Such pervasive influence : the Irish influence on boxing and baseball in America.


Patrick Ketch

Date of Award


Document Type



Caspersen School of Graduate Studies

Degree Name

Doctor of Letters


This study of the Irish influence on boxing and baseball in America, from the mid to late 1800s through the early 1900s, will examine the profound influence of three leading Irish American sports figures. Two of those athletes, John L. Sullivan and James "Gentleman" Corbett, helped redefine the world of pugilism, or prize fighting. In addition, Irishman Mike "King" Kelly became baseball's first celebrity, helping to rewrite its antiquated rules with his unique style. All three athletes played a pivotal role in American sporting history, not only through their intrepidness in sports, but also through their promotion of the acceptance of Irish Americans by Protestant Americans. Also, they helped Irish Americans assimilate into their new culture while still facing hardships and religious persecution. This exposition will begin with the Great Irish Famine. It will then proceed to reveal the roles of the Famine and intolerable British politics, which forced the Irish into exile from their homeland, and propelled them to American shores. The following chapters will detail each sporting figure, and the role he played in defining his respective sport in American history. The first Irish American athlete considered will be pugilist John L. Sullivan. This study will discuss his life, fights, and how he brought the sport of boxing from rat-infested gutters to the mainstream, sell-out venues, making the sport socially acceptable in America. The next Irish American to be reviewed will be pugilist James "Gentleman" Corbett. A further exploration will focus on his role in boxing, and how he revolutionized the sport with his training methods and scientific approach to fighting. He is still considered by many to be the grandfather of modern-day boxing. The last Irish American athlete to be scrutinized will be baseball star Mike "King" Kelly. This chapter will examine his life and exceptional play on the diamond. Kelly, as a result, was the first player to be traded and became America's first baseball luminary. The discourse will conclude with how each athlete, though once obscure, played a significant role in shaping America's athletic culture, in addition to helping Irish Americans blend in after their audacious transition from Ireland into the American culture, in general. Certainly, it will focus on how the Great Irish Famine led to their mass immigration, which eventually laid the foundation for the developmental explosion of American athletics, and the impact they continue to have on America's historical panorama. Noted Irish writer George Bernard Shaw perhaps summed up the Irish plight best when he stated, "Just do what must be done. This may not be happiness, but it is greatness." No doubt, the contributions of Irish Americans in this country, and especially those of Sullivan, Corbett and Kelly, prove Shaw correct.