- The Irish in Baseball: An Early History by David L. Fleitz
During the late nineteenth century, the Irish came to comprise the largest and most visible ethnic group in professional baseball. Irish preeminence in the game derived from their substantial numbers in the general population, frequent domicile in the blighted neighborhoods of the East and the Midwest, emergence of a second generation, homo-social masculinity, and pursuit of the chimerical largess of the American Dream. Though overtaken in numbers by German players circa 1900, the Irish still constituted a large cohort for another decade or so. Although their aggregate diminished precipitously from playing rosters by the advent of World War I, the Irish remained prominent amongst managers and umpires for years to come. After a prologue recounting immigration and community formation in America, David L. Fleitz chronicles the rise and decline of the Irish in baseball.
The Irish in Baseball employs, within a chronological milieu, a framework organized primarily around cities and teams. The Chicago White Stockings, during and after the incumbency of the charismatic, athletically gifted, and self-destructive Mike “King” Kelly receive considerable attention as do the Troy Trojans, Holyoke Shamrocks, Cleveland Spiders, St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Spiders, and Chicago White Sox. Fleitz captures the triumphs and bellicosity of the predominantly Irish Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s, managed by Ned Hanlon and with a lineup including “Wee Willie” Keeler, John McGraw, Dan Brouthers, and Hugh Jennings. The volume also chronicles subsequent teams managed by McGraw, Jennings, Connie Mack, and “Wild Bill” Donovan, and a chapter on umpires acknowledges John Gaffney, Thomas Lynch, and other Irish arbiters. Irish baseball in Boston garners more pagination than other cities. Boston’s Red Stockings, Beaneaters, and Red Sox, featuring such Irish favorites as Kelly, “Heavenly Twins” Hugh Duffy and Tommy McCarthy, Jimmy Collins, and Bill Carrigan, generated their own Royal Rooters.
Although Fleitz accepts, save much evaluation of methodology, the finding of the late National Baseball Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen that the Hibernian presence in baseball peaked between 1876 and 1884 when 41 percent of major league rookies came from Irish backgrounds, he raises some interesting questions about ethnic identity. Baltimore Orioles catcher and captain Wilbert Robinson came from an Anglo-Episcopal lineage, but Fleitz notes that the future manager married an Irish immigrant woman, converted to her Catholic faith, and forged strong ties with his Hibernian teammates. Likewise, Fleitz terms Patsy Tebeau, the turbulent first baseman-manager of the Cleveland Spiders, “an Irishman by choice, not by birth” (p. 69) despite the latter’s French-German parentage. Just as others baseball scholars have debated the Blackness of Effa Manley, Fleitz encourages discussion of the role of associations and culture choices in shaping ethnic identity.
While cognizant of diverse personalities that ranged from the fiery McGraw to the temperate Mack, Fleitz ably limns the wit, ambition, resentment, fatalism, and pugnacity frequently found amongst the Irish in baseball. However, he eschews sustained consideration [End Page 538] of the commonality of those attributes in other contemporary Irish endeavors, such as politics, law enforcement, firefighting, vaudeville, journalism, and boxing. Given the detailed attention that Fleitz gives to the tough and aggressive style of Irish ballplayers, managers, and umpires, he might have contrasted the backgrounds, lifestyles, fan base, and public images of the Irish in baseball and boxing.
Contextualization of society and culture beyond baseball punctuates the volume. Regional variations, socio-economic circumstances, and change over time receive attention. Fleitz, for example, succinctly identifies the demographic phenomenon that rendered the mill cities of Holyoke, Massachusetts, and Troy, New York, prime sources of Irish ballplayers. He also captures the baseball mania that swept the “Irishtown” of Cleveland, Ohio, an area pervaded by the fetid smells of industrial waste. Fleitz examines distinctive characteristics of several other cities, large and small, that domiciled Irish baseball. Nonetheless, a more ambitious canvas would have sought additional connections between ethnic baseball, the larger Irish-American history, and the rise of the city. Reflective of the text, the notes...