Michael James Ryan, who never played a high school baseball game but made it to four World Series – one as a catcher with the 1967 Boston Red Sox and three as a coach with the Philadelphia Phillies - died suddenly in his sleep at home in Wolfeboro, NH on July 7, 2020. He was 78.
Ryan, known to teammates, media, and fans as "Irish", spent 35 years in professional baseball (1960-1995), the bulk of that time in a Philadelphia Phillies uniform.
Born into an athletic family in Haverhill, MA, Ryan grew up listening to stories about his father, uncles and grandfather and their prowess in baseball and football. Ryan dreamed of one day playing in the big leagues.
The son of the late John and Lorraine Ryan, Mike Ryan - like his sister and four brothers - chose to attend St. James High in Haverhill, despite the school having cut all athletic programs. Ryan was discovered after a standout performance in a summer baseball tournament in New York City and eventually signed a contract with his hometown Boston Red Sox. Ryan spent three seasons in the minor leagues before reaching the Red Sox in the fall of 1964. He played three more full seasons in Boston while rooming with another local player, the late Tony Conigliaro of Lynn, and was the Opening Day catcher and started the most games at the position for the Sox in 1967 - Boston’s magical “Impossible Dream” season. He also caught every game during a mid-season 10-game summer winning streak that cemented the Sox as contenders.
“Mike was my first ‘roomie’ in major league baseball during spring training in 1965,” said Jim Lonborg, a California native who won the Cy Young Award with the Red Sox in 1967 and pitched for 15 years in the majors with Boston, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. “He taught me what New England toughness was all about. Broken fingers, cracked ribs – the game must go on. We always had smiles on our faces and what a smile he had. Mike was a larger than life friend, on and off the field.”
Ryan was traded to the Phillies following the 1967 season and played in Philadelphia from 1968-1973, earning a trip to the All-Star Game in 1969 and twice leading the league in Caught Stealing Percentage. Ryan suited up for one final season with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1974 before returning to the Phillies organization as a minor league manager. After three seasons in the minors, he was again promoted to the majors.
For the next 16 years he became entrenched with the Phillies, working primarily as the club's bullpen coach and helping lead the team to the World Series in 1980, 1983, and 1993. The Phillies were crowned World Series champions in 1980, and at the time of Ryan’s retirement in 1995 he was the only person to wear a uniform in each of the Phillies’ World Series appearances. Managers came and went during Ryan’s time in Philadelphia, and when they went, they often tried to bring “Irish” along to their next stop. But Mike and the city had common traits: authenticity, loyalty, and resolve. Mike loved Philadelphia, and the organization and city loved him back.
Known for his colorful exploits - Ryan caught two Opening Day baseballs dropped from helicopters above Veterans Stadium, two decades apart; his work in a 1990 brawl against the New York Mets can be found on YouTube while his hammering of three Pittsburgh Pirates during a bench-clearing row in 1980 cannot - Ryan worked for eight managers during his time in Philadelphia. Throughout those years, "Irish" remained a popular and influential figure in the clubhouse, whose actions and examples spoke volumes. Former Phillies catcher Darren Daulton, a leader and star on the 1993 World Series team who died in 2017, once noted, "He's as solid as they come. How much do I think of him? Well, I named my son Zachary Ryan Daulton."
Following the 1967 pennant-winning season with Boston, Ryan married Suzanne Graham of Newburyport, MA. The couple were due to celebrate 53 years of marriage in a few months.
Throughout his career as a player and coach, Ryan's toughness was noted regularly. "Most kids who wind up behind the plate get there because nobody in the neighborhood wants to catch," Boston Globe columnist Clif Keane wrote in the summer of 1967. "Mike Ryan got there - but he wanted the job." Stan Hochman, in the Philadelphia Daily News wrote in 1969, "...he got hit in the lip with a Tom Seaver fastball. An inch higher and it would have busted up the lower half of Mike Ryan's face. He caught both games that night."
Following his retirement, which included a Mike Ryan Day pregame ceremony in Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, Mike and Suzanne lived quietly in a farmhouse overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee, an Irish Setter always by their side. The couple enjoyed gardening, landscaping, boating, and the constant hum of maintaining a home that is several hundred years old. When Mike was in baseball, the couple restored old houses in the offseason, a hobby that requires patience and thoughtfulness. This labor of love also provided a window into a gentle side that was legendary among his family. If you were an injured animal on the side of a New Hampshire road and Mike rumbled by in his jeep or truck, it was your lucky day. A squirrel with a crooked leg or a bird with a clipped wing were brought home and provided the same care and support as a rookie catcher seeking advice on how to call a game for a future Hall of Fame pitcher.
Ultimately, Irish Mike Ryan's legacy was ideally captured (following his retirement announcement in August 1995) by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon: "He is a baseball lifer who showed up every day, did his job, kept his mouth shut, pulled on his jeans and went home. And you knew he'd be there to do it all over again, certain as the sunrise in the east."
In addition to Suzanne, Mike is survived by all his siblings: Maureen Ryan and her husband Bill, of Haverhill, MA; Anthony Ryan, of Haverhill; James Ryan and his wife Becky, of Haverhill; Daniel Ryan, of Haverhill; and Steven Ryan and his wife Sheila, of Naples, FL. Mike always spoke just as fondly about their adventures growing up on Observatory Avenue in Haverhill as he did about the captivating memories of a life spent in baseball, such as the one million people who attended Philadelphia's World Series parade in 1980.
There will be no services. In Mike’s memory, Suzanne and the Ryan family wish to dedicate a large, granite bench in Mike’s honor, in Haverhill. To contribute to this memorial, donations can be made to the Mike Ryan Memorial Bench Fund, c/o Pentucket Bank, 1 Merrimack Street, Haverhill MA 01830.
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