This article was written by Charlie Bevis
For more than 70 years, pitcher Joe Cleary was the last native of Ireland to play in the major leagues. Appearing in just one game in 1945, Cleary had the misfortune to post a lifetime 189.00 earned run average, the highest on record for pitchers who retired at least one batter, when he yielded seven earned runs during one-third of an inning.
In his later years, Cleary was sanguine about his one-third of an inning pitched in the major leagues. “You know, in the neighborhood bars they kid me,” Cleary told author Brent Kelley. “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. [laughs] But I always say to them, ‘I was there.’”
Joseph Christopher Cleary was born on December 3, 1918, in Cork, Ireland, and came to the United States in 1928. His family settled on the West Side of New York City, where Cleary attended the High School of Commerce. One of the school’s most famous alumni was Lou Gehrig, who led Commerce to the New York City high school baseball championship in 1920. Commerce was renamed in 1965 as Louis D. Brandeis High School.
In Cleary’s senior year, in the spring of 1938, he led Commerce to a tie for the Manhattan-Bronx Public School Athletic League title. In the process he earned a headline in the New York Times: “Commerce Scores to Tie for Crown: Cleary Holds Seward to Pair of Hits for 12-1 Victory in Manhattan-Bronx Game.” The opening paragraph of the game story extolled Cleary’s exploits that day: “With its star twirler Joe Cleary, permitting only two hits and striking out ten, the High School of Commerce nine beat Seward Park, 12-1, at Washington Stadium yesterday, and went into a tie with Morris High for the Manhattan-Bronx P.S.A.L. title. Cleary also excelled at the plate, contributing a triple, double and single.” Commerce, however, lost the playoff for the title to Morris High, 2-1. “Joe Cleary’s wildness lost the game for Commerce,” the Times reported on June 8. “Although he allowed only one hit he walked seven batters. Four of these passes came in the fifth inning and forced in what turned out to be the winning tally.”
Cleary’s arm may have been tired in that playoff game, since at the time he was pitching not only for Commerce High but also under an assumed name for local semipro ballclubs. Cleary helped to support his family with the cash he got pitching for Bay Parkway and the Puerto Rican Stars in the Metropolitan Baseball Association. “It was during the Depression and my dad was out of work and a dollar was hard to come by,” Cleary told author Richard Tellis. “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!’”
After graduating from the High School of Commerce, Cleary says, he passed up college scholarships to play baseball in order to earn money playing semipro ball. He also got good exposure as a pitcher, as the Metropolitan Baseball Association clubs not only drew large crowds to their night games in the New York City area, they also played against Negro League teams and barnstorming teams like the House of David. In the summer of 1940, Cleary, pitching for a Danbury, Connecticut, semipro team, caught the attention of Joe Cambria, who signed him to a contract with the Springfield, Massachusetts, team in the Class A Eastern League. Cleary pitched in a few games for Springfield at the end of the 1940 season.
Cleary’s performance with Springfield was enough for the Washington Nationals of the American League to invite the 22-year-old pitcher to spring training in 1941. He was one of 39 players invited to train with the Nationals in Orlando, Florida, including 16 pitchers, as Washington manager Bucky Harris sought to improve upon the club’s next-to-last-place finish in the American League in 1940. “The lightest [candidate] is 160-pound Joe Cleary,” The Sporting News reported in January 1941, “who won none and lost one game for Springfield of the Eastern League in 1940.” Washington didn’t keep Cleary on the roster for the regular season, cutting him after an intrasquad game in March.
Washington left Cleary in Orlando to pitch for its farm club in the Florida State League during the 1941 season. After the United States entered World War II in late 1941, Cleary joined the Army and served a two-year stint, missing the 1942 baseball season. After his discharge from the Army, Cleary returned to the Washington organization and pitched the 1942 season for Buffalo and the next year for Chattanooga in the Class A Southern Association. Still with Chattanooga in 1945, Cleary, with a 10-5 record, was selected to play in the league’s all-star game, which was canceled due to wartime travel restrictions. Cleary left the team in a huff. “I was upset,” Cleary recalled, “because [Washington] told me if I did good, they’d call me up, but they didn’t.”
Short on pitching, Washington owner Clark Griffith contacted Cleary and asked him to join the Nationals. That July, the Nats were in second place and fighting for the American League pennant, but, because of rainouts, faced a string of doubleheaders. Washington played its fifth consecutive doubleheader on Saturday, August 4, at Griffith Stadium. After the Nationals won the opening game over the Boston Red Sox, Cleary got his major league opportunity in the second game.
In the fourth inning of the second game, with the score tied 2-2, starting pitcher Sandy Ullrich surrendered four runs to the Red Sox; the last batter Ullrich faced was Tom McBride, who hit a bases-loaded triple to make the score 6-2. Cleary relieved Ullrich and proceeded to face nine batters, but retired only one, striking out Boston pitcher Dave Ferriss. Cleary walked three batters and gave up five base hits, including a bases-loaded double to McBride, the last batter he faced. McBride tied a major league record with six RBIs in one inning. As described by Washington Post writer Shirley Povich, this is how the fourth inning progressed for Cleary: “Metkovich singled, Camilli walked. Fox singled, Newsome walked, Garbark singled, Ferriss fanned. Lake singled, LaForest walked. McBride doubled, Shepard relieved Cleary.” When Cleary left the game, Boston had scored 12 runs in the fourth inning, seven of which were charged to Cleary, to go ahead 14-2. Bert Shepard, who had an artificial leg, struck out Metkovich to end the inning and went on the pitch the remainder of the game, chalking up 5 1/3 innings in his only major league appearance.
The way Cleary was replaced in the game really irked him, and his reaction to it contributed to his never again pitching in the major leagues. “Someone threw me the ball and I’m standing on the mound rubbing it up,” Cleary recalled the incident to author Richard Tellis. “I look over at the dugout and I see [Washington manager Ossie] 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.” Only after Shepard reached the mound, though, to take his place. “Anyone can have a bad day, but imagine being replaced by a guy with one leg,” Cleary lamented to New York Times writer Richard Margolick in 1999. “I took 30-mile hikes in the Army that weren’t as long [as that walk to the dugout].” Cleary said Bluege then yelled an expletive at him after he sat down in the dugout. When Cleary swore back at Bluege, the Washington players had to separate the two from a fist fight. The next day Cleary’s contract was transferred to Buffalo of the International League, where Bucky Harris, the Nats’ skipper in 1941, was the manager.
Cleary attributed his ineffective pitching on August 4 to having warmed up several times in the opening game of the doubleheader, as well as early in the second game. “I already pitched the equivalent of nine or ten innings while warming up,” Cleary told author Tellis. Then there was bad luck. Cleary said his 3-2 pitch to Camilli could have been called strike three rather than ball four. And one hit, if not for a bad bounce, would have ended the inning. “He hit a beautiful double-play ball to second base, and I thought, ‘Hey, I’m out of this inning.’ But the ball takes a big hop right over the second baseman [Myatt] and goes into the outfield for a hit.” Cleary did conclude, “Well, I don’t have any excuses for what happened after that. I just got bombed.”
Because Buffalo was not a Washington farm club, Cleary was returned to the Washington organization for the 1946 season after the commissioner’s office ruled that his transfer to Buffalo for the remainder of the 1945 season had violated major league rules. Washington assigned Cleary to its Charlotte farm club in the Class B Tri-State League for the 1946 season and offered him a contract at half his 1945 salary. When Cleary balked, Washington released him to be a free agent. Cleary caught on with Jersey City of the International League. After his release from Jersey City, Cleary abandoned hopes of returning to the big leagues and focused on pitching in the minor leagues simply to earn a living.
His pitching skills, guts, and determination allowed Cleary to stay in professional baseball for several more years. “I had a great curveball,” Cleary remembered, “even though my hands were small. Even when my curve hung, they couldn’t hit it because it dropped so fast.” As for other pitches, he told author Kelley, “I had a great change of pace, but my pride would never let me throw it much. At times I was conveniently wild. You got a hit off me, look out. You went down the next time up. And I mean knockdown pitches; I don’t mean brushbacks. Now they throw a ball a little inside, they want to fight. In my time, you went down!”
In 1947, Cleary returned to the Class D Florida State League to pitch for Palatka and Gainesville. Over the next few years he also pitched for Anniston, Alabama, in the Class B Southeastern League and Augusta, Georgia, in the Class A South Atlantic League. Cleary retired from baseball after the 1950 season and returned to his home in New York City and his wife, Mary. “She was tired of me being away so much and was expecting our second child and she said, ‘That is it.’ So that was it, and I just packed it in.”
Cleary worked on Wall Street for a few years before he purchased a bar on the West Side of New York City, which he operated for more than 20 years. Cleary sold the bar and worked as a bartender before retiring at age 62 in 1982. In retirement in his neighborhood dominated by baseball-loving Dominican immigrants, “[Cleary] is a minor celebrity, who is still ribbed about his baseball career and his bloated earned run average. But he can handle it,” Margolick wrote. “‘The only answer I give them is, ‘Hey I was there. Only 14,000 guys have made it.’”
Cleary died on June 3, 2004, in Yonkers, New York, and is buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York. Nearly 14 years after his death, he was back in the news when P.J. Conlon of the New York Mets — born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1993 — made his major-league debut.
Bevis, Charlie. “Major League Short Stories,” Baseball Quarterly Reviews, Vol. 2 No. 4 (1987).
Eklof, Cormac. “Irish-born Players in Major League Baseball: In Memory of Joe Cleary,”
Hurwitz, Hy. “McBride Bats in 6 Runs in One Inning to Equal Record as Sox Split With Nats,” Boston Globe, August 5, 1945.
Kelley, Brent. The Pastime in Turbulence: Interviews with Baseball Players of the 1940s, McFarland, 2001.
Margolick, David. “New Season for Stars and One-Game Wonders,” New York Times, April 4, 1999.
New York Times. “Commerce Scores to Tie for Crown: Cleary Holds Seward to Pair of Hits for 12-1 Victory in Manhattan-Bronx Game,” June 3, 1938.
Povich, Shirley. “Nats Win 7th Straight, 4 to 0; Then Bow, 15-5,” Washington Post, August 5, 1945.
The Sporting News. “’41 Senators-Elect Average 25 Years,” January 23, 1941.
Tellis, Richard. Once Around the Bases: Bittersweet Memories of Only One Game in the Majors, Triumph Books, 1998.