Ethnic Characterizations in an Early Baseball Story: Cincinnati and “O’Toole’s Ghost” in 1885
There is an often-cited account in baseball histories taken from The Sporting News that demonstrates the American Pastime’s regard of ethnic differences in the first decades of the 20th century. In 1923, the self-termed “Baseball Bible” opined that: “Except the Ethiopian, the Mick, the Sheeney, the Wop, the Dutch and the Chink, the Cuban, the Indian, the Jap or the so-called Anglo-Saxon – his nationality is never a matter of moment if he can pitch, or hit, or field.”
Such a media-initiated expression of ethnic and racial sentiment is virtually unimaginable if it occurred now at the beginning of the 21st century. But despite a long-standing cultural belief in an American sports creed that glorifies athletics as a true meritocracy, athletes have always been characterized by their heritage. Expression of that characterization is circumspect in this day and age – except, perhaps, in the cases of John Rocker and Marge Schott, and in the ethnic nicknames of sports teams. In our time, sport is supposed to reflect American society’s developing acknowledgement of the sensibilities of others – at least in an open forum. No longer would a publication like The Sporting News be able to print statements as it did in 1920 in response to journalist Hugh Fullerton’s investigation of the 1919 World Series: Because a lot of dirty, long-nosed, thick-lipped, and strong-smelling gamblers butted into the World Series…stories were peddled that there was something wrong with the games…” The editors were referring, of course, to Jews.
This racial stereotype had its origins decades earlier as Organized Baseball established its cultural foothold in America after the Civil War. As the game was promoted as the “National Pastime,” nationality figured largely in the public perception of the sport. As baseball became a profession in which its employees rose from the ranks of the working classes and the bachelor subculture, or saloon fraternity, of the cities, the waves of Irish and German immigrants in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s set the ethnic stage on which the game was played.
By the 1880s, baseball as a professional sport had firmly taken root, along with every social element still attached to the game more than a century later: the umpire as reviled arbiter, the belief that love of the game breaks class boundaries, gambling, rapacious owners, sports lingo as American lexicon, community boosterism. And, of course, the make-up of baseball’s labor and management.
In Cincinnati in 1885, fully three years before the rousing Irish rise and fall of the Mighty Casey in his turn at bat, a small satirical weekly tabloid printed a small, satirical story on the rise and fall of another would-be Irish baseball hero, one Micky McGonigle. His story is told in “O’Toole’s Ghost: A Base Base-Ball Narrative,” an anonymous piece published in Sam the Scaramouch. Young Micky aspires to greatness on the diamond, to be a hero whose pitching skills would be second to none, and whose prowess at the plate would make fielders quake in fear, gentlemen gasp in admiration and envy, and women fairly swoon with longing for his glance. His tale is narrated in Sam the Scaramouch replete with the ethnic color and political realities of urban life.
Sam the Scaramouch (the copy from which “O’Toole’s Ghost” is taken is in the holdings of the Archives & Rare Books Department of the University of Cincinnati) was edited by three men, C.V. Van Hamm, A. H. Mattox, and Peter G. Thomson. Published only in 1885 and 1886, it was a weekly news journal devoted to local, national, and international politics; social issues; and the general foibles of American life. It was irreverent, disrespectful, sharply written – in short, everything a publication of barbed satire is meant to be. Van Hamm, Mattox and Thomson took the name of their periodical from a stock character in 19th century Italian theater. “Scaramouch” originally referred to a boastful, cowardly buffoon, and by the latter part of the century had also come to mean a rascal or scamp. The Scaramouch contained advertising both of a local and national nature, cartoons and jokes, doggerel, commentary, and reporting. Popular topics were elections, monetary policies, temperance, and the growing dichotomy between urban and rural life.
The Scaramouch’s editorial cartoons tended to focus on political issues and international affairs. Other drawings and caricatures pinpointed the differences between urban and rural America, and the racial and ethnic groups dwelling in the cities. Pointedly, at a time when Cincinnati was kicked out of the National League because its German-American culture saw fit to drink beer and spirits and attend baseball games on its day of recreation, the tabloid also published a cartoon about local citizens ignoring the entreaties of preachers and the Sunday blue laws, avoiding church services to go to the ballpark.
In Sam the Scaramouch, African Americans were portrayed with the stereotypical minstrel-like characteristics: thick-lipped, wide eyes and loping gait. Germans were shabbily dressed, lecherous, large-nosed, and usually coming and going from saloons. Jews were drawn as somewhat shorter than “Christian” Germans, and though they wore the same loud, checkered suits, their clothes were less shabby; and, their lips and noses were just as pronounced. The Irish were caricatured as simian-jawed, unshaven, dim-witted drunks. In the copy that accompanied the drawings and literary sketches, dialogue was written with a keen editorial ear for the nuances of German, Jewish, Irish, and African American dialect, and the unrefined speech of everyday citizens. Sam the Scaramouch was stereotype writ large and with a heavy hand. Its intent was to amuse an educated, politically informed, socially-aloof, white, male, professional class of people. And importantly, to lampoon everyone, including its own readers.
The story of Micky McGonigle begins during the hot summer of 1885 in the city of “Sweinburg.” Micky was “…an ambitious young man, aged twenty-one. It is true that Micky had already voted for three years, but this was nothing. In that Democratic stronghold, the bloody Fourth, they always did vote early, and need we remark, often. Micky McGonigle was a scholarly young man, a graduate of Sixth Street Hill, and an intense enthusiast on base-ball. To him the beauties of a properly curved sphere were aesthetic. His language was usually foul, and he generally made a home run when he saw a copy within two blocks.”
It is not the typical uplifting tale of juvenile sport that was rapidly becoming the norm at that time. For example, by 1885 five juvenile baseball novels had already been published, all of which played upon a theme of good boys overcoming the odds to win ballgames in dramatic fashion. With the opening of this story, the anonymous author places Micky as a stereotyped urban Irishman. He loves baseball, is part of ward politics – at least insofar as his votes were important, and he was generally a layabout who avoided the cop on the beat. In other words, a delinquent.
Micky is an inveterate dreamer, and one night, as he tosses and turns on his straw mattress from the effects of the Cincinnati heat and too many beers, he is visited by a specter, the late, great pitcher, Barney O’Toole. A Faustian bargain is struck whereby Micky will become the player he has fantasized himself as being. The condition of the deal, however, was not something so lofty as sterling behavior, nor something so dastardly as the selling of the soul. Rather, the caveat is that Micky must never, ever argue with the umpire or his talents will disappear. Is it possible that our anonymous author was an umpire?
By 1885, the umpire was indeed a beleaguered figure. While never a vocation of popularity in any era, when the game was no longer amateur and there were real economic stakes involved, the umpire’s decisions that lead to a win or a loss escalated in importance. Given, too, that in the civic boosterism so evident in Gilded Age America, it was important to fans that the home team be the best over those from other cities. They were rushing pell mell into the future, touting the superiority of their metropolis. Achievement in anything, especially in the very visible world of sports, was of mounting concern.
As a matter of fact, in another issue of Sam the Scaramouch there is a cartoon entitled “The Base-Ball Umpire of 1885.” In this drawing, a grumpy-looking umpire sits upon a stool, armored in breastplate and wearing a military helmet. In one hand he holds a cutlass and in the other a flintlock pistol. A saber is harnessed to his side. On his back he carries a pouch containing materials for a plaster cast. At his feet are a skull and bones, and a jug of arnica, which was a 19th century herbal concoction for treating bruises and sprains. In the distance behind him, angry fans are clambering over a fence to get after him.
But for all his status as the detested authority figure – certainly not an unknown concept to a nation that, as a sort of cultural birthright, bucked against arbitrary authority – the umpire had it within his power to determine whether one would even have the chance to demonstrate baseball godliness, depending, one presumes, if a player “kicked” against him.
So, it is in Micky’s best interests to follow the warning of O’Toole’s ghost. But does he? In his turn at bat with the bases loaded, we read the answer:
“Foul, out!” cried the umpire.
“Liar!” screamed Micky McGonigle, hurling his bat at the grandstand.
Compare those lines to the enduring stanzas a few years later in 1888 when Casey dramatically strides to the plate with men on base, and fails:
“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout.
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.
Casey, like poor Micky a few years before him, is finished. There is no immortality, no adulation, no luck of the Irish. The author sends Micky McGonigle back to where his kind belongs. He drives an ash cart for the city dumps and constantly mutters to himself.
Here, in this one little story, the author of “O’Toole’s Ghost” neatly encapsulates the entire baseball universe of 1885. Here are the urban ethnic and racial groups, the gambling and drinking, the role of the umpire and the strife between labor and management, the chance for heroics and the dissipation of dreams, hero-worship, the yearnings of youth and bragging rights for neighborhoods and cities. Over a century later, it seems, the game remains the same.
And now, the tale of Micky McGonigle.
A Base Base-Ball Narrative
Micky McGonigle was an ambitious young man, aged twenty-one. It is true that Micky had already voted for three years; but this was nothing. In that Democratic stronghold, the bloody Fourth,(1) they always did vote early and, need we remark, often. Micky McGonigle was a scholarly young man, a graduate of Sixth Street Hill, and an intense enthusiast on base-ball. To him the beauties of a properly curved sphere were aesthetic. His language was usually foul, and he generally made a home run when he saw a cop within two blocks. Thus conscience and base-ball art were equally and intimately commingled. The ambition of Micky McGonigle’s life was to be a pitcher for a League club on a five thousand dollar salary. Pitchers come high, but the public must have them.
So, in common with a multitude of his fellow-citizens, Micky neglected his reading and writing, and exercised at pitching the classical rubber on the vacant lots in Sweinburg.(2) Thus he exhibited a true American pride in the manly art; not as shown in the brutal ring, but in the athletics of the base-ball square.
One night when Micky McGonigle was wildly tossing over his straw mattress – effects of the heat, numerous beers, and the various orders of aphaniptera,(3) while his fancy painted an admiring and loudly cheering multitude, who applauded his magnificent home runs – a sudden vision appeared. It was the spirit of Barney O’Toole, the former most famous pitcher of the League.
“Whist, Micky!” said the shade. “Me gossoon,(4) yez are the laddie to take me place. Do as I told yez, omadhaun,(5) and yez will become famous.”
Then Micky, although a little frightened, braced up and answered: “’Tis O’Toole’s ghost, sure enough! Ah, Barney, avourneen,(6) only give me yer cunning. If I only had yer skill as a pitcher, yer stringth as a batter, yer speed as a runner, then, then would the heart of Micky McGonigle be happy, and he would toss his old caubeen(7) as high as the Cork Cathedral!”(8)
The vision seemed to be smiling, as it answered: “Musha,(9) yez blackguard, only hould yer tongue whin the umpire decides agin yer, and yer will become a great player. So long as yer no kicker agin an umpire, so long will yer prosper and make home runs. Don’t moind the bat, me boy; let her fly, and she will make four-base hits every pop. But moind, yez blackguard, but make a single kick against the umpire, yer a gone coon. Do yez hear?”
Micky McGonigle bowed his head in token of acceptance. “Howly Pater!” cried he. “Be the hair on the upper lip of a bloody dude from Tip! I’ll be no kicker. Give me, shade of Barney O’Toole, but one half of your former excellencies, and I’ll be a regular corker. Don’t forget that, Cully.
“Youbedeedeed!” said the ghost; and, as it fled, Micky McGonigle felt a strange, tingling sensation permeate his body, and at the same moment fell into a deep sleep.
The next morning at early dawn Micky McGonigle hied him to an adjacent dump where, in company with a gang of kindred spirits, he spent the forenoon in tossing the eccentric sphere. That afternoon he sneaked in under the fence of the grounds where the famous Dirty Stockings, of Utopia, were to meet the Linen Drawer Club, of Sweinburg.(10) Public expectation in regard to this match was on the qui vive. Editors had left their sanctums, clergymen their studies, doctors their offices, and merchants their stores, in order to witness this wonderful match. The entire population of a large metropolis had gathered together at fifty cents a head; for base-ball comes higher than a week’s supply of bread for a workingman’s family.(11)
As the hour of 3 o’clock p.m. drew near a faint rumor was wafted over the grounds that Dennis Gillicuddy, the celebrated pitcher for the Dirty Stockings, had cramp colic from eating watermelons, and was indisposed.(12) At the mere mention of this portentous information the vast audience groaned in spirit. The president of the Dirty Stocking Club, Israel Aaron Sweinfleish Sohelupmegrashus,(13) roved the grounds in a state of terrible excitement. He felt that the Dirty Stockings would cease to draw one hundred thousand people at fifty cents per capita unless this game was won. He had already tried to see the members of the opposition nine, the Linen Drawer Club, but as they wanted more than seventy-five cents apiece to sell out on a muff game,(14) the mighty heart of Israel Aaron Sweinfleish Sohelupmegrashus was well nigh broken.
As he paced up and down in front of the grand stand, the cynosure of all eyes, his gaze suddenly fell on the manly form of Micky McGonigle who, stretched languidly on the green sward, was endeavoring to hid the hole torn in the seat of his pants while underscaling the fence. Israel Aaron Sweinfleish Sohelupmegrashus glared fiercely for a moment at the classical figure of Micky McGonigle. Then, suddenly, his highly trained and educated eye told him that the young man was a great base-ball player in embryo.(15)
“Koom her, my frent,” remarked the grand mogul of the Dirty Stocking Club. “You plays pase-pall, eh?”
Micky McGonigle rose proudly to his feet. “Do I play base-ball, is it?” he queried. “I’m the best pitcher in the States! Give me a trial, will yez?”
A smile of undying happiness passed over the face of the Dirty Stocking Club’s President. “Moly Hoses!” he cried in a paroxysm of joy. “Ve are safeed. Our first pitcher is sick mit der colic cramp; our change pitcher have a smash thumb. Younk man, do de pitchin’ for us to-day. If you vin, a fife tousand dollar salary is yours.”
“I will sign!” cried Micky McGonigle in tones of ecstacy.
“Vait till you vin!” responded Israel Aaron Sweinfleish Sohelupmegrashus.
Fifteen minutes later the game was called, and the Dirty Stockings went to the bat. Conspicuous among the players was the new and manly form of Micky McGonigle. Israel Aaron Sweinfleish Sohelupmegrashus had quietly gone to the grand stand, and whispered about “Our new phenomenal pitcher and magnificent batter. Yoost vait!”
Great was the excitement on this first inning, when Smith safely reached his first base on a hit to right; then Jones made a safe hit to center, and Smith got safely to second; then Robinson sent a high-flyer to left field, which was muffed by Goggles(16) of the Linen Drawer Club. The bases were full, and all was breathless expectation as the new player, Micky McGonigle, proudly approached the diamond, bat in hand. A voice seemed to whisper in the air – the voice of the ghostly Barney O’Toole – “Hit her hard, ye spalpeen!(17) Let her drive! Now for a home run and glory! Now for triumph and a five thousand dollar salary! Worra! musha! worra! worra!”(18)
Even as this spiritual voice whispered in Micky McGonigle’s ear, Fatty Pretzels,(19) the pitcher of the Linen Drawers, sent a curved ball over the plate, and Micky McGonigle struck at it for all that was out – and was out on a foul tip.
“Foul, out!” cried the umpire.
“Liar!” screamed Micky McGonigle, hurling his bat at the grand stand.
Micky McGonigle now drives an ash-cart on the city dumps; and when twitted by his failure to sign with the League, replies vaguely: “Had I followed Barney O’Toole’s advice! Worra! worra!”
Whereat people tap their foreheads significantly and whisper, another victim of the base-ball craze.
- …bloody Fourth. In 1885, Cincinnati’s fourth ward was a hotbed of immigrant political activity and boss politics. It was bounded on the south by Eggleston Avenue and the Ohio River, stretched west to Court Street, moved east to Gilbert Avenue, the boundary of Eden Park and Eastern Avenue, and north into the Avondale neighborhood.
- …Sweinburg. A concocted nickname for Cincinnati, playing not only on its German heritage, but also on the city’s heritage as a meatpacking center when it was nicknamed “Porkopolis” earlier in the 19th
- …gossoon. An Irish youth or boy.
- …omadhaun. Irish for a fool , or used as a term of abuse. This is a pointed reference to Micky, as playing the lazy, dreamy fool seems to be his station in life.
- …avourneen. A term acknowledging the deeds or trickery of an individual. Micky recognizes that in professional baseball, a player gets by not only on natural skill, but knowledge of a fair amount of dirty tricks as well.
- …caubeen. An Irish hat.
- …Cork Cathedral. Mary’s Cathedral, Cork, Ireland, built in 1808. It is Micky’s point of reference for height and grandeur.
- …musha. An Irish exclamation of surprise.
- …Dirty Stockings and Linen Drawer Club. A play on words, perhaps, comparing the two professional baseball teams in Cincinnati in 1884, the year previous to this story. The Cincinnati Red Stockings were expelled from the National League after the 1880 season for selling alcohol at the ballpark and playing games on Sunday, two customs influenced by the German-American culture of the city. With other cities where the alcohol industry was important and there was a sizeable ethnic population – Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore, for example, Cincinnati helped form the rival American Association. In 1884, a third major league was born, the Union Association, and Cincinnati boasted both A.A. and U.A. teams. The team names in the story may refer to the established team (the Linen Drawers) and the upstarts (Dirty Stockings) vying for fan patronage. The Union Association dissolved after one year. The American Association continued until 1890; the Reds were accepted back in the National League in 1889.
- …Editors…workingman’s family. By 1885, the prevailing American value system has baseball – and sports in general – in place as the great equalizer. No matter what one’s station in life happened to be, everyone gathered to root for the home team. The author seems to grasp the “myth” of this concept, pointing out that the cost of attendance could take the bread off the family table. There was the notion, then as now, that attending a ballgame was often out of reach of the working class, thus making it an activity of the monied fans.
- …indisposed. A pejorative comment by the author on the Irish and their child-like appetites for uncontrolled gluttony.
- …Israel Aaron Sweinfleish Sohelupmegrashus. A play on the German-Jewish nature of team ownership in the 1880s, and on Cincinnati’s ethnic heritage. The nonsensical name sets up the ethnic dialect the author wishes to use. It also offers the stereotyped view of the Jewish entrepreneur – and baseball owners – as tight-fisted businessmen whose first thought was the amount of profit they could squeeze from a ballgame. In this story, the Dirty Stockings’ president is assessing the gate, knowing that to stay competitive in a two-team town, he has to maximize the attendance.
- …sell out on a muff game. As part of his caricature as the avaricious owner, Sohelupmegrashus even attempts to keep his investment in the game by getting labor – the other team – to throw the contest. Of course, he will not pay more than seventy-five cents and the players won’t do it for that measly amount. After all, ballplayers know their worth. Gambling was a fixture of the game from the time it was played just by amateurs; competition in any form breeds the human predilection for wagering or obtaining an edge. And, O’Toole’s Ghost” was not that distantly written from the first major gambling scandal in Organized Baseball, in Louisville in 1877.
- …a great base-ball player in embryo. The public perceives that owners of sports teams have a high opinion of themselves. They do more than run the business side; in their view, they also have a keen eye for athletic talent and knowledge of the game. Sohelupmegrashus is not that different from, say, George Steinbrenner, Charlie Finley, Jimmy Jones or many others who own sports franchises. Sohelupmegrashus is also referred to, tongue in cheek, as a “grand mogul,” a term 19th century owners rather liked. By cultivating such an image of themselves, they thought the public would view them in the same light as Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and other captains of industry.
- …Goggles. Perhaps a reference to Will White, albeit a pitcher rather than an outfielder, who played for Cincinnati’s American Association team in 1885. White was the only 19th century ballplayer to wear eyeglasses.
- …spalpeen. An Irish term for someone from the working class.
- …worra!. Take heed, be alert.
- …Fatty Pretzels. Another reference to Cincinnati’s German heritage.
The following works are helpful in putting “O’Toole’s Ghost” into context, in understanding baseball in the 19th century, baseball as a literary genre, and the role of the sport in American cultural history.
Bruce, H. Addington.
1913. “Baseball and the National Life.” In: Outlook, 104, pp. 104-107, May. Reprinted in: Major Problems in American Sport History, ed. by Steven A. Riess. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
1998. Sports in the Pulp Magazines. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.
1967. The Annotated Casey at the Bat. New York, NY: Bramhall House.
Ginsburg, Daniel E.
1995. The Fix is In: A History of Baseball Gambling and Game Fixing Scandals. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.
1989. Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Gryzymala, Kevin J.
1996. “Baseball and Ethnicity: A Case Study of German Americans in Buffalo, New York During the 19th” Presented at the 9th Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, June.
1997. “Urbanization and the Rise of Sport.” In: Major Problems in American Sport History, by Steven A. Riess. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.
Hetrick, J. Thomas.
1998. Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press.
1985. The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. New York, NY: Villard Books.
Kirsch, George B.
1997. “Baseball Spectators, 1855-1870.” In: Major Problems in American Sport History, by Steven Riess. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.
Lauricella, John A.
1998. Home Games: Essays on Baseball Fiction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.
1990. Baseball by the Books: A History and Complete Bibliography of Baseball Fiction. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown Co.
1999. Imagining Baseball: America’s Pastime and Popular Culture. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
1968. Boss Cox’s Cincinnati: Urban Politics in the Progressive Era. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
1997. Making the Team: The Cultural Work of Baseball Fiction. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
1885. “O’Toole’s Ghost: A Base Base-Ball Narrative.” In: Sam the Scaramouch, by C.V. Van Hamm, A.H. Mattox, and Peter G. Thomson. Cincinnati, OH: Sam Publishing Co., August 15, p. 387.
1994. The Beer and Whiskey League: The Illustrated History of the American Association-Baseball’s Renegade Major League. New York, NY: Lyons & Burford.
1997. The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball. New York, NY: Donald I Fine Books.
New York Sun.
1884. “Portrayal of a Typical Baseball Crowd,” June 16. Reprinted in: Major Problems in American Sport History, by Steven A. Riess. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
1982. Dreaming of Heroes: American Sports Fiction, 1868-1890. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall, Inc.
Rader, Benjamin G.
1991. Baseball: A History of America’s Game. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Riess, Steven A.
1997. “Sport and the Redefinition of American Middle-Class Masculinity, 1840-1900.” In: Major Problems in American Sport History, by Steven A. Riess. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.
1989. City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Ryczek, William J.
1998. When Johnny Came Sliding Home: The Post-Civil War Baseball Boom, 1865-1870. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.
1990. Baseball: The People’s Game. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Sullivan, Dean A., ed.
1995. Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825-1908. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
White, G. Edward.
1996. Creating the National Pastime: Baseball Transforms Itself, 1903-1953. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kevin Grace is the University Archivist and the Head of the Archives & Rare Books Library at the University of Cincinnati. He teaches in the University Honors Program, including a course on “The Irish in America.”