Reviews

From such horrific tragedy came triumph on a field of dreams.

Baseball historian David L. Fleitz chronicles the embracing of the sport by immigrants who defined an important era on the diamond in The Irish in Baseball: An Early History. "Professional baseball took root in America during the late 1860s," writes Fleitz, "just as the sons of the first wave of (potato) famine refugees began to reach adulthood.

the_irish_in_baseball
June 2009; McFarland & Company, Inc Publishers
"The transformation of baseball into a profession made it even more attractive to the ambitious immigrant, and it did not take long for the Irish to gain a foothold in the rapidly growing sport."

In 180 tight pages of text, and photographs that carries his research into the early 1900s and commentary to this century, Fleitz delves into the importance of the city of Boston due to the immigration pattern in the mid-1800s and then pens concise biographies on players, teams, leagues and umpires. The exhaustive roster includes Charles "The Old Roman" Comiskey, Patsy Tebeau, Ned Hanlon, John McGraw, Connie Mack, the Chicago White Stockings/White Sox, New York Giants, Hibernian Spiders, the National League, Players League, American Association and the "King of Umpires" John Gaffney.

One controversial catcher/outfielder, Mike "King" Kelly, had the type of career that could have been a major story in any decade and demonstrated the power of stardom in the formative years of the professional game. The slugger led the White Stockings to five National League pennants in seven seasons -- beginning in 1880 -- but his boorish behavior got him sold for an incredible $10,000 to the Boston Beaneaters in February 1887. He immediately began feuding with manager/captain/first baseman John Morrill, with management eventually giving the captain's role to Kelly. Though he quickly became a fan favorite, the club was not in the pennant chase and finished in fifth place.

In 1888, Kelly was one-half of the "$20,000 battery," as Boston acquired pitching sensation John Clarkson from the White Stockings for $10,000 in April. The team placed fourth and Kelly cranked up his dislike of Morrill after the season by writing a letter to the national media that strongly stated he would not be with Boston in 1889 if the player/manager was still with the club. Morrill was ultimately dealt to Washington and Jim Hart was hired as manager to placate Kelly.

Boston was battling the Giants for the pennant in 1889, but an October 2 contest in Cleveland proved decisive on several fronts. Kelly was "ill" and did not play, but got ejected from the ballpark by police after a vociferous argument with the umpire. Hart tried to get Kelly back onto the bench by buying him a ticket into the game, but police refused to allow him into the ballpark. Boston lost the game and the Giants clinched the pennant on October 5 when the Beaneaters were defeated by Pittsburgh.

Kelly took his talent on the road -- and to the highest bidders -- in 1890 and 1891, as labor unrest gripped the game. He was player/manager for the Boston Reds of the Players League in 1890, leading the team to the pennant in the only season of the league's existence. In 1891, he played for three clubs: Cincinnati Kelly's Killers of the American Association -- until the club disbanded in August -- the Boston Reds (AA) for four games and the Beaneaters. The Reds and Beaneaters both won pennants, but Kelly's off-field incidents and curfew-breaking romps were mounting as his batting statistics started to slump badly.

In a cost-cutting move in 1892, he was released by the Beaneaters at mid-season and then inked a new deal with a substantial pay cut. He batted a feeble .189 and had his contract transferred to the Giants for the following season. He played in 20 games for the new club and retired at age 35. Kelly passed away on November 8, 1894. During the glory years, Kelly had a hit pop song written about his daredevil maneuvers on the base paths, published an autobiography and was as prodigious in signing autographs as he was hitting the baseball.

>Kelly was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 1945. Fleitz makes the case for a trio of Irish-born players -- Tony Mullane, Andy Leonard and Tommy Bond -- for HOF induction. And there is the infamous August 1897 brawl between "Dirty Jack" Doyle and umpire Thomas Lynch, the player turned sportswriter, Tim Murnane, and top draws with colorful nicknames -- "Laughing Larry" Doyle, "Wild Bill" Donovan and George "Duffy" Lewis -- which leads to rounding third base and heading back to Ireland.

"The Irish Baseball League began play in 1997 and includes teams representing Belfast, Greystones, and Dublin," writes Fleitz. "Baseball Ireland (the sport's governing body) also sponsors an Irish national team which won a bronze medal at the European (B-Pool) championships in 2004, and took the silver at the next continental tournament in 2006.

"It seems fitting that baseball has slowly, but steadily, taken root in Ireland, the ancestral home of many of the sport's early stars."

The book retails for $39.95 and can be purchased by calling 1-800-253-2187. The McFarland & Company website address is www.mcfarlandpub.com.