The Irish were a rough lot who came over during the famine in the 1840s and following. In many cases, they were what might be called peasants: Poor farmers who often rented property to eek out a subsistence living. And when the famine came, a large percentage left the country in an attempt to survive. These Irish immigrants would have been different than those who came before the famine (better educated and many Protestant) or those who came many decades after it (more settled and secure). These immigrants were desperate, mostly uneducated people who did not even know their faith–because of restrictions placed upon them. Once they flooded over to the US, the Church sent over an army of priests and nuns to help educate them in their new land. Essentially, America was a Protestant country and for many of the Irish Catholics, they could not bear to think of the immigrants losing a very hard fought faith in the new land.
The desperate energy of the Irish was felt in many places. Unlike nationalities who had left successful farming lives in the old country, most Irish wanted to get away from farming. For many, living as tenant farmers back their old country seemed more like slavery than opportunity. So they craved something different and since they were not likely to have skills as craftsman, like some other immigrants, they took other jobs–many jobs that those here did not want. They were recruited into the army on both sides of the civil war, they worked on the transcontinental railroad, they because laborers of all kinds, etc. They also found work as policeman and other civic jobs. And while they were getting the jobs that could be had, the Catholic education system was growing and expanding. At the same time, Catholic social services would plants seeds in the American soil and eventually build up organizations that would look to serve all nationalities and people from all faiths. Today, some of our politicians don’t understand the history of the Irish social organizations and how they expanded to help everyone. You can read complaints in most any newspapers today asking why the government is subsidizing Catholic organization as if they serve mostly Catholic people. But that’s not the case.
From a hardscrabble life back in Ireland, the new immigrants were also getting a taste of jobs having been born out of the industrial revolution. A new modern form of torture that had been part and parcel of life for many European immigrants. Long hours in mills and factories seemed to be the history and future of many Americans. And the Irish did what many other immigrants did to seek both entertainment from their weary lives in sports. The lucky talented ones sought out careers in sports. Certainly, the Irish were well-conditioned for athletic pursuits. A game called base ball was starting to evolve into a national obsession after it had been taken up by the Civil War soldiers in their off times during the war. Men learned and played the game, and then came home and taught it to their children and others. The Irish loved the game and so did many others. As time went on, the Irish established a foothold in baseball with the likes of John McGraw, Connie Mack, Joe McCarthy, and many others. While the Irish never dominated the sport, they were well-represented and the Irish loved to chase the dream of a job that was not all toil and boredom. Joe McCarthy (Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox manager) who managed many of the greatest players in baseball’s golden age, used to talk about what a privilege it was to play the game and the wonderful lifestyle it afforded. Those who could not appreciate the benefits that the game brought to them, should seek other employment.
Today, there is wider variety of people making a living playing sports. And the paychecks are exponentially higher. One hundred Connie Macks or John McGraws could not touch the salary of one of the top baseball players today. I laugh when I hear a sportscaster say that some young star is making $20 Million a year and worth every penny! (but that’s another post)
If you are interested in the history of baseball and the Irish contributions to it, there are many books you can tap into. Our book, The 10 Commandments of Baseball by J. D. Thorne tells the story of the baseball commandments, their author–Joe McCarthy, and some of the players who help illustrate the principles of the game–principles that are taught in Little League and expected in Major League.