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Brooklyn, Baseball, and Its Irish Connection

by Tim Carr

Baseball has been played in Brooklyn as far back as 1820. During the past two centuries, baseball evolved from a child’s game, to a men’s social activity to a lucrative professional sport and our nation’s pastime. So much of the history of baseball originated in Brooklyn and so much of baseball in Brooklyn involved Irish born and Irish Americans, whether on the ball field or in management and ownership.

In 1845, Base Ball had become popular in New York City using the Knickerbocker rules. Many games were played at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. Brooklyn, an independent city, which eventually grew to the second largest in the US, participated in the game of Base Ball. In fact, newspaper accounts in 1845, described the Brooklyn Club beating the New York Club becoming the top team of the time. There was no turning back for Brooklyn and its love for Base Ball and the thousands upon thousands of immigrants that flooded into its city in the second half of the 19th century, took to the game as well, especially the Irish.

In 1854 and 1855, the emergence of the Excelsior Club of South Brooklyn combined with the Eckford Club of Greenpoint and the Atlantic Club of Bedford, creating a triumvirate of great Base Ball clubs for Brooklyn This group would dominate the growing Base Ball sport for more than a decade. The tragic potato famine in Ireland in the late 1840’s drove close to a million Irish from their land to places like England, Australia and mostly America. Many Irish landed in Brooklyn. The Excelsior Club played at Carroll Park in the Country’s first enclosed stadium. Carroll Park was in a predominantly Irish neighborhood located in the current Community District No. 6 of Brooklyn, at the corner of what is now Court Street and President Street. It was named for Charles Carroll, the only Catholic and one of a few Irish American signers of the Declaration of Independence.

In 1857, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NAAPB) was created, and nine of the sixteen founding clubs were located in Brooklyn. The league’s first formal champion was the Brooklyn Atlantics in 1859. In 1860, a first-generation Irishman named James Creighton came to the Excelsior Club and immediately became an overnight sensation. He is considered the first national star of amateur baseball. He excelled in pitching, hitting and fielding. Tragically, he died at age 21. He swung so hard during one game, he ruptured an organ and hemorrhaged to death four days later. He made a huge impact to the game in his short time with the Excelsiors.

In June of 1870, the first “for-profit” baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, barreled into Brooklyn owning a record 81 game winning streak. The seemingly unbeatable team faced the Brooklyn Atlantics in front of a huge crowd of around 10,000 fans. The game went into extra innings. Miraculously, the Atlantics scored three runs in the 11th and overcame the powerhouse Red Stockings much to the delight of the Brooklyn fans. The game-winning rbi came from the bat of Bob Ferguson, a son of Irish immigrants. A journalist the next day opined, “It was the greatest game ever played between the greatest clubs that ever played, and as usual, when Brooklyn is pitted against the universe, the universe is number two”.

Moving forward to the early 1883, baseball was a professional sport, and the newest team was the Brooklyn Grays, the initial version of the legendary Dodger franchise. The next year, they joined the American Association as the Brooklyn Atlantics. Charles Byrne (1843-1898) and his brother-in-law, Joseph Doyle (1838-1906) founded the club with financial backing from Ferdinand Abell. Both Byrne and Doyle were sons of Irish immigrants and Abell was 4th generation Irish on his mother’s side. Byrne made his money in real estate but both he and Doyle also were partners in a gambling house on Ann Street in Manhattan. Abell actually owned a casino in Newport Rhode Island which was frequented by the famous Vanderbilt family. An auspicious start for Brooklyn’s professional team, but not a rare occurrence at that time.

The team was successful enough to join the National League in 1890. In 1888, they had changed their name to the Bridegrooms, basically because so many of the players had recently got married. With an 86-43 record in 1890, the Bridegrooms finished in first place in the National League. They were led by Manager Bill McGunnigle whose parents were from County Donegal, Ireland. Many of the players were Irish American including Patsy Donovan, Bob Caruthers, Adonis Terry, Tom Daly, Hub Collins, Darby O’Brien and others. During the 1890’s, the ownership structure changed to Abell and Byrne combined at about 65% with others also holding shares including a small amount by a newcomer named Charles Ebbets. Charles Byrne, the founder of the storied Dodgers organization died in 1898. He is remarkably unknown to today’s fans. He was important to the early days of the sport as an innovator. Among his accomplishments were the first Ladies Day, first rain checks, first non-smoking section and the first coaches boxes. He passed away from Brights disease at the age of 54. Now the team had to look to the new century with new ownership.

By 1900, the ownership evolved bringing Harry Von der Horst and Irish American Ned Hanlon on board as part owner and manager. Hanlon brought in many great players also of Irish descent, such as Wee Willie Keeler, Joe McGinnity, Joe Kelley and Dan McGann. Ebbets ownership increased to about 10% but Ferdinand Abell still owned the majority of the shares. By 1906, Von der Horst had died and Hanlon moved on. Ebbets brought in a new financial backer, Henry Medicus and the two of them bought out Abell. The Brooklyn Dodgers (known at that time as the Superbas), were owned by non-Irish Americans for the first time. But that didn’t last long.

In 1912, Ebbets Field was being constructed and the project was late and over budget. Ebbets announced that he had bought out Medicus. In order to do so, he brought on two new partners, both of whom were involved in the construction business. They were Ed and Steve McKeever, brothers from Brooklyn. Their parents were immigrants from Derry, Ireland. They had worked hard and created wealth quickly in America and were in the right line of work to assist Charles Ebbets with the stadium and the team. Ebbets had incurred a lot of debt and the McKeevers received a 50% share of the organization. Ebbets Field was completed in 1913 and the team enjoyed success over the subsequent years winning the pennant in 1916 and 1920 and performing well in 1924. The team of Ebbets and McKeevers and the incredible growth of Brooklyn, which had exceeded 2 million residents in 1920, resulted in a successful and stable organization that was positioning itself to be a perennial contender in the National League for decades to come.

In 1925, Charles Ebbets, at the peak of his success succumbed to heart failure at the age of 65 and died. This brought on new problems for the team ownership and for the beloved Ebbets Stadium. The main people involved now were the heirs to Charles Ebbets and the McKeever family. But, a new voice interjected itself and was complicated due to potential conflict of interests. The team bank was the Brooklyn Trust Bank and they found themselves in the difficult position of being the trustees of both the Ebbets and McKeevers estates. The President of the Bank was George V. McLaughlin, son of an Irishman from County Tyrone, and he had his work cut out for him. By 1937, the Dodgers (the name finally stuck in 1932) was in $700,000 of debt and hadn’t made a profit since 1930. Ebbets Stadium was in disrepair. The situation was bleak.

The leader of the McKeever family was Steve’s son-in-law, James Mulvey (also of Irish heritage). He floated the idea of bringing in Branch Rickey from the Cardinals organization to help rebuild the Dodgers from the bottom up. Rickey declined but suggested Larry McPhail as the person the Dodgers should want. He was hired and McPhail started the painful work of improving the organization from top to bottom. He was a polarizing figure, but he was successful in rebuilding this storied franchise. He brought in Leo Durocher and better players. He refurbished Ebbets Field and the team even started turning a profit. However, the relationship soured by 1942 and the Dodgers revisited the idea of bringing on Branch Rickey. This time he agreed and the man who would change baseball forever with the breaking down of the color barrier, was now the GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers. As Rickey started the work that would create the great Dodger teams of the late 1940’s and 1950’s, George McLaughlin was seeking an exit strategy to clean up the ownership mess that had existed for years. He turned to his protégé, 39-year old Walter Francis O’Malley. He was a third generation Irishman. His great grandparents came from County Mayo during the famine. Walter was a lawyer who specialized in bankruptcies which was a lucrative business during the depression. The Rickey/O’Malley combination proved fruitful for the Dodgers both from a baseball and business points of view. A series of drawn-out and complicated maneuvers, a few new financial backers, and the exit of Branch Rickey, resulted in a new ownership structure for the Dodgers in 1951. Walter O’Malley became the majority owner with 2/3 share while the Mulvey family retained a 1/3 share.

The loyal fan base of “dem bums” is well known, and they were rewarded as the Dodgers had an incredible run in the National League in the 1950’s. Integration brought superb players like Robinson, Campanella and Newcombe to go along with great role players and stars like Koufax, Snider, Furillo and Podres. The Dodgers also had some great Irish American players too like Gil Hodges and Pee Wee Reese. The Dodgers regular season record in the 1950’s was 916-624, a .595 clip. During this decade, they won four National League Pennants and one World Series, finally beating the Yanks in 1955. Of course, the dark side of this time was the move out of Brooklyn to sunny Los Angeles, a move that will forever be despised by Brooklynites. The Dodgers had played in Brooklyn for 74 years by the move in 1957 and baseball had been played in some form in Brooklyn for over 130 years. It was a dagger, but the Dodgers organization moved forward and more success and more involvement from other Irish Americans continued.

After the deaths of the Mulvey heirs, Walter O’Malley became full owner of the Dodgers in 1973. His son, Peter, was already the President of the club. The 1970’s/1980’s saw a resurgence for the Dodgers as they won three National League Pennants and a World Series in 1981. The face of the team was legendary Steve Garvey, a proud Irish American and current Irish American Baseball Society Member. Other teammates with Irish heritage included the likes of Bill Russell, Don Sutton, Bill Buckner, and Ken McMullen among others.

The Dodgers had mixed success in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. One big year was 1988, when a severely undermanned team beat the odds and won the NL Pennant. In incredible fashion, Irish American Kirk Gibson came off the bench with two injured legs and hit a game winning home run vs the A’s in Game 1 of the World Series. The stunned A’s did not recover and the Dodgers won the Series. By 1997, Peter O’Malley had reached 60 years old and a change in ownership was being reviewed, mainly from an estate planning point of view. There didn’t seem to be a family member willing to take over the reins of ownership. Due to the changes in the game related to TV money, it wasn’t surprising to see a new kind of owner emerge. Rupert Murdoch of Fox Entertainment, bought the club in 1997. The O’Malley era was over after several decades. The imprint on the Dodgers, Brooklyn and Los Angeles is unmatched. It should also be said that Peter O’Malley was an avid supporter for the growth of baseball in Ireland. He also built a stadium for baseball just outside of Dublin. He is a member of the Irish American Baseball Society and was inducted into the Irish American Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013.

The connection of Dodger ownership and Irish heritage continued after the O’Malley’s. Rupert Murdoch’s Great-Grandfather on his mother’s side, William Greene (1830-1902) was from Drogheda, County Louth Ireland. This makes him a 3rd generation Irishman. Fox News sold the team to Frank McCourt in 2009. Frank is also of Irish descent. By 2012, after a tumultuous run with the McCourts, the team was sold to a conglomerate called Guggenheim Partners. Between the founding year of 1883 up to 2012, the Dodgers had majority Irish American ownership the entire time except for the period of 1906-1912. That’s 123 years out of 129. The Guggenheim Partners own the Dodgers to this day.

The connection of 19th Century Base Ball, Brooklyn and the Irish is deep and layered. It is hard to see one without the other two. The fact the Irish American connection with the Dodgers continued throughout the 20th century and early into the 21st century is unique and special. Professional baseball left Brooklyn over 60 years ago, but the spirit hasn’t, and baseball is still played in every corner of the borough to this day. It is enjoyed by countless Americans and new immigrants alike. The Irish American experience mimics the baseball experience and the perpetual drive towards the American Dream. That is the common bond and legacy of baseball, of cities like Brooklyn, and of the millions of Americans with Irish heritage.

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