Obituary: Mike Ryan (1941-2020)

RIP to Mike “Irish” Ryan, a backup catcher for 11 years in the major leagues and a long-time coach. Ryan died in his sleep on July 7 in Wolfeboro, N.H., at the age of 78. Ryan played for the Boston Red Sox (1964-67), Philadelphia Phillies (1968-73) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1974). He also spent 16 years (1980-95) as the Phillies’ bullpen coach, which is the second-longest tenure of any Phillies coach — John Vukovich coached for 17 years.

“Mike Ryan is one of the more underrated people in Phillies history,” said Phillies Chairman Emeritus Bill Giles. “His tenure was marked by three World Series appearances and he was a very popular presence in our clubhouse for many years. On a personal note, my appreciation for Mike runs deep as he quite successfully caught our ceremonial first ball at the first game in Veterans Stadium history. Off the field, he was tough as nails and a very loyal man to the Phillies organization. On behalf of the Phillies family, we send our condolences to his wife, Suzanne, and all of Irish’s many family members and friends.”

Mike Ryan was born on November 25, 1941, in Haverhill, Mass. His family has a long athletic history. A distant relative, Jack Ryan, played in the majors at the turn of the century. Several other relatives, including his father, John, were baseball or football players in Massachusetts. Mike Ryan went to St. James High School in Haverhill, though he didn’t play baseball there. He couldn’t; St. James had no sports teams.

“I just worked my way up from the Little Leagues,” Ryan said in a 1962 interview. “My only other sport is basketball during the offseason — that’s just when I’m not working for the gas company.”

Ryan played in the 1960 Hearst All-Star Game, which pitted New York sandlot All-Stars against the rest of the country. Ryan was a little overshadowed by the other catcher on the U.S. team, Bill Freehan, but he signed with his local (and favorite) team, the Boston Red Sox. Larry Woodall, who caught for the Detroit Tigers in the 1920s, was the Red Sox scout who signed Ryan.

Mike Ryan tags out a sliding Clete Boyer of the Braves. Source: The Morning News (Wilmington, Del.), May 12, 1969.

Ryan started his pro career for the Class-D Olean Red Sox in the New York-Penn League. Ryan would spend two seasons in Class-D Ball. He batted .185 for Olean in 1961 — the first time he ever faced curveballs in his life. His average improved to .215 with the Waterloo Hawks of the Midwest League, and he powered out 10 home runs. Early on, he would gain the reputation that followed him throughout his playing career — an outstanding defensive catcher who struggled at the bat.

Ryan moved up to AA Reading in 1963, where he again hit 10 homers and batted .229. He improved his hitting to .249 in 1964, his second season with Reading. Though his power numbers dipped, his improved offense and excellent defense earned him an Eastern League All-Star selection. He also joined the Red Sox right at the end of the season when catcher Bob Tillman fractured his thumb. He likely would not have played, but the Washington Senators started lefty Don Loun on October 3. Red Sox interim manager Billy Herman gave the right-handed hitting catcher the start.

The Red Son won the game 7-0, and Ryan got involved in the scoring with an RBI single in the third inning, which was his first MLB hit. He also reached on an error and was intentionally walked before being replaced by Russ Nixon in the eighth inning after twisting his knee. Ryan went 1-for-3 in his MLB debut.

Ryan was sent to the Florida Instructional League, though his knee was still bothering him. Since he couldn’t catch, instructor Bobby Doerr told him to focus on his hitting. Doerr found some flaws in Ryan’s mechanics and helped him become a better hitter.

“From pitching to me every day, Bobby noticed that I wasn’t getting my body behind my swing,” Ryan explained. “I was hitting the ball with my arms and nothing else. This was happening because I was swinging too soon. So for the rest of the instructional school Bobby made me concentrate on holding my swing until the last possible moment and moving into the pitch with everything.”

Ryan split 1965 with the Red Sox and AAA Toronto, batting .236 for the Maple Leafs and .159 with 3 homers and 9 RBIs for the Sox. He belted his first two homers on May 2 in the second game of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers. Despite the low average, Ryan’s defensive skills kept him on the team, and he even led all Red Sox catchers in 1966 by starting 106 games. He batted .214 with 15 doubles and 32 RBIs, and his .992 fielding percentage was fourth-best among AL catchers.

The 1967 Red Sox won 92 games under new manager Dick Williams, winning the AL pennant. Ryan slashed .199/.282/.261 and knocked in 27 runs. Again, his defensive know-how proved valuable, as he threw out an above-average 44% of baserunners. Still, Ryan moved to a backup role when the Red Sox acquired Elston Howard in a mid-season deal. Howard, who was 38, didn’t hit much either, but he did the bulk of the catching in the seven-game World Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. Ryan played in one game and went 0-for-2 with a strikeout. After the Series, Ryan was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for pitcher Dick Ellsworth and catcher Gene Oliver.

“We couldn’t refuse the opportunity to get a young catcher who can throw and is an excellent receiver,” said Phillies general manager John Quinn. The Phillies expected Ryan to platoon with lefty Clay Dalrymple. Ryan, though he grew up as a Red Sox fan, was happy to be away from Williams. He felt the manager benched him just when his bat was starting to come around.

“I didn’t say 10 words to Williams the second part of the season. The club won the pennant — what could I say?” he said of his season. “This trade gives me a chance to play, even as a platooner. I gave the Red Sox the old play-me-or-trade-me bit, in effect, and they traded me. I didn’t plan to stay on any bench, especially behind a 39-year-old guy like Elston Howard. I’m a better catcher than he is.”

Ryan, his wife, Suzanne, and their dog Harp. Source: Courier-Post (Camden, N.J.), April 2, 1969.

Ryan ended up leading the NL by throwing out 58% of baserunners in 1968. Phillies manager Gene Mauch worked hard with Ryan to improve his batting. He showed flashes of hitting, such as the game-winning two-run triple against Cincinnati on May 7. Though he hit .179 with a single home run in 1968, he set career highs in almost every offensive category in ’69. He batted .204 but hit 17 doubles and 12 homers — almost half of his career total. He also had 44 RBIs while playing in a career-best 133 games. Though the Phillies lost 99 games, Ryan was one of the dependable iron men in the starting lineup.

After that season, though, Ryan never caught more than 50 games for the Phillies again. The team acquired Tim McCarver at the end of 1969 — that was the trade that was supposed to have sent Curt Flood to Philadelphia and instead launched the slow movement toward free agency. McCarver became the starter for most of the next three seasons, and then Bob Boone took over the catching position starting in 1973. Ryan still threw out a league-leading 62% of runners in 1971, but he did it in just 43 games behind the plate. As his playing time dropped, hit batting average tailed off to below .200 from 1970 through ’72.

Ryan starred in the opening of Veterans’ Stadium on April 10, 1971. As part of the pre-game ceremony, Ryan caught a baseball dropped from a helicopter hovering 150 feet above the field. He then delivered the ball to a veteran, Corp. Frank Mastrogiovanni, who lost his legs in the Vietnam War, and Mastrogiovanni threw the ball to McCarver for the ceremonial first pitch. It was a stunt Ryan duplicated several times in his career.

Ryan did what he could whenever he was given a chance to play. He worked all 15 innings of a game against Houston in 1971 because McCarver had a bad back. By the end of the game, Ryan’s back was killing him as well, to the point that he took him eight seconds to run to first base. “It was one of the best things I ever saw in this game,” said manager Deron Johnson. “But you expect things like that from Mike. He’s a pro.”

Ryan beat his own record, working a 17-inning game between the Phillies and Reds on June 2, 1972. He even homered in the 17th inning in a losing effort, as the Reds won 6-3.

Ryan barely played in 1973, appearing in 28 games and hitting .232. One incredible moment came on April 17, 1973 against the Expos. The Expos got out to a 6-1 lead, knocking around starting pitcher Dick Ruthven in his MLB debut. One of those runs scored when Ryan collided with Ken Singleton in a play at the plate. Singleton’s spikes ripped a bloody gash in Ryan’s thigh, and he dropped the ball. Still, he stayed in the game and even hit an 0-2 fastball from reliever Mike Marshall for an RBI triple, leading the Phillies to a 9-6 comeback win.

Ryan presents a ball to Corp. Frank Mastrogiovanni at the Opening Day for Veterans’ Stadium in 1971. Ryan got the ball from a helicopter. Source: Sunday News (Lancaster, Pa.), April 11, 1971.

Ryan was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Jackie Hernandez in 1974 but appeared in 15 games for the Bucs, managing 3 hits in 30 at-bats. He remained with the organization, managing the Class-A Charleston Pirates in 1975 and 1976. He even played in a handful of games. Ryan than managed the Oklahoma City 89ers, the AAA affiliate of the Phillies, in 1977 and 1978.

For his 11 years in the majors, Ryan appeared in 636 games and slashed .193/.252/.380. Of his 370 hits, he had 60 doubles, 12 triples and 28 homers, with 161 RBIs. His lifetime fielding percentage behind the plate was .991, and he threw out 44% of all runners trying to steal a base on him.

Ryan became the Phillies’ bullpen coach in 1980 and held that position until his retirement from baseball in 1995. During that time, the Phillies reached the World Series in 1980 (which they won), 1983 and 1993. Ryan is the only Phillies coach to ever be on three World Series teams. He last attempted a ceremonial Opening Day stunt in 1991, the 20th anniversary of Veterans Stadium. In lieu of a helicopter, the Phillie Phanatic threw a ball from the upper deck. Ryan missed the ball, but the fault must lie with the Phanatic. Even at the age of 50, Ryan could probably still catch anything thrown near him.

For more information: Phillies Insider

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