Joe Cleary: Cork man had the fire to make it to Major League Baseball

After leaving Leeside, he made one appearance on the big stage for Washington
Joe Cleary: Cork man had the fire to make it to Major League Baseball

Action from Yankee Stadium in New York City, 2015. Picture: Al Bello/Getty Images

IN the fourth inning of the second game of a double-header against the Boston Red Sox, the Washington Senators’ coach Ossie Bluege sent in Joe Cleary as a relief pitcher. 

At 25 years old, just over a decade after he and his family had emigrated from Cork to New York, Cleary was making his debut in the major leagues, carrying the nickname of 'Fire' because he threw so fast. 

Following a stellar career in high school and semi-pro baseball, here was his chance to finally show what he could do at the highest level. 

By the time he walked off the field nine batters later however, he’d earned an unlikely spot in sporting folklore.

At the end of any career in professional sport, most people are lucky if they get a footnote in history. Cleary gets three. 

Not all of them are accolades he might have wanted yet each ensures he will never be forgotten. 

With his cameo that day at Griffith Stadium, he became the last Irish-born player to tog out in the major leagues. 

His disastrous performance also earned him the highest Earned Run Average of any pitcher whoever made an out (not a good thing). 

And he was replaced in his one and only appearance on the biggest stage by a one-legged man leaning heavily on a prosthetic.

He managed all of this because, suddenly, when he needed it most, Cleary had forgotten how to pitch the baseball. 

The skill that brought him there deserted him. He walked three batters and gave up five base hits, allowing the Red Sox to run up seven runs while he was on the mound. 

Bluege was so disgusted by the display that he broke all usual protocol and called Cleary ashore early merely by signaling from the bench. 

In baseball, the coach is expected to walk onto the field, offer some consoling words to his player and then take the ball from him after patting him on the back.

“Someone threw me the ball and I'm standing on the mound rubbing it up," said Cleary, years later. 

"I look over at the dugout and I see Bluege waving at me. He's got one leg on the step of the dugout and he's waving at me to come out. 

"I thought, he's got to be kidding. What the hell can he be thinking? 

"No manager takes his pitcher out that way. You go to the mound. You don't embarrass him. 

"So I stood there rubbing the ball and waiting. [First baseman] Joe Kuhel came over and he said he never saw anything like that and he'd been around a long time. 

"He called it bush league. I told Kuhel, 'I'm not leaving.' Finally, the umpire came over and said, 'Son, I think you better go,' so I left."

Baseball star Joe Cleary
Baseball star Joe Cleary

With one-legged Bert Shepherd taking his place and doing much better than him too, Cleary left in a temper, going after Bluege in the dug-out where team-mates had to step in to prevent them from hitting each other. 

The next morning, he was unceremoniously dropped from the majors back to the minors. 

He continued to make a living from the game at the lower level but never made it back to the show again. 

Eventually, he took a job on Wall Street before buying a bar on the West Side of New York city where customers continually ribbed him about his brief stint in the majors.

“You know, in the neighborhood bars they kid me," Cleary told author Brent Kelley in “The Pastime is Turbulence”. 

"I take an awful needlin' about that, that one appearance. The main thing I get kidded about is the earned run average; it's the highest in major league history, you know. 

"But I always say to them, 'I was there.'"

That he’d made it there at all was kind of remarkable. 

Before sailing to New York, he had played only hurling, Gaelic football and soccer. 

When an aunt gifted him baseball equipment and an uncle began taking him to watch the New York Yankees of Babe Ruth however, his imagination was fired. Pretty soon, he became known around the city for his pitching prowess. 

As a teenage wunderkind, he was so good he helped his family through tough financial times by pitching in the semi-pro leagues even while he was at high school, circumventing the rules by playing under different names.

 “It was during the Depression and my dad was out of work and a dollar was hard to come by," said Cleary. 

"When I played for the Puerto Rican Stars, I had to play under the name of Jose Hernandez 'cause I was also pitching for Commerce High. 

"One night at Roosevelt Stadium in New Jersey, I was warming up on the sidelines to pitch against the Union City Reds, and the public address announcer says, 'And pitching for the Puerto Rican Stars, number such-and-such, Jose Hernandez.' 

Now the Union City manager was standing right next to me on the field. 

And here I am, red-haired, blue-eyed, you know Irish all over, and he looks at me in disbelief and says, 'Jose Hernandez!'"

Joe/Jose Cleary died in June, 2004 in Yonkers, New York. 

The last Irishman to play in the majors. The last Corkman.

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