Old Time Baseball: Umpires
may I slug the umpire, May I slug him right away? So he cannot be here,
Mother, When the clubs begin to play? Let me clasp his throat, dear
Mother, In a dear, delightful grip, With one hand and with the other Bat
him several in the lip. Let me climb his frame, dear Mother, While the
happy people shout: I'll not kill him, dearest Mother, I will only
knock him out. Let me mop the ground up, Mother, With his person,
dearest, do; If the ground can stand it, Mother, I don't see why you
were selected from the assembled crowd or even from the ranks of
players. They personified the amateur spirit of the game of baseball.
And since it was an "honor" to be called to that task, the early umpires
received no financial compensation for their duties. They wore whatever
clothing they wished. Some of the more stylish early fellows showed up
bedecked in Prince Albert coat, cane, top hat. They sat at a table or
took up a stance or kneeled on a stool a brave distance from home plate
along the first-base line.
The National League in 1878 revolutionized things by ruling that umpires
would be paid five dollars a game and gave the arbiters the right to
fine players up to twenty dollars for the use of foul language. Umps
were also given the power to eject rowdy fans.
In 1879 the N.L. named twenty men whom it deemed fit to be a cadre of
umpires. For the sake of logistical convenience, the umpires chosen all
lived in or close to cities where National League franchises were
located. Prior to 1879, rival captains of teams had mutually agreed on
whom they preferred to umpire a game. Now the league ruled that umpires
could be chosen only from the select list of twenty men.
The gradually increased duties and independence of umpires were
reflected in an 1882 ruling that abolished the practice of arbiters
appealing to fans and players for guidance on a disputed play. Now umps
were on their own to "call them as they saw them." And from 1882 on, all
players except for the team captains were theoretically banned from
engaging in any kind of menacing or meaningless banter with the umpire.
That 1882 season the American Association put in place a salaried staff
of three umpires to be paid $140 a month. It was also the American
Association that innovated clothing umps in blue caps and coats-a
uniform that was aimed at giving the arbiters an air of respectability.
Those uniforms were to become part of the folklore of the game the dress
code for the "men in blue."
In 1883 the National League copied the practice of the American
Association, appointing four umpires for the season who drew salaries of
$1,000 each. To ensure neutrality, to quell complaints that the new umps
would not be political appointees, all the umpires were unknowns who
came from cities that did not have National League franchises. The four
men operated under trying conditions-serving without tenure, serving at
the suffrage of the owners. Complaints by any four teams were grounds
for the firing of any of the umpires, and not surprisingly just one of
the four umpires made it through the entire season.
Changing rules, polemics in sports sections of newspapers criticizing
umpires, the rugged nature of play-all of these made the work of the men
in blue a tough task. Such terms as "daylight crime," "robbery," and
"home umpire" were part of the lexicon of the times applied to the
alleged foibles and flaws of arbiters.
In 1884 barbed wire was fastened around the field in Baltimore to
contain the fans. That same season an umpire was beaten by an angry mob
when he called a game a tie because of darkness. Police escorts were
commonplace to move umpires out of ball parks and away from the menace
of irate fans.
Dumping on the umpire was a practice encouraged by owners, who realized
that fans howled in delight at the sight of authority being humiliated.
"Fans who despise umpires," Albert Spalding noted, "are simply showing
their democratic right to protest against tyranny." The protests pushed
profits at the box office, and owners willingly paid fines meted out to
players by umpires.
The system of two umpires working a game came into being in 1887 in
postseason competition between the National League and the American
Association. The first set of double officials was John Gaffney and John
As a class those early arbiters were a colorful and tenacious group of
men-they had to be, considering the not so genteel band of athletes they
had to deal with. Umpire Billy McLean, who plied his trade in Boston and
Providence, was a quick-triggered type. An ex-boxer, McLean kept himself
in top physical condition; it was reported that he once arose at 4 A.M.
and walked from his home in Boston to his umpiring job in Providence.
John Gaffney was called the king of umpires because of his longevity and
resiliency. At one point, Gaffney was the highest-paid umpire, earning a
salary of $2,500 plus expenses.
Bob Ferguson was another standout man in blue. "Umpiring always came as
easy to me," he said, "as sleeping on a featherbed. Never change a
decision, never stop to talk to a man. Make 'em play ball and keep their
mouths shut, and never fear but the people will be on your side and
you'll be called the king of umpires."
Tim Hurst, who coined the now-famous phrase about umpires, "The pay is
good, and you can't beat the hours-three to five," was another of the
fabled arbiters of nineteenth-century baseball. A rather smallish man
who came out of the coal mining region of Pennsylvania, Hurst was
quick-witted and quick-fisted.
In 1897 during the course of a game in Cincinnati, Hurst was struck in
the face by a stein of beer that was hurled out of the stands. Hurst
flung the stein back; it hit a spectator and knocked him out. A frenzied
mob surged out onto the field heading for
Hurst. Policemen made contact with the umpire first. They charged him
with assault and battery and arrested the irate Hurst, who was fined
$100 and court costs by a judge.
Then there was the fracas in Washington in which Hurst mixed it up
verbally with Pittsburgh's Pink Hawley, Jake Stenzel, and Denny Lyons.
The quartet agreed to meet after the game to settle things once and for
Hurst went to work quickly. He punched Hawley in the face, smashed his
foot into the shins of Lyons, and roughed up Stenzel.
"Timothy, what is all the excitement?" asked National League President
Nick Young, who as it turned out just happened to be passing by.
"Somebody dropped a dollar bill, Uncle Nick," replied Hurst, "and I said
it was mine."
"Oh, you're sure that's all?" asked Young. "It looked to me like there
was some kind of a riot going on. Did the dollar bill really belong to
"Not really. It belonged to Hawley, but these other two tried their best
to take it away from him, and I wouldn't let them. It was just pink
"Timothy, you did the right thing." Young smiled. "Now let's leave these
follows alone. Come and take a walk with me."
Two umpires from that epoch went on to become National League
presidents-John Heyder and Tom Lynch. Both men confessed to recurring
nightmares of their time as umpires.
With all the pain and the abuse of the job of umpiring, there were some
redeeming aspects. The early umpires loved the game of baseball. They
earned an average salary of $1,500 for seven months of employment, and
as umpire Tim Hurst noted, it was a job where "you can't beat the hours.
In 1898 the Brush Resolution was passed, slightly improving the umpire's
lot. John T. Brush, National League mogul, pushed owners into endorsing
a twenty-one-point program to do away with the bullying of umpires.
Expulsion for "villainously foul language" and umpire baiting were at
the heart of the resolution.
The "purification plan" never worked and was ultimately given up as
hopeless-no case ever reached the appointed discipline board, but it did
raise the consciousness of the public, players, and writers about the
plight of umpires forced to contend with the riotous behavior of scrappy
and excitable players.
"Kill the Umpire" would be a phrase of symbolic import in the future and
that was a large step forward, for in the not so genteel days of the
gilded age, that phrase had a darker and more sinister meaning.
# # #
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Harvey Frommer is in his 38th year of writing books.
A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports
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"Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE
STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL
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