Karl Lindholm: Nuf Ced, Tessie, Honey Fitz and the Royal Rooters
Havya been now, mates, to Fenway Park after a Red Sox victory and celebrated with other fans in the park after the game — and havya taken note of the songs they play with the fans singin’ right along?
The first is “Dirty Water” by the Standells, the second is “Tessie” by the Dropkick Murphys, and the third is “Joy to the World” by 3 Dog Night, all eminently singable, especially after a coupla pints.
And do ya know the tale of Tessie and how that tune became a Red Sox anthem? It’s a good story and goes way back to the early days of baseball and the powerful presence of the Irish in Boston.
(I’ll stop now attempting to write in an Irish brogue.)
And why am I thinking about the Irish in Boston? Because as I write this, I am in Ireland in the small town of Kilcullen in County Kildare: I am the trailing spouse of my scholar-wife who is representing at a poetry festival nearby.
I am spending my mornings reading (or writing, this piece for example) at the River Cafe and my afternoons after 3 o’clock doing likewise right next door at O’Connell’s Bar, nursing a Jameson’s Black Barrel, before joining her nibs at night at the festival.
No doubt you know or have heard about the devastation that befell Ireland in the mid 19th century, the potato famine, resulting in the emigration to the U.S. of over 2 million Irish citizens. Many of those immigrants disembarked in Boston, and stayed. Metropolitan Boston today still has the highest population of Irish Americans of any American city.
The timing was right, and ripe, for those first-generation Irish boys to be swept up by the baseball fever that had overtaken America after the Civil War — and indeed the Irish dominated the early game. According to David Fleitz, author of “The Irish in Baseball: An Early History,” as many as 40% of the major league players from 1876 (when the National League was formed) and 1900 were Irish Americans.
Pitchers Jim “Pud” Galvin (1875-92) and Tim Keefe (1880-93) were the first 300 game winners and Hugh Duffy of the Boston team (then sometimes called the Beaneaters, later the Braves) batted .440 in 1894, still the highest batting average in the history of the game.
The original Baltimore Orioles, the greatest team of the 19th century (not today’s Orioles that came into being in 1953), were loaded with Hibernians: manager Ned Hanlon, star players Hughie Jennings, John McGraw, Willie Keeler. The Orioles won the National League pennant in 1894, ’95, and ’96.
The feisty McGraw, called “Muggsy” (though never to his face) went on to become one of the game’s greatest managers, leading the New York Giants to six National League pennants and three World Series Championships from 1904-’22.
The first baseball superstar was Mike “King” Kelly, the “King of all Ballplayers,” a dynamic and flamboyant player for Chicago and Cincinnati, who was sold to Boston in 1887 for the enormous sum of $10,000.
Boston fans bought Kelly a house and often carried him to the ballpark on their shoulders. Because of his daring baserunning, he was the subject of a rousing popular song “Slide Kelly Slide.” In the off-season, he was a vaudevillian. Alas, his flame was extinguished quickly as he died from pneumonia at 36 in 1894.
Fans in the early days of baseball were called “cranks” (German for “sick”; British for “feeble-minded”) and no city had a larger and more boisterous group of fans than Boston. Cranks in Boston were led by Michael “Nuf Ced” McGreevey, a saloon keeper whose bar was called “3rd Base,” as it was the last stop before home.
McGreevey’s tavern was located near the Huntington Avenue grounds where the Boston professional teams played (Fenway was built in 1912). The American League was formed in 1901 and the Boston club, to be known later as the Red Sox, was a charter member.
McGreevey’s bar, festooned as it was with baseball artifacts and memorabilia, was the favorite landing spot for Boston’s diehard baseball fans who called themselves the Royal Rooters. When the debates about baseball became too intense, or ran their course, McGreevey would pound the bar and bellow “Nuf Ced.”
One of the most loyal of the Royal Rooters, the chairman, was colorful Boston pol John J. Fitzgerald, known as “Honey Fitz,” a Congressman and then Mayor of Boston during the Rooters’ heyday (and the maternal grandfather of 35th President John Fitzgerald Kennedy).
The Royal Rooters were overwhelmingly from the Irish enclaves around Boston. Their numbers were swelled by the glorious success of the Boston American League team in its first two decades, winning the AL pennant six times and the World Series five (1903, ’12, ’15, ’16, ’18), including the very first World Series played against Pittsburgh in 1903.
The Royal Rooters often traveled to away games, with a big drum and a makeshift band, and were raucous in their partisanship. They adopted the song “Tessie” from the 1903 Broadway musical “The Silver Slipper” as their anthem and they sang it robustly, both to encourage their boys and to distract Boston’s opponents.
A century later, after the Red Sox miraculous World Series win in 2004, ending an 86-year championship drought, Dr. Charles Steinberg, Red Sox vice-president (and impresario), engaged a hard-rock band of Irish Americans, the Drop Kick Murphys, to revive Tessie in a modern version: it caught on — and is sung after every victory today!
Prohibition pretty much ended Nuf Ced’s prominence, and the sale of Babe Ruth introduced a curse of enduring mediocrity and sapped the Royal Rooters exuberance, but the Red Sox still have an impressive band of loyal followers, who travel well.
It wasn’t long after the turn of the century that the Germans intruded on the hegemony of the Irish in baseball (Ruth, Comiskey, Wagner), then later the Italians (Lavagetto, Gionfriddo, DiMaggio). Baseball’s demographics for a long time reflected immigration patterns in the U.S.
All along, of course, the game was deeply popular with and skillfully played by African Americans, though on their own teams in their own leagues as baseball at the professional level was segregated for 60 years (1887 to 1947).
But in the MLB, the Irish (along with the English: Chadwick, Spalding, the Wright Brothers), were first.
In my time here in the Emerald Isle, I have found no evidence, alas, of the O’Lindholm clan.
(Karl Lindholm Ph.D. is the Emeritus Dean of Advising at Middlebury College. He can be contacted at [email protected]).
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