Opinion: The Five Greatest Irish Americans of the Chicago National Leaguers

By Steven G. Farrell

Author’s Note: As a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, I was always very much aware of the legends of King Kelly, Jimmy Ryan, Johnny Evers, Pat Malone, and Gabby Harnett – Irish American stars who donned the Chicago uniform before I was born. I hope that this article might highlight the stories of these five baseball legends and their impact on Chicago’s rich baseball history.

Mike “King” Kelly

Born in 1857 in Paterson, NJ, King Kelly was primarily a catcher but he could play anywhere on the diamond. He was the National League’s matinee idol and its’ highest paid player in the 1880s. Alhough he never earned more than $5,000 in any one season, only heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan rivaled Kelly in national popularity and money earnings.

Because of his on and off-field exploits – which often included heavy drinking, gambling, and other extracurriculars — Kelly was popular with sportswriters, teammates, and, most of all, baseball fans. Chicago fans would chant “Slide, Kelly, Slide!” made his way around the bases; sometimes using methods that were less than honest. He stole 368 in his career and there were many uncounted robberies of bases because for the first seven years of his career stolen bases weren’t an official statistic.

However, the most impressive numbers he got into the record book were the three straight years he led the league in runs scored (1884-1886) and the three times he led all players in his circuit with doubles.

The peak of the king’s playing days came in the middle part of the 1880s, when he won two batting crowns with a .354 in 1884 and a .388 average in 1886.  Mike’s fielding, base running and hitting helped the Chicago White Stockings to win pennants in in 1880, 1881, 1882, 1885 and 1886.  In the final two years of their incredible run the White Stockings faced off with the St. Louis Browns (now the St. Louis Cardinals), champions of the upstart American Association. Player-manager and fellow Irish American Charles Comiskey, the eventual 1886 triple crown winner Irish-Canadian Tip O’Neill ( 16 homers, 123 RBI’s and a BA of .435). and the rest of the Browns surprised the baseball by earning a draw with the mighty team from the Windy City, dividing six games in win-losses and tying another game. Cap Anson and his cocky boys shrugged off the National Championship as nothing but exhibition games without merit. The following year both teams won their respective leagues and Browns owner, Abe von der Abe, insisted that the games should be a “World Series” to decide who would be the real “World Champions.”  The St. Louis Browns swept the series in four games.

Marty Appel wrote the best biography of Kelly. Slide, Kelly, Slide: The Wild Life and Times of Mike “King” Kelly did more justice to this man’s epic life than I possibly can do in such a brief account.  Mike Kelly was one of the first American sports hero to pen an autobiography (Play Boy-Stories of the Ball Field) and to take a turn on the vaudeville stage to cash in on his fame. My two favorite stories about Mike Kelly involves Billy Sunday, the Billy Graham of his day, and Albert Spalding, the general manager and owner of the Chicago White Stockings and the mogul sporting goods store. In the first, Billy was part of Kelly’s sporting crowd until one day as the boys were drinking in a saloon and a Salvation Army band chanced to marched by. Without touching another drop of whiskey, the soon-to-be famous preacher announced that he was going to quit drinking and follow his calling to the ministry. “Goodbye. I’m going to Jesus Christ,” Billy announced then and there.  Throughout a long, dark night of the soul, Billy dreaded to go into the club house where his teammates and drinking buddies would be waiting for him. Instead, he was greeted by the godless Irish Catholic Kelly with these words, “Bill, I’m proud of you. Religion is not my strong suit, but I’ll help you all I can.” Billy always remembered Mike’s support eventually delivered his eulogy…inside of a Roman Catholic Church. The other incident took place in 1890 during the great baseball war being fought between the upstart Players League and the senior National League and the junior American Association. Albert Spalding, a great pitcher for both Chicago and Boston in an earlier epoch, approached Kelly with a huge check to jump the newer league for the older league which Kelly turned down flat. Spalding asked with disbelief, “What? You don’t want $10,000?” Kelly responded with “Aw, I want the $10,000 bad enough, but I thought the matter all over and I can’t go back on the boys. And neither would you.” I doubt few players since that time would have the sand to take such a stand for the brotherhood of players. Sadly, the Players’ League folded after one season and Mike played out the string back in the fold of the American Association and the National League. However, by that time his rollicking life style had corroded King Kelly’s abilities.  He finally retired in 1894 after he split the season between two minor league teams. Mike turned his full attention to his stage career, but he became chronically ill on a ship sailing from Boston to New York.  Apparently, he decided to make the voyage without wearing a winter coat during a snowstorm. There is an account that when he was being rushed to the hospital and the gurney he was being transported on was dropped to the floor and the dying Irishman uttered, “This is my last slide.” It was as he predicted. He was dead at the tender young age of 36. There was to be one more glorious flame to the memory of King Kelly when he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.

Jimmy Ryan

My second selection, Jimmy Ryan, was enshrined in the Chicago Sports Hall of Fame in 1982. With 2,513 total hits and a career batting average of .308, Jimmy has been seriously considered for induction into the Hall by the sportswriters. It’s only a matter of time before a player who scored 1,643 runs and stole 419 is finally included in the Valhalla of professional baseball. He could also hit for power during the Dead Ball Era, leading the NL with four baggers in 1888 with sixteen. He finished out his playing days with 118 home runs which placed him fifth on the all-time list at the time he retired in 1902.  Pony Ryan could not only run like wildfire, but he was also a steady glove in the outfield; his strong arm being powerful enough for him to earn 375 assists: still number one on the National League’s all-time list, ahead of such greats as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron or Duke Snider.

Bill Joyce, manager of the New York Giants, had these fine words to say about Ryan: “Baseball patrons in Chicago should appreciate than man for there are no better players to be found anywhere.”

Jimmy played sixteen of his eighteen years with the Chicago Nationals, playing with clubs known as the White Stockings, Colts (as in Cap Anson young squad after the days of King Kelly) and Orphans (as the club was referred to once Anson was fired). He shared the roster with the “Only” Kelly in the 1885 and 1886 great seasons that were marred by the St. Louis Browns season performances. After careful research I have found no great friendship between Kelly and Ryan. They were both partiers but Kelly would buy drinks all around in the barroom while Ryan cleaning out the barroom with his sullen behaviors and brawling habits. Both Irishman gave Cap Anson fits with their boozing, Mike was more devil-may-care while Jimmy almost came to blows with his much bigger manager. When Cap threaten to use his fists upon his skull, Jimmy responded that he would “shoot you full of holes.”  Jimmy Ryan would have lived up to his promise; for he had a bad reputation for violence. He once beat up two reporters and, on another occasion, he hit a porter inside of a train. To be fair: a train wreck had almost cost Pony his life. Fines and suspensions did little to curb his wild streak.

Jimmy Ryan spent his final years in the Chicago area, earning a living as a deputy sheriff. He apparently made his peace with Cap Anson, for he attended a grave marker ceremony for his old manager that was officiated by baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1923. Jimmy died a few weeks later at the age of sixty.

Johnny Evers

Many Cub fans are familiar with Franklin Piece Adams baseball poem Baseball’s Sad Lexicon (originally titled That Double Play Again):

These are the saddest possible words:

Thinker to Evers to Chance

Trio of bear Cubs, fleeter than birds

Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,

Making a Giant hit into a double-

Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:

“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

Johnny Evers was the second baseman in the greatest, if not best, double play trio in baseball history.  Shortstop Joe Tinker and first baseman Frank Chance along with Johnny Evers were elected as a trio to the Hall of Fame in 1945.  Some sportswriter has since complained that the induction of these three Cubs were not legitimate because of their average statistics, forgetting that these three men played baseball during the rough and tumble days of the dead ball era when home runs were scare and games were often low-scoring and won by one run. Bunts, hit and runs, steals and “heads up” baseball were the orders of the day: and Tinker to Evers to Chance were the master of the art form that was made obsolete by Babe Ruth, juiced up baseballs and shorter fences in the outfield. The Chicago Cubs were National Pennant winners in 1906, 1907, 1908 and 1910.  In 1906 they won an amazing 116 games which is still the record for a 154-game season. Although they finished second place in 1909, they won 104 games.  The Chicago Cubs also defeated the Ty Cobb-led Detroit Tigers twice for the World Champion in 1907 and 1910.

Johnny was known as the “Human Crab” for his awkward way of running the base path and the clumsy way he had of sliding into the path.  A mere .270 lifetime hitter, Evers could draw walks (108 in 1910) score runs (88 in 1909) and steal bases (49 in 1906). He could always put down a neat bunt to move a base runner from first to second on a hit and run. However, there’s been speculation Johnny earned his nickname because his pugnacious disposition. He would have been more at home with the grumpy Jimmy Ryan than the genial Mike Kelly.

Johnny once claimed that he could have hit thirty points higher a year if he had wanted focused more on hitting instead of winning games. He also was quoted as saying, “Of course there are plenty of times there is nothing like the old bingo.  But there are other plenty of other times when the batter should focus his attention on trying to fool the pitcher. In my own case, I have frequently faced the pitcher when I had no desire whatever to hit. I wanted to get a base on balls.”

Joe Tinker, Johnny’s long-term double-play mate, couldn’t even stand the guy, and the feelings were mutual. “Tinker and myself hated each other, but we both loved the Cubs,” n once told a reporter after his career was long over.  It is verifiable fact that Joe and Johnny didn’t speak a word to one another for many years even though they played side by side on the diamond. Some contented that the feud stemmed when two shared a carriage to the West End Park, but the other left alone after the game stranding the partner. Johnny, however, claimed the Joe almost broke his finger by throwing a ball at full force at him when they were only a few feet apart.

Johnny Evers was also the winner in the famous Merkle Incident, when Fred Merkle, first baseman for John McGraw’s hated New York Giants, failed the touch second base when the winning run scored. Johnny, during the Giants celebration and fans pouring on to the field, somehow retrieved the ball and step on second base. A brawl ensued with Joe Iron Man McGinnity throwing punches. Umpire O’Day ruled Merkle out, launching a riot. As circumstances worked out very shortly afterwards a tied New York Giants and Chicago Cubs played a one-game series in the Polo which Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown won, 4 to 2, clinching the pennant for the boys from the Windy City.

Unlike Kelly and Ryan, Johnny Evers experienced another world champion outside of Chicago when he was the spark plug of the 1914 Miracle Braves who came out of nowhere and became the World Champions with essentially a mediocre cast of characters.  George Stallings Boston Nationals swept a four-game series against a vastly superior Philadelphia Athletics American Leaguers led by Connie Mack.

Johnny Evers final years weren’t very cheerful; his marriage ended in divorce and he lost his shoe store business during the Great Depression.  Towards the end of his life, he seems to have found some peace as he found work as the superintendent of Bleecker Stadium in Albany, New York. He also made his peace with Joe Tinker.

Johnny Evers was inducted into the Hall of Fame shortly before he passed away in 1947.

Pat Malone

My fourth selection, Pat Malone, wasn’t close to ever becoming a Hall of Famer —Cooperstown or Chicago — but he did earn 134 victories on the mound, including 115 of those wins in a seven-year stint with the Cubs (1928-1934). Born Perce Leigh Malone in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, he was quick to settle his differences with a right hook, especially when someone didn’t call him Pat.

Like Kelly, Ryan, and Evers, Malone was the son of blue collar Irish immigrant parents. He was born in the. Pat’s father was an assistant yard master at the rail yard in Altoona. Pat ran with a rough crowd of street ragamuffins until he was old enough to quite school and find work. He pitched as a semi-professional until he served a stint in the Army. He was big — standing six feet tall and two-hundred pounds. He saw action as an amateur boxer and as a junior college football player before he found himself back on the mound with a contract with the Giants.

However, Malone clashed with John McGraw, the legendary manager of the New York National Leaguers. After a few years of toiling in the minors, he found himself with the Chicago Cubs where he was able to prosper under the protective wing of Joe McCarthy.

Ed Froehlich wrote this about Pat: “He was a stuff pitcher. He didn’t have finesse, didn’t nibble the corner. He threw straight down the middle of the plate and beat you with his stuff.”

Pat Malone’s off-field exploits with Cubs’ slugger Hack Wilson became epic in the annals of Chicago sports history.  Hack could belt out a long-standing record of 56 home runs and drive in a still standing record of 191 RBIs after a few hours of shut eye and contending with a massive hangover.  Pat would always be there suffering along with him. The two were pals of Al Capone, the notorious Chicago kingpin. They also drank their way through the speakeasies run by likes of gangsters with such colorful nicknames like as George “Bugs” Moran, “Klondike” O’Donnell and “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn. The two were known for filling their hotel bathtub with bottles of bootleg booze and beer.

Joe McCarthy tried to teach a valuable lesson to his players by demonstrating how a worm placed into a glass of alcohol would die quickly.  When Joe asked his pupils what they had learned, Hack piped up by saying, “if you drink alcohol, you’ll never get worms.” End of lesson.

Malone won twenty games twice with the Cubs. He best year was in 1929 when he helped to lead the Cubs to a National League pennant with a 22-9 record. His 166 strikeouts were league-leading. Sadly, the Cubs were clobbered by Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics who took four out of five games in the World Series.  The Cubs fared worst in their 1932 World Series matchup with the New York Yankees when they were swept in four straight games. One of the games included Babe Ruth’s famous “called shot.”

Pat Malone had tailed to a 15-17 record and by the time the Cubs had a rematch with the Yankees in 1935 Pat was a relief pitcher wearing the pin strips of the New York American Leaguers. In his final years in the major, he pitched with modest success with Joe McCarthy who had also found a new life in the Big Apple after leaving the Windy City.

Pat Malone was once quoted as saying, “Then the opposition pins your ears back in a couple of innings. You warm up, feel out of shape, know you haven’t any speed, and realize your curve isn’t breaking. But you go out and pitch a two-hit game. That’s baseball.”

Gabby Harnett

Gabby Harnett was perhaps the most beloved Cub until Ernie Banks came along and became “Mr. Cub.” Harnett had the distinction of being part of the two of the greatest moments in franchise history: Babe Ruth’s called shot in 1932 World Series and his own “Homer in the Gloamin” that launched the Cubs past the Pirates and into the World Series against Lou Gehrig and the Bronx Bombers.

Many baseball insiders considered Gabby Harnett to be the National League greatest catcher, at least until Johnny Bench came along in 1968. Prior to the emergence of Bench, only Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees American League club was considered better than Gabby.

Charles Leo Harnett was born in Rhode Island. His parents were both American born of Irish ancestry. The family sought out richer pastures in Massachusetts where the father of the household of fourteen children found a job at Banigan’s Rubber Shop in Millville. Leo, who was known as “Dowdy” in his youth, worked at the rubber shop and played baseball for them until he went up the ladder to catch for the American Steel and Wire Company in nearby Worcester.  During the Twenties, it was a common practice for talented young men to work a job during the morning and play baseball for the company team in the afternoon. Young Harnett bat and powerful throwing arm won quickly him a contract with the professional team in Worcester. It didn’t take but a few short years before he made his debut in Wrigley Field in 1922.

Harnett’s nickname was a sarcastic nod to his silent demeanor. Over the years he became more comfortable and became known as any easy-going fellow with a ready smile and a warm handshake to all who approached him. He was not a drinker and he wasn’t a brawler. He was a great defensive and offensive catcher. However, his playing time was curtailed the first three years he was in the big leagues because he was required to split the duties behind the plate with fellow Irish American Bob O’Farrell, who was a native of nearby Waukegan, Illinois. From 1925 to 1940 he did the bulk of the catching for his teams. Only injuries kept him out of the lineup.

The Irish lad from Woonsocket, Rhode Island could hit: his career totals included 136 home runs, 1175 RBIs and a lifetime batting average of .297. The best year of his distinguished career came in 1930 when he blasted 37 homers, drove in 122 runs and his batting average was 339.

As mentioned earlier, Gabby was present at the apocryphal episode of Babe Ruth’s historic called shot in the 1932 World Series. Gabby was catching pitches from Cub star pitcher Charlies Root when Ruth stepped up to the plate to commit his historical feat. The scene was the top of the fifth inning in the third game of the World Series. The fans were booing the Babe, but that was nothing compared to what the bench jockeys in the Cubs’ dugout were throwing at Ruth. After a strike the Babe held up his hand and made a gesture seemingly towards the outfield walls. On the next pitch he belted to ball into the bleachers. Reporters wrote that the Babe had “called his shot.” Harnett, who was the closest person on the planet to the Bambino felt differently. Years late he told his biographer William McNeil an alternative account of Ruth’s legendary home run. “I don’t want to take anything away from the Babe, because he’s the reason we made good money, but he didn’t call his shot. He held up the index finger of his left hand and said, “It only takes one to hit.’”

The second great moment of Gabby’s playing career had a happier ending with the “Homer in the Gloamin.’” The Cubs were battling the Pittsburgh Pirates in a doubleheader near the tail end of the 1938 season. The Cubs won the first game to pull within a half game of the Pirates in the standings. The second game was in a deadlock with darkness closing in rapidly over Wrigley Field.  The umpire informed both managers that the ninth inning would be the last inning and that the game would have to be replayed the following day in the event of a tie score. As fate would have it, Gabby stepped to the plate with two outs. “I swung with everything I had, and then I got the feeling, the kind of a feeling when the blood rushes and gets you dizzy. A lot of other people told me that they didn’t know the ball was in the bleachers. Well, I did. Maybe I was the only one in the park who did. I don’t think I saw third base and I don’t think I walked a step to the plate- I was carried in.”

The Yankees once again spoiled the Cubs party by taking the World Series in four straight games. Gabby was a player-manager for the Cubs until 1940 when he was fired by management but before he was left, he surpassed Ray Schalk, a former member for the crosstown Chicago White Sox, all-time record of 1728 games caught by a catcher.

Gabby Harnett managed a few years in the minor leagues before returning to the majors with the Kansas City Athletics as a coach and a scout. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955 and died in 1972 at the age of 72.

Steven G. Farrell is a retired professor from Greenville Technical College in Greenville, South Carolina, where he was a member of the Speech & Theater Department for 16 years. He has won four awards for the short film he produced Mersey Boys: A Letter From Al Moran.  The film is based upon his 2013 novel, Mersey Boys. His fiction has appeared in numerous publications such as Lost Treasure, Scary Monsters, Crime, The Yard and Battle Royale with Cheese Film Blog. His fiction has appeared in Alternative History Fiction, Frontier Tales, Candlelight Stories, The Irish American Post and Audience. Steven G. Farrell collection of fiction and nonfiction, Our Path Leads to Readers, shall be published by Path Publications, Book Division of Phoenix, Arizona in 2022.



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Articles from the Society of Baseball Research:

Gordon, Pete M. King Kelly.

Haggerty, Tim. Jimmy Ryan.

Johnson, Bill. Gabby Harnett.

Shiner, David. Johnny Evers.

Wolf, Gregory H. Pat Malone.