A good-field, no-hit middle infielder as a player, Joe Cantillon never came close to reaching the major leagues. But as an umpire, manager, owner, scout, and executive, few men had a more profound impact on baseball during the Deadball Era. He had lifelong friendships with Charles Comiskey and Clark Griffith and feuded with Ban Johnson just as long. Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were hunting partners. Cantillon guided the early career of Walter Johnson and cared for Rube Waddell at the end of his life.
Al Spink, editor of The Sporting News, once wrote, “He [Joe Cantillon] is one of the real, live, lovable characters in baseball.”1 Despite his many contributions to baseball from the field, dugout, and front office, Joe Cantillon was most remembered for his sense of humor and sarcastic Irish wit. It seemed Joe had a story about everyone he encountered during his half-century in baseball, and everyone had a story about Joe.
One story was about how he acquired the nickname of “Pongo.” When Joe played in California in the late 1800s, the Bay Area of California had a large population with Italian ancestry (among others, Joe DiMaggio was born in the San Francisco Bay area). The Cantillon family was of Irish ancestry, but some thought the name sounded as if it had Italian origins. No original citation was found but several sources reported that sportswriter Charlie Dryden received many queries about Cantillon’s nationality. In an article the writer facetiously stated that Joe’s real name was Pongo Pelipe Cantillion, the son of an Italian nobleman who moved to the United States seeking fame and fortune. After that Italian Americans flocked to the ballpark to cheer for their supposed countryman.2
Joseph D. Cantillon was born August 19, 1861, in Janesville, Wisconsin. He was the fourth of eight children in the family of Patrick Cantillon (1826-1887) and Catherine (née McGuire, 1828-1910) both of whom emigrated from Ireland sometime in the mid-1800s. When Patrick arrived in the United States, he found work in the construction division of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad. Joe, like his brothers, started working for the railroad in his mid-teens.3 At the time of the 1880 US Census, when he would have been about 18 years old, Joe’s occupation was listed as a railroad employee.
Several of Joe’s siblings also led prominent lives with connections to baseball. He worked with his brother Mike in baseball for decades. At one time Mike was part-owner of the tract of land in Chicago where Wrigley Field was eventually built. Brother William (W.D.) rose to become general manager of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad. Because of the close friendship between his brothers and Charles Comiskey, William arranged for, and personally saw to, the comfort of the White Sox when they traveled south for spring training aboard his railroad. Another brother, James – also a life-long railroad employee – is credited with discovering “Death Valley” Jim Scott while stationed in Lander, Wyoming. Finally, Joe’s youngest sister, Catherine (“Katie”), married Ed Archambault, a Milwaukee businessman, who later was co-owner of the Brewers minor-league baseball team.
Cantillon explained how his railroad career ended and he turned to baseball. As a young man, Joe was a conductor in charge of a freight train running between Chicago and Milwaukee. One night he was to meet another train coming in the opposite direction, and switch tracks and cargo, “the stuff which made Milwaukee famous,” at Winnetka, Illinois. After informing his engineer and brakeman of the assignment, Joe went to sleep, but he awoke too late and the trains collided. The crew, including Joe, safely jumped from the train but the crash “spilled beer all over that county and some of those adjoining.” 4 Joe was fired and soon thereafter embarked on his baseball career.
Teenage Joe and his brothers formed the nucleus of a town team called the Janesville Mutuals, a member of the League Alliance in 1877. One source said that Joe started out as the Mutuals’ mascot and batboy in 18785 and became the team’s second baseman in 1879 for $60 a month and board. A player by the name of Cantillon played shortstop for the St. Paul Red Caps in late September 1883, but it is not known if this was Joe or one of his brothers. He first played professionally as a shortstop with Green Bay in 1884.6 Over the next several seasons he played with various minor-league teams in the Midwest.
Cantillon was playing with Terre Haute (Indiana) in 1890, but that club disbanded in August. Sam Shaw, a teammate at Terre Haute, had an offer to play for Oakland in the California League, so Cantillon and two other teammates tagged along. Shortly after their arrival, Cantillon was signed to play center field.7 A salary increase induced him to return to California in 1891 and again in. The following season, 1893, Cantillon played with San Francisco and Los Angeles of the California League.
Joe played briefly with Stockton/Sacramento and San Francisco early in 1894 but spent most of that season back in the Midwest with Rock Island (Illinois). The next season he signed to manage and captain Dubuque of the independent Eastern Iowa League. In June 1895 Ban Johnson, then president of the Western League, offered Joe a job as umpire at a substantial increase over his Dubuque salary. At first Dubuque team owners refused to give him his release but did approve a one-month leave of absence. He finally accepted the job and began his duties in July, but Cantillon received mixed reviews for his work. After correctly ejecting a Terre Haute player, it was said, “Joe is upholding the dignity of the umpire.”8 However, after an unpopular decision in Minneapolis affected the result of a game for the home club, the headline over the game story read, “Cantillon is Blind.”9
While working in the Western League, Joe was credited with an innovative strategy that was later adopted throughout baseball. During most of the 19th century it was customary for catchers to stand well back of the batter, even all the way to the backstop, except when there were base runners or two strikes on the batter. That meant that umpires needed to retrieve errant pitches and return them to the pitcher. Once, while Cantillon was umpiring a Western League game in Indianapolis in 1895, he refused to chase the ball.
League President Ban Johnson asked Cantillon for ideas about how to speed up the game and his suggestion was to issue an order that catchers must stay behind the bat the entire game. Not only would this mean less work for umpires, Cantillon estimated that it would shorten games by 30 minutes. Johnson initially resisted, believing that it would be too taxing on catchers, but Cantillon persisted, and Johnson issued the order. It proved successful and the following year the National League followed suit in requiring catchers to be behind the bat at all times.10 11 Influential sportswriter Tim Murnane, writing in the Boston Globe, also credited Cantillon with this new strategy.12
In March 1896 Cantillon signed with the Columbus (Ohio) Senators of the Western League as captain and second baseman. After one season in Ohio, Cantillon returned to Dubuque in 1897, this year a member of the Western Association. The 1897 season would be his last as an active player.
He resumed his career as an umpire in the Western League in 1898 season, a position he held in 1899 as well. At one point during his tenure, Sporting Life called him “the most efficient member of the Western League umpire staff.”13 Charlie Comiskey said, “When it comes to umpires Joe Cantillon is in a class by himself. I consider him the best man in the business today, bar none.”14
Cantillon was approached by President Nick Young to umpire in the National League for 1900 but he elected to stay with Johnson in the newly named American League. He returned in 1901 and along with Jack Sheridan, Tommy Connolly, Al Mannassau, and Jack Haskell umpired the most games in the AL that season.15 Cantillon was behind the plate for Baltimore’s home opener on April 26, 1901, as the Orioles defeated the Boston Americans 10-6.
Joe was one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of the double-umpire system, which was eventually adopted by both major leagues. In addition, Cantillon was one of the first to suggest that umpires rotate among league cities rather than remaining in one place for an extended period. He said, “For an umpire to follow one club around continuously is also unjust. But if they change every six or eight games according to the length of each series, they will get around to every club pretty regularly and still be changing cities.”16
Cantillon’s request for a $300 raise from Johnson for the 1902 season was denied, so he signed on with the National League, joining Bob Emslie, Hank O’Day, and Tom Brown. Cantillon, who by then made his offseason home in Chicago, said, “I gave Ban Johnson every opportunity to talk business with me, but I have heard nothing from him. The National League people offered me big money and today they accepted my terms. That is all there is to it.”17
Joe’s experience playing on the West Coast, as well as his familiarity with American and National League players from his stint as an umpire, prompted him to organize teams of all-stars that toured through the South and West as far as California after the 1901 and 1902 seasons. Eleven Hall of Famers participated on either the American or National League teams. They were Rube Waddell, Jake Beckley, Nap Lajoie, Frank Chance, Willie Keeler, Sam Crawford, Jack Chesbro, Addie Joss, Roger Bresnahan, Cy Young, and Christy Mathewson. After the 1902 season the AL all-star team played a postseason series against the NL champion Pittsburgh Pirates, perhaps a precursor to the modern World Series. The trip may also have helped spur the independent California League to reorganize into the Pacific Coast League a few years later.
Just before Cantillon and the all-stars began their 1902 postseason tour, Joe was hired as manager of the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association for the 1903 season. During his tenure in Milwaukee, Cantillon demonstrated a knack for acquiring players cheaply or for free, paying low salaries, and then selling them to other teams at a profit. He also had no problem going after players on the reserve lists and/or under contract with other teams. Joe’s friendship with Comiskey led to an informal agreement whereby the White Sox farmed players under contract to Milwaukee. Cantillon led the Brewers for four seasons, 1903 to 1906, never finishing below third place in the league.
In October 1906, Joe and his brother Mike purchased the Minneapolis team in the American Association. The Cantillons’ brother-in-law, E. J. Archambeault of Milwaukee, also became a limited partner.18 Mike was made president of the team, as well a secretary and treasurer, and Joe vice-president. The original plan was for Mike to take the role of general manager and for Joe to manage the team from the bench, but Joe was offered the manager’s job with the Washington Nationals of the American League in 1907. His contract called for a $10,000 annual salary, a share of team profits, but more importantly, “absolute control of the team, being free to let go or sign any player he sees fit.”19
One of the players Cantillon “saw fit” to sign was Walter Johnson. After Johnson initially rejected Cantillon’s contract offer via telegram, Cantillon sent injured catcher Cliff Blankenship to Weiser, Idaho, to personally check out the pitching phenom. After being promised train fare back home if he didn’t make good, Johnson agreed to come east to Washington, and the rest, as they say, is history. Cantillon turned down several tempting trade offers for the young fireballer; once Johnson developed his pinpoint control, Cantillon said, “I think Johnson has Bill] Donovan and Mathewson and Mordecai Brown and the other ’greats’ beaten in a thousand different ways.”20
While on the bench in Washington, one of Cantillon’s managerial strategies led to a change in the baseball rulebook. In a game against the White Sox in 1909, Cantillon used four pitchers. He made numerous switches by shuffling the pitchers to right field and then back to the mound depending on the batter to get a matchup advantage. Although the rules specified that a pitcher needed to face one batter, the wording of the rule began, “In the event of a pitcher being taken from the game…” Since Cantillon was not taking his pitcher from the game, he was technically in compliance with the rule. The next season the wording of the rule was changed to read “In the event of the pitcher being taken from his position…” This closed the loophole that Cantillon had exploited to his advantage.21
Cantillon managed the Nationals for three seasons (1907-1909) but won barely a third of his games, compiling a record of 158-297 (.347). His teams never finished higher than seventh (in an eight-team league) and lost 100 games twice. From a strict won-lost perspective, Cantillon’s three years as Nationals manager were a failure. However, he should get credit for uncovering and guiding the early career of Walter Johnson as well as the discovery and development of young players such as Clyde Milan and George McBride, who formed the nucleus of very competitive Nationals teams a few years later under the leadership of Clark Griffith. Johnson was still a very effective frontline starter for the franchise when it eventually won a World Series championship in 1924.
During this period in baseball history, it was common for men such as Cantillon to have a financial interest in multiple teams, so-called “syndicate baseball” – which sometimes posed a conflict of interest. During Joe’s tenure in Washington, he developed a close working relationship with the Minneapolis Millers, then run by his brother Mike. One season the Millers were engaged in a close pennant race and Joe sent several of his top players, including Ollie Pickering and Otis Clymer, to Minneapolis to help them sew up the flag. As co-owner of the team, Joe would stand to reap profits if the Millers won the pennant, even if that were detrimental to the Nationals.
Joe was fired as Washington manager after the 1909 season; so, he joined his brother in Minneapolis to manage the Millers. Joe’s salary was not published, but as one account put it, “He draws a major league salary from the local club and in addition to this cuts in when the annual profits are divided. No one knows what Joe drew out of his summer’s work at Minneapolis, but it is safe to put it as not less than $15,000.”22
Joe led the Millers to three consecutive AA pennants (1910-1912), stocking his team with veteran ex-major-leaguers such as pitchers Roy Patterson and Nick Altrock. One of the players on the downside of his career that Joe brought to Minneapolis was Rube Waddell. Cantillon had first encountered Waddell more than a decade earlier as an AL umpire and later as a member of his California tour. Cantillon signed Waddell in 1911, first as a gate attraction to increase ticket sales – but under Joe’s watchful eye, Waddell won 20 games for the Millers. His plan in handling the unpredictable Waddell was to have Rube live with him on a lake outside of Minneapolis, where Rube could go fishing all he wanted and only venture into the city when he was scheduled to pitch. Also, rather than paying Waddell a salary, Cantillon would give him $10 a week for spending money if he remained sober, with a promise to pay him the rest of what was owed after the season. 23
Around this time Cantillon purchased an offseason home in Hickman, Kentucky, on the Ohio River. He invited Waddell to join him there over the winter to keep an eye on him. One spring, melting snow and heavy rains caused a local levee to break, threatening to flood the town of Hickman. Waddell joined other volunteers with sandbags, sometimes wading in waist-deep cold water, but at the time he seemed to show no ill effects. Waddell later contracted pneumonia and then tuberculosis, however, resulting in the need for care at a sanitarium in San Antonio, Texas, where he later died.
Cantillon led the Millers to another pennant in 1915, but that would turn out to be his last championship. The franchise experienced difficulties during the war years: decreased attendance and the loss of several players to military service or employment in war-related industries. Early in 1918, Joe and Mike sold their interest in the Millers to a group of Minneapolis businessmen. Joe was retained as manager and was promised enough money to obtain the players necessary to rebuild the Millers into a championship team.
There were several rumors about Joe’s future during the 1918-1919 offseason. One had him purchasing or managing his former Milwaukee club; and another had Joe linked to American League managerial openings in St. Louis and Chicago. He put that all to rest in late January when he said, “I think too well of Minneapolis, the future of baseball there, and of the present owners to give a thought to a big-league offer. I am decidedly well satisfied.”24
Cantillon guided the Millers to fourth place in the American Association in 1920, followed by second-place finishes in 1921 and 1922, but never succeeded in claiming a fifth pennant. The 1923 season, which would turn out to be his last year as manager, marked the 44th consecutive year Joe had been in uniform in baseball, as a player, umpire, or manager. Turning 62 years old in August, he still had the stamina and agility of a man 20 years younger. He attributed his good health to outdoor living: on the baseball diamond in the spring and summer, then hunting and fishing in the fall and winter.
In November 1923, former Minneapolis manager Mike Kelley, then leading the St. Paul club, bought an interest in the Millers. It became apparent that he would take over as manager in 1924. Kelley offered to have Joe stay on as a scout or “in some advisory capacity.”25 However, he said that he would not decide about Cantillon’s future until after the minor-league meetings in Chicago on December 10. At that meeting, Joe was given the option of a $7,500 cash payout or remaining with the club. He was at first tempted to take the money and one of many job offers, but Kelley and Murray talked him into staying. Cantillon was given the title of club vice president, but when it was discovered that he had sold his stock in the team, apparently a condition to serve as an officer, his title was changed to “business manager.”26
Cantillon’s contract, and association, with the Minneapolis club ended after the 1924 season. That December, he accepted an offer from his friend Comiskey to become his chief scout and “general handyman” with the White Sox. His role was later clarified to be “the official go-between for players and owners and public relations buffer for Comiskey…he was to establish an ‘entente cordial’ with the newspaperman, with whom relations are reported to have been considerably strained.”27 In December 1925, citing only “dissatisfaction with his job as scout,” Joe decided to end his employment with Comiskey. The real reason was that Joe recommended that his boss sign a young outfielder named Lloyd Waner, but Comiskey refused to spend the money.
Shortly after accepting the Chicago offer, Cantillon bought a half-interest in the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association. The Travelers were coming off a dismal 1924 season, finishing in last place with a record of 51-101. Joe recommended another friend, Lena Blackburne, to take over as manager. The Travelers improved to 67-86 but finished in the cellar again in the Southern Association.
In 1926, Cantillon signed a two-year contract to manage the Little Rock club. By then 64 years old, he was recognized as the oldest manager in Organized Baseball. Despite his best efforts, the Travelers finished last again with a record of 51-98. He returned to Little Rock in 1927 to fulfill the final year of his contract. Along with John McGraw and Connie Mack, Joe was now identified as one of the “grand old men of baseball.”28
Late in the season, on September 5, Little Rock was playing in Memphis. Managing the game from the bench, Joe noticed some numbness in his right hand. When he tried to get up, he collapsed, but was able to walk to the dressing room with assistance from some of his players. Dr. A.H. Butler, who attended the game, administered first aid and diagnosed a minor stroke brought on by high blood pressure. Cantillon’s condition was not thought to be serious. He was taken to the hospital but was released after a few days.29
Apparently completely recovered from his stroke, Cantillon joined the Chicago Cubs as a scout in March 1928.30 Then that summer, Thomas Hickey, president of the AA, appointed Joe to the role of umpire-in-chief for the league, with duties to begin the following year after his contract with the Cubs expired. Some thought the role was merely an honorary title, a sort of pension to “take care of Joe” after all his years in baseball. But Cantillon, as he did with every other job he accepted, took his duties seriously, evaluating and training the current staff while scouting other leagues for replacements. He worked with league umpires the entire 1929 season and planned to return to that job in 1930.
On January 27, 1930, newspapers from across the county reported that Cantillon had suffered a second stroke a few days earlier. Because he’d recovered so quickly from his earlier stroke, at first he laughed and joked about his condition. He tried to tell a story about Rube Waddell but lost consciousness and slipped into a coma. Physicians found they could do nothing for him but to administer opiates. Two of Joe’s closest friends, Judge Landis and Charles Comiskey, were soon notified.31 Landis asked Joe’s wife to call hm twice a day with updates on his condition.
When Ban Johnson was notified, he said, “I owe a big share of whatever success I achieved in baseball to Joe Cantillon, and I mean it. Joe was always a pepper box on the diamond, but he had a great heart and fought for his players all the time. My greatest wish is that he will put on one of his rallies and come out on the long end of the score – he’s too valuable a man to lose.”32
On Wednesday, January 29, Cantillon showed some improvement, breathing better and appearing more comfortable. After that, though, he again deteriorated and was reported near death. A Catholic priest was summoned to administer last rites. Joe Cantillon died on Friday, January 31, with his wife and sister at his side. He was 69 years old.
After a brief prayer service at his home and a High Mass at the Catholic church in Hickman, his body was placed aboard an Illinois Central train to Chicago. Then, with a motorcycle police escort, it was transferred to the Northwestern station for the trip to Janesville. Cantillon was buried next to his mother in the family plot at Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Joe was married twice, and maybe a third time, but left no known descendants. On August 8, 1896, in the section “Additional City News,” the Rockford Daily Register-Gazette ran the following brief note; “Mr. and Mrs. Joe Cantillon of Columbus, O. are mourning the loss of their first-born child, a son aged one month. Mr. Cantillon is captain and second baseman of the Columbus team.”33 No record of the marriage, who this Mrs. Cantillon may have been, or the baby could be found. In 1914, Joe’s second wife, Olive Belle, died in St. Louis from complications of a chronic heart condition. No marriage record could be found, but at the time of Olive’s death, her obituary said that she and Joe had been married 15 years earlier in Chicago.34 They had no children. More than 10 years later in 1925, Joe married Bertha Anderson of Chicago, a divorcée with two grown daughters.
A few months after Cantillon’s death, Tom Hickey spearheaded an effort to set up a subscription fund to raise money to honor Joe’s memory. Donations were to be spent either for a monument35 or in “establishing a bed in some hospital where any needy baseball player can be cared for free of charge.”36 The project was eventually abandoned, but Hickey presented Cantillon’s widow a check for the amount raised, $468. In a letter of thanks, Bertha said, “He, truly, was one of God’s chosen people. He never had a thought but what was good – and a heart so big that he was always helping some in need. God bless him.”37
This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Don Zminda.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics from Cantillon’s playing career are taken from Baseball-Reference.com and genealogical and family history was obtained from Ancestry.com. The author also used information from clippings in Cantillon’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
1 “New Manager of Travelers to Take Charge Today,” Little Rock (Arkansas) Gazette, March 15, 1926: 10.
2 Brian McKenna, Clark Griffith: Baseball’s Statesman, Morrisville, North Carolina: Lulu Press (2010): 49.
3 McKenna, Clark Griffith: 49.
4 “Baseball Talk,” Topeka (Kansas) State Journal, January 15, 1910: 3.
5 “Joe Cantillon Dies at His Home in Hickman,” Paducah (Kentucky) Sun, January 30, 1930: 1-2.
6 This season is not shown in Cantillon’s record in Baseball-Reference.
7 “The New Talent,” Sporting Life, August 23, 1990: 11.
8 “Captain Joe,” Rock Island (Illinois) Argus, July 29, 1895: 6.
9 “Cantillon Is Blind,” Minneapolis Journal, August 13, 1895: 10.
10 “What Cantillon Did for the Game,” Baseball Magazine, September 1915.
11 “Reforms Due to Cantillon,” Washington (DC) Post, May 26, 1907: 133.
12 “Credit Where Due,” Sporting Life, September 1, 1906: 9.
13 “News and Gossip,” Sporting Life, August 19, 1899: 8.
14 “Joe Cantillon is Lost,” St. Paul Globe, April 5, 1902: 5.
15 “Johnson’s Umpires Selected,” Boston Herald, April 4, 1901: 8.
16 “Umpires Should Keep Moving,” Detroit Free Press, July 3, 1901: 10.
17 “Joe Cantillon in National League,” Janesville Gazette, April 4, 1902: 2.
18 Stew Thornley, On to Nicollet: The Glory and Fame of the Minneapolis Millers, Minneapolis: Nodin Press (1988): 25.
19 “Manager Cantillon Also a Magnate,” Washington (DC) Evening Star, October 24, 1906: 9.
20 “Walter Johnson is Some Pitcher,” Buffalo Courier, April 28, 1909: 8.
21 Peter Morris, A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, (2006): 211.
22 “Little Hope for Browns to Land Joe Cantillon as Manager for 1911,” Minneapolis Journal, December 27, 1910: 12.
23 “He Will Reform Reuben Waddell,” Detroit Times, January 19, 1911: 6.
24 “Joe Cantillon Refuses Position in Big League.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, January 7, 1919: 14.
25 Charles Johnson, “The Lowdown on Sports,” Minneapolis Star. November 23, 1923: 20.
26 Charles Johnson, “Pongo Made Vice President of Minneapolis Baseball Club,” Minneapolis Star, December 13, 1923: 12.
27 “Chi White Sox Gag Grabiner,” Chicago Collyer’s Eye, December 27, 1924: 5.
28 “Joe Cantillon Starts His Forty-Fifth Year in Baseball,” Wilmington (Delaware) News Journal, March 26, 1927: 13.
29 “Joe Cantillon in Memphis Hospital,” Little Rock Gazette, September 6, 1927: 1.
30 “Joe Cantillon Will Scout for the Cubs,” Memphis (Tennessee) Commercial Appeal, March 3, 1928: 15.
31 “Joe Cantillon Suffers New Stroke; Dying,” Minneapolis Tribune, January 27, 1930: 1.
32 “Johnson Lauds Cantillon,” Washington (DC) Times, January 27, 1930: 9.
33 “Additional City News,” Rockford (Illinois) Register-Gazette, August 8, 1896: 9.
34 “Death of Mrs. Joe Cantillon Spreads Gloom Over the Camp of the Millers,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, March 26, 1914: 15.
35 “Monument Planned for Joe Cantillon,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 24, 1930: 19.
36 “Plan Memorial to Joe Cantillon,” Appleton (Wisconsin) Post-Record, April 30, 1930: 5.
37 “$468 in Cantillon Fund Given Widow,” The Sporting News, February 22, 1930: 5