Remembering “The Toughest Family On Earth” : “Crusher Casey Challenge” Proved a Special St. Pat’s Event

“The Crusher Casey Challenge Race” – the name peals formidably, and rightfully so for a family the Boston Globe once called “the toughest family on earth.”

On St. Patrick’s Day 2012, the Riverside Boat Club, on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge, kicked off its rowing season with the 10th annual “Crusher Casey” race, but this time the occasion was different. Attending the event were members of the Casey family, who arrived from England on March 14, commemorating the Casey brothers, who were not only once fixtures in Dorchester, but a legend in local rowing circles.

The Riverside Boat Club’s Kate Sullivan, with Dorchester resident and fellow club member Jack Kowalski, arranged for the visit of Paddy Casey, his son Gary, Gary’s wife and two children, a nephew. Paddy, the son of Jack Casey – one of the seven Casey brothers. who were dubbed “the Famous Casey Brothers” for their rowing and wrestling prowess -- presented the Crusher Casey trophy to the winners and Riverside Boat Club presented him with a photo of his uncle, Steve “Crusher” Casey launching his single from the Riverside docks. After a breakfast at the Boat Club, the Caseys visited Jack’s Melville Avenue home, once owned by Jim Casey, one of the great family rowers of the 1930s.

In a 1940 Boston Globe article, the “Famous Casey Brothers,” whose family hailed from County Kerry, recounted how they had issued a challenge to “race any crew [rowers] in the United States.” The challenge was resonant of former heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan’s boast that he “could lick any man in the bar”; the Caseys’ mother, Bridget Sullivan Casey, was “distant kin” of the famed boxer. Rowing out of the Riverside Boat Club, which had been founded in 1869 by mainly Irish immigrant printers and laborers from the Riverside Press, part of Houghton Mifflin, the Caseys embodied the club’s reputation as “the working man’s club.”

Dick Garver, the club’s historian and author of A Brief History of Riverside Boat Club, notes that the brothers’ challenge was “quite a gauntlet to toss before the proud society of Boston and Cambridge rowing circles by sons of Irish immigrants.” Those immigrant sons qualified for the 1936 Munich Olympics in single scull racing. Paddy’s uncle Steve “Crusher” Casey, whose nickname testified to his status as a world champion professional wrestler (1938-48), recalled: “A Philadelphia crew took us on, but then backed out….Then Russell Codman, former Boston fire commissioner under Mayor Jim Curley, himself a national champion, came forward and said, ‘I will row the three Casey brothers [Steve, Tom, and Jim] and beat them in single sculls…”

Tom Casey finished first, Jim second, Steve third, and Codman fourth. Tom’s victory surprised no one who knew anything about rowing locally, Dick Garvin writing that “Tom Casey…would move a rowing shell in the fastest time ever seen then on the Charles River – under a minute for the quarter mile. Singly and with his brothers, Tom Casey would win every race entered thereafter at the then unheard pace of 40 strokes a minute – a pace that would not become commonplace in rowing for more than three decades.”

Crusher Casey proudly proclaimed, “Nobody ever beat Tom when he was rowing.” From a member of that famed rowing clan, the words were high praise.

The Casey’s prowess on the water flowed literally from both sides of their family, with their father, Michael, a fine rower along with their uncles Pat and Mike Sullivan. In 1985, Crusher Casey told Boston Globe writer William P. Coughlin that “we’d come from County Kerry….Uncle Pat was the skipper of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s yacht in Newport, Rhode Island. One day he told Vanderbilt he could get a crew to win the world rowing championship. Vanderbilt said, ‘If you can get them, I’ll pay their way to Newport to train.’ That’s how it [the Caseys’ rowing renown] started.”

What the Caseys started in Kerry and Dorchester continues with the Riverside Boat Club’s Crusher Casey Challenge Race. The Brothers Casey would no doubt have been delighted to see some 65 people on the water in the single and eight races, not to mention Paddy and his family there to take it all in along the Charles and in Dorchester.

Kate Sullivan said, “All in all, the Casey family had a wonderful and very memorable visit.” The same can be said for the rowers, their families and friends, and all the club members who met the Caseys.