John Heydler

This article was written by Stephen V. Rice

Through dedicated and honorable achievement, baseball executive John Heydler rose to the position of National League president, and the league became known as “the Heydler circuit.” He retired in 1934 after 32 distinguished years of service in the league office. J.G. Taylor Spink of The Sporting News called him “a veritable Rock of Gibraltar” who “devoted his entire thought and effort to the interests of his league and to the game.”1 Heydler pioneered statistical innovations and brought Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to baseball to safeguard the integrity of the game.

John’s father, Reverend Ernest Heydler, was a 33-year-old Lutheran clergyman when he emigrated from Germany in June 1868 with his 19-year-old wife, Fredericke (Peters) Heydler, and their infant daughter, Mary.2 They settled in Jefferson County, New York, near the state’s border with Ontario, where John Arnold Heydler was born on July 10, 1869, in La Fargeville. In the 1870s, three more sons were born (Ernest Jr., Frederick, and William), and in 1873 the family relocated to Rochester, New York.3 Reverend Heydler died in 1882, leaving his wife to care for their five children.4

As a teenager John worked as a printer’s devil (an apprentice in the printing department) at the Rochester Union and Advertiser and played on the newspaper’s baseball team.5 He became a typesetter, and at age 19 he moved to Washington, DC, where he set type in the US Government Printing Office.6 He joined the Washington Light Infantry Corps, a National Guard unit, and played on its baseball team for several years. “An energetic and hard-working player,” he could play the infield and outfield, and pitch.7

On September 18, 1894, John married Nancy Humphrey of Franklin, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a blacksmith.8 The marriage would last 61 years, until John’s death in 1956. They had no children.9

In the 1890s Heydler umpired amateur baseball in Washington and was an avid fan of the National League’s Washington Senators. On May 31, 1895, he went to see the Senators play Connie Mack’s Pittsburgh Pirates and was asked by Senators manager Gus Schmelz to umpire the game, because the regular ump was ill.10 According to reports, Heydler performed acceptably well in his debut as a major-league umpire.11

Heydler filled in as a substitute umpire in 11 more NL games from 1895 to 1897. He was now a typesetter and sports reporter for the Washington Star,12 and he was Sporting Life’s Washington correspondent, regularly contributing articles about the Senators.

Nick Young, the NL president, hired Heydler to umpire full-time in 1898, but Heydler lasted only a half-season before resigning. The job took a toll on him. On June 18, 1898, Sporting Life reported, “Umpire Heydler has lost in flesh and looks like a sick man. He is a gentleman and can not stand the abuse which umpiring brings him.” During this era, ballplayers and managers routinely “kicked” (complained verbally, often profanely) about umpires’ decisions.

In July 1898 Heydler umpired a three-game series in which the Boston Beaneaters swept the New York Giants. During the series Giants owner Andrew Freedman accosted him in a threatening manner and sent a representative to Heydler’s dressing room to try to intimidate him. “I can stand abuse from crowds and players,” said Heydler, “but when it comes from a [team] president ... I think it is about time for me to retire.”13 He resigned from the umpiring staff after the series.14 Three months of umpiring in the National League added 10 years to his life, he said.15

Heydler returned to work at the Washington Star and remained keenly interested in baseball. As a hobby he calculated batting averages from box scores.16

Harry Pulliam succeeded Nick Young as NL president in 1903 and hired Heydler as his secretary, with the title of assistant secretary of the National League. Young recommended Heydler for the job.17 Heydler worked diligently in this support role, and in December 1906 he was promoted to secretary and treasurer of the league.18 In newspaper reports, he was described as efficient, conscientious, and “thoroughly reliable,” as well as genial, honest, and level-headed, a man of “good character and fine executive ability.”19

As the National League’s official statistician, Heydler meticulously tabulated statistics from the scorecards submitted to the league office by official scorers. The press was amazed by how quickly he produced the final season averages after the season ended.20 For more thorough recordkeeping, he introduced an improved scorecard in 1904 with places for official scorers to indicate the number of outs and the number of men on base when a pitcher was relieved in the middle of an inning.21 Heydler endeavored to determine the correct spelling of players’ names, and he offered a $10 reward to anyone who could find a mistake in the official statistics, a reward that went unclaimed. His concern for precision – an essential trait of a skilled typesetter – earned him the nickname “John the Accurate.”22

Among his other duties, Heydler served on the NL Rules Committee; he was considered “an authority on the rules of the game.”23 And each year he collaborated with American League Secretary Robert McRoy to manage “the principal details and the finances” of the World Series.24 In the offseason Heydler devoted his attention to his Washington printing business, which he acquired in 1904.25

Pulliam took a leave of absence in February 1909 after suffering a nervous breakdown, and Heydler was appointed acting president of the National League.26 Pulliam resumed his post in June but committed suicide a month later.27 Heydler was the unanimous choice of NL team owners to finish out the year as president.

Heydler “is not flashy, but faithful and capable,” with a “firm but quiet and modest manner of conducting the business of the league,” observed the Cincinnati Enquirer.28 The Washington Post noted that he is “well versed in every department of the game,” and the Eugene (Oregon) Guard called him “a sportsman of the highest ideas of equity and fairness.”29 He “plays no favorites, and nothing ruffles his temper,” reported the Chicago Inter Ocean.30

Heydler hoped to be reelected as president, but he did not campaign for it, preferring to let “his record speak for him.”31 The Baseball Writers’ Association of America advocated his reelection.32 He “is clean to the core and an honor to the national game,” wrote columnist Ren Mulford Jr.33 But in December 1909, the votes split evenly, with four team owners voting for Heydler and four voting for John Montgomery Ward.34 As a compromise, the owners agreed upon former umpire Thomas J. Lynch as president and Heydler as secretary and treasurer.

In 1910 Heydler introduced several statistical innovations, including keeping track of a pitcher’s complete games and a batter’s strikeouts and walks. He recognized that won-lost percentage is an inadequate measure of a pitcher’s performance, because an outstanding pitcher on a weak team can have a losing record, so he devised a better measure. He distinguished earned runs from unearned runs allowed by a pitcher and computed the average number of earned runs allowed per nine innings pitched.35 This new measure became known as earned-run average (ERA) and was quickly adopted by major and minor leagues.

Heydler was a forerunner of today’s sabermetricians. He “knows more about statistics than any other man actively connected with the game,” wrote F.C. Lane in 1916.36 Heydler was also regarded as “the greatest authority in the world on the playing and scoring rules and their interpretation.”37 And beginning with the 1911 season, he was the chief architect of the National League schedule. His clever scheduling of games reduced each team’s travel by thousands of miles per season compared with pre-1911 itineraries.38

John K. Tener succeeded Lynch as NL president in 1914. After Tener resigned in 1918, the league’s magnates persuaded Heydler to continue as secretary and treasurer, and become president, succeeding Tener.39 Heydler received only four of eight votes in 1909, but this time the vote was unanimous.40 “If ever a man richly deserved such elevation that man is Heydler,” wrote sportswriter Frank G. Menke. “He commands respect and intense esteem. There is about him a sincerity and an honesty that inspires instant confidence. No man identified with the game in the past twenty years knows more about it than this same Heydler.”41

As NL president, Heydler was the league’s “judge,” authorized to fine and suspend misbehaving players and managers, and rule on protested games and other disputes. He no longer had time to tabulate statistics, so he hired brothers Al Munro Elias and Walter Elias to serve as the league’s statisticians.42

The American and National Leagues survived the challenge posed by the rival Federal League in 1914-15, and endured the disruptions caused by World War I in 1917-18. But a greater challenge lay ahead: the threat of gambling to the integrity of the game.

Hal Chase, a Cincinnati Reds first baseman, was suspended by his team in August 1918, allegedly “for offering bribes to teammates and opponents ... to influence the outcome of games on which he had bet.”43 It was Heydler’s duty to investigate these allegations and decide Chase’s innocence or guilt. In a closed-door hearing on January 30, 1919, Heydler interviewed Chase and several witnesses,44 and a week later, delivered his verdict:

“The testimony showed that Chase acted in a foolish and careless manner, both on the field and among the players, and that the club was justified in bringing the charges in view of the many rumors which arose from the loose talk of its first baseman. ... There was, however, no proof that he intentionally violated or attempted to violate the rules in relation to tampering with players or in any way endeavored to secure desired results in the outcome of games. ... He has been proved not guilty of the charges.”45

Heydler had no choice but to exonerate Chase. An editorial in Baseball Magazine explained: Heydler “found a mass of rumors, half rumors and bare suspicions mixed in with a few suggestive facts and nothing more. Of evidence in any technical sense, there was none, and without evidence it would have been a criminal act to blast the reputation of any ball player.”46 But Heydler issued a stern warning:

“Any player who during my term as President of the National League is shown to have any interest in a wager on any game played in the league, whether he bets on his club or against it, or whether he takes part in the game or not, will be promptly expelled from the National League.”47

The Cincinnati Reds, without Chase, won the 1919 NL pennant and went on to defeat the Chicago White Sox, 5 games to 3, in the World Series. Heydler was thrilled that the National League team won the Series but was troubled by rumors that several White Sox players had “thrown” games. He witnessed all of the games and believed the Series was “strictly on the level.”48 Nonetheless, he investigated.49

To reassure the public, Heydler stated in March 1920 that “more than 99 per cent” of the players in the National League “are honest and are a credit to their profession.”50 To support this claim, three players were dropped from NL teams for failing to meet the league’s “high standard of sportsmanship”: Hal Chase and Heinie Zimmerman from the New York Giants, and Lee Magee from the Chicago Cubs.

During the 1920 season, the major leagues enlisted local police and private detectives to stop gamblers from soliciting wagers at ballparks.51 Forty-seven gamblers were arrested at a Cubs game in Chicago on May 24, 1920.52

In September and October of 1920, a Chicago grand jury investigated the charges against the White Sox players accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. The Black Sox scandal was exposed by the grand-jury testimony.

Heydler advocated that Organized Baseball should reorganize under a new authority “powerful enough to enforce the most rigid discipline” to protect the integrity of the game, and “able to control everyone connected with the game from the league presidents down.”53 In November 1920 the major-league magnates, anxious to restore the public’s confidence in the sport, agreed with Heydler and unanimously elected Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the new authority.54 In August 1921 Commissioner Landis banned for life eight White Sox players for conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series.

By spearheading the effort that brought Landis to power, Heydler demonstrated his overriding concern for the game. By contrast, American League President Ban Johnson balked at ceding authority and agreed only after three teams threatened to leave the American League and join the National League.55

On December 9, 1923, Heydler survived a train wreck near Erie, Pennsylvania, that took the lives of former major leaguer Wild Bill Donovan and eight other passengers. Unhurt, Heydler grabbed a fire ax and worked tirelessly to free passengers trapped in the wreckage.56

“Baseball, so far as the National League is concerned, will be in safe hands so long as Mr. Heydler remains president,” asserted former President Tener in 1926.57 Heydler “has seen the league ... come through some troublous times, but his directing hand has helped guide it away from numerous rocks and into smooth waters,” wrote sportswriter Ralph Davis in 1928.58

Heydler was a man of “accuracy and system,”59 a stickler for the rules, yet he was open-minded to improvements. In December 1928 he proposed that a 10th man be allowed to bat for the pitcher. He explained:

“I made the proposal to my club owners because of a belief that the public has tired of the endless shifts in lineups due to the inability of pitchers to hit. Last season there were 698 pinch batters used for pitchers in the National League. The American [League] made 643 such moves. The game is slowed up as a result. The average pitcher not only is helpless at bat, but when they happen to get to base they are not inclined to run. They want to conserve their energy for pitching purposes.”60

Heydler was not the first to suggest the “designated hitter.” The idea originated as early as 1891.61 The American League adopted the DH in 1973, though the National League has shunned it. Ironically, when Heydler proposed it in 1928, the NL favored it and the AL opposed it.

President Heydler kept a vigilant watch over the National League until he retired after the 1934 season at the age of 65. But retirement “doesn’t mean that I’ll ever lose any of my interest in baseball,” he said. “That will stay with me to my dying day.”62 Upon his retirement, the National League named him honorary chairman of the board of directors for life.63

Sportswriter Cullen Cain said, “I believe Heydler is the most conscientious and painstaking man I ever knew. Sick or well, he always responded with every energy in his body and soul to any call to do anything for the game or the league, big or little. He ate, slept and lived baseball. Never a speck of grandstanding or false dignity about this president. He was a plain, simple, modest, unaffected man. As a result, many of the vital things he did for the game went unnoticed.”64

Indeed, the modest Heydler was never “a publicity hound or seeker of the spotlight.”65 In 1943 a motion to nominate him for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame was withdrawn at his request.66

Heydler said his greatest thrill in baseball was watching Carl Hubbell strike out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin in succession in the 1934 All-Star Game.67 The greatest ballplayer ever, in Heydler’s estimation, was Honus Wagner.68

Heydler and his wife resided for many years on Long Island, New York, before relocating to San Diego in 1946.69 Though in ill health and nearly blind, Heydler kept up with baseball news, read to him by his wife and friends.70 The National League’s chairman of the board died on April 18, 1956, in San Diego at the age of 86.

A story from the spring of 1914 illustrates Heydler’s love of baseball. He was a fine golfer and was in Pinehurst, North Carolina, to play golf when he spotted a pickup baseball game near the golf course. He forgot about golf and joined the baseball game. In his first at-bat, the 44-year-old executive “hammered out a two-bagger and could have made third by his fleet running, but he stumbled and fell.”71 You can imagine the exuberant grin on his face.

 

Notes

1 The Sporting News, November 8, 1934.

2 Ancestry.com.

3 1880 US Census; Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle, November 28, 1874.

4 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, September 28, 1882.

5 Sporting Life, March 21, 1896, February 27, 1909; Washington Post, February 24, 1907. The Rochester Union and Advertiser was published from 1860 to 1885.

6 Rochester city directories at Ancestry.com; Washington Evening Star, January 3, 1889; Washington Post, February 24, 1907.

7 Washington Herald, August 9, 1891; Washington Evening Star, May 14 and July 3, 1895.

8 1880 US Census; Dunkirk (New York) Evening Observer, September 19, 1944.

9 The Sporting News, April 25, 1956.

10 Boston Globe, October 15, 1925.

11 Philadelphia Times, June 1, 1895; Sporting Life, June 8, 1895.

12 Sporting Life, March 21, 1896; Pittsburgh Press, July 7, 1898.

13 Washington Times, July 7, 1898.

14 After Heydler resigned as a full-time umpire, he filled in as a substitute umpire in five more games of the 1898 season. Those were the last games he umpired in the major leagues.

15 Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Record, July 27, 1898.

16 Chicago Tribune, March 29, 1914.

17 New York Times, March 17, 1903; Washington Star, February 19, 1904.

18 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 16, 1906.

19 Washington Post, August 3, 1905; Washington Times, December 18, 1906, and December 2, 1907; Sporting Life, December 22, 1906; Cincinnati Enquirer, February 4, 1908.

20 Sporting Life, October 10, 1903.

21 Wilkes-Barre Record, March 11, 1904.

22 Washington Post, December 27-28, 1908.

23 Washington Post, February 26, 1907; Pittsburgh Daily Post, February 21, 1909.

24 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 16, 1906.

25 Washington Star, December 19, 1904; Washington Post, November 7, 1905, and February 24, 1907. Heydler’s printing business was located at 1005 E Street NW in Washington, near Ford’s Theatre and less than a mile from the White House.

26 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 19, 1909; Indianapolis News, February 25, 1909.

27 Chicago Inter Ocean, June 27, 1909; Washington Times, July 29, 1909.

28 Cincinnati Enquirer, October 24 and November 7, 1909.

29 Washington Post, February 20, 1909; Eugene (Oregon) Guard, March 13, 1909.

30 Chicago Inter Ocean, February 22, 1909.

31 Pittsburgh Press, August 6, 1909; Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, November 1, 1909; Sporting Life, November 27, 1909.

32 Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, November 1, 1909.

33 Sporting Life, November 13, 1909.

34 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 16, 1909.

35 Wilkes-Barre Record, March 15, 1910; Washington Post, December 1, 1910.

36 Baseball Magazine, March 1916.

37 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 2, 1917.

38 Washington Times, January 5, 1911.

39 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 11, 1918.

40 Philadelphia Inquirer, December 12, 1918.

41 Winnipeg (Manitoba) Tribune, November 22, 1918.

42 Alan Schwarz, The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004), 41. Now known as the Elias Sports Bureau, the company started by the Elias brothers continues to serve as the major leagues’ official statistician; see esb.com/.

43 Martin Kohout, “Hal Chase,” SABR Biography Project, sabr.org/bioproj/person/aab1d59b.

44 New York Times, January 31, 1919.

45 Washington Post, February 6, 1919.

46 Baseball Magazine, April 1919.

47 New York Herald, February 6, 1919.

48 Philadelphia Inquirer, October 14, 1919.

49 Philadelphia Inquirer, January 18, 1920.

50 Philadelphia Inquirer, March 25, 1920.

51 Anniston (Alabama) Star, May 18, 1920.

52 Philadelphia Inquirer, May 25, 1920.

53 Pittsburgh Press, October 1, 1920.

54 Cincinnati Enquirer, November 13, 1920.

55 Cincinnati Enquirer, November 9, 1920. The three teams that threatened to leave the American League if Ban Johnson did not defer to Judge Landis were the Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees, and Boston Red Sox. Babe Ruth, the most popular drawing card in baseball, played for the Yankees.

56 Philadelphia Inquirer, December 10, 1923.

57 Pittsburgh Press, February 6, 1926.

58 Pittsburgh Press, December 16, 1928.

59 Springfield Missouri Republican, November 25, 1924.

60 Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1928.

61 John Thorn, “The Origins of the Designated Hitter,” Our Game blog, March 7, 2016, ourgame.mlblogs.com/the-origins-of-the-designated-hitter-7608dcc4bbf9#.5krt4a2ln.

62 The Sporting News, November 8, 1934.

63 The Sporting News, November 15, 1934.

64 The Sporting News, November 8, 1934.

65 Pittsburgh Press, February 6, 1926.

66 The Sporting News, March 11, 1943.

67 The Sporting News, April 6, 1944.

68 The Sporting News, March 31, 1954.

69 The Sporting News, November 13, 1946.

70 The Sporting News, November 14, 1951.

71 New York Times, April 1, 1914.