Major League Baseball has never been a stranger to foreign-born players. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the names of Italian, Jewish, and Irish immigrants peppered the rosters of big league teams. Today you will find Venezuelan, Dominican, and even a few Japanese names on these rosters.
A few months ago I came across the story of Joe Cleary, the last Irish-born baseball player to appear in a Major League game. On August 4, 1945, Cleary was sent out to pitch the fourth inning against the Boston Red Sox. Cleary had been called up by the Washington Senators in preparation for a long string of double-headers, where pitching would be needed.
That day Joe Cleary made baseball history. Not because he was the last Irish-born player to make it to the big leagues, and not even because he was replaced in the game by the first (and only) major league pitcher to have just one leg (the other was amputated in World War II.) No, Joe Cleary is in the record books for allowing seven earned runs in one-third inning of work, resulting in a whopping 189.00 ERA (earned run average).
This inauspicious debut would be Cleary’s closing night as well. Years later, Cleary said he was used to the teasing about the 189.00 ERA from people in the neighborhood, “But I would tell them, I was there.”
Joseph Christopher Cleary was born on December 3, 1918 in County Cork, Ireland. His family came to the States in 1928, settling on the West Side of New York City. Cleary played baseball at New York’s High School of Commerce – the same high school attended by Lou Gehrig about fifteen years earlier.
After high school, Cleary turned down college scholarships to play semi-pro baseball. He needed to work and help support his family. What better way to do that than by playing baseball? There is a great biography of Joe “Fire” Cleary here by Charlie Bevis. It explores Cleary’s career in baseball leading up to that fateful August day in 1945 and beyond. Bevis details the drama that took place during the one-third inning of baseball and tells us why the seven runs may not have been the only reason Cleary never made it back to the Majors.
Cleary retired from baseball in 1950 to spend time with his wife Mary and family. Bevis sums up Cleary’s story very nicely:
Cleary worked on Wall Street for a few years before he purchased a bar on the West Side of New York City, which he operated for more than 20 years. Cleary sold the bar and worked as a bartender before retiring at age 62 in 1982. In retirement in his neighborhood dominated by baseball-loving Dominican immigrants, “[Cleary] is a minor celebrity, who is still ribbed about his baseball career and his bloated earned run average. But he can handle it,” Margolick wrote. “‘The only answer I give them is, ‘Hey I was there. Only 14,000 guys have made it.'”
This paragraph says a lot about baseball and America…maybe the more recent immigrants from the Dominican Republic looked to an old immigrant from Ireland and thought they could make it, too.
Or maybe they just love baseball…
Joe Cleary passed away June 3, 2004 in Yonkers, New York.
Better go so I don’t miss the first pitch of the Minnesota Twins season. I think this is their year.
Thanks to Charlie Bevis and his biography of Joe Cleary from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) website – read it here. Not only does Bevis provide us with the details of Cleary’s baseball career, he gives us a glimpse into why Cleary’s nickname was “Fire”.
Photo from www.baseball-reference.com