The Irish have a long and proud tradition of supplying professional baseball with some of the Great Game’s finest talent. At one point in the early 20th century, as many as 30% of all MLB players were of Irish descent. Although the Irish have been to some degree eclipsed as the powerhouse supplier of MLB talent, there are still names on current rosters that speak to the ongoing tradition of Celtic pride on the baseball diamond.
Here, then, are ten random baseball players of Irish heritage that have left their mark on the game. They are not necessarily the ten best Irish-American players in baseball history — there are many more that I’ve left out — but each of them enjoyed a degree of success, at least for a few years.
In no particular order, then, I present to you…
1) Jim O’Rourke (Orator Jim) – Played from 1872 to 1893, most prominently with the Red Sox and the Giants. Then, after an 11-year layoff, came back for one game at age 53 for the Giants, going 1-4. Career batting average of .310. Considered one of the best singers and public speakers of his day. Born and raised in my hometown of Bridgeport, CT. Buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery, where my maternal grandparents were also laid to rest. O’Rourke was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945. No ceremony was held that year, so he, along with several other players, will be formally inducted into The Hall this summer.
2) Sean Casey – (1997-2008) – A pure hitter, Casey (At the Bat) hit at least .300 six times in his career, including a .332 mark in his first full season in 1999. Primarily a first baseman for the Reds, he was basically the Orator Jim of his era. Every base-runner who made it as far as first-base could expect Casey to talk his ear between pitches. On Twitter, he is @TheMayorsOffice. Good gap power, he topped 30 doubles in a season six times and posted a career .302 batting average.
3) Frank “Tug” McGraw – (1965-1984) – Most famous, at least in New York, for his “Ya Gotta Believe” rallying cry for the 1973 Mets, few other relief pitchers in baseball history are identified to such a degree for one team and for one season. A left-handed relief pitcher, McGraw pitched in an era when it was not uncommon for a relief pitcher to top a hundred innings in a season. Posted a sparkling 2.24 ERA in 52.1 post-season innings for the Mets and the Phillies. One of the finest relief pitchers of his era, Tug left us too early, dying at age 59 in 2004.
4) Larry Doyle – (1907-1920) – One of the finest second-basemen of his era, Doyle was a key player on the N.Y. Giants pennant winning teams of 1911-13. In 1912, he was named N.L. MVP, batting .330 while playing stellar defense. Doyle led his league in hits twice, and in doubles and triples once each. He also won a batting title in 1915, and finished 3rd in MVP voting in 1911. A career .290 hitter, Doyle enjoyed a near-HOF caliber career. Doyle passed away in Saranac Lake, NY in 1974, age 87.
5) Roger Bresnahan – “The Duke of Tralee” first broke into the Majors at age 18 in 1897, but didn’t stay in the Majors for good until 1900. Credited with inventing shin-guards, Bresnahan played for five teams over his 17-year career. His best seasons occurred as a member of the Giants from 1902-08. Batted a career high .350 in 1903. Led N.L. in walks with 83 in 1908.
A versatile athlete, he was primarily a catcher, but also played at every other infield position, as well as 281 games in the outfield, during his career. Baseball-Reference.com ranks him as the 21st best catcher of all-time. A career .279 hitter, his on-base percentage was an impressive .386. Bresnahan retired after the 1915 season. Elected to the HOF in 1945, as with Jim O’Rourke, will be honored with formal induction into The Hall this summer.
6) Mike “King” Kelly – (1878-93) – Considered by many to be the first true superstar in baseball history, he is also credited with being the influence for the famous baseball poem, “Casey at the Bat.” Splitting his time almost evenly between right-field and catcher during his 17-year career, he won two batting titles and led his league in runs scored for three consecutive seasons, 1884-86 while playing for the Cubs.
Kelly had respectable power, and was also a prolific base-stealer, swiping 84 bases in 1887. Was such a popular player that the professional baseball team in Cincinnati renamed itself “Kelly’s Killers” in his honor during the one season he played with them in 1891. They finished in first-place that year. One year after his retirement, he died in 1894 in Boston at age 36. As with O’Rourke and Bresnahan, he will be inducted into The Hall this summer. If you are a fan of 19th and early-20th century baseball, Cooperstown would seem to be the place to be this summer.
7) Big Ed Walsh – (1904-1917) – One of the finest Major League pitchers in the early years of the twentieth-century, Walsh broke in with the White Sox at age 22, after graduating from Fordham University in NYC. He spent virtually his entire career with the White Sox, posting a 195-126 record in his career, including a league-leading 40 victories in 1908. After throwing well over 300 innings for three straight year, and over 400 innings in a couple of seasons before that, Walsh’s arm finally gave out at age 32, and he was out of baseball altogether by age 36.
Walsh’s career ERA of 1.82 is the lowest ever recorded in Major League history. He was inducted into The Hall in 1946 by the Old Timers Committee. Walsh passed away at age 78 in 1959.
8) Paul O’Neill – (1985-2001) Played the first half of his 17-year career with the Reds, but was more famous as a Yankees’ outfielder where he played from ages 30-38. During his Yankee years, he won a batting title (.359 in 1994), and usually led the league in water-coolers destroyed. O’Neill was a fiery competitor who helped lead the Yankees to four World Championships during his tenure. In 85 post-season games, O’Neill slugged 11 homers and batted .284.
O’Neill batted at least .300 for six consecutive seasons, from 1993-98, and finished his career with a .288 batting average. He drove in at least a hundred runs in a season four times. A sure-handed outfielder, O’Neill led his league in fielding percentage six times, and in putouts three times. O’Neill was a five-time All Star. He celebrated his 50th birthday back in February. O’Neill will long be remembered fondly by Yankee fans as a fierce competitor and a team-first player.
9) Eric O’Flaherty – This left-handed relief specialist is about to begin his eighth MLB season, his fifth as a Brave. O’Flaherty has been one of the most consistent relief pitchers over the past four years. During those seasons, he has recorded an ERA+ of 136, 160, 393 and 233. Keep in mind that 100 is considered replacement level. Along with fellow bullpen mates Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel, O’Flaherty gives the Braves a huge competitive advantage once they have a lead past the sixth inning. Still just 28-years old, Flaherty may have many more productive seasons ahead of him, to the chagrin of many a left-handed N.L. batter.
10) Bill Ahearn – It is not known what side of the plate Ahearn hit from, or with which hand he threw the ball. What is known is that Ahearn was born in 1858 in Troy, NY. It is also known that he played in exactly one Major League game, as a catcher in 1880 at age 22. Ahearn went 1-4 that day and scored a run, but he also allowed seven passed balls and was charged with two errors. Perhaps Ahearn should have tried a different position, but he never got the chance. The Trojans had seen enough. Ahearn apparently spent the rest of his life in Troy, NY, where he passed away in 1919, aged 61. One has to wonder if he spent the rest of his life wondering what might have been if he’d had a better day in the one chance he ever got on a Major League diamond. But not everyone gets to be a superstar, and not everyone gets to realize their dream, if even for a day.
There are so many more Irish-American players in MLB history. I’m sure you can think of many more.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone!