Patsy Donovan was a quintessential player of his age, and was quite possibly the most successful Irish-born baseball player. Like many other players of the deadball era, Donovan hit for high average but little power, compiling a lifetime batting average of .301 with 1,957 singles out of his 2,256 career hits. He was fast and aggressive on the base paths, stealing 518 bases over his career. And he played for seventeen years, spending time on the Boston Beaneaters, Brooklyn Bridegrooms, Louisville Colonels, Washington Statesmen, Washington Senators, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, and Brooklyn Superbas.
Donovan was born in Cobh (then Queenstown), County Cork, in 1865 (or possibly 1863 – he may have fabricated his age to appear younger) and immigrated with his family to the United States as a young child as part of a huge wave of Irish immigrants in the second half of the nineteenth century. They moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where Donovan went to work in the cotton mills after finishing elementary school.
He got his start in baseball in his home town, playing for the Lawrence club in the New England League. From there, he joined other clubs in the minor leagues, playing in Salem, Massachusetts, and London, Ontario, before making his major league debut with the Boston Beaneaters in 1890. The outfielder was soon noted for his leadership abilities. As David Jones notes, “In a decade that was infamous for rough play and rowdyism, Donovan was most admired for his quiet dignity and work ethic.” He is a strong contrast against negative stereotypes of Irish and Irish-American players of his era. Consequently, Donovan was hired as a player-manager of the Pirates in 1897. He was replaced as manager after leading the team to a 60-71 record, but granted a second chance in 1899. In total, he spend eleven years as a manager of the Pirates, Cardinals, Senators, Superbas, and Boston Red Sox, where he also worked as a scout. Donovan was one of the first managers to regularly use relief pitchers, with his 1899 Pirates team handing to ball to a reliever 39 times that season, the most ever at that time. He is known for convincing the Red Sox to sign Babe Ruth after watching him play for the minor league Baltimore Orioles in 1914.
After his time in the big leagues, Donovan spent 14 years as a minor league manager and continued to scout until 1946.
Over the history of the major leagues, forty-seven players have been born in Ireland, mainly from the 1870s through the 1910s, an era which is heavily associated with Irish-American influence on the sport. Since 1910, there have only been three Irish-born players. Cork-born Joe Cleary was the most recent, appearing in a single game for the Washington Senators in 1945. Having pitched 1/3 of an inning, he had an unfortunate career ERA of 189.00.
Happy opening week of the baseball season! Go Rockies!
Brian Sheehy, “Baseball Star!,” Lawrence History News (Spring 2003) – Lawrence History Center: Immigrant City Archives and Museum.
John C. Skipper, A Biographical Dictionary of Major League Baseball Managers (2003).