In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I set out to determine the best-ever Irish baseball players. The task was more challenging than I imagined, but also more rewarding. Reviewing the Irish baseball greats and their stellar diamond accomplishments was a welcome diversion from the troubled world around us.
Early on, I realized that identifying a single best-ever Irish player is impossible. I broke the Irish greats into four groups: best hitter, best pitcher, best manager and most influential – the player responsible for creating a baseball buzz that brought droves of new, but still curious, late 19th century fans to the ballpark.
Irish players, mostly Irish-Americans, have been an integral part of the American baseball scene since the post-Civil War era, when the sport enjoyed its first popularity surge. By the mid-1880s, just after the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs was formed, players could earn $10,000 a year at a time when the average annual income was $800. Understandably, good athletes were drawn to baseball. Like Italian and Eastern European immigrants, the Irish knew that when they played baseball, they were taking steps toward becoming full-fledged Americans.
Best Irish batsman is Cleveland-born “Big” Ed Delahanty. The eldest of five MLB brothers, Big Ed played most of his career, 1888-1903, with the Philadelphia Quakers, the Phillies, the Cleveland Infants and the Washington Senators. During his 16-year career, Big Ed hit .400 or better three times, and ended up with a .346 career average, the fifth best in baseball history, a .411 on-base percentage, and a .505 slugging average. Delahanty was an excellent right fielder with a rifle arm.
Toward his career’s end, Delahanty’s wife became gravely ill; he lost money at the race track, and he went on extended drinking binges. On July 2, 1903, riding a train across the International Railway Bridge over the Niagara River, Delahanty abruptly left the train, stumbled onto the bridge, fell into the river and drowned. Some speculate that Big Ed committed suicide, others claim he was pushed by an irate night watchman with whom he’d scuffled. The circumstances surrounding Big Ed’s death have never been resolved.
Best Irish mounds man is Tony “the Count” Mullane. The affable, County Cork-born pitcher was a well-known rake and a skilled boxer, as well as a competitive ice and roller skater. During his 13-year career from 1881-1894, mostly with the Cincinnati Red Stockings, Mullane won 30 or more games in five consecutive seasons. In 1884, the height of his career, the Boston Herald wrote about Mullane that he’s “a most effective pitcher; his delivery is low and his command of the ball wonderful. He pitches with left or right arm equally well.” The ambidextrous Mullane racked up 284 career wins.
Best Irish Manager: No list of Irish greats is complete without Troy, NY’s John J. McGraw. McGraw could have appeared as a player with his .344 career batting average and .466 on base percentage. But Mc Graw is most often remembered as the New York Giants manager who, during his 30 years at the helm, led his team to three World Series crowns.
“In Tales from the Deadball Era,” Mark Halfon wrote that McGraw was an argumentative, profane, belligerent manager who “took no prisoners in a battle for baseball supremacy. Opposing clubs had to prepare for any eventuality when they faced him. The Reds, for example, worried that he [Mc Graw] contaminated their drinking water. McGraw may not have tainted the water, but it was not beneath him,” Halfon concluded.
As outstanding as Delahanty, Mullane and McGraw’s contributions were, they pale compared to another Troy-native, Mike “King” Kelly. King was baseball’s first 15-year-old player, first matinee idol, first $10,000 earner, first to write his own autobiography – “Play Ball, Stories from the Ball Field” – first to have a song written about him – “Slide Kelly Slide” – and the first catcher to wear a glove and chest protector. Kelly, because of his ability and charisma, changed baseball from a simple, pastoral game into America’s most popular sport.
In his biography about Kelly, “Slide Kelly Slide,” Marty Appel wrote, “There was never a better or more brilliant player. Colorful beyond description, he was the light and the life of the game. … He was one of the quickest thinkers that ever took a signal. He originated more trick plays than all players put together.… As a drawing card, he was the greatest of his time. Fandom around the circuit always welcomed the Chicago White Stockings, with the great [Cap] Anson and his lieutenant, King Kelly.”
Between 1878 and 1891, Kelly played with eight teams, six of which won National League titles. During that period, Kelly won two batting titles and led the league in runs scored three times. Like Delahanty, however, Kelly loved to gamble, spent money recklessly and couldn’t stay out of saloons. King Kelly, sometimes called, “The Only Kelly” died at age 36 of pneumonia.
Delahanty, Mullane, McGraw and Kelly, great Irish players all, revered by a growing legion of early 20th century baseball bugs, but whose names time has obscured, deserve recognition on St. Patrick’s Day.
Copyright 2022 Joe Guzzardi, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers’ Association member. Contact him at [email protected]