SABR

Jim Johnstone

This article was written by David W. Anderson.

Jim Johnstone was an interesting person, to say the least. He umpired in three major leagues, played as a minor-league pitcher, and invented an umpire mask that was called the “Original Full Vision Mask.”

Baseball historians may have an issue of where and when Johnstone was born. Some baseball references say he was born in Illinois on December 9, 1872, but no one can say exactly where. A family record says he was born in 1875 in Ireland, but says nothing about where he was born there. (The family record came from an application to the New Jersey Inventors Congress and Hall of Fame assembled by Michael Johnstone, his grandson.1)

Little is known of Johnstone’s childhood. In 1894 he began his pitching career with both the Milwaukee Brewers and the Detroit Creams in the Western League and lost four games without any wins. In 1895 he went 20-16 with the St. Paul Apostles in the same league and in 1897 he notched a 16-13 record with the Newark Colts of the Atlantic League. With the Colts he walked 117 batters in 300 innings. Stories say he pitched a no-hitter for the Colts that season, but it is not recorded in the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball.2 Pitching through 1900, he had a 39-43 record, including stops with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Portland Phenoms, back with Newark, and winding up his career with the Mansfield Haymakers. Johnstone’s problem was wildness. It was clear that he needed to do something else, if he wanted to stay in baseball.3

Johnstone began umpiring in the Southern League at the turn of the 20th century. He was there from 1900 to 1901 and it seemed controversy would follow him. The year was not included in Johnstone’s account, but it had to be 1901 when Nashville and Little Rock were involved in a hot pennant race. Johnstone said he needed to be on hand and was sent by a vote of the league to officiate in Little Rock. Another umpire named Murray was in Little Rock and the manager of Little Rock asked to see Johnstone’s orders from the league.

This is from Johnstone’s account: “When I showed him the telegram (Mike) Finn said it was meant for me to go to Little Rock, but that it did not mean for me to umpire. I asked him what he thought I had come to Little Rock for. Where upon Murray promptly declared the game forfeited to Little Rock, and I equally promptly ordered it forfeited to Nashville.”4

As Johnstone said, it was “a pretty mess.”5

The two teams played again the next day in a doubleheader and Johnstone was the umpire. When he got to the ballpark, the Little Rock police told him that if he had problems, he would be escorted from the field. Not surprisingly, Johnstone was involved in an incident.

A Little Rock player was thrown out by 10 feet at third base. A Little Rock player on the bench, approached Johnstone and shoved him. Johnstone fell down and hurt his right hand. He wound up in the patrol wagon bound for jail. But Johnstone was set free and wired the league president that he had forfeited both games to Nashville because he had not received police protection.

The wire became public and the Little Rock team president and its manager said Johnstone would have to go back to jail for inciting a riot. His bond was revoked but some Nashville supporters made his bail and then got him out of town.6

Judging by the scrapes Johnstone seemed to get into, a good question was what kind of umpire he was. According to sportswriter Edward P. Duffy of the New York Sun, Johnstone was a truculent man with no give or take. But Duffy also said there were few men who were better judges of balls and strikes than Johnstone.7

Johnstone joined the American League umpiring staff in 1902 along with Silk O’Loughlin. League President Ban Johnson was reshuffling his umpiring staff, which he said was “mediocre” and “undisciplined.”8 Johnson ordered that umpires file reports on any incidents on the field. He also told his umpires that if one lied to him, he was fired.

Johnstone umpired just one season in the American League. The season was marked by two forfeitures involving John McGraw and the Baltimore Orioles. In a game against Boston on June 28, McGraw disputed a decision by umpire Tommy Connolly, and when he refused to leave the field, Connolly and plate umpire Johnstone forfeited the game to Boston.9 On July 17 umpires Johnstone and Bob Caruthers forfeited a game to the St. Louis Browns because the Orioles did not have enough players to take the field. McGraw had defected to the New York Giants of the National League with a majority of his players.10

After the 1902 season, Johnstone went to the National League. Like many events in his life, it is hard to determine why Johnstone did it. He signed on with the National League while the peace agreement between the two leagues was being hashed out. Johnstone rejected Ban Johnson’s effort to retain his services.11

Johnstone remained in the National League until 1912 and along with Bill Klem, Hank O’Day, and Bob Emslie formed a steady cadre of umpires. He umpired a total of 1,443 games in the league, 1,039 of them behind home plate and 404 on the bases. He umpired in two World Series, in 1906 (White Sox-Cubs) and 1909 (Pirates-Tigers). In 1906 Johnstone and Silk O’Loughlin split the umpiring duties. In 1909 Johnstone and O’Loughlin umpired in six of the seven games; the pair sat out Game Two while Bill Klem and Billy Evans umpired. All four umpired in Games Four through Seven.12

In his first year in the National League, 1903, Johnstone had a notable incident on April 26 in a game between Cincinnati and St. Louis at Cincinnati. In the last inning Johnstone, the only umpire that day, called a hit by St. Louis’s Homer Smoot a home run; it drove in three runs to win the game. Johnstone had riled up the Cincinnati fans earlier when he ejected Maggie Magoon for bench-jockeying. Police had to escort Johnstone off the diamond after the game.13

Of the 28 ejections Johnstone had in the 1904 season, at least six involved the New York Giants. On October 4 he ejected three Giants and forfeited the contest to the St. Louis Cardinals, completing a sweep of a doubleheader at the Polo Grounds. From the Sporting Life account: “(Doc) Marshall objected because Dunn, who made the circuit of bases for a home run, failed to touch the first base bag. (Bill) Dahlen objected because (Danny) Shay was allowed a base he had stolen. (Billy) Gilbert continued the protest and owing to the delay caused by this player and others Umpire Johnstone forfeited the game by the score of 9 to 0 to St. Louis. When Johnstone was on the way to his dressing room one of the spectators attempted to strike him. The man was arrested, but Johnstone refused to make any charge against him and he was released. [National League] President Harry Pulliam, who was at the game, said the umpire’s action was perfectly proper and that the game would stand forfeited.”14

In 1905 Johnstone ejected McGraw seven times among his 19 ejections. In 1906 his confrontations with McGraw boiled over on August 6, when the Chicago Cubs won 3-1 at the Polo Grounds. During the game McGraw and Art Devlin were chased by Johnstone. At the end of the game Johnstone was assaulted by a fan, who was arrested and fined $10.15

After the game, Chicago third baseman Harry Steinfeldt, in a letter to Pulliam, described what had happened:

“At your request I wish to reluctantly say that I heard John J. McGraw, Manager of the New York Club, call James Johnstone, at the Polo Grounds in New York, ‘a damn dirty cock eating bastard, and a low-lifed son-of-bitch of a yellow cur hound, and that if he (McGraw) had anything to do with it, Johnstone would never come into the Polo Grounds again.’ This was on Monday August 6th at the Polo Grounds.

“Yours very truly, Harry Steinfeldt.”16

The next day Johnstone was denied admission to the Polo Grounds. Bob Emslie was the other assigned umpire and got into the ballpark but refused to umpire alone, even though the Giants offered to have a substitute to replace Johnstone. Johnstone forfeited the game to the Cubs.17

Late in the 1906 season, the Giants questioned not only whether the National League had the right to schedule umpires, but the leadership of league President Pulliam. Pulliam responded quickly on the matter of scheduling umpires, stating, “Total 95 games played. O’Day, alone 9; Emslie, alone 5; Klem, alone 9; Johnstone, alone 2; Emslie and O’Day, 17; Emslie and Conway, 21; Emslie and Johnstone, 10; O’Day and Johnstone, 8; O’Day and Klem, 4; O’Day and Conway, 4; Klem and Carpenter, 4; Johnstone and Klem, 2. In twenty five games one umpire officiated. In seventy games two umpires officiated.”18

Pulliam refused to discuss the scheduling of umpires, saying they were confidential and known only to the league staff and the umpires. None of the other clubs in the league supported the Giants in barring an umpire from the ballpark. (McGraw denied that he knew of an umpire being kept from umpiring a game.) Despite open opposition by the Giants, Pulliam was re-elected National League president in December.19

Johnstone and Silk O’Loughlin won praise for their umpiring in the 1906 World Series between the White Sox and Cubs. “The universal opinion of the fans (was) that better work never had been seen. … Both were absolutely impartial, and no kicking of any consequence marred the games.”20

In 1907 Johnstone umpired 143 games and really seemed to belong in the majors. The Pittsburgh Press wrote, “Players are of the opinion that he is too strict with them, but this is not the case. He merely does his duty as laid down by the rules of the National League.”21

The 1908 season was one that few people would ever forget. Both pennant races were close, and for Johnstone it was a season that would have an impact on his future as a major-league umpire. He worked 134 games and 30 of the contests were with Bill Klem in games played by the Giants. On October 8 Johnstone was behind the plate in the replay of the Giants-Cubs game marred by the famous Fred Merkle baserunning boner. The Cubs won, 4-2, and went on to the World Series and the world championship.

Before the replay game, Klem and Johnstone were approached by Joseph Creamer, the Giants team physician, who offered them a bribe to make sure the Giants won. The umpires rejected the attempted bribe and reported it to the National League office. President Pulliam had selected Johnstone and Klem to umpire the game. An article titled “Once There Was an Honest Ump” says Creamer made his proposal to both umpires under the Polo Grounds grandstand. The article says, “Big Jim Johnstone looked threateningly at the physician. … Then the doctor, fearing a mixup, pulled Klem aside. He made all kinds of promises from buying him the Flatiron building to making him a Tammany chieftain. Klem’s lips curled as he shot a look of disgust at the physician. Johnstone, who stood near enough to hear the transaction, wanted to take a punch at this would-be briber.”22

Johnstone wasn’t selected to umpire in the World Series in 1908, and word was that he was thinking of retirement. He told a reporter he had been thinking of retirement for a long time, saying, “The stories accusing me of being sore because I wasn’t selected to act the [World Series] games between Chicago and Detroit are not true. I realize it is up to the National Commission to make selections for these games, and although I would like to serve in the series, I have no axe to grind on this point.”23

Johnstone lasted in the National League until 1912. An article in Baseball Magazine in April 1913 said his work had fallen off badly in 1910 and 1911. The writer, William A. Phelon, said Johnstone did not have the eyesight or energy of earlier days. But in 1912 Johnstone returned to his earlier form, was the “capable, equable official (of) bygone years, and seemed plenty good enough for several seasons more.”24 But Johnstone retired, saying he had not been given a fair shake in postseason assignments and salaries and “would never work in the National League while the present incumbent [Thomas S. Lynch] holds office.”25

Johnstone umpired in the American Association in 1914 and the Federal League in 1915. He umpired 153 games in the Federal League’s final season.

He also umpired in the Inter-League Series staged by shipbuilding teams. This last stint was a result of the “work or fight” order issued by Army Provost Marshal Enoch Crowder, who was in charge of the World War I military draft. Many ballplayers responded by going to work in shipyards. Johnstone volunteered to umpire the contests.26

Johnstone had another life outside of baseball: He was a metal molder and patternmaker in the offseason. During a meeting with baseball men in February 1912, he showed a device to keep locks from being picked. Roger Bresnahan, the former Giant and manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, opined that Johnstone should have worked on a device that would prevent umpires from robbing home teams of ballgames.27

But Johnstone was working on something that would make his retirement from baseball more comfortable. It was a catcher’s mask. He used this knowledge of field conditions to make changes to a mask that in some cases are still in use today. Sportswriter Edward P. Duffy wrote, “So every time you go to see a ball game and see the catcher put on that light visionful metal mask that are well nigh unbreakable, you make a pleasing thought to the Newarker … and thank him for rendering the catcher’s and umpire’s task less risky and more proficient.”28

Johnstone began marketing the mask in late 1921, and a primary customer was A.G. Spalding & Bros. Company. By 1923, 5,000 masks had been delivered to Spalding. Other sporting goods outlets including Reach also sold the mask. Catchers and umpires using the mask said it permitted freer and more unobstructed vision, and, because it was made from aluminum casting, was lighter than other masks.29

Johnstone received some resistance to his patent application from other manufacturers but his patent was granted. Mike Johnstone, his great-grandson, sought Johnstone’s entry into the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame in February 1994 for the invention of this mask. The organization bestowed a special award on Johnstone that year.30

Johnstone married Sarah Hughes in 1898, and they had three children. Sarah died in 1927. Jim and his son, Walter, went back to Ireland, where Johnstone died in Cork on June 13, 1927. In the days before antibiotics, he succumbed from an infected boil on his neck. The obituary noted that he had been advised to go to Europe after the death of his wife.31

 

Notes

1 This reference comes from the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Umpire File on Jim Johnstone.

2 Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds., Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Third Edition (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, 2007), 173-75.

3 Robert Peyton Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs: The History of an Outlaw Major League, 1914-1915 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2009), 107.

4 James Johnstone, “Mobbing the Umpire,” Baseball Magazine, November 19, 1908, 35.

5 Ibid.

6”Mobbing the Umpire,” 35-36.

7 Edward P. Duffy, “Down Memory Lane,” New York Sun, date uncertain but prior to Johnstone’s death, in Johnstone’s Hall of Fame file.

8 Eugene C. Murdock, Ban Johnson: Czar of Baseball (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1982), 98.

9 “American League,” Sporting Life, July 5, 1902, 10.

10 “American League,” Sporting Life, July 26, 1902, 10.

11 “In League Circles,” Sporting Life, February 28, 1903, 5.

12 Bill James, John Dewan, Neil Munro, and Don Zminda, eds., STATS All-Time Baseball Sourcebook (Skokie, Illinois: STATS, Inc., 1998), 1536-37.

13 “National League,” Sporting Life, May 7, 1903, 7.

14 “National League,” Sporting Life, October 15, 1904, 8.

15 “National League,” Sporting Life, August 18, 1906, 4.

16 The author received this letter on July 1, 2002, from Tom Shieber, who at the time was Baseball Hall of Fame curator of new media.

17 “National League,” Sporting Life, August 18, 1906, 4.

18 “A Unique Event,” Sporting Life, August 18, 1906, 8.

19 “The Senior League,” Sporting Life, December 22, 1906, 3.

20 “Work of Umpires Is Praised; O’Loughlin and Johnstone Given Verbal Bouquets on All Hands,” article from unknown publication in Johnstone’s Hall of Fame file.

21 “Johnstone an Ideal Umpire,” article in Pittsburgh Press done before Pulliam’s death in 1909; in Johnstone’s Hall of Fame file.

22 Two articles, “Once There Was an Honest Ump,” and “Pair of Umps Now Have a Life Time In National,” of unknown origin in Johnstone’s Hall of Fame file.

23 “Johnstone Quits,” Sporting Life, October 24, 1908, 11.

24 William A. Phelon, “Baseball History Up-to-Date,” Baseball Magazine, April 1913, 24.

25 “Jim Johnstone Done,” Sporting Life, December 14, 1912, 3.

26 “Jim Johnstone Chief Umpire,” article of unknown origin in Johnstone’s Hall of Fame file.

27 “Milestones,” The Sporting News, February 29, 1912.

28 Edward P. Duffy, “Down Memory Lane,” publication unknown, from Johnstone’s Hall of Fame file.

29 Johnstone’s Hall of Fame file, Letter to Johnstone from A.G. Spalding & Bros.

30 New Jersey Inventors Congress and Hall of Fame.

31 “Veteran Umpire Dies on Trip to Ireland,” Newark Evening News, June 28, 1927, 21.

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