Thursday, March 17, 2011

Saluting New York's Irish Sports Legends

Top o’ the mornin’ to ya, lads and lasses. I’m not one bit Irish meself, but that won’t stop me from doing a St. Patrick’s Day-themed blog post.

I was going to do a Top 10 Irish Baseball Players, but, realizing just how much the Irish once dominated the game, that would have become a Top 100. So I’ll simply salute some sons (and one daughter) of the Emerald Isle who are in the major sports’ Halls of Fame.

In baseball, there are: Yankees Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Bill Dickey, Whitey Ford (though Paul O’Neill is not in the Hall of Fame and almost certainly never will be); Met (before he was great) Nolan Ryan; New York Giants John Montgomery Ward, Michael Francis “Smilin’ Mickey” Welch, Tim Keefe, Amos Rusie, Jim “Orator” O’Rourke, John McGraw, Joe McGinnity, Roger Bresnahan (a.k.a. the Duke of Tralee), George “Highpockets” Kelly and Bill Terry; Brooklyn Dodgers Larry MacPhail, Branch Rickey, Arky Vaughan and, reluctantly, Walter Francis O’Malley; Dodger and Yankee Willie Keeler; and Larry’s son Lee MacPhail, who was a Yankee executive before succeeding fellow Irishman Joe Cronin as President of the American League.

Among New York Tri-State Area football players, there aren’t many. Although the Giants were founded by Tim Mara and run by him and his son Wellington Mara (whether current owner John joins his father and grandfather remains to be seen), and had Ray Flaherty; Fordham had the Tim and Wellington Mara and George McAfee. The Jets? Well, they have very few HOFers of any ethnicity (Joe Namath is Hungarian), but their all-time leading scorer is placekicker Pat Leahy.

Basketball used to be loaded with fine Irish players, to the point where the first truly great team, in the 1920s, was a New York-based squad called the Original Celtics. Yes, they were called “Original” long before anyone knew the pro game would one day be dominated by the Boston Celtics – who, of course, were run by Englishman Walter Brown and a German-Jewish Brooklynite named Arnold “Red” Auerbach.

The Original Celtics had Nat Holman, who would later coach City College of New York (CCNY) to the 1950 NCAA and NIT Championships – the only such “double” that ever has or ever will be won unless the rules change; and Joe Lapchick, who went on to coach at St. John’s and lead the Knicks to 3 NBA Finals. Another early pro team from New York, the Brooklyn Visitations, had Queens native Bobby McDermott, who would later star for the Fort Wayne Pistons. CCNY’s, and therefore Holman’s, great rival was Howard Cann of New York University (NYU).

The aptly-named Edward S. “Ned” Irish was the founder and first general manager of the Knicks. Among the players Lapchick coached, at St. John’s and/or with the Knicks, were the brothers Al and Dick McGuire: Al would later coach Marquette to the 1977 National Championship and become a broadcaster; “Dick the Knick” would become one of the Knicks’ worst coaches, but then their best scouting director and help build the 1970 and ’73 NBA Champions, the latter having former Cincinnati Royals legend Jerry Lucas.

Lapchick would be replaced at St. John’s by Frank McGuire – no relation to Al or Dick – and, when Frank went on to greener (or, rather, bluer) pastures at the University of North Carolina (1957 National Champions), Lapchick would return. And Frank McGuire, and then Dean Smith (no connection to New York and I don’t think he’s Irish) would coach Billy Cunningham, born in Brooklyn, raised in Long Beach, Island, who is not only the only coach to win both an NCAA and an NBA title, but, as far as I can tell, has more coaching victories than any human – male or female, living or dead, high school, college or professional. Unless you want to count the Harlem Globetrotters, but I think they more or less “coach themselves.”

Among the other New York Tri-State Area natives in the Basketball Hall of Fame are Ernie Blood, who coached Passaic High School’s “Wonder Five” to the longest winning streak in the history of U.S. high school basketball in the early 1920s; Brooklyn native Billy Cunningham, who later played for one of the Philadelphia 76ers’ NBA Championship teams and coached the other; Chuck Daly, who briefly coached the Nets; Anne Donovan, a Ridgewood, New Jersey native who starred at Virginia’s Old Dominion University, coached the WNBA’s New York Liberty and now coaches Seton Hall University’s women’s team; NBA Commissioner J. Walter Kennedy of Stamford; and referees Pat Kennedy and David Walsh of Hoboken, and John J. O’Brien of Brooklyn.

The Hockey Hall of Fame is loaded with Irish-Canadians, but how many of them were involved in New York-area teams? The most important of all was, Lester Patrick, the man who built 3 Stanley Cup winners with the New York Rangers. (Don’t laugh, the Rangers didn’t suck back then.) His sons, Lynn and Murray “Muzz” Patrick, played for that team and also went into management; Lynn’s son Craig Patrick is in the Hall, but didn’t have much to do with the Rangers. Babe Pratt, Bryan Hextall Sr. and Neil Colville played for those Ranger teams and are in the Hall, but Neil’s brother and teammate Matthew “Mac” Colville is not. Later Rangers who are would be Harry Howell and Lorne “Gump” Worsley.

Mervyn “Red” Dutton ran the New York Americans and briefly served as NHL President. “Bullet Joe” Simpson played for the Amerks; however, in spite of his nickname, Amerks star David Schriner was a Russian whose family immigrated to Canada, and he was nicknamed “Sweeney” after a semipro baseball player in Calgary where he was growing up. Of course, the man who built the New York Islander dynasty, Bill Torrey, is of Irish descent and is in the Hall. The only Devils players already in the Hall are English (Scott Stevens), Slovak (Peter Stastny) and Russian (Viacheslav Fetisov), and HOFers in waiting Martin Brodeur is French and Scott Niedermayer is German.

There are a lot of Irish and Irish-American boxers in the Boxing Hall of Fame, but a surprisingly low number of them are from the New York area. The only ones I can think of off the top of my head are James J. Braddock, who went from Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan to the Hudson County docks to the heavyweight title from 1935 to 1937; and 1920s middleweight champion Mickey Walker, “the Toy Bulldog.” Jack Dempsey, that era’s heavyweight champ, was from Colorado, but did seem to get adopted by New York, as did the black Alabama native and Detroit-trained fighter Joe Louis (who, as the “Cinderella Man” stories don’t tell you, ended Braddock’s reign as champ rather painfully).

And, as an Arsenal fan, let me also salute the following Gunners: Republic of Ireland natives Liam Brady, David O'Leary, Frank Stapleton and John Devine; Northern Ireland natives Terry Neill, Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson, Pat Jennings; English-born Irish Gunners Bob McNab, Ray Kennedy, John Hollins, Lee Dixon, Andy Linighan and Martin Keown; and Scottish-born Irish Gunner Eddie Kelly. In spite of his first name, Gael Clichy is a black Frenchman, and is not from Ireland or of Irish descent.

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So, Happy St. Patrick’s Day, and, whether you’re Irish or not, celebrate well, but not too hard.

1 comment:

capt paul said...

If I'm not mistaken, Derek Jeter is part Irish--also he's not a HOFer, or legendary figure, but it was Frsnk J Farrell who helped bring the AL to NY, and served as one of the Yankees (nee Highlanders) founding co-owners--As maybe something of a stretch you could also include Mets HOF Broadcaster Bob Murphy, not to mention ballpark namesake William A Shea--Devils one time all time leading scorer and deposed Head Coach John MacLean (perhaps borderling HOF at best) strikes me as Irish, though wouldn't be surprised if he was a Scottish-Canadien...