Roy Hobbs. Crash Davis. Ray Kinsella. Francis Phelan.
All are recent fictional baseball characters, although the last name may not ring as big a bell as
the first three--but it should. Francis Phelan, you see, is the protagonist of William Kennedy's
Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Ironweed. And while the movie version of the book stripped
much of the baseball from the tale--the fictitious Mr. Phelan's singular occupation was that of
For those not familiar with either the book or film, let us have the author himself provide us
with a recap. "In the book," explains Kennedy, "I used Francis' flight. He went away from
home every season to play ball. He went to Toronto. He went to Boston, he went to Chicago,
wherever he went time away from the family. The pattern continued running. He was also a
fugitive in his very young days because he throws a stone a kills a scab worker in a trolley
strike and becomes a fugitive. He has to leave town and so that pattern of flight continues.
continues being a baseball player. And so eventually he does leave home and out of great
shame and becomes a derelict in the society. The story of Ironweed of course is that he's
coming back after 22 years."
When Phelan does return he is torn between continuing his seamy life on the road and
returning to a family that has functioned for two decades without him. Once again baseball
enters the plot as Phelan interacts with a grandson he has never seen by finding his old glove
and teaching him the "inshoot."
And baseball and Francis Phelan intersect again in another Kennedy work, Very Old Bones,
Kennedy's most recent novel. "Francis," says Kennedy, "comes back during the warâ€”againâ€”
he leaves and comes back during the war. His son Billy goes into the service and he connects
with the Albany Senators coach because everybody all the able-bodied men, were in the Army
in those days and you even had Pete Gray, a man with one arm, playing baseball. An amazing
thing. Very young kids, who weren't old enough to be drafted and they were being paid as
professionals, playing pro ball and the old guys who were over the hill or had physical defects
that one way or another and they weren't in service and that's what the teams were during the
That baseball suffuses William Kennedy's works should come as no surprise to those who
know him. "It's a seminal influence in a lot of people's lives," he admits, "It's an introduction to
competition and to achievement and camaraderie and triumph and despair. You know, you run
the gamut of emotions in a ballgame." Long prior to his Pulitzer days, Kennedy supported
himself as a sportswriter. He grew up in the shadow of Albany, New York's long-gone and
long-lamented Hawkins Stadium, and the character of Francis Phelan, one-time major leaguer
and long-time bum, was based in part on William Kennedy's great-uncle, Edward "Coop"
Who was Edward McDonald? First off, unlike Francis Phelan, McDonald was no hobo, no
knight of the highway. "The difference was that Francis becomes a wino," Kennedy says
bluntly, "and Coop never drank and was a teetotaler right to his dying day."
And while the seedily tragic Francis Phelan abandons his family and even accidentally caused
the death of his infant son, Ed McDonald according to Kennedy, "was a wonderfully likeable
guy. He wound up back in Albany, coaching kids' game in the South End, Arbor Hill. A much
beloved figure. Great guy in the family too. I can remember he got for me a Christmastime
when I was a real little kid."
But enough of defining Edward McDonald by who he was not. Who was the real ballplayer
behind the fictional character? Edward was born in Albany on October 28, 1886 to James and
Catherine McElviney McDonald. The infielder first appeared in Albany in 1905, with his
hometown Albany Senators in the old rough-and-tumble New York State League and found
himself the following season with that circuit's Utica club. He dropped out of Organized Ball in
1907-08 but performed with Toronto in 1909 and 1910. In 1911 he played with the Buffalo
Bisons, before being sold to the Boston Braves where he batted .206 in 54 games.
He achieved regular status in 1912, performing in 121 contests and batting .259, respectable
enough but he struck out far to often for his era--91 times in 459 at bats. That may have
played a part in his demotion to Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League ("unceremoniously
and hurriedly shelved") before the close of the season.
McDonald refused to report to Sacramento even though he was offered the club's managerial
reins. The impasse was broken in November when McDonald's personal friend, Johnny Evers
traded infielder Tom Downey to Sacramento for him. "There was never really a chance that
McDonald would drop out of the big leagues, notwhitstanding his release by the Braves," noted
one sportswriter, "for both Manager Charles Dooin of the Phillies and Manager [Joe]
Birmingham of the Cleveland Naps had been negotiating with Sacramento for him, but
evidently couldn't make as attractive an offer as did Chicago."
Despite having Evers in his corner, McDonald played just one game for the Cubs--his final
major league contest. He was released to Birmingham in the Southern Association where he
stayed for a half dozen seasons.
He was not always welcome on Southern turf. "He was an Irishmen," recalls Kennedy, "and
the crackers and the rednecks would say: 'Kill the Irishman! Kill the Irishman!'"
"He played the game hard, but clean," noted Albany sportswriter Charles Young, "and he was
an exceptionally fine base runner. He was also a strong defensive player, alternating between
third and second bases the greater part of his career. He was strictly a third baseman when he
was a major leaguer."
Said Johnny Evers: "Eddie was a top grade man in baseball, but more than that, he was a
wonderful fellow personally. I'd say he had more friends among the big figures of baseball than
any other man."
Eddie McDonald--the real Ironweed.