Volunteer Reflects on Kentucky Irish American
By Chuck Wolfe, KHS volunteer
St. Patrick’s Day seems a fitting time to recall one of Kentucky’s most memorable journalists – Mike Barry, a sometimes contrary, always iconoclastic and wickedly witty sports columnist for the late, great Louisville Times.
I met him early in my 28-year career with The Associated Press, though I was already an avid reader of his columns, which took on all comers. “There were no sacred cows,” he once told an interviewer.
“If you’re a sportswriter, you never become a cheerleader,” Barry said. “You’re either a reporter or you’re not.”
Barry’s columns were like Barry himself – compact, feisty and quick. His columns would fearlessly critique or merrily deflate – whichever he believed the occasion called for.
I mainly saw him at the Kentucky Derby. Though we were in the same profession, generally speaking, I certainly did not consider myself one of his peers. And I suspect I was to Barry just one of the young guys in the AP section of the press box at Churchill Downs, his signature venue.
I recognized him as an informed commentator on sports in general, and an expert on horse racing in particular, but I never got to know him in any depth before his retirement from the newspaper in 1984 and his death in 1992. I regret that because I later learned I hadn’t known the half of him.
I had not known, for example, that Barry once was editor of his own newspaper, the weekly Kentucky Irish American, in Louisville. It was published from 1898 – when a 10th of Louisville’s population was Irish immigrants and their descendants – until 1968. Mike’s father, John J. Barry, became editor in 1925, and when he died in 1950, Mike took the reins.
The Irish American was “a gadfly, a critic, a challenge – and a solace – for generations of Bluegrass Irish immigrants and their descendants,” writes author Clyde F. Crews in “Mike Barry and the Kentucky Irish American – an Anthology.”
The Irish American, always printed in green ink for St. Patrick’s Day, was lively, acerbic and opinionated. It had a loyal and widespread readership, at one point having subscribers in 43 states. The most acclaimed sports columnist of the era, Red Smith of the New York Herald Tribune and later The New York Times, said the Irish American was “all the excuse any man needs for learning to read.”
Like Barry’s later columns for the Louisville Times and the Sunday Courier-Journal & Times, the Irish American had no sacred cows.
In the early 1950s, with much of the country cowed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s rabid pursuit of “communists” in the military and elsewhere, the Irish American castigated “the Wisconsin faker” for his “fantastic lies.”
When Sen. John F. Kennedy, an Irish American and Catholic, launched his campaign for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, Barry defied local expectations and backed Adlai Stevenson. Only after Kennedy became the nominee did the paper endorse his candidacy.
Long before the term “political correctness” was coined, the sports pages were being infected, and Mike Barry was having none of it.
In an editorial from April 1953, Barry ridiculed the Cincinnati Reds for surrendering “meaningful words” in a clumsy attempt to display patriotism.
“Just this week,” Barry wrote, “the sports pages of our papers carried the news of another surrender. ‘In the future,’ said the notice, ‘the management of the Cincinnati Baseball Club requests that the team be referred to as ‘the Redlegs’ instead of ‘the Reds.’”
Noting that “the Reds” had won both a pennant and a World Series, he continued:
“Now we have to stop calling the Cincinnati team the Reds. We’re supposed to say they’re Redlegs. Why? Obviously because the club management feels ‘the Reds’ makes too many people think of our Communist enemies. Their feelings are entirely too sensitive.”
In a 1981 oral history interview with Mary D. Bobo of the University of Louisville, Barry said he had little to fear for editorial boldness.
“I used to have a lot of fun with the Irish American, because I said nobody would ever sue me,” he said. “They knew that I was a horse player and didn’t have any money, so they wouldn’t get anything out of me but practice.”
In truth, the Irish American was not much of a money maker. For many years, Barry worked multiple side jobs, mostly involving horse racing, to support wife Bennie and their seven children – six girls and a boy. He also wrote pieces on the side for the Courier-Journal and Times.
The first, in 1941, was in the form of a letter to Sports Editor Earl Ruby about a quarter horse racing meet Barry had witnessed in Arizona, where he was stationed with the Army Air Corps. “I got a check for $6.25. So I could see there was a lot of money in the newspaper business, he said.
By 1968, the Irish American had ceased to be viable. “Costs kept going up, and I found I couldn’t afford to work for me,” Barry said. “When we decided to close the paper, I didn’t tell anybody because I didn’t want any ‘save the Irish American’ campaigns.”
Barry didn’t look back: “I’ve told people so many times since, when I closed down the Irish American, I had solved all the problems of the city, the county, the state, the United States and the world. I said, ‘I left a perfect world, and it’s been loused up since. It’s not my fault’.”
(Editor’s Note: KHS holds microfilm copies of some issues of the Kentucky Irish American.)