Sports and Ethnicity: The Underground Cult of Slugging

Buck Freeman. I recently reread Keith Olbermann’s foreword to Deadball Stars of the American League. He wrote about Buck Freeman’s 1899 season where he slugged 25 home runs. It was the second leading total of the 19th century after Ned Williamson slugged 27 in 1884. This got me interested in Freeman, so I looked him up. Though his surname sounds more Anglo-Saxon, Freeman’s dad actually immigrated from Ireland to the coal fields of northeastern Pennsylvania.

One thing that I am curious is how styles of play in sports fit into different cultures. I’ve been that way for 25 years ever since I read an essay by Jeff Greenfield about titled “The Black and White Truth About Basketball.” And this interest was reawakened recently when I attended a conference in Cooperstown and also read some stuff about the Irish in early baseball. I had a theory that they introduced slugging (as opposed to place hitting) to the game, but for years this wasn’t viewed as the right way to hit until Babe Ruth. Roger Connors and Dan Brouthers were among the heaviest hitters in the 19th Century and they were of Irish stock.

(FWIW, Ken Dryden muses about the difference between Canadian and Russian hockey in his book, The Game. Canadian hockey was more violent and it owes a debt to rugby and shinty. Russian hockey, OTOH, evolved from soccer and bandy.)

Rowdy ball was popular in the 90s. The team that introduced that style (particularly gaming the ump and opponents) was the Charlie Comiskey-led St Louis Browns. That’s one aspect of the game that might be considered Irish. But Cap Anson, who was anything but Irish, was no shrinking violet on the field himself and he was one of the most influential forces in the game. Jerrold Casway wrote the Ed Delahanty book Baseball and The Emerald Age. He thinks that the Irish had an advantage when it came to hitting because they also played hurling and handball. Both of these sports require superior hand-eye coordination; just like batting does. I was looking into this further and read Montgomery Ward’s instructional book Baseball: How To Become A Player. He said that most hitters didn’t use their arms and instead pushed at the ball. But the exceptions he named (Connor, Brouthers, Tiernan, Wise, Fogarty, Whitney, Ryan, Denny, and Fred Carroll)were all Irish. Not all Irish players swung hard. He listed King Kelly as one of the pushers along with Dunlap and Anson.

Actually, it turns out that I was wrong. The Irish didn’t invent slugging. According to Peter Morris, batsmen would “whale away and try to hit the ball out of sight” in the early days when baseball was predominantly a New York game. But Henry Chadwick, who was the Peter Gammons of his day, frowned on that type of approach, as did Cap Anson. So, the Celtic role was to be the keeper, not the igniter, of the slugging flame.

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