Cleveland Irish: Baseball in America, at Carnegie and Ontario
by Francis McGarry
The National League began play in 1876, and the Irish presence was visible from the start. Some of that is due to the confluences of history and a game of numbers.
The Irish in America had begun to witness the emergence of its second generation after the Famine immigrants had established a foot hold. Populations of the Midwest and East had large segments of Irish American males, and those fellows took to baseball. Teams like the Troy Trojans, Holyoke Shamrocks, Cleveland Spiders, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox all benefitted from their Irish stars.
The years of 1880 to 1920 witnessed over two dozen Irish Americans enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. There are over fifty in the Hall now. That is factual; the American baseball creation myth is not so much.
Bat and ball games date to over 4,500 years ago in Egypt. The Egyptian leagues did not have so many of the sons of Ireland either. They did play a game called “skeker-bemat,” and even depicted the game on the walls of their temples.
Europe in the late 16th century had a game called “rounders” that involved a leather covered ball, a round wooden bat and four bases that had to be run in order to score. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck…
So, the game predates the Irish Americans who flocked to it. When it happened in America, the Irish were there and ready to participate.
In 1837, an Irish hotel owner in New York named John Murphy helped found the Gotham Baseball Club. Most teams at that time were comprised of fellows who had another job. In the 1860s, teams would compete for a city or state championship. In New York, a team of Protestant clerks played a team of Irish workingmen.
The best of three championship games ended in the third game with some of the clerks getting hit by stones after a few questionable calls. The game was called due to the riot; a precursor to Ten Cent Beer Night in Cleveland?
Baseball’s First Curveball
It was not until 1869 that the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first all professional team to be organized. Two years later, ten teams met on St. Patrick’s Day to plan the first professional baseball league. Andy Leonard was the first Irish-born, County Cavan, player in the league. He was joined by Irishman, Arthur “Candy” Cummings, the first pitcher to throw a curveball.
Baseball paid more than most more laborious endeavors, and young Irish Americans and Irish immigrants were willing to give it a go. Hundreds of thousands of the immigrants to America were Irish. They were young and their numbers created a new source of participants and fans for America’s rapidly growing “new” sport.
Baseball was an activity that the immigrant Irishman could engage in to become part of his adopted country. While the older generation could not always understand this strange new pastime and its appeal, their American born children and the young Irish immigrants embraced it with enthusiasm. By the 1880s, forty percent of the players in the major leagues were of Irish decent.
The Cleveland Spiders began in the American Association in 1887, playing at Payne Avenue and East 39th Street. They joined the National League in 1889.
On May 18th, 1889, the new baseball season was upon the city. Cleveland has just defeated Indianapolis 11-2, bringing their record to eight wins and seven loses. Just over 1,400 fans watched the game on the eastside of Cleveland. O’Brien, McKean and McAller scored multiple runs for the Spiders.
They were not the only Irish stars in Cleveland. Pitcher Jim McCormick twice led the league in wins. The Spiders were contenders and moved to a new stadium at Lexington and East 66th Street. Cy Young joined the Spiders in 1892, one of only two teams in the black that year.
Cleveland finished 2nd in 1895 and 1896. Frank DeHass Robison was their owner. He was unhappy with the attendance at home games, and he “traded” players to his other team in St. Louis.
The 1899 Cleveland team was not good at all, going 20-134. Perhaps to add insult to injury for Robison, who had established streetcar systems across America and in Cleveland, 1899 witnessed the Streetcar Strike as well. The streetcars stayed in Cleveland, the Spiders did not. They were dismantled in 1900.
This was not the only intersection of protest and sport. In June of 1877, the Molly Maguires were arrested in Pennsylvania. All of the arrested Molly Maguires were also members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Twenty of them were hanged for organizing workers in the coal mines into joining the Knights of Labor.
Led by Irish American Terence Powderly, Knights of Labor demanded the eight-hour workday and the inclusion of female and African American laborers. The Knights of Labor influenced workers across America, and in American baseball.
Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players
It was eight years after the Molly Maguires were hung that nine players of the New York “Hibernian” Giants formed the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players. Six of those founding members were Irish. At the end of the 1886 season, there were Brotherhood chapters at all the National League teams, with over 100 members. The players union was officially recognized by owners in 1887.
The Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players solicited financial support and a Players’ League was chartered on December 10th, 1889. The league was supported by the American Federation of Labor and had teams in Boston, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Forty percent of the Players’ League players, five of the managers and six of the owners were Irish.
The Cleveland Infants signed Irish players like Ed Delahanty. Ed wore an Irish harp pinned to his uniform. The Cleveland Infants lost money and so did the rest of professional baseball, the Players’ League and the National League. The Cleveland Infants were not allowed to join the National League after the demise of the Players’ League in 1890.
On April 5th 2021, the Kansas City Royals come to Cleveland at Progressive, even if I still call it “the Jake.” Perhaps a few less Irish on the field, but many more in the stands.
*Francis McGarry holds undergraduate degrees from Indiana University in Anthropology, Education and History and a Masters in Social Science from the University of Chicago. He is an assistant principal and history teacher. Francis is a past president of the Irish American Club East Side. He is the founder and past president of the Bluestone Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.