This article was written by David Fleitz
This article was published in Summer 2010 Baseball Research Journal
The Irish potato famine of the 1840s and ’50s was probably the greatest human tragedy of the nineteenth century. After a nearly total failure of Ireland’s potato crop in 1845, followed by successive years of poor harvests, more than a million and a half Irish—nearly 20 percent of the island’s population—died of starvation from 1845 through 1851. In the nine years immediately following the onset of the famine, some 2,164,000 Irish men, women, and children emigrated to the New World, and the total number of Irish who made the passage by the end of the nineteenth century topped three and a half million.
Most Irish immigrants spoke English, which gave them an advantage over new arrivals from Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe. Though their life was hard in the New World, they managed to add a distinctive Irish flavor to the American “melting pot,” as Irish immigrants raised families, built communities, fought in the “Irish brigades” in the Civil War, and made a place for themselves in their adopted country.
Hundreds of thousands of these Irish immigrants were young men, and their arrival created a new stream of participants in America’s most rapidly growing sport. Baseball provided an opportunity for the Irishman to participate in and excel at something distinctly American. While the older generation could not always understand this strange new pastime and its appeal, their young men embraced it with enthusiasm. Before long, Irish names began popping up on rosters of amateur teams, especially in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and northern New Jersey. Irish American laborers and millworkers formed their own clubs, and their children played the game in vacant lots and pastures.
Sports and games had been an important part of Irish civilization long before the upheaval caused by the famine. Gaelic football, a cross between soccer and rugby, was known in medieval times, while hurling, a stick-and-ball game that resembles lacrosse, had been played in some form in Ireland for more than two thousand years. The Irish came to America, said historian Steven A. Riess, “with a manly athletic tradition and quickly became avid sports fans and athletes in their new country.”[fn]This article is adapted from a presentation the author gave on July 31, 2009, at the 39th annual SABR convention in Washington, D.C., and from his book The Irish in Baseball: An Early History (Jefferson, S.C.: McFarland, 2009). Ron Kaplan, “The Sporting Life,” Irish America, February–March 2003.[/fn]
Professional baseball, which took root in America shortly after the Civil War, was attractive to the ambitious Irishman. It matured just as a new generation of Irish Americans, the children of the famine refugees, reached adulthood, and it did not take long for the Irish to gain a foothold in the increasingly popular sport. Many of the game’s early stars were either Irishborn or sons of immigrants—the Hall of Fame includes twenty-four Irish American players from the nineteenth century. By 1885, according to statistics compiled by Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen, more than 40 percent of all major-league players claimed Irish ancestry.[fn]Robert F. Burk, Never Just a Game: Players, Owners, and American Baseball to 1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 131. Burk’s data came from a study by Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen and is summarized in Allen’s “Notebooks Containing Statistical Data on Baseball Players” in the Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, New York.[/fn]
It comes as no surprise, then, that the Irish would come to dominate the umpiring ranks as well.
Why were the Irish attracted to umpiring? Most likely, for the same reasons they were attracted to ballplaying. Baseball became a profession in the 1870s, just as thousands of Irish Americans were looking for both work and a place in American society; when umpiring became a profession during the 1880s, it became attractive to the Irish for the same reasons. In a time when too many occupations were closed to immigrants and their families, the Irish were looking for occupations they might be accepted in, and baseball had already proven itself welcoming to the Irish. Baseball, too, was growing; the number of teams, major and minor, increased sharply during the 1880s, creating a new demand not only for players but also for competent game officials. The Irish filled these positions with enthusiasm.
Research shows that many, indeed most, of the outstanding umpires of the period 1880–1920 were second-generation Irish. Some of these men were amateur and minor-league players who had failed to advance to major-league ball and turned to umpiring as a way to remain in the game they loved. A few—Bill Dinneen, George Moriarty, and Hank O’Day among them—had been fine major-league players themselves and sought to extend their time in the big leagues by serving as arbiters. Men such as these might umpire in the majors for thirty years or more after they played their last games.
The first great umpire, John Gaffney, was an immigrant’s son from Roxbury, Massachusetts. He was a fine amateur player whose career had ended in the winter of 1880 when he hurt his arm throwing a snowball. Wanting to stay in the game, he became an umpire instead, and by 1886 his work in the National League had won him general recognition as the “King of Umpires.” The American Association had its own claimant to that title, “Honest John” Kelly, a New Yorker who was also the son of immigrants. Kelly had played in the National League in 1879 but batted only .155 and was convinced he would not succeed as a player. He turned to umpiring instead.
Gaffney and Kelly set the tone for the Irish American umpires who followed. Both were former players, second-generation Irishmen, and masters of the strike zone and the rule book. Both men ruled the field with their presence and personality, though Kelly may have had another angle working in his favor. An umpire’s personal popularity played a key role in his success or failure during the 1880s, when fan rowdiness increased to alarming levels, and John Kelly proved highly popular with the crowds. Perhaps Kelly gained favor and kept the peace by being something of a “homer”—researchers have found that, in 1884, the home team won more than two-thirds of the games he presided over.[fn]Larry Gerlach, “John O. Kelly,” in Baseball’s First Stars, ed. Frederick Ivor-Campbell, Robert L. Tiemann, and Mark Rucker (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1996), 89.[/fn]
Gaffney used patience and tact to control a game. “With the players I try to keep as even tempered as I can,” Gaffney explained, “always speaking to them gentlemanly yet firmly. I dislike to fine, and in all my experience have not inflicted more than $300 in fines, and I never found it necessary to order a player from the field. Pleasant words to players in passion will work far better than fines.”[fn]The Sporting News, 25 April 1891.[/fn]
Another second-generation Irishman, Tim Hurst, took a different tack. A coalminer’s son from Pennsylvania, Hurst had worked in the mines himself and learned to hold his own with his fists. He carried this attitude into a career as a boxing referee and, later, as a baseball umpire. He took no abuse from anyone. When threatened by a player or manager, Hurst would offer to settle the matter with his fists, challenging the offender in his rich Irish accent. They called him “Sir Timothy” for his bearing and “Terrible Tim” for his temper, and few players elected to punch it out with him. In 1897 he took on three Pittsburgh Pirates at once and whipped them all soundly. Still, he knew the rule book and commanded instant authority, though some players found his conversation so entertaining that they purposely baited him just to hear him argue in his Irish brogue. When asked why he wore a cap with a letter B on it, Hurst replied, “Because I’m the best.”
The game changed as the new century dawned, but Hurst refused to change with it. He remained the same battler he had always been, even after joining the American League staff in 1905. His career ended in 1909 when he spit in the face of Philadelphia’s Eddie Collins because, as he said, “I don’t like college boys.” Still, Connie Mack, who managed the Pirates during the 1890s, said, “Hurst lost his head at times, and this was eventually his undoing, but he did more to stamp out rowdyism than any other official I have known. He was fearless and one of the gamest men who ever handled an indicator.”[fn]Norman Macht, Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 450.[/fn]
One Irish umpire who had a rough time of it was Tom Lynch, who joined the National League staff in 1888. Lynch was widely admired for his honesty and integrity in an era when umpires were increasingly the target of player rowdiness and fan violence. He did not take abuse from anyone, and, though he was not an enthusiastic fighter like Hurst, he could be pushed past his limits. On August 6, 1897, he got into a fistfight on the field with Baltimore’s Jack Doyle during a hotly contested game at Boston, an incident suggesting that among the Irish there was little ethnic solidarity on the diamond at that time. Two years later, tiring of the constant abuse and lack of backing from the league, he resigned and took a job as a theater manager in his hometown of New Britain, Connecticut.
Ten years later, the National League was looking for a man of integrity to take over as league president and offered the job to the long-retired Lynch, who served in that position for the next four years. Not surprisingly, he strongly supported his umpires, even against his bosses, the club owners. Lynch, not a man to hold grudges, hired Jack Doyle as an umpire on the National League staff in 1911. Lynch paired Doyle with the veteran Bob Emslie, another arbiter who had often clashed with Doyle years before. Doyle was not a good umpire, lasting only half a season, but, as Christy Mathewson remarked, “Emslie and [Doyle] got along like Damon and Pythias. This business makes strange bed-fellows.”[fn]Christopher Mathewson, Pitching in a Pinch, reprint ed. (New York: Stein and Day, 1977), 177.[/fn]
The percentage of Irish players in baseball dropped as more German and Eastern Europeans entered the game, and by 1900 the Irish were no longer the largest ethnic group on the playing field. However, their presence in the umpiring ranks remained steady for several decades to come. Perhaps the reason is that umpires have longer careers than players; perhaps also the Irish American umpires in the last two decades of the nineteenth century set an example that other Irish American men sought to follow.
One outstanding umpire in the early years of the twentieth century was Jack Sheridan, a man so Irish in appearance and manner that people assumed he was born on the island. He was actually a native of Chicago and grew up in San Jose, California. He had been roughly treated in the National League during the 1890s, so he joined Ban Johnson’s Western League later that decade. He was the best arbiter on Johnson’s staff and umpired in the American League from 1900 to 1914.
Sheridan had a few idiosyncrasies. He wore no chest protector behind the plate, because he was nimble enough to jump away from foul balls. His strike-three call was totally his own. He would make an exaggerated gesture with his arms and bellow, “Strike three! San Jose, California! The garden spot of America!” Sheridan had battled a fellow Irishman, John McGraw, in the National League, and their feud continued when both men found themselves now in the American League in 1901. On May 1 of the following year, Boston pitcher Bill Dinneen hit McGraw with a pitch, but Sheridan refused to allow McGraw to take his base, claiming that McGraw hadn’t tried hard enough to get out of the way.[fn]Charles C. Alexander, John McGraw (New York: Viking Penguin, 1988), 88.[/fn]
McGraw disliked Sheridan personally but respected him professionally. In 1913, McGraw and Charlie Comiskey took their teams, the Giants and White Sox, on a round-the-world exhibition tour. Wanting the two best umpires to accompany them, they chose Bill Klem and Jack Sheridan.
Two other outstanding Irish American umpires of the era were Bill Dinneen and Hank O’Day. Both of them were pitchers who extended their baseball lives through umpiring. Dinneen pitched for twelve seasons and umpired for 28 more. O’Day pitched for seven seasons and umpired for 31, his umpiring career interrupted by two seasons as a manager. Both men are answers to great trivia questions. Dinneen is the only major leaguer in history to throw a no-hitter as a pitcher and call one as an umpire. O’Day is best known as the arbiter who called Fred Merkle out at second base in the pivotal Giants–Cubs contest of September 23, 1908. He was also the only umpire who ever ejected Connie Mack from a game, which he did in 1895.
In 1946 the Baseball Hall of Fame instituted the Honor Rolls of Baseball, a secondary level of recognition, that includes 39 men—managers, umpires, executives, and sportswriters. Of the 11 umpires on the list of honorees, seven (Dinneen, Sheridan, Hurst, Kelly, Gaffney, Lynch, and Frank “Silk” O’Loughlin) were Irish Americans, while the unaccountably missing Hank O’Day certainly should have been the eighth. (Another honored umpire, Tommy Connolly, was born in England but may well have also been Irish.)
Another player-turned-umpire, George Moriarty, grew up in Chicago, where his immigrant father was a childhood friend of another Irishman, Charlie Comiskey. Moriarty reached the majors as a third baseman in 1903, having already earned a reputation as a fighter of the first rank. When he joined the Detroit Tigers in 1909, Ty Cobb challenged him to a fight. Moriarty handed Cobb a bat. “A fellow like you,” said the young third baseman, “needs a bat to even things up when fighting an Irishman.” Cobb wisely backed off.
In 1917, his playing career over, Moriarty joined the American League umpiring staff, remaining until 1940. A Sporting News poll in 1935 rated him the best umpire in the league. One day in 1932, he took a page from Tim Hurst’s book when he fought four Chicago White Sox (three players and the manager) all at once after a hotly contested game in Chicago. Moriarty emerged with a broken wrist but managed to hold off all his assailants despite being nearly twice the age of the players involved.
Moriarty was so esteemed as a baseball man that he took a two-year hiatus from umpiring in 1927–28 to manage his old team, the Detroit Tigers. He was one of several Irish Americans— John Gaffney, John Kelly, Hank O’Day, and Tim Hurst—who interrupted their umpiring careers to manage major-league clubs.
The last of the great Irish American umpires was Jocko Conlan, another ex-player who turned to umpiring as a way to stay in the game. While riding the bench for the White Sox in 1935, he filled in for an umpire who had become ill in the summer heat. Conlan liked the work and shortly afterward retired as a player and gained a minor-league umpiring job. In 1941 he joined the National League staff and remained for 24 years. In contrast to many of the umpires in baseball today, Conlan was only five feet and seven inches tall and weighed about 160 pounds. He kept order on the field with his personality and his hustle and by making quick, correct decisions in an authoritative manner.
The most famous Conlan story involves Leo Durocher, who was coaching for the Dodgers in 1961 when he ran out to argue with Conlan at home plate. Durocher kicked at the dirt and accidentally hit Conlan in the shins; Conlan kicked Leo back, and the two men stood at the plate kicking each other until Durocher realized that Jocko was the home-plate umpire and was wearing shin guards and steel-toed shoes.
Conlan was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1974, the fourth umpire so honored. He was among the last of a breed. By the time he died in 1989 at age 89, the Irish American dominance of the umpiring profession had long since passed into history.
DAVID FLEITZ, author of “The Irish in Baseball: An Early History” (McFarland, 2009), is a contributor to SABR’s Baseball Biography Project.