Hank O'Day remains one of the few men in history to play, umpire, and manage in the National League. A loner with no family life and little interest in anything but baseball, O'Day was best friends with fellow NL umpire Bob Emslie. Often they would spend their free time together seldom exchanging a word.
"Look at O'Day," said AL umpire Silk O'Loughlin. "He is one of the best umpires, maybe the best today, but he's sour. Umpiring does something to you. The abuse you get from the players, the insults from the crowds, and the awful things they write about you in the newspapers take their toll."
Bill Klem called O'Day a "misanthropic Irishman," while Christy Mathewson said that arguing with O'Day was like "using a lit match to see how much gasoline was in a fuel tank."
Born in Chicago on July 8, 1859, Henry M. O'Day began his major league career as a right-handed pitcher in the American Association in 1884-85. He spent the next four years in the NL with Washington and New York before winding up his pitching career in the Players League with a 22-win season in 1890. O'Day's overall record was a mediocre 73-110 with a 3.74 ERA, but his playing career did feature a spectacular highlight. After being acquired by the New York Giants in the middle of the 1889 season, he went 9-1 to lead the Giants to the National League pennant and then was 2-0 with a brilliant 1.17 ERA in that year's World Series, including a complete-game victory in the deciding game. O'Day also made a great impression as a substitute umpire, filling in to avoid a postponement when illness, injury, or travel problems prevented the assigned umpire from officiating a game.
Hired as a full-time NL umpire in 1897, O'Day became known for having the courage to make the right call, no matter how unpopular. He's best remembered for his actions on September 23, 1908, at the end of a game between the Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds.
O'Day was behind the plate and his friend Emslie on the bases on that day. With the score tied in the ninth, Al Bridwell singled with Moose McCormick on third and Fred Merkle on first. Seeing McCormick score the apparent winning run, Merkle immediately ran for the Giant clubhouse. Cub's second baseman Johnny Evers screamed for the ball fielded by teammate Artie Hofman. Before Evers could get the ball, Giants pitcher Joe McGinnity intercepted it and threw into the crowd. Evers found another ball, tagged second, and appealed to Emslie to call Merkle out. Emslie made no call, because he did not see anything. Evers then appealed to O'Day, who made the call, negating an apparent Giant victory. Because of the chaos on the field, O'Day ruled the game a tie and left.
After the NL upheld the ruling and the Cubs won the replay of the game, John McGraw maintained that O'Day had robbed him of the pennant. Ironically, in a game about two weeks prior to the Merkle game, there was a similar call. In a game involving the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates, a Pirate runner failed to touch second on a game-winning hit. When Evers tried to inform O'Day of the decision, O'Day said he did not see the play and could not do anything. However, the play remained in O'Day's mind.
The most curious part of O'Day's career was his two tours of duty as a manager, first with the 1912 Cincinnati Reds and later with the 1914 Cubs. During his time with Cincinnati some opponents groused that his former colleagues gave the Reds an unfair edge. Nothing came of those statements and O'Day's managerial was undistinguished. The Reds finished at 75-78, while the Cubs were 78-76. Both teams finished fourth.
O'Day returned to umpiring in 1913, between his stints as manager and then after his last appearance as Cub manager, he returned to umpiring and kept at it until 1927. The length of his career, which lasted 35 years, is second only to Klem. He also did 10 World Series as did Cy Rigler, both men trailing only Klem's 18. When O'Day died in Chicago on July 2, 1935, former NL president John Heydler called him one of the greatest umpires ever in terms of knowledge of the rules, fairness, and courage to make the right call. He was recognized for umpiring in the first modern World Series in 1903, one of 10 times that he worked the Fall Classic. But O’Day’s mark on the game was the defining call in the Merkle Game on September 23, 1908.
On December 3, 2012, O’Day was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Pre-Integration Era Committee.
A version of this biography first appeared in Tom Simon, ed., Deadball Stars of the National League (Washington, D. C.: Brassey's, Inc., 2004).
The biography was prepared using materials from the author's More than Merkle, information drawn from the Hall of Fame documents and other information that came to the author.