Forced to wear a hairpiece because he suffered from premature baldness, supposedly as a result of nervousness, Bob Emslie was tagged with the derisive nickname “Wig” but nonetheless remained even-tempered with a pleasant smile, earning the respect and confidence of players and spectators alike. He was quick to make decisions and was known as the National League’s most informed arbiter on the rules. With the permanent installation of the double-umpire system in 1911, which he supported “first, last, and all the time,” Emslie stopped working behind the plate and became exclusively a base umpire.
Robert D. Emslie was born on January 27, 1859, in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. He got his start in baseball as a right-handed curveball pitcher with various semipro teams in Ontario before turning professional with Camden, New Jersey, of the Interstate League in 1882. At midseason the following year Emslie made his major-league debut with the last-place Baltimore Orioles of the American Association, going 9-13 with a respectable 3.17 ERA. In 1884 he completed all 50 of the games he started, winning 17 of his first 21 decisions en route to a 32-17 record and 2.75 ERA. The next year, however, his pitching prowess plummeted as the result of a sore arm, strained as a result of his excessive use of the curveball. Emslie retired as a player in June 1887 and returned home to Canada.
Later that summer, the advent of his next career occurred quite by accident. While attending a game between Toronto and Hamilton of the International League, Emslie was asked to officiate when the assigned umpire fell ill. He spent the next four years umpiring in three leagues: the International League (1888-89), the American Association (1890), and the Western League (1891). Bob made his NL debut in Cincinnati on August 17, 1891.
Emslie is best remembered as the base umpire on September 23, 1908, when controversy erupted at the end of the Giants-Cubs game at the Polo Grounds. Tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth, the Giants had Moose McCormick on third and Fred Merkle on first with two outs. The next batter, Al Bridwell, smashed a single to center to knock in McCormick with the apparent winning run, but Merkle failed to touch second base. Johnny Evers, who’d noticed “Merkle’s Boner,” tagged second and appealed to Emslie, who claimed that he didn’t see the play. Emslie later wrote in his report to NL president Harry Pulliam that he “had to fall to the ground to keep [Bridwell’s] ball from hitting me.” Plate umpire Hank O’Day declared Merkle out and the game a tie. Emslie’s role in the play marked him with another ignominious nickname, “Blind Bob,” this one given him by John McGraw. His numerous confrontations with the tempestuous McGraw led Emslie to eject the New York manager 13 times, a mark exceeded only by Bill Klem. An international grandmaster at trap shooting, “Blind Bob” once wagered McGraw $500 in a contest to fire at apples placed at second base. The gruff McGraw declined: “Maybe you can see apples, but you can’t see baseballs.”
Emslie served 33 years as an active-duty umpire before retiring at the end of the 1924 season. He then served as NL Chief of Umpires, with the responsibilities of inspecting, scouting, and coaching new umpires. Remaining active during his retirement in St. Thomas, Ontario, Emslie coached youth baseball and enjoyed curling, bowling, and golf. Reticent to grant interviews because of an incident early in his career in which a New York reporter misquoted him, Emslie overcame his silence during retirement and declared Christy Mathewson the greatest pitcher of all time and Honus Wagner the greatest all-around player. He disdained the livelier ball. While acknowledging the increased hitting and higher batting averages, Emslie observed, “There’s less inside baseball, which I like.” Emslie was 84 when he died in St. Thomas on April 26, 1943, with a son and daughter surviving him. He was inducted into Canada’s Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986.
Note: A slightly different version of this biography appeared in Tom Simon, ed., Deadball Stars of the National League (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, Inc., 2004).
In preparing this biography, the author made use of the Baseball Hall of Fame Library file, including multiple clippings from St. Thomas Times-Journal (Canada); The Sporting News; Baseball Magazine, Baseball in Baltimore by James H. Bready; More Than Merkle by David W. Anderson; and the Elgin County Pioneer Museum (Canada) website.