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 ballplayer.
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 war."
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" McDonald.
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.