Andrew “Andy” J. Coakley

Inducted: 2013
Born: 1882 - Died:
1963

Andy Coakley is remembered most as: “Lou Gehrig’s coach” in his 37 years as head of Columbia University’s baseball program. But this overlooks his extensive influence on the game. Once a promising right-hander with Connie Mack’s Athletics in the early 20th century, Coakley was also a labor pioneer, a forward-thinking league organizer, a team owner, and a bird-dog scout, before spending four decades as a college coach — three years at Williams, then 37 at Columbia.

Andrew James Coakley was born on November 20, 1882. He was the ninth of ten children of Irish immigrants Michael (who ran a grocery store) and Hannah “Annie” Sullivan Coakley. The couple — both of whom crossed the Atlantic in their youth — was in San Francisco, California, when their first child, Edward, was born in 1869. They relocated to Providence, Rhode Island, the following year. Eugene, Mary, John, Nellie,1 Agnes, Nora, and James soon followed, though Mary passed away at age two in 1874.

Young Andy’s first taste of baseball was through his local parish, St. Michael’s. The coach, Tim O’Neil, was later renowned as “King of the Sandlots” for organizing his nationally acclaimed, eponymous youth leagues throughout Providence. He adhered to the cred later made famous by Father Flanagan: “There is no such thing as a bad boy.” The philosophy resonated with Coakley as a college coach.

Baseball consumed the boy’s thoughts. Neighbors later recalled how deliveries from Michael Coakley’s store in South Providence were sometimes delayed because Andy had stopped to practice pitching on the way. His dedication made him a standout pitcher at Classical High School, an academically demanding all-boys public school. Despite being tall and ungainly — 6’0″ and 145 lbs. — Coakley had a killer fastball that enabled him to pitch in two championship games in the Inter-Scholastic League.

After hurling Providence East to two state championships, Coakley entered the Holy Cross Prep School in 1900. He was so good that he quickly made the Holy Cross team. Coakley was responsible for 10 of Holy Cross’s 18 victories that spring, including six shutouts, still a school record in 2023. His control was impeccable for a college pitcher; he allowed 53 walks in 241 innings pitched in those two seasons. In that same span, he struck out more batters (188) than allowed hits (172). Ball clubs lined up for the young fireballer’s services for the summer.

At Holy Cross, he performed so well that he attracted the attention of Connie Mack, who had just begun his legendary 50-year career as manager of the Philadelphia Athletics in the newly formed American League. Mack was born and raised in East Brookfield, only ten miles west of Fitton Field, where Holy Cross played games. On September 17, 1902, Coakley told his mother he was going to Worcester to see about a room on campus. A few hours later, a young man named “McAllister” stepped off the train in Philadelphia and onto the mound at the Athletics’ Columbia Park. Word had it he was from Iowa, or perhaps Colorado. He allowed six hits and struck out six in the complete-game 6-5 victory over Washington. Afterward, he boarded another train and went home. “McAllister” returned to Philadelphia to start two more games that month. He split the decisions and totaled a 2-1 record with a 2.67 ERA. He watched from the bench as the Athletics clinched the AL pennant.

Unfortunately, Boston Globe writer Tim Murane was familiar with Coakley of Holy Cross and made the connection with “McAllister.” The rumors reached Rev. Daniel Quinn, the college’s athletic disciplinarian. Summoned before the faculty just before Christmas, Coakley confessed, calling Mack a “personal friend” whose team was fighting for the pennant and desperate for pitchers. On January 8, 1903, Coakley — “without a doubt the best college pitcher in the country,” Quinn said — was suspended from collegiate competition the following spring.

Coakley’s major league career spanned the years 1902–11. Its high point came in 1905 when the young right-hander led the Philadelphia Athletics to the American League pennant. He compiled a record of 18 victories and eight defeats as a starting pitcher in a rotation that included Hall of Fame inductees Rube Waddell, Eddie Plank, and Charles “Chief” Bender. His earned run average in that banner year was 1.84, a figure that ranked fourth in the league, right behind the immortal Cy Young, who registered a mark of 1.82.

When Coakley developed arm problems, Connie Mack permitted him to take a few weeks off to get better and get married. Coakley married Martha May Gray in Philadelphia in May of 2006. Described as “an enthusiastic baseball fan,” Mattie attended a few Athletics games the previous year. A cousin introduced her to Coakley: “it was a case of love at first sight.” They were married in Philadelphia on July 16, 1906, in a “very quiet” ceremony. They honeymooned in Vermont, where Coakley made a discovery that demonstrated his keen eye for talent. Watching semipro ball one day in Montpelier, a young shortstop caught his eye — Eddie Collins, who was entering his senior year at Columbia as baseball team captain. Coakley immediately wired Mack of the find, and Collins was playing for the Athletics before season’s end.

Coakley was slightly built in his playing days at six feet tall and 165 pounds, yet he had a lively fastball. After leaving the Athletics at the end of a disappointing 1906 season, he played briefly for the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs. A labor dispute interrupted his major league career in 1909. He tried a comeback in 1911 with the New York Highlanders (later known as the Yankees), but he suffered a thumb injury on his throwing hand early in the season, forcing his retirement as a player.

Over nine years, Coakley registered 58 wins with 59 losses, but his earned run average of 2.36 ranks him 21st all-time among major league pitchers with 100 decisions or more. Though Coakley left the major leagues in June 1911, the most illustrious part of his baseball career lay ahead. In 1912 and 1913, he coached at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and in 1914, he went to New York City to become Columbia University’s pitching coach. In the following year, he became the Lions’ head baseball coach and remained in that capacity (except for 1919) until 1951 — a total of 37 seasons.

Coakley took a laissez-faire approach to coaching. He made his expectations clear, but he preferred not to impose rigid restrictions on his players. He felt that the more rules he created, the more they would be broken. John McCormack, who played for Coakley in 1937, said he “never heard Andy raise his voice or utter a foul word. He was always well dressed. “He was on a first-name basis with his players,” McCormack continued. “When we spoke, I was ‘Mac’, he was ‘Andy’. Since the players respected him even though we called him ‘Andy’, he had full control of the team.”

His most notable protégé at Columbia was Yankee great Lou Gehrig, whom Coakley closely mentored in 1923, especially regarding Gehrig’s fielding ability and his debut with the Yankees. Like many others Coakley coached, Gehrig and Coakley remained good friends until Lou’s tragic early death in 1941. He served as an advisor in the Academy Award-winning movie, “Pride of the Yankees,” based on the life of Lou Gehrig.

In 1930, the Eastern Intercollegiate Baseball League was formed with Coakley’s assistance. It was composed of the eight Ivy League schools plus Army and Navy. Coakley’s Columbia Lions won league crowns in 1933, 1934, and 1944. By the time of his retirement, to devote himself full time to his successful insurance business, Coakley had compiled a record of 306-289-11. Occasionally, he returned to Rhode Island to visit his mentor, Tim O’Neil.

At the 1954 Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Cooperstown, New York, Coakley presented citations in memory of Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig and Eddie Collins, long-time star of the Philadelphia Athletics.

Andy Coakley died in New York City on September 27, 1963, less than two months short of his 81st birthday, after suffering a stroke. He was survived by his wife Martha, who arranged his funeral Mass at their parish church, Immaculate Conception on East 14th Street. The couple had no children. Coakley and his wife of 57 years are buried in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, Westchester County, New York.

In recognition of his contributions to baseball, Coakley was inducted into the Helms Athletic Foundation Hall of Fame in 1954, the Holy Cross Hall of Fame in 1958, and the Collegiate Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969. He was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2013.

For additional reading:

  1. Berman, Fred. “Andy Coakley Relives Early Baseball Days.” Columbia Daily Spectator. March 26, 1947.
  2. Spink, J. G. T. “Mack Star, College Coach and Business Man.” The Sporting News. October 24, 1951.
  3. “Coakley Is Out: Holy Cross Pitcher A Professional.” The Lowell Sun. January 9, 1903.
  4. Grayson, Harry. “Andy Coakley Discovered Collins, Developed Lou Gehrig’s Swing.” The Fitchburg Sentinel. July 21, 1943.
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