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A tribe called west: The forgotten Galway brothers who once ruled baseball

The O’Neill brothers from Maam in Connemara went all the way to the Major Leagues.

Steve O'Neill was the most successful of Galway's O'Neill brothers.
Steve O'Neill was the most successful of Galway's O'Neill brothers.
Image: Wiki Commons

RECENTLY, ‘THE IRISH Hammer’, Daniel Murphy, failed to help the New York Mets win baseball’s 2015 World Series.

Murphy, as the name and nickname suggest, has Irish roots but they go back so far that it’s more Patty’s Day than Paddy’s.

There are, however, many strong Irish links with Major League Baseball and one, almost forgotten, vein will be mined in a new TG4 documentary called ‘Cogar’ which airs tonight at 9.30pm.

Directed by Aenghus Geoghegan, it tells the story of the O’Neill brothers from Maam in north Connemara who escaped life in the coal mines to find fame and fortune — and no small success — on the baseball mounds of America.

“I was researching interesting Irish sportspeople abroad,” Geoghegan told The42 recently.

“That led me to baseball players and there are a number of them born in Ireland and I came across the O’Neills — initially I thought there were only two brothers — and I was fascinated.

“I found out there were four brothers who ended up playing in the Major Leagues which is incredible really when you think about it.”

Stephen_Francis_O'Neill Steve during his Cleveland Indians days. Source: Wiki Commons

The O’Neill story begins in the latter part of the 19th century when economic necessity forced a young man from the west to Ireland to set sail for a better life in the coal pits of Pennsylvania.

“The father emigrated in 1879 and he’d earned enough money three or four years later to come back to Ireland and bring the rest of the family over. 

“The sons worked in the coalmines, you would have had kids as young as six years of age working down the mines and the O’Neills were no exception.”

While the work was tough, the O’Neill family could not have picked a better location to call home if they hoped to raise a family of ball players.

“Per capita, more baseball players come out of the Pennsylvania region than any other place in the US. I don’t know what it is but they’re baseball mad,” says Geoghegan.

Four sons — Mike, Jack, Steve and Jim — would find success at the game’s highest level but one really made his mark on the game.

“Steve played for the Cleveland Indians from about the age of 19. He was picked up in Pennsylvania first by a guy called Connie Mack who would be considered the godfather of baseball in the States.

“He was another one with Irish connections. His real name was Cornelius McGillicuddy and he was born in Massachusetts to Irish immigrants.

“Mack was manager of the Philadelphia Athletics when he spotted Steve who went on to start his Major League career with the Indians. He played with them for over 15 years and won the World Series in 1920.

“He was a catcher — the guy who stands behind the home plate — but he was pretty handy with the bat too and hit .333 during the seven-game World Series which is pretty phenomenal for a catcher and he was named MVP in two of the World Series games that year.”

Indeed, to put that in perspective, only Salvador Perez (.364) had a better batting average for this year’s World Series winning team, the Kanas City Royals, over the course of five games.

PA-8626683 Steve O'Neill played alongside Babe Ruth (centre) and Lou Gehrig (right) and went hunting with the former. Source: AP/Press Association Images

After he finished with the Indians, O’Neill moved to the Boston Red Sox for a season before he ended up with the Yankees and their roster of superstars.

“When he arrived in New York they already had Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the beginnings of the famous ‘Murderer’s Row.’ He got very friendly with Ruth and ‘the Bambino’ would often visit him and his family in Pennsylvania in the offseason.

“They’d go on hunting trips and stuff like that and there are photographs of Ruth and O’Neill on horseback which we show in the documentary.

“After he finished with the Yankees, he played for a bit with the Browns before a car accident put paid to his career in the Major Leagues as a player at least.”

O’Neill soon discovered a penchant for management in the minor leagues and was eventually asked to manage in the Majors where he won a World Series with the Detroit Tigers — at the expense of the Chicago Cubs — in 1945.

Interestingly, despite managing for nearly 20 years in the Major Leagues, O’Neill never had a losing season says Geoghegan, which is a testament to his nous as a manager.

That’s not to say the other brothers did not have their part to play in the rich pageant that is baseball history.

Mike played for six years in the Majors with the St. Louis Cardinals (1901–04) and Cincinnati Reds (1907), becoming the first National League pitcher to hit a Grand Slam — a home run when all three bases have runners on them — in the 20th century.

Jack’s career only lasted five years but he played alongside Mike as a catcher with the Cardinals and the legend, Geoghegan says, is that the pair used to give their signals ‘as Gaeilge’ to keep opposing batsmen guessing.

Source: Wiki Commons

Jim, the youngest to appear in the Majors, played as shortstop for the Washington Senators for part of two seasons in 1920 and 1923, as well as enjoying relative success in the minor leagues.

‘Cogar’ also tells the story of the eldest O’Neill brother, Pat, who never made it to the Major Leagues but still made a mark on America’s national pastime as he is believed to have started the first ever baseball development school in the US — the Minooka Blues — turning young coalminers into ball players.

“The family would have been pretty well off because of baseball, certainly better off than if they’d stayed down the mines,” says Geoghegan.

“The four brothers got together in the 20s and bought their mother a new house which still stands and we got to visit when we were making the documentary and I suppose that’s a sign of how successful they all were.

“Michael went out to California and struck oil so he was especially wealthy even if it wasn’t necessarily related to baseball.

“Aside from the money though, they were treated like kings when they went back to Pennsylvania, everyone loved them but especially Steve, but they’ve basically been forgotten in this part of the world.

“Hopefully this documentary changes that.”

‘Cogar’, made by Snag Breac Films, airs tonight — Sunday — on TG4 at 9.30pm.

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Steve O'Rourke

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