Neither the Yankees nor years
Neither the Yankees nor years
Can halt his attack.
Ogden Nash wrote that verse about Cornelius McGillicuddy, who shortened his name to Connie Mack to fit into a baseball box score. Mack had a modest career as a catcher (hitting only .246 over 11 seasons), but he managed in the big leagues for 53 years, winning and losing more games than any other skipper in baseball history.
Nash was wrong in one sense: Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics seldom beat the New York Yankees on the field. But he was right in another. Mack symbolized the flood of immigrants that arrived from Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and wrested many American institutions away from the reigning Yankee establishment — including baseball.
As veteran sportswriter Charley Rosen notes, during the 1880s, two out of five major leaguers were Irish, and he suggests that they were good at the game partly because a baseball bat “strongly resembled the ancient Irish war club known as the shillelagh.” That’s silly — Irish warriors smashed skulls, not sliders — but sports have always provided a pathway into American culture for immigrant groups and still do (check the number of Latinos in baseball, Scandinavians in hockey and Koreans in golf). “By participating in baseball,” Rosen writes, “Irish immigrants found a comfortable niche in their new environment that enabled them to assimilate into American life.”
In Rosen’s view, the Irish brought a special style to the game that he describes this way: “No matter how violent, marginally legal, or downright illegal an action might be, winning a ballgame always justified the means.” And credit the Irish with many innovations that did help win games. One William “Candy” Cummings probably threw the first curveball, a pitch inspired by his boyhood habit of tossing seashells into the ocean. Roger Bresnahan was the first catcher to wear shin guards, which he adapted from the equipment used by wicket keepers in cricket.
But many Irish tricks crossed the line into cheating. Mack, for example, would store baseballs overnight in his office icebox and have his batboy deliver the frigid spheres to the home plate umpire just before the opposing team came to bat. Mike “King” Kelly, one of the first Irish stars, would stash a baseball in his shirt, and one day — when the grass was high and the light dim — he dove fruitlessly for a long fly in the outfield. Then he popped up holding the ball he’d hidden away as if he’d made the catch. Many Irishmen made great managers, but they didn’t always show good judgment. Mack turned down the chance to buy a young pitcher named George Herman Ruth from the Baltimore Orioles in 1914, and five years later, John McGraw, then managing the New York Giants, labeled Ruth a “bum [who] will hit into a hundred double plays before the season is over.”
Rosen crams his book with countless factoids. Gene Conley — a pitcher for the Milwaukee Braves and a center for the Boston Celtics in the late ’50s — was the first athlete to win national championships in two major sports. And since the Irish don’t lack for a sense of humor, there are some funny lines here. My favorite: sportswriter Jim Murray writing about Charlie Finley, the owner of the Oakland Athletics: “Finley is a self-made man who worships his creator.”
Still, this is a flawed book. Occasionally Rosen gets the facts wrong. Finley’s Oakland team started in Philadelphia, not Baltimore, and the Irish hardly “constituted the first significant European ‘ethnic’ group in America.” New York was originally New Amsterdam, not New Dublin, for a reason. The writing is soaked in baseball cliches (“southpaw slants”) and ethnic stereotypes (“Tim’s blue Irish eyes are always smiling”). And using shamrocks to mark paragraphs is simply cheesy.
More seriously, there’s no strong theme here, no story arc that ties all the factoids together. In the end, this reads more like a series of baseball cards than a real book. But, hey, I’m glad to know that in 1922, Lizzie Murphy became the first woman to play against major leaguers and then produced her own baseball card to boot.
Steven V. Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University.