The Role of the Umpire in 1900

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This article was published in 1980 Baseball Research Journal

The role of umpires in establishing public acceptance of organized baseball in its early years has been given little attention. This is especially true of umpires in the minor leagues. If mention is made at all, it usually concerns some colorful personality with a foghorn voice or a flair for poetry rather than an acknowledgement of the courage, patience and love of the game which arbiters must have possessed in order to withstand the abuse which they suffered at the hands of players, managers, fans and press.

Prior to the assignment of two umpires to handle a game, it must have been very lonely and threatening for the man who had to face two hostile ball cubs and the fans of communities who took the successes and failures of their local heroes very seriously. The running game characteristic of baseball in its early years surely made it impossible for one official to make an accurate judgment on every play during the course of a game. So controversy was inevitable.

The New York State League was a typical lower minor league at the turn of the century. This league was successfully reorganized in 1899 through the singular efforts of John Farrell, who was to be involved in minor league baseball for many years. Farrell served as president of the “State” league until its demise in 1917. He also was president of the New York-Penn League from 1923 to 1929, as well as being a founder of the National Association and serving as its secretary-treasurer until 1931.

The New York State League was not a fly-by-night operation under inept leadership. Thus, it might serve to offer some generalizations regarding what problems had to be overcome before the professional status of the umpire could be firmly established. Perhaps what was true in the New York State League was true of the minor leagues in general.

The State League’s second year of operation is most useful in this regard. Game accounts and “baseball notes” columns are replete with incidents concerning the low regard in which umpires were held. In fact, the newspapers of three league cities, Albany, Troy, and Schenectady, agreed that “1900 will go down in baseball annals as the stormiest year in the history of the national game.” The Albany Journal held that “the umpire who escapes a slugging has exceptional luck.” In July, the Albany Times-Union went so far as to conclude that “rowdyism and the abuse of umpires has so increased that it is about time for this kind of business to be cut out or it will eventually put the national game on the `Rappahannock.’”

At the beginning of the 1900 season President Farrell made a good start in bringing order and discipline to his four man umpiring corps. He published a list of 17 rules for league officials. Several of these rules illustrate what must have been previous difficulties with the conduct of the arbiters themselves. The umpires were to provide themselves with a dark blue uniform and cap to match, to report on the field at game time under penalty of a $10 fine or dismissal, to report in “fit” condition subject to fine, to permit no rowdyism, profanity or any “act offensive to patrons.” Further, umpires were instructed not to “divulge your schedule to managers, captains, players or anyone.” Finally:

“Always remember that you are the personal representatives of the

league, engaged to enforce all rules and so conduct all contests as

to reflect credit upon yourself and the league organization. You

have absolute authority.”

So much for good intentions. President Farrell himself must bear some of the responsibility for the deteriorating conditions which followed. On May 24, he allowed heavyweight boxing champion Jim Jeffries to officiate a league game in Albany between that club and Schenectady. The game drew 4,000 spectators which was probably the major factor in Farrell’s decision. Jeffries umpired bases while Dan Ryan officiated behind the plate. More on Ryan later. The professional status of any task is difficult to achieve if the appearance is given that anyone can perform that task. Any profession requires that the performer possess some basic qualifications and experience.

Farrell was also remiss in a very important function of a league president: that of protecting his umpires. Several cases of physical assaults on umpires during the season resulted in no reported player or manager fines or suspensions. One assaulting player was one of Albany’s top pitchers, Talbot, who, insofar as it could be determined, did not miss his regular turn on the mound. In July, Schenectady club president Hathaway banned umpire Denny Houle from the grounds and the local newspaper reported that “the Schenectady public may rest assured that it has seen the last of Houle in an official capacity”. The following day two players handled the game and Farrell announced that a substitute for Houle would be procured. Houle did appear again in Schenectady, in August, in an “official capacity”.

The authority which Farrell vested in the umpires at the beginning of the season was obviously not real. A few days after this episode President Farrell instructed his umpires “to be more particular about rowdy ball playing and to put any player out of the game who violates the rules”. The president acknowledged at a league meeting that he “picked his umpires from bushes and the fruit shown indicate that the bushes are anything but trees of knowledge”.

In July he provoked a major crisis on his staff. Umpires had started the season under contracts paying them $7 a day. In mid-season he reduced this to $6. With that, all but one umpire resigned. Farrell recruited new arbiters, contending “$6 a day is enough for the umpires.” On at least one occasion, the president failed to assign an umpire to a game and players had to take over. In time, Farrell would prove to be among the most competent of all minor league officials. However, in 1900 he had much progress to make in helping establish the status of umpires on his staff.

The “men in blue” themselves must share some responsibility for their lowly state. One of Farrell’s rules for his staff, that of reporting on the field at game time, was broken many times. Sometimes they did not appear at all. This necessitated choosing a player from each club to officiate, which in turn led to charges and counter-charges of bias. In late August, no umpire appeared for the Cortland-Rome game. Cortland refused to play if the chosen Rome player handled the game so the “Roman” announced the game was forfeited to his club. There was no indication as to whether or not his decision was upheld by Farrell.

Umpire John Conroy, known as “Pompadour John,” banished Binghamton manager Calhoun “for making personal remarks about Conroy’s hair. `Conny’ is sensitive on this point apparently,” according to one account. Conroy, the one member of the staff who did not resign over the salary dispute in July, put in a particularly harrowing week at the season’s end. On August 28, in the Troy-Binghamton game, he collapsed from sunstroke. Two days later he was in a fight on the field with Utica player Dobbs. Conroy initiated the action and Dobbs was joined by teammate Childs. The police intervened with Dobbs and Childs being jailed awaiting a court appearance. On September 4, Cortland players refused to play the second game of a doubleheader in Schenectady if Conroy umpired.  Schenectady president Hathaway warned the Cortland club “no play, no money.” They played. The next day, the Schenectady paper was all over Conroy for “giving” the game to Cortland.

Another problem with the umpires themselves was that some did not give to their tasks a full professional commitment. Dan Ryan, who officiated the game in which Jeffries appeared, is a case in point. Ryan, by close to unanimous agreement, was inept. Dan’s real desire was to be an actor and the newspapers made much of this. According to the Albany Times-Union, “Mr. Ryan may be a `Rising Young American Character Actor’ who is not afraid to tackle anything from `Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ to `Hamlet’ but he is not capable of holding the indicator, as he makes a farce of things while officiating.” Or, when a rowdy Schenectady crowd threw rocks at the Albany players, Ryan “gave a sorry exhibition of lack of nerve. President Farrell should send him back to the dime show business again.” Ryan was released July 13. His next appearance was neither as an umpire nor an actor, but as a player for the independent Ilion club.

Ed Aschenbach was another who was ambivalent about his commitment. Early in the season, it was noted that he was managing a club in Virginia. In early August he was on the State League staff and being characterized as having “every other `botch’ who has officiated in this circuit beat a mile in the matter of poor and rocky judgement”. After two weeks of this he joined the Troy team as its left fielder. Asked why, he replied that he’d “live longer.” For once the Albany paper agreed with an umpire. “By the look of things in the State League he made a wise move, for if he stayed in the business he would be missing at his next birthday party.”

Newspapers of that day were less fearful of libel suits or charges of bias. No politician, foreign nation, ethnic, religious or racial group escaped their slurs. As a distinct minority group, umpires were no exception. A lone umpire, spending several days in a small town with a hostile press inciting the local club’s “fanatics” could not possibly avoid censure.

Umpire Russell, another late season addition, was called by the Schenectady writer “the rockiest and most incompetent specimen of poor judgment that President Farrell has yet landed”. Considering what had been said about Russell’s predecessors, this was saying a lot. Russell fared no better at the hands of the Albany Times-Union. When a group of fans threatened to throw him in the Hudson River, the local reporter said he deserved a “ducking.” Dan Ryan suffered at the hands of the press, but, as far as Schenectady was concerned, “compared with Houle, Ryan was a prince of umpires.” Reference was made to Houle’s “sublime stupidity,” “thick cranium,” and “stupendous ignorance.”

The report of one game involving Albany allowed that “Russell was so thoroughly frightened by the Troy players that he did pretty nearly everything they told him.” When the hapless Conroy suffered his sunstroke, the major concern of the Albany reporter was that the delay prevented the game from being completed in less than one hour. It is significant that there was never the slightest hint that any umpire was dishonest. This traditional view of umpires apparently had established itself in the State League by 1900, and perhaps throughout organized baseball.  The kindest remark made about an umpire came after the opening game of the season in Schenectady. Umpire John Carlin was said to have given “satisfaction yesterday as umpire.” After that, it was all down hill. Carlin had quit by mid-July, claiming illness.

Another plus, all things considered, was that no umpire was seriously injured. In August, Umpire Gifford came very close. Under the heading “Gifford’s Narrow Escape.” a Syracuse paper described the incident which took place in Cortland. After a disputed call, Gifford suspended the Cortland manager and a player for three days on the spot. Then he forfeited the game to Albany. Whereupon, he was “kicked, slapped and egged, and but for the timely intervention of a few men who shut him in the ticket office with Officer James Edwards and President Riley, there is little doubt that he would have been severely dealt with.” Gifford remained in his place of refuge until more police arrived and he was escorted to his hotel “followed by a jeering mob of nearly 300 men and boys.” The account went on to say that it was probable that Gifford would not appear at the ballpark the following afternoon. His further fate went unreported.

During the course of the season, by count, no less than 12 umpires were employed, Denny Houle appearing in two distinct periods of time. Even future Hall-of-Famer Tom Connolly served briefly in June and July, coming down from the National League. He did not escape charges of partiality; he failed to appear for a game, and finally resigned over the salary dispute. None of the four who began the season completed it. Amazingly, two of the arbiters, Conroy and Keefe, returned for more medicine in 1901. By all odds, the season of 1900 was the most tumultuous year for umpires in this one circuit. Quite possibly the only involved person who had nothing to say about the officiating that year was Luther “Dummy” Taylor, star righthander for Albany, who left in mid-season to begin a successful career with the New York Giants.