pirates charged to their first pennant in 33 years, then beat the unbeatable Yankees (on Maz’ homer), it was a climax of not just a season, but of years of rooting.
When the Pirates won again in 1971, my father and I got to go to the only World Series game either of us would ever see. I was working in Cleveland, but my father got two tickets to the first night game in Series history, so I could drive home, root the Bucs to a win with my Dad, and be back at work next day.
The pin also reminded me of hundreds of letters that I exchanged with my father after I left Pittsburgh for college. Baseball was a frequent topic. I was out of range for KDKA and Bob Prince, but my Dad wove the radio play-by-play into his letters, digressing for a triple by “Cleem” (his shorthand for Clemente) or noting Prince’s colorful images (“… that was as close as fuzz on a tick’s ear.”) His letters came several times a week, sometimes twenty or fifty pages long, in his distinctive, effortless longhand. In between his predictions, in between hits and runs, I got to know my father.
So when I found that stickpin from the 1909 birthday of Forbes Field, I decided that it belonged in Cooperstown, donated in my father’s name. He had been a Hall of Fame fan.
I moved to upstate New York a few years later and started my own family. My wife will never be a baseball fan, but tolerance is one of her many other virtues. My kids are learning and liking the game, and we root for our local Blue Sox.
When the Pirates won the pennant in 1990, I was a teenager all over again, rooting as hard as I ever did in 1960. But that season will also be memorable for an event on a rainy June morning.
My sister was visiting from Pittsburgh, and together with my son, we drove off to Cooperstown, to see if we could find a certain stickpin in the Baseball Hall of Fame. I found it first, in a wall display commemorating Forbes Field. For us, it recalled so much more than a ball park.
My father is buried in Pittsburgh, where family visit with flowers and remember him. I visit Cooperstown and do the same.
* * * * *
My father died on a golf course, exactly the way he wanted to go. I got him addicted to golf, and looking back, it was kind of revenge for his getting me hooked on baseball. Mike Carney could have gone to game 7 of the 1960 World Series, but didn’t. I have since read about other fans who simply don’t want to risk the extreme highs (or lows) of those rare situations. Who knows? Maybe sending my mother in as a pinch-rooter added a dozen more summers to his life. Sometimes you play your hunches.
IN THE DUGOUT
Leonard Koppett, one of my favorite baseball writers, traced the ancestry of baseball’s managers (in The Man in the Dugout) back to three main “creators”: John McGraw, Connie Mack, and Branch Rickey. “Three exceptional men who not only fashioned modern baseball’s development in the first half of the twentieth century, but whose direct influence is still visible and ubiquitous in every ballpark in the final decade of this century.”
McGraw was born of an Irish immigrant father, less than a decade after the Civil War, about sixty miles west of Cooperstown. Connie Mack was born during the war, of an Irish immigrant father who served in the Union Army. Branch Rickey was a generation later, of New England stock, but with roots on his mother’s side that traveled back to Scotland. Close enough.
Koppett never suggests the influence of the Emerald Isle on baseball, nor does he highlight the flow of green blood in the dugout, through McCarthy and Murtaugh, to today’s strategists. I will let you draw your own conclusions.
I mentioned up top that I’ve been to Ireland. That was 1973, and I was advised to avoid the north, where a war was in progress. A fellow I met in London, who was close to that civil war in Belfast, was pessimistic. “The kids grow up with it. Hate is passed down from one generation to the next.”
Baseball is a generational thing, too. Even if you are skeptical about Koppett’s family trees, we all have stories from the generations before ours, to which we add our own, and pass down to the next generation. I think baseball stories are better for kids than war stories. On the whole, most people prefer sports to war.
Maybe baseball would have spread like crazy in this country anyway, once our own civil war ended. But something in me wants to believe that the country was sick and tired of war. We got hooked on baseball to help us forget the war. To help us heal.
We take it for granted, that all over our land, families of every ethnic descent, religion, political persuasion, and color, can enjoy a ballgame, together. It’s something pretty special.
RHAPSODY IN GREEN BEER
“At one time the persons who drank the most on a team were the ones held in the highest esteem. Back in the days of the Play-hard, Drink-hard Syndrome, it showed you were someone, showed how much you could drink and still stand on your feet.”
— Sam McDowell, recovering alcoholic
Keynote talk, 1990 SABR Convention
“One of the prominent evils of the season of 1883 … was the drunkenness which prevailed in the ranks of many of the club teams. The number of League and American matches that were lost last season by dissipation of players would surprise the fraternity were they enumerated …. there was scarcely one team in the arena that did not have at least one “weak brother” among its players.”
— Spaulding’s Official BB Guide 1884
“At the turn of the century, Ed Delahanty was one of the finest players in the game. However, Ed … had a problem; he drank too much. Whiskey, plus gambling and a fiery Irish temper, led to his demise….
— Lewis Scheid
“The Tragedy of Ed Delahanty”
SABR BB Research Journal #20
“Enjoying his celebrity status as manager of baseball’s top franchise, McGraw ran with the shady Broadway crowd that Damon Runyon would make famous and invested in a poll hall and racetrack, with Arnold Rothstein, the nation’s top gambling racketeer, who was behind the Black Sox bribes of 1919….
“[Attorney] Fallon defended McGraw against charges for assault and possession of alcohol stemming from a drunken brawl at the Lamb’s Club in 1920.”
— Eliot Cohen
“Rose Out, McGraw In. Why?”
SABR’s BB Research Journal #20
Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simple creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.
— A. Bart Giamatti
The Green Fields of the Mind
Fundamentalist before the
Fundamentals got around,
to Franklin and Edison
Old Oriole invented new ways to win
Every time his team took the field
So much of baseball’s family
Bears a strong resemblance
To this patriarch
of the inside game
His genes dominant as his Giants
In the scrappy skippers who fight
Tooth and nail for their players
And their victories —
For the generals at war
The game has his eyes
Nothing escaped them
For the extra base or run
No chance to cut down
the enemy rally
Or slow the enemy runner
No occasion to instruct
Eyes lit by fire
Eyes for talent buried in
Sons of miners and farmers
Eyes for intimidating
or between the lines
And all those not on his side
Eyes for the advantage everywhere
His armies hit and ran
Like Colonial soldiers
Disciplined by a tyrant
Tactics was Mr McGraw’s
— from Romancing the Horsehide
RHAPSODY IN GREEN BEER — Part II
In my favorite baseball “trivia” book (it may not be confined to that category), The Answer is Baseball, Luke Salisbury has a wonderful chapter, “The Riddle of the Indian”. Lou Sockalexis, the Penobscot from Maine after whom the Cleveland Indians were named (to honor him, PCs), was not the first Native American to make the bigs. James Madison Toy played in the American Association in 1887. But Lou was the first to make it big in the bigs.
According to Salisbury, “John McGraw and Hughie Jennings said Sockalexis was the finest natural talent they ever saw.” He had a reputation as a drinker long before he reached Cleveland. Salisbury notes that the media of the day often used euphemisms — “pneumonia” (or, in Boston, “Irish pneumonia”) often meant complications from alcoholism. The riddle of this Indian is not how or why he “disappeared into the Indian burial ground of the bottle,” but how he managed to succeed at all, playing baseball while the slaughter of millions of Native Americans was continuing, and no doubt was reported a short distance from the box scores.
In the first Fireside Book of Baseball, my favorite library, is a chapter from Robert Smith’s book Baseball (Simon & Schuster, 1947), “The Wild Irishman and the Gentle Indian”. So you see I’m hardly the first to bring Lou Sockalexis together in print with Ed Delahanty. It’s a wonderful chapter. Smith notes that John McGraw once made “a fat offer” to Big Ed, to play for him in New York. But unfortunately for Ed, peace broke out — between the National and American leagues, that is — and the reserve clause condemned him to remain in Washington a second summer. Most of his career, he starred for the NL Phillies; in 1902, his first AL season, he led the fledgling league with .376
Arguably one of the top hitters of all-time (Big Mac has Big Ed at .346, sandwiched between Shoeless Joe and Ted Williams; he could kill the dead ball), Delahanty had accepted a $4500 advance from McGraw, and much of it was already lost at the race track. So Big Ed was cranky when the 1903 season started. He turned more and more to the bottle, was suspended after a binge of several days in June, and “began to devote his full time to drinking.” The story of his mysterious and tragic end — put off a train for drunken brawling, Ed wound up falling off a bridge and going over Niagara Falls — is a book all by itself.
And that book would be July 2, 1903, by Mike Sowell (MacMillan, 1992). Follow it up with Luke Salisbury’s The Cleveland Indian: The Legend of King Saturday (Smith, 1992). Both have been in my On Deck for … four years now!
It is fun to imagine Lou Sockalexis, Wild Irishman Delahanty, and John McGraw sitting down for a game of bridge, joined by Christy Mathewson. For $1,000 in the category Designated Drivers, who is Big Six?
A DISSENTING VIEW:
“[Bobby Thomson’s HR] gives us some idea of what Greek tragedy was like. Baseball is Greek in being national, heroic, and broken up in the rivalries of city-states…. Is there not a poetic symbol in the new meaning — our meaning — of ‘Ruth hits Homer’?”
— Jacques Barzun
IRISH MEUSEL WASN’T
Besides learning more about Lou Sockalexis in that chapter of The Answer is Baseball (and be sure to put your answer in the form of a question), you will find out who the first Polish and Italian ballplayers were. Salisbury has Oscar Bielaski as the first Pole (he did not make the “Name Ending in Ski All-Star Team” of Davis & Horne in their irreverent little collection), and Eddie Abbaticchio as the first Italian. “Abby” will be fine in the box score, thanks. (Sockalexis makes the Davis/Horne Native American All-Stars, but not their Alcoholic Stars — Lou played outfield — so did Ruth, Hack Wilson & Paul Waner.)
It says something that no one ever asks who the first Irish player was (or English or German. German roots for some of the all-timers, Gehrig, Honus Wagner, Mike Schmidt. Babe Ruth is considered German, but I believe that’s just half-true, isn’t it? Wasn’t his mother Kate, Irish? It says something, too, about our culture, that paternity outweighed maternity. Chief Bender and Roy Campanella come quickly to mind.)
Salisbury discovered that Eddie Collins and Mickey “Black Mike” Cochrane were both Irish Protestants, despite their Boston connections.
Most players with any Native American blood were nicknamed “Chief,” and many of German descent were called “Heinie.” But did you know that Irish Meusel, older brother of Murderer’s Row Bob, was Alsatian? He looked “Celtic,” one source explains. Frankly, I see no resemblance at all to Cousy, Bird or Russell.
I’ve mentioned before in Notes that once upon a time, fans could look up “ancestry” as easily as “bats left, throws right.” My old Pirate yearbooks are Exhibit A. For example, 1959: infielder Harry Bright (a perennial glowing prospect) was “Pennsylvania Dutch.” ElRoy Face, “English, French and German.” Freddie Green, “Scotch-Irish.” Lots of English, Irish & Germans on that team. Frank Thomas was gone by ’59, but the ’56 yearbook lists that Pittsburgh native as “Lithuanian-Slavic.” The Cold War notwithstanding, the Bucs also carried a Russian catcher, Danny Kravitz, who was never trusted with the team’s signals. Just kidding there — I liked Danny.
The old yearbooks, by the way, were jammed full of baseball. Stats galore, photos galore, stories to last thru the longest rain delays. The most recent yearbooks I have are slick, glossy, and mostly advertising. Thin on stats. And there would probably be a lawsuit filed by the Players’ Association if anyone was asked to list “ancestry” on a file care for the PR folks.
I will argue that it is a good thing for fans to recognize the ancestry of players. It is good to see people of different races, creeds and colors playing together, enjoying each other. I think this is no small part of the game’s appeal for immigrants.
HEARD IT THRU THE GRAPE-LINE
Someone researching racial information for current major leaguers drew this response from SABRite Chip Hart (3/4/96):
“No team, at least since the fifties, would dare to keep racial data. I can’t imagine that the Yankees (or any official entity) would keep a database that looks like:
Mike Greenwell: White
Darryl Strawberry: Black
Devon White: Black
Bud Black: White [whoops, having too much fun]
“And there is significant argument as to whether someone is black (or AA, or whatever term you prefer) vs. Latino, etc. Is Guerrero black or Latin? How about Bonilla? … Can we say that Dennis Martinez (clearly Latin) has received the same treatment as Barry Bonds (clearly black)? I dunno.”
I dunno either. I recall reading that some races (Hispanic was one) had lots of different words for persons with different degrees of that race. The question has come up when talking about Native Americans who played ball in the major leagues — would you include Willie Stargell, whose roots in Oklahoma go back to a Native American tribe (originally from Florida, I think) which was well-integrated with runaway slaves? Isn’t Johnny Bench one-sixteenth Native American, or one-thirty-second?
It is difficult, here in 1995, to talk about race, without raising somebody’s hackles. Before you know it, the topic changes from race to stereotyping, to racial/ethnic slurs, to O.J. Simpson, to the history we’ve made in this nation: slavery, the Native American holocaust, the treatment of Japanese-Americans during WW II, the treatment of women today. As Harry Caray (or Phil Rizzuto) might say, Holy Cow! — but then again, if the phrase offends Americans with roots in India….
The black players in my old Pirate yearbooks, in case you are wondering, were listed as “American Negro” — it was a simpler time. Roberto Clemente, “Spanish-Puerto Rican Negro.” Roman Mejias, who once hit three HRs into San Francisco’s jet stream, “Spanish-Cuban Negro.” Joe Christopher, from the Virgin Islands, seems to be the only player with no ancestry listed.
Jim O’Brien’s interview with Joseph O’Neal Christopher — now an artist (pre-Columbian) in Baltimore — is one of the more unusual in his book Maz and the ’60 Bucs. “(Branch) Rickey told me he chose Jackie Robinson (to break the color barrier in baseball) because of his birthdate. He believed that some people are pre-destined for success by their birthdate,” Joe told Jim. (I wonder if Spike Lee will have that detail in his film? Jackie was born January 31 (1919), same as Ernie Banks … Nolan Ryan … hey, maybe Rickey was onto something!) Joe is apparently not related to ex-Buc pitcher/photographer Alvin O’Neal McBean, also of the Virgin Islands. Both Irish, O’Course.
D is for Dreyfuss
Our first owner, Barney
And also for Danny
That’s Murtaugh —
as in blarney!
— from AlphaBuc Soup
This has been a strange issue indeed, but I’ve tied in before other off-season holidays, like Thanksgiving and Halloween and New Years, with baseball, so why not St Patrick’s Day?
It’s only fitting that I let Paddy Sullivan, from my play MORNINGS AFTER have the last words (Act 1):
Paddy: Guess I caught the baseball bug from Pap, all right. When I was just a leprechaun, he’d carry me to and from on his shoulders. (Paddy acts this out) When I growed up some, we’d walk to the games from home, tossin’ a ball back and forth, me on one side o’ the street, and Pap on the other, and we’d yell back and forth and salute the neighbors duckin’ our throws. Pap hardly missed a game, summer after summer.
Molly: Was he glad you became a ball player?
Paddy: When I showed Pap me first contact last winter, even though it was just for weekends, his smile ran from here to the Lakes of Kilarney — couldn’t ‘a been more excited if I told him I was joinin’ the seminary and aimin’ at bishop!
PADDY ON APRIL: Ah, to be on the young side of twenty, in good health, and in April. The air’s never fresher than in April…. The poets have it all wrong…. April is far from the cruelest month. Nay, it’s the kindest, gentlest month of all.