On the night of July 22, 1978, a future Hall of Famer’s career ended in sudden and disputed fashion – and at the time, nearly no one noticed.
Of course, not being noticed was part of this Hall of Famer’s agenda from the beginning. Nestor Chylak, an American League umpire since 1954, embodied the classic umpiring agenda of making the right calls, keeping control of the game, and staying out of the spotlight. He was very good at it, being tapped to work five World Series and five All-Star Games. Chylak worked the 1978 All-Star Game in San Diego, umpiring at first base, just 11 days before his final big-league game.
While his departure for health-related reasons caused some degree of controversy, Chylak could take satisfaction in the fact that he worked his 3,857th and final regular-season game without on-field incident or protest. By an umpire’s standards, it was a good way to go out.
When Chylak broke into the majors, Toronto was a minor-league city, home to the Maple Leafs of the Triple-A International League. In 1978 big-league baseball was still a novelty there, as the expansion Blue Jays played their second season. The night of July 22 found 56-year-old Chylak working at second base during the third game of a four-game series between Toronto and the Oakland Athletics. His crewmates included Rich Garcia behind the plate, Vic Voltaggio at first, and Ron Luciano at third.
Manager Roy Hartsfield’s Blue Jays brought a 34-60 record into the game after splitting a doubleheader with Oakland the previous day. Toronto was already 29 games out of first place in the American League East Division, the largest deficit in the majors. Hartsfield eventually led his charges to a 59-102 record, a mild improvement over their first-year performance of 54-107.
Jack McKeon’s Oakland team was in third place in the AL West with a 49-47 record, just four games behind first-place Kansas City. McKeon had replaced Bobby Winkles on May 23. Despite being in first place and nine games over .500, Winkles handed in his resignation, reportedly tired of owner Charles O. Finley’s meddling.1 McKeon couldn’t keep the youthful A’s on the right side of .500: From August 1 through the end of the season, the team posted a 14-42 record, slumping all the way to a 69-93 finish.
A Saturday night crowd of 21,028 came to Exhibition Stadium to see Oakland starter John Henry Johnson face off against Toronto’s Jim Clancy in a battle of promising young pitchers. Johnson, a 21-year-old lefty, had come to Oakland in March 1978 in a blockbuster eight-player trade that sent pitcher Vida Blue to the San Francisco Giants. In his first taste of big-league play, Johnson brought a 7-5 record and 2.57 ERA into the game. He’d thrown a complete-game five-hitter to beat Toronto in Oakland just five days before.
Clancy, a 22-year-old righty, was in his second season, his future as a workhorse member of the Toronto staff still largely ahead of him.2 He brought a 6-7 record and 4.50 ERA into the game. He’d pitched against Oakland three times in 1978. On May 3 he was knocked out in the fifth inning and took the loss. Seven days later, he pitched a complete-game six-hitter for a win. And on July 16, he gave up four runs (three earned) in six innings in a no-decision.
Oakland threatened immediately, loading the bases on a single by third baseman Taylor Duncan, a walk to left fielder Mitchell Page, and another single by first baseman Dave Revering. But shortstop Mario Guerrero, who also joined the A’s in the Blue trade, grounded to second base to end the threat. Oakland moved another runner into scoring position in the second inning, as second baseman Mike Edwards singled and stole second. This time, right fielder Glenn Burke (strikeout) and center fielder Joe Wallis (groundout) failed to capitalize.
The A’s broke through in the third: Page reached on a fielder’s choice and scored on Revering’s double for a 1-0 lead. Oakland moved additional runners into scoring position in the fourth and fifth but continued to fritter away opportunities.
Toronto, in contrast, made good on its first flurry of offense, in the fifth inning. First baseman John Mayberry walked and was sacrificed to second. Three straight singles, by second baseman Dave McKay, catcher Rick Cerone, and shortstop Luis Gómez, scored two runs. Cerone’s single was a squeeze bunt that took the A’s completely by surprise; the hulking Mayberry scored from third while Cerone beat the bunt out for a hit. “It was a perfect call,” Johnson admitted later.3
Dave Heaverlo, another San Francisco refugee, took over on the mound for Oakland. Heaverlo retired one batter on a fielder’s choice, then gave up singles to right fielder Bob Bailor and third baseman Roy Howell to give the Blue Jays a 4-1 lead. Veteran righty Elias Sosa spelled Heaverlo and got designated hitter Rico Carty to ground into a force out, ending the inning.
In the sixth inning, Guerrero walked and catcher Jeff Newman hit his sixth home run of the season. The runs pulled Oakland to within one, 4-3. It was as close as the visitors would get. The A’s wasted yet another chance in the seventh after Duncan singled and Page doubled him to third – giving Page hits in 25 of his last 29 games.4 Designated hitter Willie Horton grounded to shortstop, and Gómez threw out Duncan trying to score. Clancy retired Revering to end another inning with at least one runner in scoring position.
The Jays put the game away in the bottom of the sixth, with Sosa still on the mound. Cerone singled and moved to second on a groundout. Center fielder Rick Bosetti singled in Cerone, and Bailor’s triple scored Bosetti. Second-year lefty Bob Lacey led the AL with 74 appearances that season, and McKeon summoned him again. The newcomer threw a wild pitch, bringing Bailor home for a 7-3 Toronto lead. Lacey retired the next two hitters.
Each team collected a single in the eighth but did nothing with them. Oakland went in order in the ninth, as Page ended the game with a grounder to Mayberry. Clancy earned the win with a complete game, allowing nine hits and four walks while striking out two. Johnson took the loss, being charged with four hits and four runs in 4⅓ innings. The game ended in 2 hours and 10 minutes.
Perhaps the fullest picture of what happened next was provided by Chylak in an interview a few weeks later. He told a reporter he’d had a busy travel schedule and little sleep leading up to the Toronto series and was deeply fatigued. He said he had no memory of his last game but recalled that he’d had “four plays out at second base and there were no beefs.”
And then, in Chylak’s words: “Know who came and got me off the field? Toronto’s manager, Roy Hartsfield. The game was over, the players had left and there I was standing in back of second base with my arms folded. He came up to me and asked, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ I said, ‘Umpiring a baseball game, that’s what.’ He shook his head and walked me off.”5
Chylak did not work the closing game of the series on July 23, which was handled by a three-man crew of Voltaggio, Luciano, and Garcia. Veteran ump Hank Soar, retired from permanent duty since 1972 but still working as a fill-in, subbed for Chylak after that.6 On July 31 a brief news item ran in newspapers across the United States and Canada, reporting that Chylak was at home recuperating from a mild stroke suffered in Toronto. The item attributed the information to Dick Butler, the AL’s supervisor of umpires.7
Chylak denied he had had a stroke and insisted that he planned to return to umpiring. At home in Dunmore, Pennsylvania,8 he played golf with visiting reporters9 and displayed a signed note from his doctor that read: “No stroke. No heart attack. Feels good. Returning to work soon.”10 A column in The Sporting News on September 2 reported that Chylak was “almost fully recovered” but “isn’t likely to work again.”11 Chylak’s wife, Sue, responded: “Apparently someone knows something we don’t. Nestor feels better and is waiting for word from his doctor as to when he can return to work.”12
For whatever reason, that day never came. In early November, Chylak announced his retirement and accepted a position as assistant supervisor of umpires for the AL. He reiterated to a reporter that he’d simply “run out of gas” in July. He added that he’d begun considering a supervisory job three seasons earlier, when he went 55 days without a day off and crisscrossed the country four times. Chylak also said he would be available to fill in if needed, but never worked another game.13 He was still employed in a supervisory role when he died of a heart attack at home on February 17, 1982.14 Chylak was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame in 1999.
This article was fact-checked by Gary Belleville and copy-edited by Len Levin.
Sources and photo credit
In addition to the specific sources cited in the Notes, the author used the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for general player, team, and season data and the box scores for this game.
Image of 1955 Bowman card #283 downloaded from the Trading Card Database.
1 Associated Press, “As the Clubhouse Turns, A’s Winkles Departs,” Santa Cruz (California) Sentinel, May 24, 1978: 18.
2 At the end of the 2021 season, Clancy ranked second among Blue Jays pitchers in career games started and innings pitched; third in wins, shutouts, and strikeouts; and eighth in games pitched. He was also first in losses. Blue Jays career leader information provided by the Toronto Blue Jays’ website. Accessed December 27, 2021. https://www.mlb.com/bluejays/stats/pitching/strikeouts/all-time-totals.
3 Tom Weir, “Toronto Ruins A’s Pitching Again,” Oakland Tribune, July 23, 1978: 5C. Weir quoted Mayberry’s weight as 220 pounds and described him as “sluggish.”
5 Phil Jackman, “Nesting Chylak Is Itching to Umpire Again,” Baltimore Sun, August 9, 1978: D1. Chylak is quoted as giving an apparently incorrect sequence of events. He described the Hartsfield incident as occurring at the end of a doubleheader. However, Chylak did not umpire at second base during the July 21 doubleheader; he worked the first game at home plate and the second game at third base. He worked the July 22 game at second base, making it appear more likely that the incident happened on July 22. (Also, Retrosheet lists July 22 as Chylak’s final major-league game.)
6 Soar’s subbing for Chylak is mentioned in Canadian Press, “Things Go Better With … Luciano,” Regina (Saskatchewan) Leader-Post, July 25, 1978: 33. This article describes Chylak simply as “ailing.”
7 One representative example of the item: “Umpire Recovers from Stroke,” Lexington (Kentucky) Herald, July 31, 1978: B2.
8 Dunmore is a town adjacent to Scranton in the northeast part of Pennsylvania. Vic Delmore, who umpired in the National League from 1956 through 1959, was a Dunmore native. So was Joe Mooney, longtime groundskeeper at Boston’s Fenway Park. (See Jon Couture, “Joe Mooney, Red Sox Hall of Fame Groundskeeper for Three Decades,” Boston Globe, December 7, 2020: D5.)
9 Jimmy Calpin, “Lookin’ ’Em Over,” Scranton (Pennsylvania) Times-Tribune, August 7, 1978: 11. Calpin wrote: “We were quite concerned about Nestor Chylak’s condition until we had the opportunity to play golf with him last week at Elmhurst Country Club.” Calpin’s column also reiterated Chylak’s statement that he planned to return in early September.
10 Jackman, “Nesting Chylak Is Itching to Umpire Again.”
11 Jerome Holtzman, “Explaining Drop in Homers,” The Sporting News, September 2, 1978: 29.
12 “Chylak Expected Back on Field,” Scranton Times-Tribune, August 27, 1978: 42. Chylak, according to the story, was not home at the time the reporter called.
13 Jack Seitzinger, “Chylak Gives Up Umpiring Chores to Take Supervisory Staff Post,” Scranton Times-Tribune, November 9, 1978: 18. Five days later, the same paper quoted Butler as saying the AL had hoped to get another year of umpiring out of Chylak before he retired.
14 “Baseball Umpire Nestor Chylak Dead at 59,” Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Times Leader, February 18, 1982: 1A.