Joe Cleary: Opening-day Rams starter, 189.00 ERA in the Major Leagues

Joe Cleary in a 1944 clipping from the Chattanooga Daily-Times.

Joe Cleary, a diminutive Irishman by birth whose hair looked aflame and whose right arm spun a mean curveball, went by the nickname “Fire” in his playing days. The moniker was cool; its origin was a bit unexpected.

“A kid at the local candy store started calling me ‘Fire’ ’cause I was always ready to fight. He would yell, ‘Here comes Fire,’ every time I came down to the candy store,” he told Richard Tellis, author of “Once Around the Bases: Bittersweet Memories of Only One Game in the Majors” (1988).

Fire’s immortal fame — quirky is perhaps a more apt description — has nothing to do with the months he pitched for the Anniston Rams in their final season of 1950.

Five years prior, at the tail-end of Major League Baseball’s talent-depleted war years, Cleary pitched once in relief for the Washington Nationals — seven earned runs allowed in one-third of an inning against Boston, good for a 189.00 lifetime ERA — and never again appeared in a big-league game. One and done, with an infamous argument with the Nationals’ manager who pulled him from the game, to boot. Until the early 1990s Cleary was the last Ireland-born player to make the Major Leagues for more than 70 years. And all of that, evidenced by Tellis’ book, is another story altogether. Quirky, yes, but fame nonetheless.

A 1999 clipping from The New York Times.

By the time he arrived in Anniston in the spring of 1950, Cleary had played for 12 minor-league teams over nine minor-league seasons and was nearing his 32nd birthday. His astoundingly brief foray into the American League was deep in the past. The Rams, cash-strapped and hobbling, needed players. Cleary was six years older than the average player in the Class B Southeastern League. But he still had his curveball. So off to Anniston he went.

Joe Cleary with the Chattanooga Lookouts.

Born in 1918 in Cork, Ireland, Cleary’s family immigrated to the United States when he was a child. His father, a carpenter named John Cleary, came first in 1926 aboard the steamship Baltic. Two years later his mother, Nora Cleary, sailed the Atlantic aboard the Adriatic and brought 9-year-old Joe and the family’s other children with her. They settled with the scores of other European immigrants in New York’s Upper West Side.

As Tellis tells it, Cleary’s passion for baseball consumed him. He became a star high school athlete in Manhattan and played semi-pro ball as a teenager, the earnings going to his family during the Great Depression. His first professional season in 1939 took him to Batavia of the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League. He did a winter-ball stint in Puerto Rico, where he was a teammate of Satchel Paige, and spent another year in a semi-pro league.

Intrigued by Cleary’s curve, a Nationals scout arranged for him to sign with Springfield, a Class A team in the Eastern League; the following spring he trained with the Nationals and was optioned to Orlando of the Class D Florida State League, where he won 19 games and posted a sparkling ERA of 2.16. He wasn’t as sharp in 1942, going 10-13 with Class B Charlotte of the Piedmont League.

World War II pushed baseball aside and took Cleary to North Africa, making him a U.S. Army combat veteran in his early twenties when he returned before the 1944 season. And except for that momentary trip to the Major Leagues in August 1945 Cleary spent the next six seasons roaming America and suiting up for farm teams in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, New York, New Jersey and, at the end of his career, Alabama.

Joe Cleary’s World War II draft registration card. (Ancestry.com)

(There’s an odd reference in the Chattanooga Daily Times in 1945 to Cleary being a “war neurosis case” after he left the Lookouts in midseason, given that the year before the newspaper repeatedly referred to Cleary as having received an honorable discharge. In April 1944 when Cleary returned to baseball after the war with the Lookouts, the United Press highlighted his military service. “A veteran of the Tunisian campaign who recently was discharged from the Army stood out yesterday as the brightest star of the Southern Association opening games which were reeled off Friday night before 35,755 wartime fans. Joseph C. Cleary, 23-year-old Chattanooga right-hander who served 10 months in the armed forces, five of them in North Africa, turned back the champion Nashville Vols with an easy seven-hit performance.” A Chattanooga Daily News writer in February 1943 — just as Cleary was entering the Army — described the pitcher as “a little guy, cocky, pretty fast” who “is a little on the temperamental side, and probably too small to get out of the minors.” )

Six years later in Anniston, there were no concerns about the Army veteran. None stated publicly, at least. “Joe Cleary, a veteran right-hander who threw for Chattanooga in ’44 and ’45, has shown a wealth of ability in warm-ups at Bynum (where the Rams train),” The Anniston Star newspaper wrote in April 1950.

Come opening day Cleary was manager Charlie Letchas’ choice to kick off the season at Gadsden. The Rams lost, 3-2, but Cleary did everything he could, giving up only seven hits and two walks in eight innings. All three Gadsden runs were unearned. Cleary even had both Rams RBI.

The Star’s sports editor, Harry Sherman, described it as a “brilliant mound performance.”

But the trend was set. The one-time Washington National was one of the Rams’ best pitchers in 1950, but seldom did he win because Anniston’s offense didn’t roar. It stumbled, tripped and fell. The Rams’ clumsy defense didn’t help, either. Throughout May, June and July Cleary pitched decently — sometimes superbly — but lost because of porous defense or tepid run support. Or both.

A 1950 clipping from The Anniston Star.

Case in point: On May 30 at Meridian, Cleary threw a four-hitter and gave up only one earned run but lost, 2-1. Anniston’s stagnant offense didn’t score until the ninth. The Star’s Sherman was effusive. “Except for one bad pitch last night, Joe would have had one of the best games of the season to his credit,” Sherman wrote. “Actually, it was one of the top games as far as Ram pitching is concerned and very few Southeastern League chunkers have equaled it this year.”

Try as they did, the ’50 Rams defined abysmal baseball, an ailment that effectively killed the team and sent Cleary into retirement. That season’s Rams were so bad — they finished 21-73 — that they cycled through three managers and drew so few fans to Johnston Field that by mid-July team owners surrendered their charter back to the Southeastern League. The SEL operated the Rams as an “orphan” team for a few weeks, making them play nearly all of their games on the road.

A 1950 clipping from The Anniston Star.

Cleary didn’t stick around.

On July 20 he bolted the team — and Anniston — without permission; he went back home to New York. SEL President Stuart X. Stephenson put Cleary on baseball’s ineligible list. Before the month ended the SEL folded the team. The Rams, born in 1938, league champions in 1946, were no more. Gadsden acquired Cleary’s contract a few days later, but he never played for the Pilots, who followed the Rams’ fiscal lead and folded for want of money on Aug. 1.

In his final season as a professional pitcher Cleary went 4-10 in Anniston with a 5.42 ERA. Nineteen of the 87 runs he allowed were unearned. But he did win more than 70 games in 10 minor-league seasons.

Back in New York, Cleary clerked briefly on Wall Street and then bought a West Side bar. In 1999 he told The New York Times that he had not attended a baseball game since 1954, a lingering side effect of his disastrous one-day MLB career. The Times wrote that “he is a minor celebrity, who is still ribbed about his baseball career and his bloated earned run average. But he can handle it. ‘The only answer I give them is, ‘Hey, I was there,’ he said. ‘Only 14,000 guys have made it.””

Cleary ran his bar (and another one he also bought) for 20 years before retiring in 1982. He told Tellis, the author, that “I spent 10 years in the bushes, and there were many wonderful experiences I had playing minor-league baseball and of course, many happy events.”

Cleary was 85 when he died in 2004. He’s buried in Hawthorne, New York.

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