Tim Hurst’s Last Call

This article was written by Rick Huhn

This article was published in The National Pastime: From Swampoodle to South Philly (Philadelphia, 2013)

It was an unlikely time for a post-game riot, even in a baseball-crazy city like Philadelphia. Yet that is exactly what occurred at newly-minted Shibe Park on the afternoon of August 3, 1909. Moments earlier, the hometown Athletics had completed an exciting come-from-behind 10–4 victory to sweep a doubleheader from the Chicago White Sox. The pair of wins served as further notice that this team, fielding a number of young players, was becoming a force to be reckoned with in the American League. The wins that day lifted the record of manager Connie Mack’s charges to 58–38, leaving them a mere two games behind the defending two-time AL champion Detroit Tigers. Not a bad day’s work for a squad that finished in sixth place just one season before. Nonetheless, as the final White Sox out was recorded in the top of the ninth, several hundred Athletics fans, instead of celebrating, rushed the field as others, in the upper tier, threw seat cushions, bottles, and even their straw hats. The target of their anger was veteran umpire Tim Hurst. Only the intervention of several members of the Athletics, including Mr. Mack, and eventually the police, saved Hurst from serious physical harm. Hurst did not know it at the time, but as he was escorted from the field he had just umpired his last game in the major leagues.

The call that served to end Tim Hurst’s storied career in baseball occurred late in the day’s second game. When 23-year-old third baseman Frank Baker, batting with the bases full of Athletics and one out, lifted a fly ball to center field, it started a chain reaction of relay throws that eventually saw A’s second sacker Eddie Collins attempt to advance from first to second. The action that unfolded at that point was described in one Philadelphia newspaper as follows:

It was in the [bottom of the] eighth inning when the White Sox were throwing the ball around in reckless fashion that Collins saw a chance to get to second and availed himself of it, though it were patent to all that he was only safe because [Sox second baseman Jake] Atz dropped the ball. To every one’s surprise Umpire Hurst called him out, claiming that he [Collins] knocked the ball from the Chicago fielder’s hand. As a matter of fact, Atz dropped the ball before Collins reached the bag. What Collins said to Hurst is not known, but it is claimed that when he came over to where the umpire was standing the latter spat at him.[fn]Philadelphia Record, August 4, 1909.[/fn]

Hurst’s actions, post call, were more colorfully portrayed by sports writer Jimmy Isaminger of the Philadelphia North American. He was uncertain if Hurst acted intentionally or not, but told readers “it is a fact that the umpire distributed a mouthful of moistened union-made tobacco in the direction of youthful Eddie, who immediately called Tim’s attention to the Board of Health ordinance which prohibits expectorating in public places.”[fn]Philadelphia North American, August 4, 1909.[/fn]

Whether Hurst’s actions violated any ordinances or not, it did violate the sensibilities of those locals who later rushed the field and threw Hurst’s way any and all objects close at hand. Not long thereafter it caught the attention of one Byron Bancroft Johnson, the AL’s president and baseball’s major domo. Johnson took special pride in his umpires. He had a short fuse for any indiscretions. The next day, Johnson relieved Hurst from duty indefinitely pending a report of the incident.[fn]“Athletics Cop Two From The Chicagos,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 5, 1910.[/fn] There can be little doubt Hurst was suspended for spitting on Collins and not for his call. The reason for Hurst’s overt reaction to Collins’s protest is of interest. A more intriguing and less analyzed question is: Why had Hurst made what almost everyone agreed was such an egregious call? The question begs a closer look at Mr. Hurst.

According to Ring Lardner, describing the day’s activities for the “bugs” back in Chicago, the call, “[p]robably the worst decision Tim ever made in his life, and that means a pretty bad decision, stopped Philadelphia in the midst of a rally….”[fn]Ring Lardner, “Sox Fall Twice; Fans Mob Hurst,” Chicago Tribune, August 4, 1909.[/fn] Lardner seems to be asserting that Hurst’s miscall was just another of many made over the course of his career. The writer, even in these years prior to You Know Me Al and national repute as a writer of short stories and plays, seldom missed a chance to interject some dry wit into his work. This might have been just one more instance. On the other hand, if Lardner truly believed Hurst was a subpar arbiter, it was not an opinion generally shared by others. In fact, it was just the opposite.

Timothy Carroll Hurst was known far and wide for his fairness as a signal caller. He made a bad call every once in a while, but far fewer than most. Tim was born into a large Irish family in Ashland, Pennsylvania, on June 30, 1865. His father had been in the wholesale liquor business. In the 1870s the elder Hurst purchased a horse and wagon and eked out a meager living delivering coal from local mines to customers in the area. A childhood friend had this to say about Tim’s turbulent early years:

As youngsters, Timmie and I worked picking slate in a colliery in Ashland. When we knocked off for lunch, there was always a fight or two between employes [sic] to see who was the better man. That is where Tim learned to handle his fists and got a love for fighting. But Tim was too smart to stay in the mines. He saw there was no future there for him.[fn]Edward Burkett Price quoted in “Terrible-Tempered Tim—Fighting Umpire (Part One),” column “Three and One” by J. G. Taylor Spink, The Sporting News, April 8, 1943, 4, 6.[/fn]

This same friend introduced Hurst to a career in umpiring when the friend’s nose was broken as he umpired a local game. The friend quit on the spot. When no one stepped forward to take his place, Tim, playing second base for one of the teams at the time, volunteered and finished the game as the ump. He received a dollar for his troubles and decided it might be an easy way to make more.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]

In 1888, at age 22, Hurst began his professional umpiring career in the Central Pennsylvania League. A stint in the Southern League followed a year later. When that league broke up in mid-season 1889, he transferred his skills to the Western Association. Hurst, who was once described as a “bandy-legged, sorrel-topped, five-foot-nine-inch 175-pound bit of dynamite,” had the familiar combination of a keen Irish wit and the short, sharp temper to go with it.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] During his brief time in the Western Association, he impressed the owners of the Minneapolis Millers so much as an umpire that in June 1890 he was hired as their manager. Hurst’s Millers almost won the league championship, but Hurst fell out with team management and did not return as manager in 1891. Instead, he was hired as an umpire by the National League. He was now in the big time.

Plying his craft at baseball’s top level, Hurst developed a reputation for his dim view of players who questioned his calls, preferring to use his fists to cut arguments short. According to baseball historian David Fleitz, “(t)hey called him ‘Sir Timothy’ for his bearing and ‘Terrible Tim’ for his temper, and few players elected to punch it out with him.”[fn]David Fleitz, “The Green and the Blue: The Irish American Umpire, 1880–1965,” The Baseball Research Journal, 39 (Summer 2010): 28.[/fn] That probably cut down on arguments, but he garnered even more respect for his knowledge of the rules and the way he applied them.

Over the years, perhaps owing to his own attempts at a professional boxing career, Hurst developed a reputation for refereeing boxing matches. He was known for calling a fair fight. As his reputation as referee spread he began working some highly publicized fights, mostly during baseball’s off-season but a few in the summer. This opened the door to offers to officiate bike races, running races, and even marathons. The men in charge of baseball were not impressed. In 1895 the magnates rose up and ousted him from the league. However, high-quality umpires like Hurst were difficult to find. After a season in the Eastern League, he was back in the NL, but not for long. On August 4, 1897, Tim was under heavy verbal assault from the fans during a game he umpired in Cincinnati. All at once, what had been mere verbiage turned physical when a beer bottle was heaved from the stands, striking Hurst in the back. He reacted quickly and violently, hurling the bottle back into the stands where it struck a city fireman over one eye and broke his skin. Fans immediately leaped from the stands onto the field and charged the fuming umpire. It took a police cordon to escort him safely from the field. Fortunately, the fireman’s cut did not prove serious. Hurst was charged with assault and battery, paid a fine and served no time in jail. Although he was not dismissed at the time, at season’s end he was quietly shuffled out of the league.

Hurst reappeared in 1898 as manager of the St. Louis Browns, a posting that did not survive a last-place finish. Interestingly, as a manager Hurst was a notorious umpire-baiter.[fn]J. G. Taylor Spink, “Terrible-Tempered Tim—Fighting Umpire (Part Two),”
The Sporting News, April 15, 1943, 4, 10.[/fn] His managerial career at an end, Hurst sat out a year then returned to umpire in the National League on a sporadic basis. In 1904 he umpired only one game.[fn]Tim Hurst’s entry at www.retrosheet.org. See also Larry R. Gerlach, “Timothy Carroll Hurst,” Frederick Ivor-Campbell, Robert L. Tiemann, Mark Rucker, eds., Baseball’s First Stars (Cleveland: SABR, 1996), 80.[/fn]

In 1905 Hurst resurfaced in the American League umpiring for Ban Johnson. The Irishman’s return to baseball was facilitated by Johnson’s desire to field a superior team of umpires who would lend reliability and credibility to the game. According to one writer, “Under Johnson the many-lived umpire was to be reborn again, and this time to a position of authority, dignity and secularity.”[fn]James M. Kahn, The Umpire Story (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1953), 50.[/fn] Hurst liked the sound of it. He enlisted and Johnson had an authority figure to add to a growing list of first-class signal callers, albeit one who carried the risk of an explosion every once in a while.

For the most part, Hurst toed the company line during his AL tenure, adding to his credibility and delighting fans with the spirited way he approached his trade. Nevertheless, there were those occasional bumps in the road. One such incident occurred in May 1906 in New York during a contest with the visiting Washington Nationals when Highlander manager Clark Griffith protested a Hurst call in a close play at first base. Griffith reportedly rushed toward Hurst waving his hands and flinging his cap into the air. Hurst ordered him away. Instead, Griffith moved closer and stepped on Hurst’s shoe. Hurst reared back to strike Griffith, before several players intervened. When Hurst grabbed Griffith by his lapel, intending to lead him off the field, the latter pushed Hurst’s hand aside. As Griffith’s men took control and led him toward the dugout, Hurst again approached and drew his fist back ready to take a swing. Order was eventually restored and Griffith ejected from the game.[fn]“Umpire And Player Clash,” The New York Times, May 8, 1906.[/fn] Spotted later with a swollen lip, Griffith denied it came from Hurst.[fn]“Orth Scattered Hits,” Washington Post, May 8, 1906.[/fn] Although various reports have Ban Johnson disciplining both men over the incident, Hurst umpired the next day in a ballgame featuring the same teams.[fn]For example see Eugene C. Murdock, Ban Johnson: Czar of Baseball (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), 101, citing The Sporting News, May 19, 1906, 4.[/fn], [fn]“Batted Out A Victory,” Washington Post, May 9, 1906.[/fn]

Another significant bump occurred on May 7, 1909, in New York, three months before the spitting incident involving Eddie Collins. This time Hurst’s opponent was Highlander third baseman Kid Elberfeld. The Highlanders beat the Boston Red Sox in the bottom of the 12th, and the play that caused the ruckus occurred in the bottom of the 11th with the teams knotted at three apiece. Elberfeld stood at third with one out when teammate Joe Ward lifted a fly ball to left. Following the catch—or perhaps as one report had it, a little before—Elberfeld steamed for home. In his mind, he had beaten the throw from Red Sox left fielder Harry Niles and the game was over. He was stunned when Tim Hurst called him out, sending the game into yet another inning. Elberfeld had skirmished with Hurst before and was unwilling to back down. He rushed Hurst and jabbed him in the side. Hurst picked up his mask and swung away, striking Elberfeld in the jaw. After several Red Sox players intervened, Hurst tossed Elberfeld from the game.[fn]“Cree Drives Home The Winning Run,” The New York Times, May 8, 1909.[/fn] Hurst was suspended by Ban Johnson until May 13.[fn]Sporting Life, May 22, 1909, 11.[/fn]

By August, Hurst was in the eye of the storm that would end his career. To a casual observer, a pattern seemed to be emerging: in both skirmishes the individual called out was irate and argued strenuously with Hurst. The incidents, however, bore significant differences. The first call was made in a tie game. Had Elberfeld been called safe at home, the game was over, his Highlander team victorious. The call at second base in the August contest occurred with Collins’s Athletics team safely ahead, merely seeking to add to what appeared to be an insurmountable 10–4 lead. Where Elberfeld’s game was played right in New York, Hurst’s home base, the Collins dispute occurred in Philadelphia, a train commute for Hurst to his residence. While no one seriously disputed that Elberfeld’s play at the plate was a close call, almost every observer agreed that Jake Atz dropped the ball and Collins was clearly safe at second. Thus, in the first instance as opposed to the second, Hurst’s decision was justifiable.

Even the characteristics and circumstances of the two aggrieved ballplayers differed. Elberfeld had legitimately earned his nickname, “The Tabasco Kid,” by his presence at the center of controversy throughout his career. Two of his more noteworthy skirmishes with umpires occurred in 1906, each involving highly-regarded signal caller Silk O’Loughlin. In the first, The Kid went after Silk with a bat, while in the second, he attempted to kick and spike O’Loughlin in the foot. This second incident, described by The New York Times as “one of the most disrespectful exhibitions of rowdyism ever witnessed on a baseball field,” moved Ban Johnson to suspend Elberfeld for seven games.[fn]“Americans In The Lead After Stormy Series,” The New York Times, September 4, 1906.[/fn] It is not so surprising then, if still not appropriate, that when Elberfeld rushed at Hurst in May 1909, the latter might strike back. On the other hand, three months later, when Eddie Collins attempted to advance to second following Frank Baker’s fly out, he carried none of Elberfeld’s baggage. At the time Collins was only 22, in his first full season as the A’s second sacker. There is no question that Collins played the game with a competitive spirit that at times—particularly on the base paths—seemed aggressive. In fact, only a couple of weeks before the row with Hurst, Collins had vigorously protested to no avail a call by rookie umpire Fred Perrine.[fn]“Browns Hand Out Jolt To Mackmen,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 18, 1909.[/fn] But throughout a long and illustrious career his disputes over calls were brief and relatively few. Disputes he was involved in did not rise to the level of all-out war as did Elberfeld’s. He would eventually earn the nickname “Cocky” more for an attitude of quiet assurance than for any negative connotation.

Unlike ”The Tabasco Kid,” Collins did not physically assault Tim Hurst on August 3, although there were some who said the young infielder kicked dust on Hurst’s patent leather shoes. This might have been enough to set off Hurst, a man known to buff his shoes prior to games until they glared back at him. Nonetheless, those wondering why Hurst, who did not eject Collins, went so far as to spit on him that fateful day need look no further than Sir Timothy’s own words. When he was eventually confronted by Ban Johnson for an explanation of his actions, Hurst supposedly told his boss, “I don’t like college boys.”[fn]Murdoch, Ban Johnson, 101-102, citing Kahn, The Umpire Story, 46.[/fn] Eddie Collins was a graduate of Columbia University, just one of a growing number of college-educated young men signed to a contract by the refined Connie Mack.

That might explain why Hurst spit on Collins. It does not explain why he made perhaps the worst call of his career. Hurst never spoke about the matter publicly. Thus we will never know the answer for sure. A reasonable explanation can be pieced together by a look at the timing of the call and revealing statements Hurst had made on earlier occasions.

The Collins incident occurred in the bottom of the eighth inning of game two of a twin bill. By this time, Hurst and his colleague Silk O’Loughlin had been umpiring for 17 innings. Game one had taken almost two hours to complete. The second game was heading toward the two-hour mark. (Today a two-hour game is considered short, but not so in 1909.) In the sixth inning the White Sox seemed to be in control, leading 4–0 behind veteran flinger Doc White. Then the A’s turned things around, scoring one in the bottom half of the sixth and five more in the seventh. They had pushed four more runs across by the time Collins tagged up and chugged toward second in the A’s half of the eighth. By that time the game was solidly in hand, the play of little consequence. When Sox second baseman Atz dropped the relay throw representing the third out, Hurst must have groaned. He had seen enough. Instead of calling Collins safe and allowing the inning to continue, he called the base runner out. A half-inning later, the game was over. So, it would prove, was Hurst’s long, storied umpiring career.

Hurst’s intentions that day did not go unnoticed by that keen observer, Ring Lardner. At one point in his game summary he wrote that “Hurst must be thanked for the fact that they are not out there playing yet….” Later he opined that the umpire “to the amazement of every one ruled Collins out at second on the ground that it was almost supper time.”[fn]Lardner, Chicago Tribune, August 4, 1909.[/fn] This was not a far-fetched assertion regarding Hurst. One time when Hurst’s buddy O’Loughlin complained that an umpire leads a “dog’s life,” Hurst reportedly responded, “Sure it is, Silk, but you can’t beat the hours.”[fn]Tim Hurst’s quote is variously reported, including Kahn, The Umpire’s Story, 10.[/fn] On another occasion Hurst heard that Ban Johnson was interested in ways to shorten ball games. According to umpire Billy Evans, Hurst wrote Johnson suggesting the games be reduced to seven innings.[fn]Billy Evans quoted in ibid., 70.[/fn]

It is said that when Hurst umpired in Philadelphia he would often call games due to darkness. The reason: He wanted to catch the commuter train back to his home in New York City.[fn]Ibid., 41.[/fn] According to sports columnist Joe Williams, who called Hurst “the most colorful” of umpires, “Whenever he [Hurst] was assigned to Philadelphia he would always catch the train back to New York after the game. If the lure was particularly fascinating, as it was on the occasion when he was to have refereed a marathon race, he would cut the game short himself.”[fn]Joe Williams, “Some Umps Who Stood Out: Hurst, Evans and Klem, They’re All Honest—Sure!” New York World-Telegram, date unclear, Tim Hurst’s clippings file, National Baseball Library, Cooperstown, NY.[/fn]

Of course, these statements and stories could be apocryphal, as are so many tales of the diamond’s early days. However, a pattern seemed to emerge that fit perfectly Sir Timothy’s ministrations of the late afternoon of August 3. In the crafty arbiter’s mind he could make a call on Collins at second that affected not a whit the outcome of the game. In so doing he greatly increased his chances for a pleasant night in his cozy abode. When Collins protested and Hurst reacted by spitting at him, it was to be the umpire’s undoing.

On August 5 Ban Johnson indefinitely suspended Tim Hurst pending an investigation into his actions. In announcing the suspension, the league president stated that any final decision would await his receipt of a report of the incident. It is said that neither Eddie Collins nor Connie Mack, who held Hurst in high esteem, ever wanted charges against Hurst.[fn]Tim Murnane, “Murnane’s Baseball,” Boston Globe, August 22, 1909.[/fn] The way was clear for Hurst to explain his actions. He never offered an explanation—perhaps because there was none plausible—taking the same road he took when Johnson asked him to explain why he struck Kid Elberfeld in May. Johnson liked Hurst very much, and recognized his ability and valuable service to his infant league. But Johnson could not abide by this sort of repeated conduct from an official. When questioned on August 16 about reports that Hurst was still on the active list, he replied, “Hurst was dropped from the American league [sic] staff immediately after I investigated the charges against him and found them to be true.”[fn]“Hurst Surely Out,” Boston Globe, August 17, 1909.[/fn]

Reports that Hurst’s unseemly deportment and seeming indifference in 1909 stemmed from an increasing weariness with umpiring were dispelled in 1910 when he returned to the minor leagues, umpiring in the Eastern League. That stint proved his last in baseball, although in 1914 he was mentioned as a candidate to umpire in the outlaw Federal League.[fn]“Three National League Umpires With Federals,” Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1914.[/fn] In the ensuing years from 1911 until his death at age 54 on June 4, 1915, reportedly from ptomaine poisoning following an attack of acute indigestion, he continued to referee boxing matches—many at Madison Square Garden. He also acted as manager and matchmaker of the Garden Athletic Club, and in his last years sold real estate in Far Rockaway, New York.[fn]Bill Lee, The Baseball Necrology (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2003), 194. See also “Old Tim Hurst Dies,” Cleveland Leader, June 5, 1915.[/fn]

In 1946, before election of umpires to the Baseball Hall of Fame was permitted, Tim Hurst was recognized among some 39 managers, executives, sportswriters, and umpires named to the newly instituted Honor Rolls of Baseball. Hurst’s colleague and friend, Hall of Famer Billy Evans, would have seconded the nomination. According to Evans, “While Hurst hardly measured up to Jack Sheridan, Hank O’Day, Tommy Connolly, or Bill Klem as to perfection, he had the implicit confidence of every player in the majors. They accepted his decisions with respect, firmly convinced that he called the plays as he saw them without fear or favor.”[fn]Billy Evans quoted in Kahn, The Umpire Story, 43.[/fn] No doubt Eddie Collins was of that mind as he approached second base in the eighth inning on August 3, 1909. Thus his uncharacteristic reaction when that confidence was shattered, as in turn was the illustrious career of an umpiring legend. What a shame if it all ended for Sir Timothy Hurst because were he to call Eddie Collins safe at second, he might just miss the 5:25 to Grand Central Terminal.

RICK HUHN is the author of “The Sizzler: George Sisler, Baseball’s Forgotten Great,” as well as “Eddie Collins: A Baseball Biography.” His third book will be released by the University of Nebraska Press in 2014. It details the controversial 1910 batting race in which Ty Cobb and Larry Lajoie vied for a Chalmers automobile. Rick is an organizer and one of the coordinators for SABR’s Hank Gowdy Columbus (Ohio) Chapter.