UP Graphic by Marcus Owens.

UP Graphic by Marcus Owens.

Saint Patrick’s Day is heavily influenced by Irish-Americans. The city of New York has one of the biggest Saint Patrick’s festivals in the world and that has been going on for nearly three centuries.

Jim Gilligan is a Lamar baseball legend, winning more than 1,300 games in in 38 years as a coach. He is also a proud Irish American.

“Most of my relatives where born over there,” he said. “We were Irish-Catholic. We had many priests and nuns in the family. I had uncles that grew up in Ireland and they came here, their daughters did all of the Irish dancing.

“We always had a sense, even though we never set a foot in Ireland, we felt like we were born there. We had quite a pride — for where our grandparents grew up, and a lot of our aunts and uncles grew up.”

Gilligan said that for his career, he has a winning record on St. Patrick’s Day

“I have always been extremely lucky on St. Patrick’s Day through the years,” he said. “I’ve only lost on a handful of occasions. I remember beating the University of Texas on St. Patrick’s Day, which may have been their first lost, but I always felt lucky on St. Patrick’s Day.”

Gilligan chuckled.

“I always had my guys wear green hats on St. Patrick’s Day,” he said.

Gilligan’s brother is even more involved in his Irish heritage.

“My brother, Frank Gilligan, has gone to Ireland,” he said. “He’s a singer and he’s actually written several Irish songs. He was so impressed when he went to Ireland — over there everybody sings. He was over there and they took him to a club, and they just dragged him to about five more, and he became pretty popular over there and fell in love with their culture.”

One of Frank Gilligan’s Irish records is called “A Piece of Ireland.”

Gilligan remembers recruiting an Irish-American player. He said he believes the cultural connection reeled in a pretty good player.

“I recruited a kid, without a doubt who was one of the greatest players we ever had — his name was Joe McCan,” he said. “He was from New York. This was in 1976. I had my 1975 team and we were pretty good, we just lacked leadership. I went to look at a pitcher, but he was being recruited by everybody in the nation, so we probably wasn’t going to get him. He ended up going pro out of high school.

So we saw a shortstop. He had nobody talking to him. I said, ‘Joe, I offer you a scholarship.’ He said, ‘Coach, I just had made a decision to go to Yale.’ He was either going to Harvard or Yale. Joe said, ‘I want to play baseball, do you have an engineering program?’ I said, “We have a great engineering program. We’re not Harvard or Yale, but we have a great engineering school.”

McCan said Gilligan would have to talk to his mother.

“So I went over with my wife, and all his brothers and sisters were there — a very good group of people,” Gilligan said. “The mother said to me, in a great Irish brogue because she was from Ireland, ‘First it was Harvard then it was Yale — I never heard of Lamar.’ I said, ‘Ms. McCan, we’re not Harvard or Yale and we have a great engineering school.’ I said, ‘Where else could you send your kid to play for an Irishman from New York?’ After that she let him come.”

Gilligan laughed.

“I guarantee, if I was not Irish she would not have let him come to school all the way to Beaumont, Texas.”

Gilligan said he did not attend as many St. Patrick’s Day parades as he wanted because March 17 falls during baseball season.

“Growing up in New York, we would go down to fifth avenue and watch the St. Patrick’s Day parade, but all of New York is one big parade,” he said.

Gilligan said he has always had the luck of the Irish.

“I managed a minor league in Salt Lake City, this was 1986, I was there as a pitching coach and the press was asking me if I was nervous about my first year managing,” he said.  “I said that I wasn’t nervous because I had been a head coach at Lamar for 14 years, and (the reporter) said, ‘Yeah, but this is your first year in pro.’ I was trying to tell him that I wasn’t nervous about it, and finally he said. ‘Why aren’t you nervous?’ I blurted out, ‘Because I’m the luckiest guy you ever known.’ He said, ‘Why are you so lucky?’ I said, ‘Because I’m 24-karat Irish — all four of my grandparents where born in Ireland.”

At the time Salt Lake City had two professional teams. — the NBA’s Utah Jazz and Gilligan’s Salt Lake Trappers. The Jazz coach was Frank Layden. When the quote ran in the newspaper, Layden called Gilligan up to get together because they were both Irishmen from New York.

Gilligans Trappers went on a 29-game win streak.

“I got very superstitious because, you know, luck of the Irish,” he said. “So I told Frank that I promised my hitting coach we would play golf every day until we lost. Frank said, ‘Let’s play golf.’ So we played golf every day for 29 games — we played in the rain.”

While Gilligan’s success was probably more to do with his coaching skills, the luck of the Irish never hurts.

Marcus Owens

UP contributor

Learn more about Lamar University at lamar.edu

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