SABR

Tommy Connolly

This article was written by David W. Anderson.

One of the important currents in the history of early twentieth-century baseball is how many immigrants not only embraced their new home but also its national game. Hall of Fame Umpire Tommy Connolly stands as a prime example of this fact. Born in Manchester, England, on December 31, 1870, immigrated to the United States in 1884, Tommy Connolly turned his interest in baseball and fascination with the rules into a career. His father was a stonemason and the entire family, except one son who preceded them, came to the U.S. aboard the Cunard Liner Servia.

Connolly played cricket while in Great Britain, but had never seen a baseball game until his family settled in Natick, Massachusetts. His father became a salesman for Catholic Church supplies and provided the family with a comfortable living. Connolly would live in Natick for the rest of his life.

In Natick, he became batboy for a local team and developed an interest in studying the rules of baseball, reportedly from reading editions of Sporting Life. Unlike many early umpires who took up the profession once their playing days were over, Connolly never played any organized baseball. His interest in the rules and the knowledge he developed naturally lead him to a successful umpiring career, both on and off the field.

During the early 1890s Connolly umpired for the YMCA Club of Natick. His professional career began in 1894 in the New England League. Connolly remained with that league through the 1897 season. Originally discovered by National League umpire Tim Hurst, it was Hurst who recommended that the Senior Circuit hire Connolly.
Connolly worked two years in the National League during a time when umpiring in the major leagues was as much an ordeal as it was a job. He sat out a good part of the 1900 season due to multiple disagreements with National League President Nicholas Young, who apparently failed to support his on field rulings. By the end of the year Connolly was officiating in the New York State League.

Fortunately for Connolly's umpiring career and organized baseball itself, Ban Johnson came along. Johnson promised umpires he hired that they would receive full support from the League office and oppose "rowdyism," a policy that suited Connolly. Though he had never seen Connolly umpire, Connie Mack recommended that Johnson hire Connolly for the inaugural 1901 season beginning over a half century of service with the American League.

Because he worked in the League's first season, it is easy to note Connolly's career as one of firsts. It is an impressive list, especially when it is understood his on field performance justified many of the firsts. Simply put, Tommy Connolly was one of the greatest umpires to ever take the field. Connolly umpired the first American League ever played when Chicago hosted Cleveland. He also umpired inaugural games at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Fenway Park in Boston and Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. He and Hank O'Day were selected to officiate in the first World Series in 1903. Connolly subsequently umpired in seven other fall classics. Connolly umpired in the Junior Circuit until June 1931, when he retired as a field umpire and was named American League Umpire in Chief by League President Will Harridge.

He served in that position until retiring in January 1954. His hiring by Harridge came at a time when nearly every team in the league was unhappy with the quality of umpiring. To address the issue, Connolly instituted many reforms, including scouting the minor leagues for umpiring talent. When a prospect was identified, Connolly would often do the evaluation personally.

Connolly's baseball career spanned a time from when umps worked games alone all way to the present day four man crews. It also spanned a time when the profession was not highly regarded to one that requires formal training and years of on the job experience. Connolly can take credit for much of the changed status of umpires and umpiring in the major leagues.

Connolly married Margaret Gavin in 1902, and they had seven children, four daughters and three sons. Margaret died in 1943 and Connolly lived with two of his daughters until his death in 1961 at the age of 90. He was selected to the Hall of Fame with fellow umpire Bill Klem in 1953. Connolly was unable to attend the induction due to illness.

A smallish, slim man, Tommy Connolly always dressed formally with stiff collars with a tie split by a jeweled stickpin. When asked about his preference for formal dress Connolly said he dressed carefully because he was representing an important phase of American life. Though not physically imposing, Connolly was able to garner the respect of players by his knowledge of the rules, fairness and a firm manner.

During the Dead Ball Era, many umpires made their mark by ejecting players, coaches, managers and sometimes fans. The primary reason for this was umps were working alone and had to do anything to keep control. In his first year, Connolly tossed ten players, but as he gained experience and respect he seldom had to resort to the thumb. Many accounts of his career note that he umpired ten years without resorting to an ejection. The immortal Ty Cobb respected Connolly and once said, "You can go just so far with Tommy. Once you see his neck get red it's time to lay off."

From 1901 to 1907 Connolly primarily worked games alone and preferred to do so until the time came when the league hired enough umpires to allow for two-man crews, and later, three-man crews. As an umpire supervisor, Connolly was skeptical over the need for a fourth ump, saying three were enough; "…just perfect…" is how he put it. But the league office won that one.

Despite his preference, Connolly admitted later in his life that solo umpires had their hands full and often could not be in position to make a call. In describing play during the early Dead Ball days, Connolly said players took advantage of the single umpire system by leaving base early on fly balls, cutting the second or third base corner to gain an edge, trip base runners and do whatever else was required to gain an advantage. Connolly noted these tactics almost always caused altercations. Connolly summed up, "An umpire just couldn't cover every base and everything that happened no matter how alert he was or how hard he tried. But we did the best we could. I have no regrets."

When he worked alone, Connolly would stay behind the plate when first base was open. With a runner on first, he would move to the back of the pitcher's mound. But unlike other Dead Ball Era umpires, Connolly would move back to the plate with a runner on second. Connolly reasoned he would be in better position to see a play at third and of course would then have the plate covered.

On the field Connolly was methodical and far from colorful. He would tell anyone who listened that no one ever bought a ticket to see an umpire. He once tossed Babe Ruth during the Bambino's early days with Boston. During those days Ruth would often visit with Connolly during the off-season. Anyone familiar with Ruth knows he could not or would not remember a person's name and almost always referred to people as "Kid." But that did not apply to Connolly. The Babe would often greet him with "Hi yah Tommy, you old son of a gun. Remember that day you tossed me?"

While having a reputation as an excellent mentor for younger umpires, Connolly would also attempt to nurture young players as well. During the debut of a promising rookie who went on to a Hall of Fame career, Tommy called time to talk to the young hurler who was catching grief from the opposing dugout for the crime of not toeing the mound properly. Going out to the mound, Connolly told the pitcher, "Son, there are right ways and wrong ways to pitch in this league. Let me show you the right way. I'll take care of that wrecking crew in the dugout and from what you've shown me today you'll be up here a long time."

The rookie pitcher was Gettysburg Ed Plank, who won over 300 big league games.

As an umpire supervisor, Connolly often had to judge talent. Though he was a small man, he preferred umps to have some size. He said a large umpire often makes a good impression on the field and that shorter umpires often have trouble working behind large catchers. He was a stickler on the rules but when asked to list what made a good umpire, he said, "If they're otherwise all right, what you have to teach them is poise. And another thing I tell 'em is not to have rabbit ears. Never mind that wrecking crew in the dugout. Just go about your job of calling 'em on the field."

Connolly was an excellent judge of umpiring talent and he also was a fair judge of playing talent as well. Until his dying day, Tommy would mention two players on his list of all time greats. He called Walter Johnson the greatest pitcher he had ever seen, and Ty Cobb the best position player because Cobb could, "…beat you in so many ways."

Upon his retirement in 1953, Connolly was awarded a golden pass to major league games and when his schedule and health permitted, would often be seen at Fenway Park


NOTE: A version of this biography first appeared in Tom Simon, ed., Deadball Stars of the National League (Washington, D. C.: Brassey's, Inc., 2004).


Sources

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.

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