Street Renamed For Irish-American Athletic Club
The Irish-American Athletic Club (IAAC), a track and field organization more familiarly known by its symbol, a Winged Fist, thrived in Sunnyside and internationally for some two decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including a tremendous performance at the 1908 Olympics. It faded from public view after its decades of glory and until recently, was nearly lost to history. However, on March 10, Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer paid tribute to the IAAC by conaming 43rd Street and 48th Avenue, where Celtic Park, the IAAC’s field of competition once stood, as “Winged Fist Way”.
Politicians, civic leaders, police officers, firefighters, bagpipers and local enthusiasts gathered with the media in the bright, cold sunshine to hear about athletes of a century ago and their organization.
As its official name makes plain, it was predominantly Irish-American; but Winged Fist also was a conduit for other immigrant and minority groups, black and Jewish among them, to compete.
“It is important that we recognize the achievements of this dynamic athletic club which once called Sunnyside and the borough home,” Van Bramer, who was instrumental in getting the street co-named, said. “Before its members knew it, the IAAC laid the foundation of what would become the essence of Queens, a multicultural diaspora of people who worked and lived together.”
Congressmember Joseph Crowley said that Winged Fist exemplifies “not just great Irish-American history but great American history”. “Today is about much more than putting a name on a street sign; it is about honoring the tremendous athletic and historical contributions the Irish- American Athletic Club made to our community,” Crowley, a longtime supporter of the effort to co-name the street, declared. “The IAAC became a refuge for athletes of all ethnic groups and nationalities who faced discrimination and hate. The IAAC’s Winged Fist emblem served as a symbol of strength, perseverance and triumph, and it continues to serve as an inspiration today. I am proud to have played a role in the effort to pay tribute to the IAAC and this important time in our great borough’s history, and I thank Councilman Van Bramer and all those who helped make this day possible. I hope that when New Yorkers drive or walk down this street, they will be reminded of those athletes who not only achieved great things on the field, but also helped to unify a community.”
Crowley and Van Bramer were joined by Councilmember Danny Dromm, state Senator Michael Gianaris, Community Board 2 Chairman Joseph Conley and Ian McGowan, a resident of the Celtic Park Apartments that replaced the stadium when it was torn down in 1930. McGowan, executive director of the Winged Fist Organization, established in 2008 to preserve the legacy of the Irish-American Athletic Club, has for years been trying to give Winged Fist its rightful place in history. He has uncovered trophies, newspaper accounts and much memorabilia about Winged Fist, rescuing much of it from utter neglect.
McGowan has tried repeatedly to have a plaque mounted on a wall of one of the Celtic Park buildings commemorating the stadium for which the residences are named and the athletic club that used it. Each attempt has been rebuffed by the board of the housing cooperative. At Saturday’s ceremony, McGowan said he nevertheless had to thank board members for suggesting he petition the city to have a commemorative street sign put up
The Winged Fist Athletic Club was formed in the mid-1890s. While originally an Irish-American organization, the club quickly became one of the most ethnically diverse organizations of its kind in its day. The IAAC served as a working man’s athletic club, regardless of race or religion, in an era of segregation and discrimination. Celtic Park was built at the same time and was opened almost exactly 114 years before the street ceremony, on Mar. 9, 1898. In the five Olympic Games that were held on English and European tracks and fields between 1900 and 1912, Winged Fist athletes won numbers of medals and became leading representatives of American athletic prowess.
At the Saturday ceremony, IAAC member Martin Sheridan was saluted for winning nine medals in a variety of Olympic competitions and noted for Jim Thorpe, hailed as America’s greatest athlete, especially after the 1912 Games, saying that Sheridan was equally great, and could do things he could not do. However, the club could not sustain itself by the 1920s and had ceased to exist by the time Celtic Park was razed.
The high point of the ceremony, removal of the paper covering the sign renaming the corner as Winged Fist Way, met with a snag when the covering tore, leaving the sign partly concealed. Crowley first climbed onto the light pole and tried to reach for the remnant of the covering, but couldn’t reach it. Then McGowan climbed onto the pole, shimmied up as far as was necessary, reached over to the sign and pushed the lingering paper off, revealing the Winged Fist Way name. He came down to cheers from everyone. “There could be no more proper demonstration of his determination,” Van Bramer exclaimed.