February 7, 2013
BY PETER F. STEVENS
“What’s Broken Can Be Fixed,” the full-page Red Sox ad blares. To launch that Fenway fix, the team’s brass has turned to an old friend with a Hibernian surname. Tito’s erstwhile pitching coach, John Farrell, pried loose from his managerial stint in Toronto, is hardly the first Sox manager with Irish roots.
Among the many with ancestry from the old sod, Jimmy Collins guided the club (then the Boston Americans) to its first World Series victory in 1903; Bill Carrigan led Sox squads to Fall Classic titles in 1915-16; and Hall of Famer Joe Cronin took his turn in the dugout, too. None, however, literally hailed from the Emerald Isle except one – Patrick Joseph “Patsy” Donovan.
Donovan only managed the Sox for two seasons, 1910-11, after a splendid playing career that still has many baseball buffs pushing him to the Veteran’s Committee as a “Deadball Era” star worthy of enshrinement in Cooperstown. He compiled a mediocre 159-147 record at the team’s helm and an overall .438 winning percentage including managerial stops in St. Louis, Washington, and Brooklyn, hardly Hall of Fame stuff. As a scout, though, he had few peers, with one sportswriter lauding him as an “excellent judge of the ball player in the raw.” It’s hard to argue that compliment – because of Patsy Donovan, Babe Ruth and future Hall of Fame pitcher Ernie Shore ended up playing on the Fenway diamond.
Born in Queenstown, County Cork, on March 16, 1865, Patsy was the second of Jeremiah and Nora Donovan’s seven children. He was three when his family emigrated to Lawrence, Massachusetts. As with many of the Irish children there, to help his family survive, he went to work right from elementary school to the hardscrabble city’s cotton mills. Young Patsy, however, had one chance to escape a life of endless hours and scanty wages in the mills. On the baseball field, he was a fleet-footed outfielder, base-stealer, and hitter who first grabbed scouts’ attention in 1886 when he starred with the Lawrence club in the professional New England League. Standing 5’11” and weighing 175 pounds in his prime, lefthanded at the plate and in the field, Donovan was not a slugger even by Deadball Era standards, but his abilities as a slap-hitter proved prodigious. So, too, did his strong, accurate arm and his base-swiping, 518 by his career’s end.
To the delight of his family and friends in Lawrence, his big-league debut came in 1890 with the National League’s Boston Beaneaters. His first stint in the Hub ended quickly when he was moved halfway through the season to the powerhouse Brooklyn Bridegrooms, who went on to win it all, the only time he ever played for a championship team.
After stints with the Louisville Colonels and the Washington Statesmen (they became the Senators when he was there), he landed with the Pittsburgh Pirates, batting .300 or better for the next six years and doing double duty as the team’s player-manager in 1897 and 1899, earning the label “most successful Irish-born major leaguer” by the turn of the 20th century.
Shipped to St. Louis, he led the league with 45 stolen bases in the 1900 season and served as player-manager from 1901-03. The baseball writer David Jones notes: “In a decade that was infamous for rough play and rowdyism, Donovan was most admired for his quiet dignity and work ethic.”
Leading the Cardinals to a surprising 76-64 record in 1901, hopes were high for the next year as Donovan won high marks for “treating his players honestly and fairly.” Then, all of the team’s best players – except Donovan – jumped to the new American League, signing with the cross-town Browns. Gutted by the defections, the Cardinals fell apart. In 1903, the team finished 43-94, 46 ½ games out of first place; and Donovan was jettisoned by the front office. Since he was pulling down an $8,800 salary that made him the game’s highest-paid player, the bosses found it an easy decision to make.
Donovan’s career was winding down; his last full season on the diamond was in 1904 as player-manager with the Senators. Over seventeen major-league seasons, Donovan racked up 2,246 hits, 1,318 runs, and 736 RBI in 1821 games, with 207 doubles and 75 triples. He hit but 16 homers, but stole 518 bases and had a career batting average of .313. He was also one of the best right fielders of his day, gunning down 30 baserunners in 1902.
After disastrous managing stops in Washington and Brooklyn with subpar players, Patsy, always hardnosed and competitive, yearned for “the opportunity of handling a club where I would have free rein and financial backing to secure talent.”
He would get his chance with the Red Sox. After taking a job as a Boston scout in 1909, he was hired to manage the team in 1910 and 1911 and success was minimal with that 159-147 record. Although he was replaced by Jake Stahl in 1911, the front office respected Donovan both as a man and as a judge of talent and asked him to stay on as a scout. He agreed, having come to consider Boston his hometown. In 1910, he had married another Lawrence native, Teresa Mahoney, with whom he had three sons and a daughter. His decision was one that would help bring Babe Ruth to the Sox.
In 1914, Donovan the scout was dazzled by the pitching and batting talents of Ruth, who was playing for the minor-league Baltimore Orioles. Drawing on his friendship with a Xaverian Brother who had coached Ruth at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, Patsy persuaded Ruth that Boston would be a good fit for him, and then in turn persuaded Sox owner Joseph Lannin to sign Ruth “at any price.” David Jones writes: “Donovan never claimed to have discovered Ruth—the young lefthander was too talented for his exploits to go unnoticed.” Donovan, however, was the man who brought the Babe to Boston.
In a baseball career that spanned 64 years, Donovan went on to manage several minor league teams and coached at Andover’s Phillips Academy, where he honed the talents of a slick-fielding first baseman named George Herbert Walker Bush. Donovan died on Christmas Day 1953 at the age of 88 (90, according to various sources claiming that he fudged his age as he started his playing career) in Lawrence and was buried there in St. Mary’s Cemetery.
Former President Bush supported a push to try to get his old coach into the Hall of Fame in 2001, writing of his admiration for “Patrick J. Donovan…a man of the highest character.”
Donovan still hasn’t made it into Cooperstown, even though he was one of the game’s best players at the turn of the century. He would likely have enjoyed the fact that in the Irish Baseball League, the highest prize is “The Patsy Donovan Batting Champion Award.”