Who was the fastest man ever to step on a major league diamond? This question would surely provoke a heated debate among diehard baseball fans, with many names surfacing. It is a safe assumption that Billy Stage’s name would not come up, yet he is almost certainly the only man to hold world records in two sprint events at the time of his major league debut. Billy who? Don’t bother checking the baseball encyclopedias for his name because Billy Stage, only a few months after equaling the world record in the hundred-yard dash, became a National League umpire.
Charles Willard “Billy” Stage was born in Painesville, Ohio, on November 26, 1868, the second of three sons of Stephen K. Stage, a butcher, and the former Sarah Knight. His parents gave little thought to their boys attending college, but Billy developed a passion for learning and soon had his heart set on receiving a higher education. Even when his parents voiced active opposition to his plan, he insisted that he would work his way through college. (Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 2, 1894) That steadfast determination would become his distinguishing trait throughout his life.
So in 1888 Billy enrolled at Cleveland’s Western Reserve University, which had recently been renamed Adelbert College of Western Reserve. In addition to all of the time he devoted to his studies and to earning enough money to pay for tuition, he also found time to play varsity baseball and to serve as captain of the school’s first varsity football team.
It was at track and field, however, where he truly excelled. On May 28, 1890, Adelbert hosted a field day during which Billy Stage put on an astonishing performance. He was the winner in seven different events: the standing high and broad jumps, the fifty-yard backward dash, the hop, skip and jump, the half-mile run, and the 100- and 220-yard dashes. And in each of them except the novelty backward race, Stage posted the best performance turned in by an Ohio collegian that year. (Cleveland Leader, May 30, 1890)
What particularly captured attention was that he was clocked in ten-and-one-fifth (10.2) seconds in the 100-yard dash. The time raised both eyebrows and questions about its accuracy, since, as the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted, “If the time and distance were correct, it was a remarkable performance and only two-fifths of a second slower than the professional record.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 29, 1890) But the Cleveland Leader defended its veracity, maintaining that the 10.2 second time “was that of the slow watch and there is no doubt of its correctness.” (Cleveland Leader, May 29, 1890)
His excited schoolmates began besieging the eastern track authorities of the Amateur Athletic Union (A.A.U.) with telegrams trying to enter him in that week’s intercollegiate championships. But their efforts were in vain. The response of the New York Times dripped with condescension: “Mr. Stage, who is well known to several men in this city, is a very promising amateur runner, having competed in a number of races in and near Cleveland and shown good times. It is doubtful, however, if his run Wednesday was timed accurately. He has run many times under eleven seconds with scarcely any training, and had only been training two weeks for Wednesday’s race. An Adelbert student will not be able to compete in the games to-morrow, that college not being a member of the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes.” (New York Times, May 30, 1890) So Stage did not compete in the meet, at which the 100-yard dash was won in the same time that he had recorded at the Adelbert College field day. (Cleveland Leader, June 1, 1890)
When Billy Stage’s parents became convinced that their son intended to earn his degree with or without their support, they finally came around and began to help him out financially. He earned his undergraduate degree in 1892 and then enrolled in the university’s brand new law school. That October he competed at the A.A.U. championships and did well enough to be hailed as “the Cleveland phenomenon.” (Brooklyn Eagle, October 2, 1892)
By this time, it was clear that he outclassed his fellow Ohio collegians. When he arrived at the annual meet of the Ohio Intercollegiate Association for Athletics the following spring, the host Buchtel College (now the University of Akron) protested his participation and finally cancelled the meet on the grounds that he was “not an Adelbert man but a Western Reserve University man.” Most observers, however, saw this as a transparent excuse for the hosts’ realization that their representatives were no match for Stage. (Cleveland Leader, June 2, 1893)
To stave off any controversy, Stage joined the recently formed Cleveland Athletic Club, a decision that also enabled him to compete against the country’s top amateur runners. But it would prove far more a case of Stage putting the young club and the city of Cleveland on the track and field map than the other way around.
In September of 1893 he experienced a breakthrough that finally forced the Easterners to take notice. At the A.A.U.’s Central Association championships at Cleveland’s Athletic Field on September 2, he entered the hundred-yard dash against a strong field. The runners were tightly bunched for most of the race until a tall, curly-haired runner surged out of the pack. Billy Stage “broke the tape, or the Germantown-yarn to be more accurate” a full three yards ahead his nearest rival as “a large delegation of Adelbert students, who were present to see him run, could not repress their feelings and gave vent to a prodigious yell that aroused the jealousy of the announcer.” (Cleveland Leader, September 3, 1893)
Their jubilation increased when the time was announced: nine-and-four-fifths (9.8) seconds, which equaled the world record! Newspaper accounts were confused about the identity of the record-holder. Some credited Harry Jewett of Detroit, with the Plain Dealer even stating that Jewett set the mark “on the same track [as Stage] and under conditions far more favorable.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 3, 1893) But others correctly stated that it had been set by John Owen Jr. of Detroit and matched by W. T. Macpherson of New Zealand.
There was far less doubt about Stage’s eye-popping time. All five official timers caught him at 9.8, while unofficial timers had him even faster. (Cleveland Leader, September 3, 1893; Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 3, 1893; Massillon Independent, September 28, 1893; Washington Post, September 4, 1893; Outing, October 1893 (23,1), A3)
Nor was his day’s work over. He captured the event’s 220-yard dash in a blazing twenty-two-and-three-fifth (22.6) seconds and the quarter mile in fifty-two-and-one-fifth (52.2) seconds. He won both races so comfortably that the Plain Dealer claimed that he finished the 220 “in a jog” and was running even more easily at the end of the quarter mile, while the Leader boasted that he “slowed perceptibly in the last ten yards” of the 220 and “simply jogged home” in the quarter mile. The three victories were, in the words of the Plain Dealer, “enough glory for Stage and he did not enter any more contests.” (Cleveland Leader, September 3, 1893; Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 3, 1893; Outing, October 1893 (23, 1), A3)
Stage’s triumphs also brought acclaim to the Cleveland Athletic Club and the entire city of Cleveland. Stage “carried the colors of the club to glory in the first open field day in which any of its members ever were entered,” crowed the Leader. “It is seldom that a new club begins by winning three of the most important events on the track in one afternoon.” (Cleveland Leader, September 3, 1893)
His next appearance was at an A.A.U. handicap meet in Chicago on the fourteenth, where he finally had the opportunity to go head-to-head with some of the Eastern stars and “prove to the doubting easterners that he is far superior to anything they have brought west.” (Chicago Times, quoted in Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 16, 1893) He did just that, running three successive heats in the seventy-five-yard dash at seven-and-four-fifths (7.8) seconds — a mere one-fifth of a second off the world record. Two days later, at the A.A.U. Championships in Chicago, he won the hundred-yard dash in a time of ten-and-one-fifth (10.2) seconds and the 220 in twenty-two-and-one-fifth (22.2) seconds. Then three days later, at a meet in St. Louis, he tied Jewett’s world’s record in the 220 with a time of twenty-one-and-three-fifth (21.6) seconds. In the first heat of the 100, several timers had him again tying the world mark, but he fainted at the conclusion of the race and did not do as well in subsequent heats. (Outing, October 1893 (23, 1), A3; Chicago Tribune, September 20, 1893)
This extraordinary month of performances naturally prompted much discussion about the law student, and he was hailed as “the phenomenon of the year,” “the sensation of the day,” “the most wonderful sprinter turned out in years” and “a veritable wonder on the cinder path.” (Chicago Times, quoted in Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 16, 1893; Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 3, 1893; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, quoted in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 20, 1893; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 20, 1893) What may have been most satisfying was that he was one of two recipients of a prestigious gold medal for track excellence that had been offered by the New York Times — the newspaper that had written so condescendingly of Stage three years earlier. (Bizarrely, the medal was cut in half because the board of governors could not decide between Stage and a runner who had won the low and high hurdles events.) (New York Times, November 21, 1893)
His distinctive sprinting technique also attracted considerable attention. Stage was a lanky six-footer who ran “in an unusually erect attitude for a sprinter and is as graceful as he is swift.” (Massillon Independent, September 28, 1893) According to another, “he runs with the ease and grace of a fawn, with head and shoulders erect, and a terrific stride that gives a motion as near flying as any human being could attain.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 20, 1893) And a later sportswriter noted that he “gets his speed more on form than strength, and when in condition runs with scarcely an apparent effort.” (Chicago Tribune, September 2, 1895)
But for all that he was the talk of the track and field world, after his amazing month Billy Stage quietly returned to Cleveland and his law classes. When the school year ended, he was in need of a steady income over the summer months and heard that umpires were needed for college games. Finding good umpires was a problem at all levels of play, but the situation was particularly dire at the college level, where the notorious “you rob me and I rob you” style of umpiring often left visiting clubs with little chance of winning. (Outing, August 1894)
In an effort to resolve this thorny problem, National League president Nick Young had been asked to appoint umpires for that year’s college games. Young must have been thrilled when he got Stage’s application because the young law student was everything he could have asked for in an official. Having to work by themselves and put up with abuse from players and fans, umpires needed to be tough, determined and, above all, command authority, or they would not survive. Billy Stage possessed all of these attributes, and his celebrated track accomplishments would surely earn him respect from both spectators and players. An added bonus was that his legal training was also likely to come in handy, as the National League rulebook was still filled with knotty complexities and another one had been added that spring in the form of a new rule that became known as the “infield fly rule.”
Even Stage’s blazing speed was a valuable asset. National League umpires still almost always worked alone, placing them in the impossible position of having to make calls at all four bases. While no one man could possibly see everything that went on when there were several runners on base, a fast umpire at least had a far better chance of getting in position on plays at the various bases. As a result, speed was considered an important requirement. Noted arbiter Tim Hurst had been a renowned sprinter before taking up umpiring, and continued to run ten to twelve miles a day to prepare for each season. (Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 8, 1894) Meanwhile, slow-footed umpires were roundly criticized; American Association umpire Robert McNichol was once denounced for being “too lazy to run to bases when a close play is made and a close decision is to follow, unlike John Kelly, who covers more ground than a sprint runner under similar circumstances.” (Columbus Times, August 12, 1883)
So Young named Stage as one of seven National League umpires for the 1894 campaign. (Brooklyn Eagle, March 22, 1894) He prepared for his new responsibilities by officiating in numerous college games in April, and Young also assigned him to several exhibition games involving major league teams. Reviews of his work were universally favorable, with Cleveland manager Patsy Tebeau saying that Stage had the makings of a star after he worked a game between the Spiders and his own college nine. (Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 13, 1894) The Leader noted, “The players seem to be perfectly contented when he is behind the bat and there are few players who ever are happy with the umpire.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 13, 1894) His speed was the subject of particular comment, with the Plain Dealer pronouncing, “Stage, as an umpire, is destined to be a success. He is quick in his decisions, covers second base in person and not at long range, and generally gets there about as soon as the ball and runner.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 10, 1894)
With twelve National League teams and only one umpire typically assigned to a game, a seven-man staff meant that there was a spare umpire as long as all of them were healthy. So Stage spent the first week of the season at home in Cleveland without an assignment. (Brooklyn Eagle, April 19, 1894) Then, one week into the season, Nick Young assigned Billy Stage to umpire a game between Philadelphia and Brooklyn on April 26.
Newly hired chief of umpires Harry Wright was on hand to observe and “expressed himself as satisfied with the work of Umpire Stage.” (Sporting News, May 5, 1894) While that might not sound like high praise, it was coming from the staid Wright; as one sportswriter explained, “the conservative old gentleman was quite enthusiastic [about Stage’s work.]” (New York World, reprinted in the Cleveland Leader, April 29, 1894) Wright’s positive assessment was echoed by sportswriters.
The New York World‘s sportswriter provided this description: “There was a ripple of pleasurable excitement when a slim, well-built, handsome young fellow came out to umpire yesterday’s game in place of Jim O’Rourke … The cranks did not know what Stage could do, but thought almost any change an improvement. The sprinter made a great hit, and if he can come near duplicating his work of yesterday on the circuit will be the favorite on the League staff in a short while. His style is a revelation. He is quick as a cat, gives his decisions clearly and instantaneously, and showed several times during the afternoon that he has given the revised rules careful study.” (New York World, reprinted in the Cleveland Leader, April 29, 1894)
The Sporting News pronounced him “an athletic young man who runs to the bases to see every play. He gives his decisions in a quick, not-to-be-disputed way, and is apparently always correct. Stage made a very favorable impression.” (Sporting News, May 5, 1894) The Philadelphia Press reported that Stage “gave great satisfaction. He is active, has a good voice, uses good judgment, and is decided. Stage is a fine umpire.” (Philadelphia Press, reprinted in the Cleveland Leader, April 28, 1894) The New York Press wrote, “he has good judgment on strikes and balls, his decisions are prompt and he is always ‘there’ to see how plays are made … He will be as popular as an umpire as was John Gaffney in his best days.” And the New York American added, “Umpire Stage has a good presence, a good voice, and gets all over the field to watch the different plays. There is quite a contrast between his activity and the slightly cumbersome movements of O’Rourke.” (Both reprinted in the Cleveland Leader, April 29, 1894)
His extraordinary speed continued to attract the most attention. According to the Press, “Once he ran so fast to first base that he beat out the batter and waited for him.” The Brooklyn Eagle reported that even his stance reminded onlookers of a man preparing to sprint: “He stands well back, with his legs stretched out like an inverted Y. As soon as a hit is made he is off toward first base like a shot, reaching the bag before the runner.” (Brooklyn Eagle, April 27, 1894) Perhaps Stage enjoyed some quiet satisfaction from the knowledge that the New York Press was finally acknowledging his speed.
More amazingly, even the Brooklyn fans joined in the chorus of approval for the new umpire: “The bleachers felt moved on several occasions to propose ‘three cheers for the new umpire.’” (New York American, reprinted in the Cleveland Leader, April 29, 1894)
Despite the universal praise, it was subsequently discovered that the novice umpire had made a critical error. Gus Weyhing had been listed on Philadelphia’s lineup card at the start of the game but was then substituted for by another player. That made him ineligible to reenter the game, but Stage allowed him to do so. The umpire maintained that he had done so because he did not yet know the players well enough to realize what had happened. As a result of the mistake, Brooklyn appealed Philadelphia’s win, and the game was eventually thrown out. (Cleveland Leader, May 5, 1894; Brooklyn Eagle, May 22, 1894) But by that time Billy Stage had become a fixture behind home plate at National League diamonds.
Less than a week into his tenure, Stage faced a crisis as a result of a courageous but controversial ruling in a May 1 game at Washington. The home team had been voicing complaints about Stage’s rulings throughout the game but was still clinging to a 2-0 lead over the visiting Brooklyn team when the sixth inning started. Then a close call enabled Brooklyn to score its first run, and, “The entire Washington club crowded around Mr. Stage and disputed all at once. Piggy Ward, who was coach, and not in the game, had the most to say.” (Brooklyn Eagle, May 2, 1894)
Such mob scenes had long plagued the National League, and they were only getting worse. As Henry Chadwick observed, “The moment an umpire takes his position in a game he finds opposed to him at the very outset eighteen contesting players on the field. Then, too, among his special foes are the ‘Hoodlums’ of the bleachers, who go for him on principle; besides which there are his partisan enemies in the grand stand.” (Sporting Life, May 5, 1894)
To its credit, the National League was making some effort to relieve the umpire’s burden. The hiring of respected veteran manager Harry Wright to fill the newly created position of chief of umpires was intended to ensure greater consistency among umpires and thereby reduce the constant bickering. While Young still retained ultimate authority, it was hoped that, “Harry Wright will take a great load off President Young’s shoulders, though he will be under the direction of the chief executive of the league. It will be his duty to keep the umpires up to their work and, therefore, he will visit the various cities. Before the season opens he will call the umpires together and go over the rules so as to secure uniformity of interpretation, as well as to emphasize the points that will most need attention.” (Sporting News, March 3, 1894)
One of the points stressed by Young and Wright that spring was that umpires should do whatever was necessary to limit disputes, even if it meant forfeiting the game. So in his very first National League game, Stage had “borrowed a watch and threatened to declare the game forfeited if they did not take the field in two minutes.” (Brooklyn Eagle, April 27, 1894) This proved effective, so Stage had started bringing a watch to subsequent games. After being surrounded by the Washington players, “Mr. Stage calmly took out his watch and gave Washington captain Bill Joyce three minutes to return to the field. Joyce continued to kick and defied Stage to declare the game forfeited to Brooklyn by 9 to 0. When Joyce saw that Stage was in earnest he took the field but it was too late. The kicking continued, but the umpire was firm.” (Brooklyn Eagle, May 2, 1894)
Even the Brooklyn players expected that Stage would relent and let the game resume, but both sides had underestimated the new umpire’s determination. He stood by his decision, and most of the large Ladies’ Day crowd went home disappointed. Some of them refused to leave and threatened violence, so Stage had to be escorted from the grounds by policemen. (Brooklyn Eagle, May 2, 1894) Upon reaching the safety of the dressing room, Stage “was assaulted with torrents of abuse and called the filthiest names by the Washington players.” (Boston Herald, reprinted in the Cleveland Leader, May 5, 1894)
The decision naturally sparked considerable discussion. Stage’s hometown paper stuck up for him, commenting, “Umpire Stage showed his metal [sic] yesterday in a way that will gain him still more popularity. Calling the game and giving it to Brooklyn by a score of 9 to 0 because Washington continued to kick over the allotted time after being admonished to play is something almost unprecedented, but it is right. Players are quick to kick on an umpire when they believe they can kick without danger, and Stage being new the Senators naturally thought they could bulldoze him. They found to what extent the bulldozing would go, and it is probable that they have learned to let our Billy alone. Stage’s determination is the one thing that has made him a thorough success in everything he has undertaken, and has marked his career since he first became known.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 2, 1894) And a New York paper echoed the sentiment, informing its readers that Stage “had the courage to assert his authority and put a stop to the hoodlum tactics that have proven a blight on baseball.” (New York Commercial Advertiser, May 2, 1894, reprinted in Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 5, 1894)
Nick Young was a native of Washington and must have heard an earful about the decision, but he too defended Stage. Young pointed out that the umpire had merely followed instructions and blamed Joyce for the debacle, while also giving Washington manager Gus Schmelz “a piece of his mind.” Meanwhile he called Stage, “a man of intelligence, a perfect gentleman … perfectly honest in every decision” and compared his work to that of the highly esteemed John Gaffney. (Boston Herald, reprinted in the Cleveland Leader, May 5, 1894; Brooklyn Eagle, May 5, 1894) This provided all the support the firm-minded umpire needed. When another player started to argue with him the following week, “Mr. Stage drew out a watch and looked at the time. It had the desired effect.” (Brooklyn Eagle, May 10, 1894)
Most observers in Washington, however, had a different perspective on the forfeit. The Washington Post maintained that Stage had blown the call and that Brooklyn was responsible for the dispute and should have been the team that forfeited. But even its account credited Stage with being “as fair and square a man as has ever been seen on a Washington ball field.” (Washington Post, May 2, 1894)
The Post soon revised that charitable verdict and began a vendetta against the young umpire. A headline later that month screamed, “Mr. Stage Presented 6 Big Runs to Boston; We Cannot Beat Ten Men.” (Washington Post, May 29, 1894) Schmelz continued to complain about Stage’s umpiring, and the Post started to regularly make scathing comments about the new arbiter. (Brooklyn Eagle, June 1, 1894)
Stage had been scheduled to continue umpiring in Washington, but after the controversial forfeit Nick Young sent him to Baltimore instead. There his umpiring and blazing speed were once again warmly received. The Sun observed, “Stage is the best umpire who has appeared at Union Park this season. His judgment of balls and strikes was as accurate as [John] Gaffney’s in his best days, and the new man’s base decisions were also indisputable. He is a very fast runner, having a record for a hundred yards in ten and a fraction seconds, and he manages to be on hand at the spot where his decision is to be given.” And the Herald concurred, “Baltimore had the pleasure of seeing Stage umpire yesterday. He is a fine, gentlemanly fellow, and clearly understands his business.” (Both reprinted in the Cleveland Leader, May 5, 1894)
As Stage made his way around the circuit, he also had his share of unpleasant experiences. In a game in New York he ejected Johnny Ward (who, like Stage, had studied law during the off-season) and was cascaded with shouts of “Kill the Umpire.” (Brooklyn Eagle, June 23, 1894) He made an odd ruling in another game and afterward admitted that “he was new to the business and was not yet up to the tricks.” (Brooklyn Eagle, May 10, 1894) At least one other game in which he officiated was protested to the league, but this was on the rather nitpicky ground that he had called a game a rainout after twenty minutes instead of the thirty minutes mandated by the rulebook.
These disputes really said far more about the difficulties faced by all National League umpires than they did about the quality of Stage’s work. In fact, the new umpire had more defenders than critics. The Cleveland papers predictably stuck up for him, but so did many of the Eastern sportswriters. The Boston Globe described him as the “fairest member” of the National League staff, while the Brooklyn Eagle regularly commended his fairness and impartiality. (Boston Globe, July 1, 1894; Brooklyn Eagle, May 4 and 15, 1894) Brooklyn captain Mike Griffin pronounced him “one of the best umpires in the business.” (Brooklyn Eagle, May 10 and 12, 1894) Stage himself reportedly claimed that he had only been criticized by a few “soreheads,” a remark that further infuriated the Washington Post. (Washington Post, July 1, 1894)
The official protests about Stage’s work were also sadly typical of the era’s contentiousness. As A. G. Spalding later explained, many league owners expected Nick Young to fire any umpire who displeased them for any reason. “Umpires who did not give [these owners’ clubs] the best of every close decision would be protested and changed. The telegraph wires were kept hot with messages from such magnates demanding that this umpire be sent here, and that umpire be sent there, and the other umpire be sent elsewhere, to meet the whims and caprices of these persistent mischief-makers.” (A. G. Spalding, America’s National Game, 412)
Thus early in the 1894 campaign, the Brooklyn Eagle remarked, “If President Young continues to agree not to send umpires to each town that protests, there will not be enough men to go around. Washington objects to Tom Lynch, Stage and Tim Hurst, with a few more to be heard from; St. Louis objects to Ed Swartwood, Boston and Brooklyn draw the line at [Jim] O’Rourke, New York is down on Stage and Louisville can’t stand John McQuaid. The season is only a month old.” (Brooklyn Eagle, May 22, 1894)
In response to the barrage of protests, Young added two new umpires to his staff in June: hiring Jack Hartley from the college ranks and persuading the popular John Gaffney to end a brief retirement. But this only served to prove that umpires are best liked when retired; by July, Young reported that he had received far more complaints against Hartley and Gaffney than he had against the umpires who had started the season. (Brooklyn Eagle, July 18, 1894) Clearly he was in a no-win situation.
He was also in a no-win situation when assigning umpires to specific cities. If he caved in to the owners’ “whims and caprices,” it only encouraged more of the same. Yet if he sent an umpire back to a city where a protest had been lodged against him, it ensured a hostile situation and might even jeopardize the umpire’s safety.
Presumably Young decided that this was the most important consideration, and Stage never again umpired in Washington after the controversial forfeit. Instead, over the next eight weeks all of his work was done in Baltimore, Brooklyn, New York, Boston and Philadelphia. After two months of exclusively officiating in the east, Stage was assigned to umpire a lengthy home stand in Cleveland beginning on June 27th. This too was a risky decision for Nick Young to make, since the National League was making a conscious effort to distance itself from the accusations of favorable hometown umpiring that had plagued the league since its inception. Indeed, at one point the league had instituted a rule that its umpires could not hail from a league city, although this proved impractical. (Cleveland Herald, May 24, 1883)
As a result, Stage’s Cleveland debut was awaited anxiously, with the Plain Dealer predicting that he was “so much a favorite here that he will probably be as great an attraction as the game itself.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 26, 1894) And in the first inning of his first game, play was interrupted as Stage was presented with a handsome bouquet of flowers. (Brooklyn Eagle, June 27, 1894)
Placed in an inherently difficult situation, Billy Stage bent over backward to avoid being accused of a hometown bias. “Stage seemed anxious,” observed the Plain Dealer after Brooklyn swept a doubleheader, “to prove that his personal feelings toward his home club would not influence his decisions and he did it. Cleveland got the worst end of it all through.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 28, 1894) The Leader similarly grumbled, “There is a slight tendency in Stage’s work in trying not to give the Clevelands the best of it, to give them a little the worst of it. Every umpire must know that the club which cannot get any close decisions on its own grounds cannot get them anywhere.” (Cleveland Leader, July 8, 1894) Naturally, the Washington Post was far less measured in its commentary, crowing that Stage had “roasted” the home team. (Washington Post, July 1, 1894)
Before Cleveland’s long home stand was over, Stage’s umpiring career was in serious jeopardy. He had already had to leave a game in Brooklyn on June 23 due to an undisclosed illness. (Brooklyn Eagle, June 24, 1894) Then in a game on July 5, he was struck in the head with a foul ball and again forced to withdraw. He was back behind the plate for the next two games but continued to suffer from head pains, and finally was given a week off. On the 13th Stage “happened to be present at the game” in Cleveland and came out of the stand to replace injured umpire Tom Lynch. But then two days later he again had to relinquish his umpiring duties in the middle of a game in Philadelphia. A week later, Stage submitted his resignation, citing ill health. (Boston Globe, July 6, 17, 18 and 24, 1894; Cleveland Leader, July 14, 1894; New York Times, July 18, 1894) Nick Young reported that he was very sorry to lose the services of the young law student. (Brooklyn Eagle, July 28, 1894)
His resignation from umpiring prompted speculation that he would return to sprinting, but this raised a thorny question. Had Stage forfeited his amateur status by working as a professional umpire? Stage maintained that he hadn’t, and announced his intentions to compete in the A.A.U. championships. (Marion Daily Star, July 9, 1894) Others, however, were less sure, noting that the decision would be made by easterners with little ability to empathize with a butcher’s son who was working his way through law school. Rumors flew that Stage would bow to the inevitable and turn pro. (Chicago Tribune, September 12, 1894) In the end, he decided not to run at all that fall, instead concentrating on his studies and umpiring one more National League game on September 28 in Cleveland.
The issue of Stage’s eligibility was revived again as the end of the school year approached. Members of the Cleveland Athletic Club expressed outrage at the idea that Stage could be disqualified from amateur sports for his work as an umpire, and promised to champion his cause with the Amateur Athletic Union. (National Police Gazette, February 23, 1895; Fort Wayne News, February 26, 1895) But Stage chose instead to concentrate on studying for the bar, while also umpiring a handful of National League games. His short-lived return to umpiring brought the usual howls of protest from the Washington Post, which falsely claimed that Stage had “resigned his position because he was convinced of his incompetency.” (Washington Post, July 7, 1895)
After passing the bar exam, Stage went back into training and attempted a return to sprinting. He joined the New York Athletic Club, which was preparing for a much-anticipated meet against the London Athletic Club scheduled for September 21st. (Massillon Independent, August 1 and 15, 1895) And on September 14th he made his return to competition at the A.A.U. championships, where he finished third in the 220-yard dash. (Fort Wayne Journal, September 15, 1895)
On the strength of this, he was selected for the team that would represent the New York Athletic Club a week later against the British athletes. But each side could only enter two athletes in each event, and as the third-place finisher at the A.A.U. championships, Stage was named an alternate. So he cheered on his teammates as they stunned the visitors from London and the track and field world by sweeping every event. (New York Times, September 17 and 22, 1895)
The following week he competed in the New York Athletic Club’s games, which again included the London athletes and were held on Travers Island in front of over 5,000 spectators. When B. J. Wefers, the American sprint star of the previous two weekends, elected not to compete in the fifty-yard dash, a British runner became the overwhelming favorite. Instead Stage sped past him in the home stretch to win by two feet. (Brooklyn Eagle, September 29, 1895; Cleveland Leader, September 29, 1895)
It would prove to be his last involvement with organized athletics. In November, the Amateur Athletic Union held its annual meeting and took up Stage’s case. The A.A.U.’s president was already on record as saying he saw no reason for Stage should be barred. (Brooklyn Eagle, February 9, 1895) But eastern hard-liners — denounced by the Plain Dealer as “a handful of men” — carried the day and Billy was ruled to have permanently forfeited his amateur status as a result of his stint as a professional umpire. (Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 25, 1895)
The decision struck many as unduly harsh, with one sportswriter terming it, “decidedly more radical than any legislation ever considered on the subject.” (Chicago Tribune, November 19, 1895; “On Its Ear: The A. A. U. Jumps In and Starts All Kinds of Trouble,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 19, 1895) There were rumors that the athletic clubs in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Detroit would drop out of the A. A. U. and form a rival organization. The timing of the ruling seemed especially suspicious since it came more than eighteen months after Stage’s umpiring career began and had been delayed until after Stage had represented the New York Athletic Club against its London rivals. (Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 21 and 25, 1895)
Billy Stage, however, kept his opinions to himself. He spent the next week busily coaching the Cleveland Central High School football team and refereeing two college football games. (Exemplifying his unquestioned integrity, both games involved Adelbert College yet the opposing coaches made no objection to Stage officiating.) And Stage also celebrated his twenty-seventh birthday.
In the absence of comment, we can only speculate about how he reacted to the A. A. U.’s ruling. He may well have been shared the widespread outrage about yet another snub from the Easterners and just let others speak for him. But given that he was ready to enter a new phase of his life, it is also possible that he had already decided that it was time to retire from track and field. At any rate, this ended his active involvement with athletics and never had any reason to look back.
Stage’s legal practice expanded quickly over the next few years, with Nick Young even hiring him to represent the National League in a legal matter in 1896. (Sporting News, September 5, 1896, 2) He also became deeply involved in politics after the 1901 election of Cleveland mayor Tom Johnson, a progressive Democrat and a disciple of single-tax advocate Henry George. As it happened, Johnson also had ties to baseball — his brother Al had owned Cleveland’s franchise and been one of the prime financial backers of the Players’ League of 1890 (which just happened to be the first league to assign two umpires to each game). The Johnson brothers had made their fortunes in streetcars, and their chief Brooklyn attorney was none other than John Montgomery Ward, the primary force behind the Players’ League and the man whom Billy Stage had ejected from an 1894 National League game. (Stevens, 186)
It is unlikely, however, that baseball had anything to do with bringing Stage and Johnson together. Stage was already serving on the Democratic state executive committee when Johnson was elected mayor and the two men’s paths must have crossed many times in numerous capacities. (Cambridge Jeffersonian, July 25, 1901) While Johnson was fourteen years older than Stage, he had a gift for attracting younger men to his view of his administration as “a great experiment in democracy.”
Frederic Howe, one of the young men who shared Johnson’s vision, later explained: “Mr. Johnson called his ten years’ fight against privilege a war for ‘A City on a Hill’. To the young men in the movement, and to tens of thousands of the poor who gave it their support, it was a moral crusade rarely paralleled in American politics. The struggle involved the banks, the press, the Chamber of Commerce, the clubs, and the social life of the city. It divided families and destroyed friendships. You were either for Tom Johnson or against him. If for him, you were a disturber of business, a Socialist, to some an anarchist. Had the term Red been in vogue, you would have been called a communist in the pay of Soviet Russia. Every other political issue and almost every topic of conversation was subordinated to the struggle.” (Howe, 113)
Tom Johnson’s passion enabled him to surround himself an extraordinary group: “The young men whom he drew about him always treated him as if he were of their own age. There was no reserve or awe. The men who formed this early group were Newton D. Baker, his law director, who succeeded him as mayor and was later secretary of war under President Wilson; Charles W. Stage, a brilliant young lawyer, who was the centre of any group, and whose gaiety and courage made him a universal favorite; John N. Stockwell, who took to any adventure like a duck to water; and W. B. Colver, an able newspaper man, who was later appointed chairman of the Federal Trade Commission by President Wilson.” (Howe, 128)
Howe’s assessment of the talents of this coterie has been confirmed by historians. George Mowry, for instance, observed that Johnson “attracted a remarkable group of educated and liberal-minded young men around him as subordinate administrators, and at the end of his political career he left Cleveland, according to [journalist] Lincoln Steffens, ‘the best governed city in America.’” (Mowry, 64; Lincoln Steffens, Autobiography (New York, 1931), 473-481)
Soon after Johnson’s election, Stage took on new responsibilities as an acting police court judge and as a state representative. (Mansfield News, August 1, 1902; Delphos Daily Herald, January 29, 1902) In the latter capacity, he earned a reputation as a solid “Johnson man,” but also showed a knack for nonpartisanship, delivering a moving tribute after the assassination of Republican President William McKinley, a native Ohioan. (Delphos Daily Herald, January 29, 1902; Sandusky Evening Star, September 2, 1902) Perhaps it was that capacity that pushed him toward working behind the scenes rather than seeking elected office. At any rate, after an unsuccessful campaign for probate judge in 1905, that was the course he pursued. (Van Wert Daily Bulletin, November 9, 1905)
This new direction may also have been the result of a change in his personal life that occurred when Stage married Miriam Kerruish on August 27, 1903. His new bride came from a background just as extraordinary as his own. Her father, William Kerruish, was the son of emigrants from the Isle of Man and proved such an excellent student that he was admitted to the sophomore class of Western Reserve College. As would be the case for his future son-in-law, money was tight so he worked his way through school “by making beds, sawing wood and doing anything else that he could find to do.”
Kerruish brought an infectious spirit and a strong social conscience to the campus. Although American-born, he took great pride in his heritage and taught his language teachers how to speak Gaelic. He also became deeply involved in the abolitionist movement and convinced his fellow students to invite Frederick Douglass to deliver a commencement address in 1854, a choice that stirred up considerable controversy. Kerruish then finished up his education at Yale — once again teaching the Gaelic language to his instructors — and returned to Cleveland to practice law. He became the head of one of the city’s best law firms and continued to practice law until his death at age ninety-six. He also found time to marry Margaret Quayle, an emigrant from the Isle of Man, and raise a large family.
Their daughter Miriam was born in Cleveland on November 7, 1870, and shared her father’s probing intellect and social conscience. After receiving a bachelor’s of arts degree from Smith College in 1892, Miriam enrolled at Wooster Medical College and graduated in 1895. She became the first female doctor ever to practice at Cleveland City Hospital, where she specialized in obstetrics and pediatrics.
Dr. Kerruish soon became convinced that poverty was responsible for the illnesses of many of the children she was treating. She emerged as a champion of child welfare, organizing the Women’s Protective Association of Cleveland and serving on the board of trustees of the Woman’s Hospital, the Maternity Hospital Council and many other noble causes. She also became active in the woman’s suffrage movement, starting the Cuyahoga County Woman’s Suffrage Party and spearheading its activities. In the midst of all these endeavors, she also found time to give birth to and raise four children — three boys and a girl.
Billy Stage’s career also continued to be a very busy one that remained closely tied to Tom Johnson’s. By 1906, Stage was serving as county solicitor and as director of the Municipal Traction Company, the holding company overseeing the city’s street railways. This latter position was an especially important responsibility as it formed one of the cornerstones of Johnson’s efforts to replace the large corporations that looked out for their own profits with municipally owned entities that put the people first by keeping fares low. (Elyria Reporter, January 25, 1906; Johnson, 224; Howe, 125)
But then after eight years in office, Tom Johnson was upset in the mayoral election of 1909 by Republican Herman Baehr. To the men for whom his mayoralty had been a sacred cause it was a devastating turn of events. “The city had lost,” wrote Howe. “A great movement was ended. The dream of municipal ownership, of a free and sovereign city, was set back indefinitely.” It was also, according to Howe, “Tom Johnson’s death-blow … His health failed, his fortune was dissipated, and when he died, within two years, he questioned not the truth of his great economic vision but the value of his own effort, whether any good had come out of it all.” (Howe, 126)
While we do not specifically know Stage’s feelings, it must have been a crushing blow for him as well. Over the next few years, his civic involvement seems to have entirely given way to his legal practice, to raising his four young children and to serving as a trustee of Tom Johnson’s estate.
In 1911, Newton D. Baker — who had been one of the young men who made up Tom Johnson’s inner circle — was elected mayor and Billy Stage was soon once more a familiar face at City Hall. Baker immediately appointed Stage to his cabinet as the city’s director of public safety. (Newark Advocate, January 13, 1912) Two years later, Stage was selected as Cleveland’s first utility director under the city’s new charter. (Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 18, 1946)
The Republicans recaptured the mayoralty in 1915, and thereafter Billy Stage concentrated on the practice of law. His highest-profile work was as general legal counsel for brothers Oris P. and Mantis J. Van Sweringen, Cleveland’s most prominent real estate developers of the era. After establishing the Cleveland Interurban Railroad in 1913, the two brothers became railroad barons by assembling a labyrinth of holding companies and interlocking directorships that gave them control over the Cleveland and Ohio Railroad, the Nickel Plate Road system, the Erie Railroad, the Pere Marquette Railway, and the Hocking Valley Railway. Stage was particularly involved with their interests in the Union Terminal and in some of their holding companies. (Harwood, 105; Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 18, 1946)
This new role was ideal for a man with Billy Stage’s experience and determination and undoubtedly brought him the kind of challenge he clearly craved. But it also raises intriguing questions. On the face of things, his work for the Van Sweringens seems difficult to reconcile with his many years as a loyal “Johnson man.” Some certainly saw it that way, including Peter Witt, a Johnson loyalist and outspoken opponent of the Van Sweringens, who tried unsuccessfully to persuade Stage to see it that way. (Harwood, 63-64)
But Stage was a longtime friend of O. P. Van Sweringen and believed in him. During the years of the Johnson administration, with the city hopelessly polarized between the mayor’s admirers and detractors, O. P. Van Sweringen had managed to gain allies. One of his key allies in the mayor’s camp was Stage, who later recalled his first meeting with the future real estate tycoon as being a very strange one: “[Van Sweringen] was so doggone timid about the matter that when he left I remarked ‘That young man will never make a real estate salesman.’ But a short time later [he] came back. He spent several hours outlining what he saw for the undeveloped land … At first I was not interested, but when he left I joined his little syndicate.” (Quoted in Harwood, 13-14)
Stage introduced Newton Baker to the Van Sweringens and became a staunch backer of them. So it was only natural that he would eventually go to work for them, presumably feeling that he could do more good on the inside than on the outside. Tom Johnson and his brother Al had themselves reconciled being streetcar line owners and proponents of lower rates, and Stage in all likelihood had a similar belief that there was no inherent contradiction. Streetcar companies, after all, have to be run by someone and they might as well be managed by people with the best interest of the public at heart.
In addition, one of Tom Johnson’s most important legacies was a safeguard against price-gouging. As Frederic Howe explained, after Johnson’s election defeat, “The street-railway lines went back to the old companies. Their victory was an empty one, for their dividends were limited to six per cent and could not exceed a fixed amount, while the rate of fare started at three cents and rose or fell as earnings might determine.” (Howe, 126) So Stage, it would appear, did not have any reason to see his work for the Van Sweringens as a refutation of his principles. Perhaps he even saw it as a sort of sacred trust; as his way of making sure that Tom Johnson had not had any reason to doubt “the value of his own effort.”
Once her children were old enough, Miriam Stage returned to practicing medicine. She joined the staff of the Cleveland Clinic, a medical center formed upon novel principles. It was founded by Drs. George W. Crile, Frank E. Bunts, William E. Lower, and John Phillips, three of whom had served overseas during the First World War and been impressed by the benefits of having medical specialists from a variety of disciplines working together. While serving in France, Crile marveled in his journal: “What a remarkable record Bunts, Crile and Lower have had all these years. We have been rivals in everything, yet through all the vicissitudes of personal, financial and professional relations we have been able to think and act as a unit.” (Clough, 19)
Upon returning to Cleveland they decided to open a clinic based upon a similar cross-disciplinary, cooperative approach to medicine. Central to their mission was an emphasis on research and education, as the founders believed that patient care and teaching went hand in hand. As Crile’s son later described it, the clinic was based upon a shared ideal of “an institution in which medicine and surgery could be practiced, studied and taught by a group of associated specialists. To create it, the four founders began to plan an institution that would be greater than the sum of its parts.” (Clough, 32)
Their clinic at Euclid Avenue and East 93rd Street opened its doors in 1921 and three years later a 184-bed hospital began to admit patients. At the 1921 opening, Crile articulated the vision of the founders. One of the pinnacles was ongoing education that was not departmentalized as in a university but in which doctors communicated new findings tow one another through a schedule of daily conferences and lectures. This dialogue, Crile explained, was “not only our duty to the patient of today, but no less out duty to the patient of tomorrow.” Just as important was the commitment to ensuring that, “the patient with no means and the patient with moderate means may have at a cost he can afford as complete an investigation as the patient with ample means.” (Clough, 39-41) It is easy to see why the setting was a perfect fit for Miriam Stage and she became one of the leaders of the Clinic’s Women’s Hospital.
In 1929, tragedy struck the Cleveland Clinic. On May 15, nitrocellulose x-ray films overheated, causing at least two explosions and sending lethal fumes through the building. One hundred and twenty-three people lost their lives, including Dr. Miriam Stage.
Billy Stage never remarried. While he was still in mourning, the stock market crash brought an end to the Van Sweringens’ empire. He retired in 1939 and passed away on May 17, 1946, at the Cleveland Clinic where his wife had practiced and met her untimely death. His death occurred on the seventeenth anniversary of his wife’s funeral.
Stage led a long and extraordinary life. His life spanned another fifty years after he was banned from amateur athletics in 1895, and during those years he seems to have put competitive sports behind him. When another Cleveland native named Jesse Owens electrified the sports world in the 1930s, the man who first put Cleveland on the track and field map — and who along with his wife did so much to provide better lives for local youngsters from humble backgrounds such as Owens — must have derived some satisfaction from the younger man’s accomplishments. But by then his own achievements had been forgotten and he was not the type of person to draw attention to them.
Billy Stage has similarly been long since forgotten by the baseball world, as was illustrated by a self-deprecating story that he liked to tell about himself. It seems that around 1904 he went to a game at Cleveland’s League Park and approached Clark Griffith of New York, saying, “Guess you don’t remember me? I put you out of a ball game on these grounds ten years ago.” Griffith looked him over closely and replied quizzically, “Did you?”
“Yes I did,” replied Billy. “My name is Stage. Don’t you remember? You said I was rotten.” Griffith continued to look at him and then responded coolly, “Oh yes, I do remember. You were rotten.” With that, he turned on his heel and marched away. (Syracuse Post-Standard, January 12, 1907)
Yet memories of an umpire who routinely outran batters to first base didn’t fade quite that easily. In 1901, Hughie Jennings recalled how Stage “would always run with the ball and nearly always reached the bag before the runner. Whenever a man would slide Stage would do the same and on arising he would brush himself off remarking as he did so, ‘That was a fine slide you made old man but you were out.’” (Trenton Times, July 12, 1901)
So the next time somebody brings up the topic of the fastest man ever to appear on a baseball diamond, make sure to bring up the name of Billy Stage. His involvement with the national pastime was brief but he made an unforgettable impression on those who watched him umpire — and on the batters he outraced to first base!
George E. Mowry, The Era of Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of Modern America, 1900-1912 (New York: Harper and Row, 1958)
John D. Clough, ed., To Act As A Unit: The Story of the Cleveland Clinic, 4th ed. (Cleveland: The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, 2004)
Herbert H. Harwood Jr., Invisible Giants: The Empires of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen Brothers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002)
Ian S. Haberman, The Van Sweringins of Cleveland: The Biography of an Empire (Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1979)
Tom L. Johnson, My Story (1911) (published as an e-book by Cleveland State University at http://clevelandmemory.org/ebooks/johnson/index.html)
“Manx-American’s Splendid Career,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 30, 1911 (about William Kerruish)
Miriam Kerruish Stage entry, National Cyclopedia of American Biography, vol. 21 (New York: James T. White & Co., 1931)
Frederic C. Howe, The Confessions of a Reformer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925)
David Stevens, Baseball’s Radical for All Seasons (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998)
Obituary of C. W. Stage in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 18, 1946
contemporary newspapers, as noted
vital records and censuses
The author extends a special thanks to Scott Longert of the Western Reserve Historical Society.