Foley’s, the Very Best Baseball Bar, Is Closed for Good

To call Foley’s NY Pub and Restaurant a sports bar would be like summarizing Citizen Kane as a movie about a sled. Sure, the bar at 18 West 33rd Street in Manhattan stood out as a place where one could enjoy a beer while watching whatever games were in season — and on some nights, you might find three sports vying for attention on its numerous screens. But for nearly two decades, Foley’s has served as a pillar of the baseball community, a beacon not only for local denizens but for out-of-towners — players, umpires, scouts, celebrities, and writers. “Foley’s was a baseball writer’s Cheers,” wrote MLB.com’s Alyson Footer via Twitter.

Sadly, the occasion for Footer and hundreds of others to share their thoughts about the venerable watering hole on social media was a somber one. On Friday, owner Shaun Clancy posted a video announcing that the bar, which shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 16, will not reopen. “There’s just no way that I can see that we can do it,” he said in the two-minute video, “and I don’t really know what to say except thank you all… This is the end of the inning but not the end of the game.”

The timing of the pandemic-driven shutdown was particularly unkind to the self-described “Irish bar with the baseball attitude,” and not just because it began the day before St. Patrick’s Day. The month of March brings the Big East and NCAA basketball tournaments, as well as Opening Day for both the Yankees and Mets — big-money days and nights for the establishment. Now, as New York City progresses towards reopening, the bar, which has a narrow footprint, no outdoor space, and a low density of people surrounding it despite its midtown location, is ill-equipped to soldier on at reduced capacity. From a follow-up post later on Friday:

Per a profile done by The Athletic’s Rustin Dodd in late April, Clancy is a seventh-generation bar owner whose father worked at the legendary Toots Shor’s Restaurant, a spot where the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, not to mention Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason, frequently turned up. Clancy, who was just 12 years old when he began bartending at his father’s pub in County Cavan, Ireland, came to New York City in the early 1990s with the intention of furthering his trade here, and eventually managed a midtown pub called Old Castle. In 2004, he bought a 50% share of a place previously known as P.G. Kings, and turned it into a baseball mecca, full of memorabilia such as game-worn jerseys, stadium seats, photos, posters, baseball cards (said to be over 50,000 of them, mostly embedded in its tabletops), and bobbleheads. Its name was inspired by longtime New York writer, BBWAA officer, and official scorer for a record 10 World Series, Arthur “Red” Foley (who happened to be a teetotaler, as is Clancy). The bar was home to the Irish American Baseball Hall of Fame, which recognized the likes of King Kelly, John McGraw, and Connie Mack as well as more recent honorees such as Brian Cashman, Al Leiter, and the joint’s aforementioned namesake.

On the subject of the bar’s Irish roots, Clancy gained notoriety in 2008 for banning “Danny Boy,” of which he said at the time, “It’s overplayed, it’s been ranked among the 25 most depressing songs of all time and it’s more appropriate for a funeral than for a St. Patrick’s Day celebration.” He also pointed out that the song’s author was an Englishman who never set foot in Ireland. His decision rated a segment on The Colbert Report.

For all of Foley’s memorabilia, no feature of the bar was more striking than its collection of signed baseballs, said to number over 3,500, not just from players but from celebrities ranging from Pope John Paul II (donated by a scout) to Willie Nelson to Joe Montana to, well, yours truly. Foley’s holds a special spot in my heart, because on July 25, 2017, I held the official book release party for The Cooperstown Casebook there, and signed a ball for the collection. Never mind the fact that in subsequent visits — most recently on February 24, just before the world turned upside down — I hadn’t actually located the thing. Just knowing that it was somewhere in the place was enough.

Even before I held my event and signed the ball, Hardball Times contributor Mike Bates alerted me to some great product placement:

By the way, those aren’t just ordinary urinals over which my book was being advertised. Rather, they and the Tiffany glass in the bathroom were relics from the original Waldorf-Astoria hotel, which was demolished in 1929 to make way for the Empire State Building. Above them hung a montage of New York Daily News and New York Post tabloid covers, including several from the 2000 Subway Series between the Yankees and Mets (“ROGER GOES BATTY,” memorializing Roger Clemens‘ tossing of a broken bat fragment at Mike Piazza, is seared into my brain in that context).

“I always got a kick out of showing my signed ball to friends and family who hadn’t been there before,” said MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand, one of many baseball scribes who shared their memories of the place with me. “[Shaun] made writers feel like an important part of the game, which isn’t always the case. He was just as happy to see a writer walk in as he was to see a player.”

“Shaun just has this curiosity and this real love of everybody in the game. That’s the cool thing, is that Foley’s was so inclusive,” said the New York Times‘ Tyler Kepner. “To know that Shaun liked us and welcomed us just as just as passionately as if we’d been wearing uniforms was a real kick. To have my autographed baseball over by the coat rack was really cool.”

“I just remember the joy I had every time I went there with fellow writers,” said Jose de Jesus Ortiz, who covered the Mets for the Newark Star-Ledger before moving on to cover the Astros and Cardinals.

Even aspiring sportswriters understood how special the place felt to writers. As The Athletic’s Kavitha Davidson wrote via Twitter, “As an NYC kid, my first memories of Foley’s are seeing it on the local news, packed with Yankee fans celebrating. I finally went when I was younger, when being a sportswriter was still just a pipedream. I knew I’d made it when I went to my first sportswriter happy hour at Foley’s.”

Though it welcomed fans of every stripe, Foley’s was particularly popular among Cardinals fans. MLB.com’s Will Leitch recalled watching Game 7 of the 2011 World Series there with his wife Alexa, who was 8 1/2 months pregnant at the time, and not a baseball fan, but “she had gotten a little bit tired of me being gone every night for a month, so she decided to join us for Game Seven.”

In the seventh inning, Alexa was tired enough to leave, but the bar was so packed that Clancy helped her depart through a secret exit, and Leitch hailed her a cab. When he went back inside, “The bar was so crowded, and the anticipation so tense and intense, that the commotion of our leaving set off a cacophony of murmurs and rumors. Oh my god Will Leitch’s wife just went into labor. Shaun had to rush them out to the hospital. Word spread throughout the bar: Lady in labor! Did her water break? Will they have to deliver the baby on the subway?”

After the Cardinals won, “I discovered that the story had cemented into lore as: Will Leitch’s wife went into labor during Game Seven of the World Series, and he sent her to the hospital and came back in to watch the end of the game. And everybody understood. I was in no hurry to correct them; Shaun says he still tells the story that way.” The baby was actually born on November 21.

Clancy, who said in his video message that “Foley’s was always about the people,” was lauded for his own interpersonal skills. Wrote Pete Caldera for NorthJersey.com:

“How he did it was by the force of his personality, a supremely caring nature and the unique ability to balance his business, his family, his incredible charity work, and a growing list of umpires, players, scouts, writers, broadcasters — friends he’ll move heaven and earth to make happy.”

On the subject of charity work, Clancy hosted many fundraiser at Foley’s. Cashman served as a guest bartender to raise money for Ed Randall’s Bat For a Cure, promoting prostate cancer awareness. David Cone tended bar to raise money for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Edgardo Alfonzo, Ron Darling, John Franco, and Keith Hernandez signed baseballs to benefit the family of Mets senior director of media relations Shannon Forde. David Robertson held High Socks for Hope events there, as did Umps Care Charities.

Wrote the New York Post’s Mike Vaccaro:

“That is what breaks Clancy’s heart as much as having to close his doors: In normal times, Foley’s would’ve been at the head of the parade raising money for all manner of causes and projects. The place had a soul, a kind and giving one. And everyone who walked through the doors was treated as if they belonged at Shor’s old famous Table No. 1.”

“You could be in any big league city talking to a group of scouts, front office people, fans, umpires, media, etc and just about everyone had a connection of some kind with Foley’s,” said Newsday’s Erik Boland. “Shaun, and his ability with people, had everything to do with why that was.”

And Foley’s occupied a prime spot within the fantasy baseball community. Many a league convened to hold its drafts there, and the place served as a hub for Tout Wars weekends, when experts from all around the country would gather, network, and blow off steam before or after their auctions.

“When I walked into Foleys for the first time, I felt I had entered a sacred shine,” said Jeff Zimmerman. “While most of the fantasy veteran participants seemed at home, I was a little star-struck. Everyone I idolized in the community were the there. The godfather of fantasy baseball, Ron Shandler. The trade master, Fred Zinkie. Even that Christian Yelich-looking (and future boss) Paul Sporer was there. The staff, especially Shaun, welcomed me and I found my groove with some food from that night’s specialty menu and free-flowing booze.”

Zimmerman eventually achieved what all Tout Wars participants aspire to: victory, with a menu item named in one’s honor:

For MLB Advanced Media’s Cory Schwartz (who accompanied me on my last trip to the place), one Tout Wars-related memory stands out: “We spied another fantasy draft happening in the corner. We watched the drafters studying their fantasy magazines, and laughed at their obliviousness that the guys who wrote them – Joe Sheehan, Ron Shandler, Jason Grey, Jason Collette, Peter Kreutzer, Lawr Michaels – were all right behind them! As Shaun would say, ‘You never know who you’ll meet at Foley’s!'”

Indeed. LaTroy Hawkins, who pitched for both the Yankees (2008) and Mets (2013) along with nine other franchises, was a regular when he passed through town. Here he is from 2015, while a member of a Blue Jays team that would break the franchise’s long playoff drought:

The details escape me regarding the time I saw umpire Laz Diaz and the rest of his crew following a rough night in the Bronx, but one sighting that sticks out came in 2013, when Frank Thomas was on hand promoting his Big Hurt Beer, a malt liquor that didn’t boost the Hall of Famer’s JAWS, to say the least.

“After this I watched a preseason football game with Frank at the bar as I waited for the next train home,” recalled Megan Marshall (@YankeeMegs). “I high-fived him because we both wanted the Steelers to suck it.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold fondly recalled doing a book signing that happened to be on the same night as Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, which the St. Louis Blues won: “It was like through the looking glass — because I had heard so many stories about fans watching Cardinals playoffs games there, games I was covering, but here I was seeing a St. Louis team win (historically) from a seat at Foley’s.

Goold’s favorite memory of Foley’s, however, is from an evening in which he wasn’t there. “My wife was on a business trip to New York during the postseason, and she asked if it was possible to watch the game at Foley’s. It was packed, but Shaun was gracious — as always — and treated Erika and her friends like family. I was at the game of course, and during it someone sent me a photo from Foley’s. It was of two St. Louis kids, sitting beside each other talking and just enjoying a Cardinals game in the big city: Jon Hamm and Erika. Only at Foley’s.”

Jon Hamm and Erika Ebsworth-Goold (Photo: Erika Ebsworth-Goold)

Like Toots Shor’s, Studio 54, CBGB, and so many other bygone New York City institutions, Foley’s will pass into legend and lore, and a whole lot of us will someday boast, “I was there.” Clancy and his employees deserve a toast for the bar’s success and popularity, not to mention all of the well-wishes that can be mustered. Even so, what’s so heartbreaking about the brutally abrupt ending for the beloved spot is that for nearly three months, the pandemic has deprived us of that bar’s ultimate specialty: community. Who knows when and where we will again feel so welcomed and so comfortable simply having a beer and watching a ballgame together? And where was there ever a better place for together than Foley’s?





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Jeremy
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Jeremy

I was only at Foley’s once or twice, since living on Long Island means staying in the city after work needs some sort of event rather than just hanging out and watching a game. It was a really great place, though, and will absolutely be missed. I can only hope that all of this outpouring of love for the place means there will be some sort of replacement opening whenever we get back to whatever “normal” ends up being.