Fiery and temperamental on the playing field but friendly and reserved off it, George Moriarty was one of the most colorful characters of the Deadball Era, gaining fame at various times as a third baseman, umpire, manager, poet, newspaper columnist, and songwriter. Famed for his leadership abilities, penchant for brawling, a strong arm at third base, and an unparalleled knack for stealing home, Moriarty manned the hot corner for Detroit from 1909 through 1914. Almost universally well-liked, Moriarty was “a fine type of man, the kind of man anyone would like to meet… deservedly popular wherever he goes,” Baseball Magazine reported in 1912. “Moriarty… was always likely to come through in the pinch,” Detroit sportswriter Joe S. Jackson wrote in 1915. “As a third baseman he had a wonderful whip and as a base runner he was daring, and especially dangerous after he had reached third base. … He knows the game thoroughly and is aggressive. His one handicap, as said, has been that he is not a hard hitter.”
George Joseph Moriarty was born in Chicago on July 7, 1884, to John J. Moriarty and the former Catherine Stevens, thirteen years after their home burned in the great fire of 1871. (The family name may originally have been spelled “Moriarity,” a spelling George used until he reached the major leagues.) The elder Moriarty was a semipro catcher, a childhood friend of Charles Comiskey, and a driver on Chicago’s streetcar line for 58 years. George grew up near the stockyards on Chicago’s South Side, and, after dropping out of school following the sixth grade, became a noted ballplayer in the city’s notoriously competitive semipro leagues.
George signed his first pro contract at age 16 in 1901, batting .263 for Davenport (Iowa) and Rock Island (Illinois) during the first of three seasons he would spend in the Three-I League. After spending 1902 and 1903 with Bloomington, Joliet, and Springfield, Illinois, Moriarty took a job with the Oliver Typewriter Company in late 1903, playing third base on the renowned company team. In an exhibition game against the Cubs, Moriarty had the good fortune to start a triple play at third base. Cubs manager Frank Selee decided to give Moriarty a one-game tryout on the last day of the 1903 season. The press noted the 19-year-old was “palpably nervous,” and he went 0-for-5 though acquitting himself well in the field. The performance was enough for him to break camp with Chicago in 1904, but after going hitless in four games he was farmed out to Little Rock of the Southern Association, then sold outright a few weeks later to Toledo of the American Association. It was in Toledo that Moriarty began to earn a reputation as a brawler. One day in 1905, Indianapolis manager Ed Barrow was riding Moriarty mercilessly, but the young third sacker began shouting comebacks that were more clever than Barrow’s insults. Barrow charged, and Moriarty beat him to a pulp. Former big leaguer Willie McGill, who witnessed the incident, afterward called Moriarty “the fightingest kid I ever saw.”
After Moriarty led the league with 51 steals in 1905, Toledo sold his contract to the American League’s New York Highlanders. Moriarty proved a capable utility player for New York in 1906, batting only .234 but filling in at five different positions: first, second, third, left field, and center field. Defensively, he impressed one writer as “as cool a man for his age – twenty-one – as ever stood at the third corner, and he handles the hardest hits with the greatest ease.” In 1907 Moriarty became a full-time utility player, garnering 474 plate appearances while playing seven positions – everything except pitcher and catcher. He also blossomed as a hitter. His .277 average, .320 on-base percentage, and .336 slugging percentage were all better than the league average; the former two would remain career highs. Moriarty filled the same super-utility role in 1908, though his average fell to .236. After that season George received the good news that the last-place Highlanders had sold him to the reigning American League champs, the Detroit Tigers.
Installed as Detroit’s regular third baseman in 1909, Moriarty helped them win another pennant with a .273 average and good defense at third. In the Tigers’ thrilling World Series loss to Pittsburgh he batted the very same .273, collecting six hits while scoring four runs. A spike wound sustained in Game Six required 15 stitches, but Moriarty was nonetheless in the starting lineup for Game Seven.
At six feet tall and about 190 pounds, the right-handed batting Moriarty was a large player for his time. “He was a weak hitter,” sportswriter Joe Williams once wrote, “but he had that rare something in his makeup which produces leadership, that divine spark that invests mediocrity with might.” He was also willing to brawl with anyone who cared to challenge him. Once the young Ty Cobb reportedly wanted to fight Moriarty, and George promptly handed Cobb a baseball bat. “A fellow like you needs a bat to even things up when fighting an Irishman,” Moriarty told him. Cobb backed down. Moriarty’s personality off the field, however, was diametrically opposed to his behavior on it. He was considered a gentleman who never used profanity, “soft spoken and gentle in manner.” On road trips to Boston, he spent most of his leisure time socializing with Jesuit priests from nearby College of the Holy Cross.
Moriarty lit a fire under the Tigers with his daring baserunning exploits, which included an uncanny ability to steal third base and, most especially, home plate. One writer made the unlikely claim that Moriarty “[stole] home almost as often as other players pilfered second base.” The numbers vary wildly depending on who tells the story. Over one unspecified two-year period, he was said to have successfully stolen home 14 times in 17 attempts, while other sources credit him with 14 thefts of home in a single season. Moriarty himself claimed to have done the deed 17 times in 1908 and 1909 combined. Anecdotes aside, Moriarty is documented to have stolen home at least 11 times, although the actual number is almost certainly larger.
Moriarty’s most famous attempt to steal home, however, resulted in an out. On May 16, 1909, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and his Tigers losing 3-2, Moriarty attempted to steal home with the game-tying run. Boston catcher Bill Carrigan not only tagged Moriarty out to end the game, but also spit tobacco juice on him, saying “Don’t ever try to pull that on a smart guy.” Moments later Carrigan was lying on his back, having been flattened by a Moriarty punch. After the game, the Boston catcher had to disguise himself as a groundskeeper in order to escape the mob of angry Detroiters that awaited him outside Bennett Park.
On May 28, 1909, shortly after the incident, Detroit News editorial writer William J. Cameron published an ode to Moriarty titled “Don’t Die On Third” that was syndicated nationwide. In its day, Cameron’s editorial was more famous than two contemporary baseball works, Jack Norworth’s “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and Franklin P. Adams’ “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon.” Thousands of copies were reprinted in booklet form, and for the rest of his life Moriarty would carry the unwieldy nickname “The Man Who Won’t Die On Third.”
From 1911 through 1916, Moriarty served as field captain of the Tigers and managed the club whenever skipper Hughey Jennings wasn’t present. However, he would never again hit as well as he had in 1907 and 1909. The Tigers plummeted from the 1909 pennant to sixth place by 1912, and Moriarty’s batting followed the same downward spiral. He hit between .239 and .254 every year from 1910 through 1914, providing the Tigers with solidly below average offense but, most observers agreed, excellent defense at third base. “No third baseman ever whipped a ball across the infield with more speed or accuracy,” the Detroit News‘ H.G. Salsinger wrote. Moriarty was also a quick thinker in the field. On April 24, 1911, he started a triple play by intentionally dropping a popup after the infield fly rule had been called, then throwing out the two confused baserunners.
In 1915, the 31-year-old Moriarty gave up his third base job to Ossie Vitt and spent the year assisting Jennings as a player-coach. The Tigers gave Moriarty his unconditional release that November. After going 1-for-5 as a pinch hitter for the Chicago White Sox in early 1916, Moriarty received his release and was named manager of the Memphis Chicks in May. Suffering from typhoid fever, he guided the club to a sixth-place finish in the Southern Association. In 1917 he found his true calling, embarking on an illustrious 22-year career as an American League umpire.
“Mr. Moriarty has always been a fiery, spirited individual who never hesitated to speak his piece,” Joe Williams once wrote in the New York World-Telegram. “Indeed, the only indictment I have ever had against Mr. Moriarty is that he writes poetry – not only writes it, but recites it.” The charge, alas, was true. Moriarty had long been an amateur poet, getting published here and there, and in 1918 he began writing a nationally syndicated newspaper column which frequently featured his poetry. Moriarty’s literary specialty was elegies; he composed tribute poems upon the deaths of John McGraw, Miller Huggins, Lou Gehrig, fellow ump Silk O’Loughlin, and others. A poem written after Frank Chance‘s death was engraved on the Peerless Leader’s tombstone. Also a talented vocalist and songwriter, Moriarty had several of his musical compositions published by the Remick Music Corporation, including “Bonehead Plays,” “Mississippi Moon,” and “It’s a Long Road to Dublin.” He also wrote a regular column, “Calling Them,” for Baseball Magazine. The quality of his literary work is debatable, but he was certainly a better writer than most other grammar school dropouts.
In 1927 Moriarty resigned his umpiring position and replaced Cobb as Tigers manager. A teetotaler, Moriarty attended church every Sunday and expected his players to do the same. He piloted the Tigers to fourth and sixth place finishes before resigning when his two-year contract ended and returning to the AL umpiring staff.
In a famed incident that almost cost him his career, Moriarty fought four members of the Chicago White Sox simultaneously on Memorial Day 1932. Moriarty called a pitch by Sox hurler Milt Gaston ball three instead of strike three, and Gaston gave up a game-tying triple on the next pitch, eventually losing the game. When the White Sox heckled Moriarty as he walked off the field, he shouted back: “I’ll fight the whole White Sox team!” The 47-year-old ump was promptly attacked by four White Sox, some scarcely half his age: Gaston, Charlie Berry, Frank Grube, and player-manager Lew Fonseca. Moriarty sustained cuts, bruises, and a broken hand, but fought them to a draw. “Mr. Moriarty must be slipping,” columnist Williams quipped. “I can remember when he used to take on whole ball clubs as a warmup.” Gaston was suspended for ten days by AL president Will Harridge, the other three players were fined, and Moriarty was given a public reprimand.
Rumored to be on the chopping block because of the fight, Moriarty saved his job by embarking on a goodwill tour on behalf of the American League that off-season, lecturing and reciting his poetry at schools, American Legion banquets, and the like. Using dramatic gestures as he spoke, Moriarty, according to one observer, “makes the dishes rattle when he pounds home a point. Has power to compel attention by his appearance, as well as his voice. Might be taken for a ship’s captain, a chief of police or a major of marines.” The lecture tour was well-received, so much so that AL owners found it impossible to fire Moriarty as they had planned. It didn’t hurt that he was also an excellent umpire; a 1935 poll of AL players conducted by The Sporting News named him “hands down” the best umpire in the league.
Moriarty has the distinction of ejecting three players from World Series play, more than any other umpire. In Game Three of the 1935 Series, he berated and then booted the Cubs’ Charlie Grimm, Tuck Stainback, and Woody English for, among other things, excessive heckling of Hank Greenberg. For that stunt, Moriarty was fined $200; he had violated Kenesaw Mountain Landis‘ rule against ejecting players from World Series games without the commissioner’s prior approval. Moriarty retired from umpiring after the 1940 season, joining the AL public relations staff as a traveling lecturer. During World War II he rejoined the Tigers as what was called a “master scout” and held the post through 1958, discovering a handful of future big leaguers, including Harvey Kuenn.
Moriarty married Ada Stone in 1905; they had one son, George Michael. The marriage ended in divorce and Moriarty remarried Mary Allen in 1936. They also had one child, David, before they were divorced in a lively 1943 trial during which Mrs. Moriarty accused her husband of domestic violence.
After his scouting career ended, Moriarty retired to Coral Gables, Florida, where he died of kidney cancer on April 7, 1964. He was 79 years old and was buried in Saint Mary Catholic Cemetery in the south Chicago suburb of Evergreen Park. The headline over his Sporting News obituary read: “BATTLING MORIARTY – UMP WHO LOVED TO FIGHT.” Moriarty’s grandson, the Fulbright Scholar and actor Michael Moriarty, would later play the lead role in one of the most acclaimed baseball films of all time, Bang the Drum Slowly (1973). Michael Moriarty also starred on television’s Law & Order, playing Assistant District Attorney Ben Stone – or ADA Stone, his grandmother’s maiden name. Filmmaking ran in the blood as George Moriarty is now credited as creating the first baseball-themed movie with sound – Play Ball! – in 1935.
This biography originally appeared in David Jones, ed., Deadball Stars of the American League (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2006).
Baseball Magazine (June 1911, July 1912, April 1913, October 1913)
New York Times
New York World-Telegram