Top of the mornin’ to everybody. It’s that time of year again. No, not March Madness. Green madness.
Aye, St. Patrick’s Day, ‘tis upon us. And it’s more than one of the country’s biggest drinking days. It’s also a time to honor and reflect upon those people of Irish decent who have made an impact in the United States.
At least for the sake of this slideshow we will.
So in honor of a McAwesome holiday—St. Patty’s Day—we will put our pints of Guinness down and pick up those shamrocks, and take a look at 17 of the greatest American professional athletes who also happen to sport Irish backgrounds.
The king of underhanded free-throw shooting, former Golden State Warriors small forward Rick Barry was one of the most prolific scorers in all of basketball in the 1970s. In fact, Barry is the only player to have led the NCAA, ABA and NBA in scoring—a remarkable feat when considering that the majority of his career was prior to the introduction of the three-point line.
At the time of his retirement, Barry ranked sixth in the NBA/ABA scoring list and first in free-throw percentage (.900). Over the course of his NBA career, he was the 1966 Rookie of the Year, an eight-time All-Star, a five-time All-NBA First Teamer and was the NBA Finals MVP in 1975, when his Golden State Warriors defeated the Washington Bullets.
He is a member of the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team and was inducted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1987.
Barry’s Irish background is not that detailed, but his family name suggests that he is of Irish descent. Nevertheless, his best St. Patrick’s Day performance came in his rookie season, when he scored 39 points against the St. Louis Hawks in the San Francisco Warriors’ 116-112 victory in 1966.
This inclusion could not be more perfect. A St. Patrick’s Day list. Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr. The New England Pats.
Raised in an Irish-American Catholic family, Tom Brady has become one of the most recognizable Irish-American athletes of his generation. He took over the reins as the Patriots quarterback in 2001, and has reigned supreme during the team’s dynasty ever since, engineering five Super Bowl appearances, including three titles.
Brady is a two-time NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, and he holds a myriad of league records, including most touchdown passes in a season, 50, back in New England’s dominant 2007 season.
When his career is all said and done, Brady will not only be considered one of the greatest Irish-American athletes ever, he could also be regarded as the most decorated quarterback in NFL history.
He deserves a pat on the back.
Perhaps coincidence, two of the greatest American men’s tennis players in the past 40 years, who created one of the most storied rivalries of their generation, were both Irish-American. Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were so successful, so competitive and so iconic that they could not be separated on this list.
Both acknowledge that their Irish descent contributed to their fiery personalities on and off the court, as well as their heated rivalry.
As Connors put it in an interview with Inside Tennis magazine last year: “It was natural with myself and Mac. I had to fight. He was trying to take my position away as the best. He was seven years younger. He was American and he’s Irish. I’m Irish. It was natural.”
There was so much that bound these two legends together, including the fact that they were both left-handed and both incredibly gifted and triumphant throughout their respective careers.
Meanwhile, Johnny Mac had his own Hall-of-Fame run on the ATP tour. Though potentially more famous in this generation for his ornery personality, McEnroe finished his career with seven Grand Slam singles titles—three at Wimbledon and four at the U.S. Open.
His contributions to the men’s game extend far beyond his wins on the court, however.
McEnroe is considered to be one of the main reasons for the rejuvenated interest in the Davis Cup, a tournament series that was not high on the radar of many high-profile players on the tour. McEnroe’s passion for playing for his country reached levels greater than his interest in playing for money and titles.
Make no mistake, Connors and McEnroe will eternally be tied to the hip when it comes to American tennis players. But they will also be bound by their Irish-American heritage.
One of the earliest superstar athletes in American history, Jack Dempsey was a true boxing legend during his career in the early twentieth century, and he is still one to this very day.
Of both Irish and Cherokee descent, Dempsey interestingly also grew up as a converted Mormon.
Dempsey began his professional boxing career back in 1914 in Utah. Even back then, fighters had professional nicknames; Dempsey fought under the stage names “Kid Blackie” and the “Manassa Mauler.” He earned the world heavyweight boxing title in 1919, knocking out Jess Willard. He held onto the title until 1926.
The heavy hitter finished his professional boxing record with 66 career victories (51 via knockout), including an impressive 32-bout unbeaten streak. He’s still considered to be one of the most devastating heavyweights of all time, and The Ring ranks him as the seventh-greatest puncher in boxing history.
St. Patrick’s Day note: Dempsey fought two different times on March 17th—once in 1916 (a knockout victory over George Christian) and again in 1917 (a decision draw versus Al Norton.)
The two-time Super Bowl winner was also the 1987 NFL MVP.
Long known for his lethal throwing arm, Elway was also a talented baseball player, and he was selected by the Kansas City Royals in the 1979 Major League Baseball draft.
But football panned out pretty well for him regardless.
He currently ranks fourth in career passing attempts, completions and yardage and fifth in passing touchdowns. His lengthy list of accolades earned him induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
Unfortunately, Elway’s collegiate career at Stanford (1979-82) preceded the school’s tradition of playing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, which began in 1988.
Edward Charles “Whitey” Ford was born to parents of Irish descent in 1928. I guess he didn’t have red hair.
Ford found fame as a baseball player on a New York Yankees team traditionally famous for its offensive prowess. His MLB career got off to a hot start, as he won his first nine decisions.
He finished his storied 16-year career (all with the Yankees) with 236 wins and a 2.75 ERA, accompanied by six World Series titles. Though the 1961 baseball season will forever be remembered for Roger Maris’ assault of the single-season home run record, Ford won both the Cy Young Award and World Series MVP that year.
He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974 and has his number 16 retired by the Yankees. Better yet, he still makes appearances at the Yankees’ annual Old-Timers’ Game.
One of the greatest golfers of all time was Ben Hogan. Widely considered to be one of the first pioneers of golf swing theory, Hogan’s influence on the game is still felt to this day. His swing is often regarded as one of the most accurate and powerful in this history of golf.
He finished his career with nine professional Major Championships (which ties him for third-most all time) and 64 tour victories (fourth). Incredibly, he finished in the top 10 in 241 of the 292 events he entered throughout his career.
By virtue of his mother’s half-Irish background, Derek Jeter makes this list by a hair—a quarter of a hair, actually.
Whatever lists of greatness he’s featured on is well-deserved, no matter what his background.
Jeter’s accomplishments are lengthy—the guy is a walking Hall of Famer. Nobody in baseball embodies the panache, reverence, esteem and success of being a New York Yankee as much as captain Jeter.
For 17 seasons, Jeter has displayed the class and quality that come with donning the most famous uniform in sports. His career résumé includes a .313 batting average, 3,088 hits and 240 home runs and five World Series titles and 12 All-Star Game appearances. He could retire right this second and garner entrance to baseball immortality.
Instead of living up to the greatest Yankees of all time—Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, Mantle—Jeter finds himself alongside them.
St. Patrick's Day fun fact: With the MLB season typically starting in April, St. Patrick's Day only falls on the spring training schedule. However, Jeter's lone relevant St. Patrick's Day appearance came on March 17th, 2009, during the World Baseball Classic. He went 1-for-4 in USA's 6-5 loss to Puerto Rico.
When it’s all said and done, Kidd will be regarded as one of basketball’s greatest pure point guards—from high school to college to the NBA and in international competition. The man can flat-out pass the ball like nobody’s business.
The role of a point guard is to facilitate and distribute the ball—a clear example of teamwork and being a team player. Throughout his illustrious 18-year NBA career, Kidd has done nearly everything possible that exemplifies those points: leading the league in assists and collecting an astounding number of triple-doubles (100-plus) for his size (6-foot-4).
The one thing that was missing was an NBA championship. Last season, however, Kidd completed his résumé, earning an NBA title with the Dallas Mavericks. What a remarkable career.
Kidd’s best St. Patrick’s Day performance came on March 17th, 1997 as a member of the Phoenix Suns, when he came off the bench and dropped 33 points on 12-of-16 shooting, including 8-of-9 from three-point land, to go with six assists, in a victory for his hometown team Golden State Warriors.
A tall, brawny redhead, Mark McGwire is a solid physical representation of an Irish-American. Big Mac looked good in green, too, starting his MLB career with the Oakland Athletics.
The right-handed hitting first baseman quickly demonstrated his ability to mash the baseball, clubbing an MLB rookie-record 49 home runs in 1987, on his way to being named the AL Rookie of the Year.
Though he obviously had tremendous natural ability to hit the long ball, McGwire unfortunately didn’t feel he had it in him to continue to do so during a long career, as he struggled mightily to stay uninjured. Upon being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1997, McGwire was in the midst of performance-enhancing drug use. This resulted in his destruction of the single-season home run record in 1998, when he pounded an unfathomable 70 round-trippers.
He instantly became America’s cult hero, and he was widely considered to be the savior of baseball.
Though he finished his career with 583 home runs, 12 All-Star Game appearances and a World Series ring, McGwire’s history with PEDs has prevented his election into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But it hasn’t kept him from this list of great Irish-American athletes.
An obvious Irish-American basketball player, Kevin McHale, played in a city, Boston, that is renowned for its Irish-American community, for an NBA team, the Celtics, that are named after a an ancient tribe of people who originated in a part of Europe that includes modern-day Ireland.
McHale’s career with the Celtics certainly lived up to that confluence of coincidence. Widely regarded as one of the most versatile and efficient big men in the 1980s, McHale helped guide his Celtics team to three NBA championships.
Individually, the power forward would go on to average 17.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in his 13-year career. His best year was 1986-87, when he scored over 26 points per game, while averaging nearly 10 rebounds.
His number 32 was retired by Boston in 1994. It is truly appropriate that he played every single game of his career in Celtics green and white.
Best St. Patrick’s Day performance: March 17th, 1987, against the Milwaukee Bucks. McHale scored 31 points on 12-of-18 shooting, to go with eight rebounds. Boston lost, unfortunately. The Celts were not lucky enough on that day.
Though Michael Phelps’ background is of multiple nationalities, his ancestry does include Irish roots. Every little bit counts for this list.
Phelps took that small bit of Irish luck to become the most successful swimmer in the world. At the ripe old age of 26, Phelps already owns a record 14 Olympic gold medals, including an unprecedented eight at the 2008 Games in Beijing—another record. For his accolades, he earned recognition as Sports Illustrated’s 2008 Sportsman of the Year.
Obviously a prolific winner, Phelps has also proven to be the fastest of all time, with seven total world records in various specialties. The amazing thing is that Phelps is so versatile, winning multiple gold medals and setting world records in the butterfly, freestyle and individual relay.
Though he has already established himself as one of the most prolific medalists in men’s competitive swimming, Phelps is not quite done yet. This summer, Phelps will continue his assault on the records books at the 2012 Summer Games in London.
Watch out, world.
Though you wouldn’t suspect as much, considering his good old-fashion, Texas country-boy demeanor and upbringing, Nolan Ryan is of Irish-American heritage. Otherwise, his induction into the Irish-American Baseball Hall of Fame would be a farce.
The legendary fire-baller enjoyed an lengthy career spanning 27 seasons. Famous for his fastball and his longevity, Ryan churned out one of the most unique pitching careers in all of baseball. He tossed a record seven no-hitters, the last of which came as a 44-year old, as a member of the Texas Rangers. He retired as Major League Baseball’s all-time strikeouts king, with an untouchable 5,714.
Ryan is the only baseball player to have his number retired by three teams that he played for—the Los Angeles Angels, Houston Astros and Texas Rangers. Obviously, he dominated wherever he went.
Ryan was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999. He was inducted into the Irish-American Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011.
How can an all-time Irish-American athletes list not include a shamrock? That’s where Ken Shamrock (born Kenneth Kilpatrick) comes in.
Shamrock is a renowned mixed martial artist—of Irish descent—who enjoyed tremendous success in the Pride Fighting Championships and the early years of the Ultimate Fighting Championships. In fact, he was part of the first true UFC rivalry, as he and Royce Gracie duked it out in UFC 1 and UFC 5.
Shamrock was the first-ever UFC Superfight Champion back in 1995, and he was highly regarded as one of the best mixed martial artists at the time. He went on to have an illustrious fighting career, finishing with 28 professional wins, including a UFC Heavyweight Championship.
Shamrock was elected as one of the two charter members of the UFC Hall of Fame, in 2003. He is still regarded as one of the top mixed martial artists of all time.
Most Irish do not tan very well, but Kelly Slater is an exception. Born to an Irish mother, Kelly Slater makes this list as the top-rated surfer in the world.
For over 20 years, Slater has ridden his way to the top of the sport of surfing. He has been named the Association of Surfing Professionals World Champion 11 times, including last year, at the age of 39. The surfer dude has 48 tour victories throughout his career, 15 more than the next closest mark.
All his does is win.
This has propelled him to world acclaim, millions of dollars in endorsements and status as an ambassador of both surfing and ocean environmentalism.
Not bad for an Irishman who calls Florida and Hawaii his homes.
Like Ben Hogan, Sam Snead was also an American golfer with Irish heritage who dominated the first half of the 20th century.
Slammin’ Sammy began his professional career in 1934, and he found success quickly. He won five events in 1937 and went on to win seven major titles throughout his career. He won three Masters and three PGA titles and one British Open Championship.
In 1950, at age 38, Snead won 11 tournaments in one calendar year—a record that stands to this day. He also finished his career as the all-time leader in tour victories with 82—another unbroken record.
He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.
Stockton’s NBA career is a picturesque example of how to dominate a game without being noticed. The ultimate pure point guard, Stockton is famous for his distribution of the basketball.
He led the NBA in assists nine straight seasons, and he finished his career as the all-time leader in that category with 15,806. He also holds the career mark for steals in a career.
Quite the quiet leader, Stockton was named an All-Star 10 times and was selected to the All-NBA team eight times. He was a member of the original Dream Team that won the gold medal in the 1992 Summer Olympics.
Stockton played all 19 of his seasons in the NBA with the Utah Jazz, who retired his number 12 in 2004. He’s also a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
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