115-year-old photo illustrates family’s link to baseball

My grandfather is in this family photo from more than a century ago. He's in the middle row, far left. I can identify him because he bears a striking resemblance to my late uncle. He played on this baseball team in Syracuse, NY.

My grandfather Joe Dempsey is in the middle row, far left, of this 1900 photo of the St. Cecilia’s baseball team that won the Syracuse city championship that year.

Many of the family photos I inherited after my parents died remain a mystery.

But there’s one that explains my family’s apparent genetic addiction to sports in general, baseball in particular.

For years I’ve been in possession of a photograph of the 1900 St. Cecilia’s baseball team that won the City of Syracuse championship. There’s a rip in the photo, and the heavy paper border has been torn and damaged over the decades. But almost 115 years later, the clarity of the image by photographer P.S. Ryder is excellent.

One of the team members is my maternal grandfather, Joe Dempsey. He was about 20 when the photo was taken, and he’s easy to pick out because he strongly resembles my late uncle Jim Dempsey. The photo found its way to my home after the deaths of my uncle in 1991, my aunt in 1997 and my mom in 2006. A faded “Dempsey” is written in script on the back.

At the urging of fellow blogger Charles Moore, I’ve been trying to find out more about the photo and my grandfather. Charles is a genealogical sleuth and writes about his remarkable discoveries via public records and other research.

Charles wrote a post recently about his family’s ties to baseball through the generations, and I immediately thought of this photo. I offered to send Charles a copy and he replied, quite kindly, that he’d rather read a blog post about it. So I started asking around.

A closeup of my grandfather, middle row, at left.

A closeup of my grandfather, Joe Dempsey, middle row at left.

My sister uncovered a writeup in a 1900 Syracuse newspaper about the city championship. The article was written in a stream of consciousness style that was virtually impossible to decipher — and not as entertaining as the classified ads on the same page, including: “Prominent railroad man, 42 years old, fine looking, worth $35,000, desires attractive, loyal wife.”

Syracuse baseball historian Ron Gersbacher was more help. In a 2012 blog post he mentioned “the St. Cecilia’s nine” that was the city’s best in 1900, and named 11 players on the roster, including my grandfather.

Gersbacher wrote that 3,500 fans paid 25 cents each to watch St. Cecilia’s defeat the Shamrocks, a team from the predominantly Irish neighborhood of Tipperary Hill, for the city championship.

As much as the baseball lore intrigues me, I’m more interested in my ancestry. I’ve been encouraged to subscribe to web-based genealogy services, and will do so when I can devote more time to it.

As for my grandfather Joe Dempsey the ballplayer, I never met him. He became a chemist and died before I was born. My other grandfather died of complications from prostate surgery — in 1928, when my father was 18. (He’s a story for another day.) I only knew one grandmother, and she died when I was 8.

Despite those gaps, and the lack of a deep understanding of who my grandparents were, the family love of baseball endures as a common thread. My mom and dad were fans, and the game was a big part of our upbringing. I’ve since corrupted my three sons, who inherited the McKeever loyalty to the Boston Red Sox — while growing up in Yankees’ country.

I’ll find out more about my grandfather and other ancestors, so that the family history isn’t such a mystery — to me, to my sons and to the next generation of Sox fans.


About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in Baseball, Irish Investigations and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to 115-year-old photo illustrates family’s link to baseball

  1. This is the kind of connections I love to read about. And I love to see the supporting evidence. The clarity in this picture is quite amazing.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I love this Jim! You have a photograph that is over 100 years old and you know part of the story. How cool is that? I do hope you share what you find out on your blog – How fascinating! ❤
    Diana xo

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jim McKeever says:

    Thanks, Diana! I wish I knew more. And I really regret not asking questions when I could have gotten answers. (And I’m sure I’m not the only person with that regret).


  4. markbialczak says:

    This photo is magnificent, Jim. It’s quite clear. You ought to give Ron G. a call. He might have other clues that could point you to more knowledge about your grandfather in particular! Ron saves everything about baseball in this city … and music, too.

    I’m glad you’re chasing down your history like this. It’s quite intriguing. And now’s the time, my friend. Now’s the time. Good luck with the hunt.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jim McKeever says:

    Thanks, Mark … I did leave a message with Ron a couple of days ago, so I hope to connect with him soon. Our city was quite the gold mine for semi-pro ballplayers who went on to the bigs!


  6. rachelwhims says:

    Fantastic, Jim! What a great story. And what a handsome fellow your grandfather was. The clarity in that photo is amazing. I’m so glad you shared this. (My family has also shared a great love of baseball. My grandmother never missed a Red’s game.) And thanks for linking Charles Moore’s blog. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you, Rachel! I grew up with baseball, and have many pleasant memories … And believe it or not, it’s how I learned math, figuring out batting averages, ERAs, etc. Later, when I lived in Columbus, Indians fans seemed to outnumber Reds fans, but I think it was because I hung out with more guys from Cleveland.


  7. Angie Mc says:

    I am *beside* myself, Jim! What an amazing picture and family story. I’m rarely jealous but I’m really fighting jealousy as I read this 😀 I’ll have my sons read this as well. Not only do they play the game but they’re baseball history buffs too. Here’s my favorite line, “Gersbacher wrote that 3,500 fans paid 25 cents each to watch St. Cecilia’s defeat the Shamrocks, a team from the predominantly Irish neighborhood of Tipperary Hill, for the city championship.” Classic!


    • Jim McKeever says:

      Ah, thanks Angie! There’s such a rich history of baseball here in Central NY. Babe Ruth supposedly played in an exhibition here. A bunch of locals made it to the bigs after playing semi-pro here. (Gersbacher lists several in his blog). In 1988 I took part in a one-day fantasy camp with the Syracuse Chiefs. Mack Jones played, and former BlueJays/Tigers pitcher Steve Grilli (father of current closer Jason Grilli) pitched to me. I popped out weakly to second base. But it was still pretty cool because I didn’t K. Other modern players who grew up here include Steve Lombardozzi (Twins 2B), Dave Lemanczyk (Tigers P), Frank DiPino (Astros P). In the 1980s I interviewed the parents of Lombardozzi and DiPino about what it was like having a kid in the majors. … Uh-oh. I’m getting the itch to make the 2-hour drive to Cooperstown again! Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Angie Mc says:

        We have yet to get to Cooperstown but it is on our Bucket List (if we have such a thing!) Oh, Jim, this has been fun. I’ll read all of this to my boys on Monday when I have them corralled in on place!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Jim what a fantastic photo and a piece of your history, I hope you get to dig deeper and discover more about your lineage.


  9. chmjr2 says:

    What a great picture. I wish I had one of my father playing baseball. I look forward to reading more about your ancestors. I bet you will be surprised the hidden influence they have had on you.


  10. reocochran says:

    I am thankful to have known my grandparents, three of them into my teenaged years, Jim. I am sad that you were not able to have a chance to know yours. I think the photograph is a great part of your family history, along with your teaching your boys to love Boston Red Sox. I love the Cleveland Indians and the little farm team of Columbus Clippers. I also enjoy football.
    I have told my mother’s and father’s love story, my grandparents’ love story and my great grandparents’ love stories, they are part of my mother’s side of the family tree. My Dad’s side was not as friendly but we have traced it back to Scotland and England. History is important for families to know about, which is kind of an obvious statement, but am glad to know you value your ancestors.


    • Jim McKeever says:

      Agreed, Robin … My middle son encouraged me to look into our family history, since he knows even less than I do! I’m planning to find out as much as I can, so my boys aren’t completely in the dark.


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