This article was written by Jack Smiles
To use a 2011 expression to describe a 1911 happening: minor-league baseball rocked in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania a century ago and Wilkes-Barre Barons pitcher James John McCloskey was the city’s rock star. He won 20 games in 1911, following a 17-win season in 1910, and led the Barons to a third consecutive New York State League pennant.
McCloskey — a 6-foot, 180-pound right-hander — had been born on the frontier, in Laramie, Wyoming, on August 20, 1882. As the rugged, hard-drinking son of a Colorado coal-miner and with the well-earned nickname “The Wild Irishman”, he was a perfect fit for the Wilkes-Barre of 1911, with its anthracite coal culture, large Irish population, and 170 bars.
McCloskey was tagged with his nickname as a pitcher for the International League Baltimore Orioles for his actions off the field — spending most of his nights in the in the city’s red-light district — and on the field — getting into numerous fights with opponents and umpires. In Toronto in 1907, he had to be pulled off an umpire by two policemen. As the Baltimore American newspaper described the fight: “Mac’s Irish was up in a moment and the Baltimore slab artist went at the umpire like one possessed.” 1
Though Wilkes-Barre might have been seen as a demotion for a pitcher who had pitched 12 games for the major-league Phillies in 1906 and 1907 and won 15 for the Orioles in 1908, McCloskey embraced Wilkes-Barre and made it his home.
In 1911, Wilkes-Barre’s population was near 70,000. The Stegmaier Brewery turned out 150,000 barrels of beer, which was quaffed in large amounts in the city’s ubiquitous bars, many of which were likely McCloskey haunts.
Public drunkenness and rampant crime overwhelmed the city’s 70 fulltime cops, who had no authority over the 50 stores selling guns and knives. One such store on Public Square displayed revolvers, steel knuckles, black jacks, and stilettos in the front window. In May alone the police made over 150 arrests for serious crimes.
The streets of Wilkes-Barre were a cacophony of clopping horse hooves, sputtering automobile engines, and clattering trolleys battling for rights of way without the help of traffic signals, stops signs, or traffic laws. Deadly crashes on the streets were a matter of course, as were fires, and industrial and coal mine accidents.
But there was respite from all the chaos and mayhem. The Lehigh Valley Railroad ran Sunday excursions to New York for $2.50. The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader advertised a cruise to Bermuda from New York City on the Bermudian — a new ship equipped with electric fans and wireless telegraphy — starting at $20, two weeks’ pay for the average laborer lucky enough to have a full time job.
The Polis Theater brought in top vaudeville acts like Del Franco and his trained troupe of monkeys, dogs, and ponies; and Lolo, an American Indian woman who did blindfolded feats of mental telepathy, jugging, and sharpshooting.
Then, across the Susquehanna River on a verdant patch of green in the state-of-the art Diamond Park, folks could get away from it all and watch their Wild Irishman, James John McCloskey, lead the two-time champion Wilkes-Barre Barons to yet another pennant.
Diamond Park was only two years old in 1911 having opened in May of 1909, five days before the opulent new Luzerne County Courthouse, the glittering dome of which could be seen from the grandstand. The park was owned and built by the team officers — President James Monks, Secretary Ellis, and Treasurer George Stegmaier — and was considered the finest Class B park in the country. The 1909 attendance of 121,000 was considered a record for Class B Leagues, and it had fallen off only slightly by 1911.
McCloskey had been signed by the Phillies after the 1905 season when he won 18 and pitched 333 innings for Omaha in the class A Western League, the equivalent of AAA today.
His major-league career was brief, perhaps undermined by his hard drinking as he was often described after a poor outing as being “out of shape” or conversely as a top-flight pitcher “when right.”
In 1906, he was 3-2 in 41 innings for the Phillies with a 2.85 ERA. He pitched in nine games, beginning with his May 3 debut when he pitched 4 1/3 innings in relief (and singled in his one at-bat).
He’d been sent to Providence not long after a bizarre game in Philadelphia against the Pirates, in which there were several apparently “intentional misplays” and Phillies starter Pittinger was thrown out of the game for refusing to pitch, McCloskey came in and “pitched wildly” so umpire Bill Klem forfeited the game (and McCloskey doesn’t appear in the boxscore). 2
He was loaned out to the Eastern League’s Providence Grays during the season, and was 15-9 but then recalled on August 20 to finish the year with Philadelphia.3
While McCloskey’s hard partying might have soured the Phillies on him, his reputation didn’t bother the Eastern League owners. As the Baltimore American newspaper put it in a 1907 story, “Several clubs are hot after McCloskey who was considered the best pitcher in the Eastern League last season.”
In early June of 1907, Baltimore manager Jack Dunn went to Philadelphia determined to buy McCloskey for the Orioles. From the Baltimore American: “It was no easy task to land McCloskey for it was not until he made a very attractive offer did the manager of the Phillies consent to let Dunn have the twirler at a fancy figure.” The “fancy figure” was probably around $2500. 4
McCloskey won 14 and 15 games for the Orioles in ’07 and ’08. In July of ’09, Dunn and the Orioles loaned McCloskey to the Wilkes-Barre Barons with the right of recall on demand. In his first start for the Barons, McCloskey’s famous temper exploded and he got tossed from the game in the second inning. In his next two starts he threw shutouts allowing only five hits combined. He was 3-1 on August 2 when the Orioles, facing three consecutive double headers, recalled him. Barons manager Mal Kittridge lobbied hard to get him back, but McCloskey finished the season in Baltimore.
In 1910, McCloskey came back to the Barons, now under new manager Bill Clymer, with no strings and won 17 games including a no-hitter against Scranton as the Barons won a second straight pennant. He also won an exhibition game in Wilkes-Barre against the world champion Philadelphia A’s, who, albeit, used only three regular players.
In 1911, McCloskey won 20. His home starts regularly drew an extra 100 to 200 fans to Diamond Park, many of them women. While New York State League rules set player salaries at $150 per month there were ways to pad that and a popular player like McCloskey could also count on perks like reduced rent, free suits, overlooked bar tabs, and stabbed dinner checks.
After the Barons clinched the pennant in early September of 1911, manager Clymer gave McCloskey the last two weeks off with pay and the fans presented him with an inscribed gold-plated pocket watch.
McCloskey went back home to Cripple Creek, Colorado after the 1911 season, but right after New Year’s Day he came back to Wilkes-Barre after seven days riding trains.
Though McCloskey declared himself fit and predicted a fourth consecutive pennant for the Barons in 1912, the season turned out to be a disaster.
After a win on opening day on April 26, McCloskey got hammered in Binghamton on May 5. He didn’t pitch again until May 28. Claiming arm and finger injuries, he missed most of June. He made a “comeback” on July 5 where he showed his old form, but had a run-in with Clymer and was suspended for two weeks.
Clymer gave him 10 days “to get in shape” after the suspension, but when he reported in “poor condition,” likely hung over or drunk, he was suspended again and fined $100. When McCloskey heard Clymer wasn’t going to pay him for the 10 days, he went crazy. During a game in Diamond Park, he went across the field and sat in the Elmira dugout shouting curses at Clymer until the umpire had him removed.
Then he went to the clubhouse looking for the business manager and, “suffering from an overdose of liquor” according to a newspaper story, tried to break down the door.5 Clymer suspended McCloskey indefinitely and declared he would never wear the Wilkes-Barre uniform again.
But Clymer was gone in 1913, and new manager Bill Noonan gave McCloskey another shot. It was reported that McCloskey was working like a Trojan, was taking care of himself, and was in better shape than he had been in years. Nonetheless, he was released by the Barons on May 27 and signed by Binghamton. He lobbied for a chance to pitch against the Barons, but that didn’t happen and Binghamton released him on July 5.
In 1914, the Wild Irishman was tamed by a teenaged Wilkes-Barre girl. On April 15 he married 19-year-old Kathleen Donahue. He was 31. His bride was the daughter of Squire John Donohue, the city’s Third Ward justice. Renowned for his unique and colorful decisions, he once settled a dispute between two women over ownership of a female duck by having the women bring their male ducks to court to see which duck would go to the female.
McCloskey and his bride bought a house on North Empire Street in Wilkes-Barre. In 1916 they had a daughter. Though on his marriage application McCloskey listed his occupation as “ballplayer” he was done as a professional pitcher in 1914. He got a job with the railroad and pitched for the Boyle Brothers – a top amateur team – hurling a no-hitter with nine strikeouts against Newtown.
Laid off by the railroad, McCloskey got his miners’ certificate and got a job at the Baltimore Tunnel in Wilkes-Barre’s East End.
At 6:50 on the morning of June 5, 1919, McCloskey was in a trip of mine cars descending into the Baltimore Tunnel when one of the cars hit a dangling live wire setting off an explosion of seven kegs, about 300 pounds, of powder.
Ninety three men were killed — blown apart, burned, smothered by gas or drowned in a trench of sulfur water — in the second deadliest mine accident in anthracite history. James John McCloskey was among them.
In the newspaper the next morning, a miner named Kehoe described what he saw as he scrambled to escape.
“Kehoe struggled on when he encountered a man who held out his hand in appeal to him and found it to be McCloskey, the baseball player. He had been frightfully burned and his tongue was so swollen that he could not talk, although he made an effort to do so.
He said he took hold of him and attempted to carry him out but he could not. He said McCloskey was near death but had the strength to give him his brotherhood book and papers in it. At this point McCloskey became delirious and grabbed Kehoe by the throat and it was with considerable effort that he was able to pry the man’s fingers loose.”6
Like many of the men killed, McCloskey was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Hanover just over the Wilkes-Barre border. He was the last of the 93 victims buried, as it took a week for his family to travel from Colorado.
As though his death wasn’t tragic enough there was a gruesome footnote. Two weeks after the disaster, McCloskey’s gold-plated pocket watch, which he always carried with him, was found by police in a jewelry store where it had been pawned.
The watch had been a gift from his fans in 1911 and was inscribed: “James John McCloskey, pitcher for the Wilkes-Barre Barons, which won the pennant in the years 1910-1911.”
Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
Wilkes-Barre Sunday Independent
Luzerne County Marriage Application Records
Baseball-Reference.com minor league database
Luzerne County Historical Society files