Billy McLean

Billy McLean, umpire

Billy McLean, umpire

We date the birth of Major League Baseball to a game played April 22, 1876 between the Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics, at the home of the latter. We know that Boston won 6-5, that Boston’s Jim O’Rourke secured the first hit, and many other things about the game. See:

http://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/april-22-1876-new-age-begins-inaugural-national-league-game

But no one has, to my knowledge, ever given credit to the lone umpire in this inaugural contest: Billy McLean, a former boxer who had no trouble standing up to players in a dignified fashion. Such reserve was not common, as was demonstrated on July 24, 1873, when umpire Bob Ferguson picked up a bat and swung it to break the forearm of obstreperous catcher Nat Hicks.

Last year I stumbled upon this photograph of McLean as a boxer at an auction, and snapped it up. It testifies to the character demanded of an umpire in those rough-and ready days, when the hometown crowd and the players of both teams stood in opposition to every close call he made.

In his memoir, A Ball Player’s Career, Cap Anson wrote of taking boxing lessons from McLean during his Philadelphia baseball tenure (1872-75):

I towered over McLean like a mountain over a mole hill, and I remember well that the first time that I faced him I thought what an easy matter it would be for me to knock his reputation into a cocked hat…. McLean went around me very much as a cooper goes around a barrel, hitting me wherever and whenever he pleased, and the worst of the matter was that I could not hit him at all.

Billy McLean, pugilist

Billy McLean, pugilist

So great was McLean’s judgment, temperament, and fair-mindedness that National League officials in 1876 agreed to his demands for the unheard of fee of $5 per game. Prior to this year there had been no professional class of umpires; instead, the hometown club provided the umpire, with predictably uneven results. (Baseball did not begin to use two umpires, except for postseason play, until 1898.)

The great sporting weekly of that time, The New York Clipper, commented of McLean: “Though he did not court popularity, he was very sensitive respecting the spectators’ appreciation, and, rather than bear the insults and abuse of partisans, who are to be found among the spectators at every game, he has recently decided to abandon the onerous and thankless task of umpiring. In his retirement baseball will lose one of its best umpires, and one who has always endeavored to be impartial in his decisions.”

McLean was born December 3, 1835, at Preston, England, and at the age of seven accompanied his parents to this country, settling in New York City. In 1866 he moved to Philadelphia, where he played cricket and baseball. He began his umpiring career in the National Association, the first professional league, in 1872, and despite occasional feints at retirement he continued to umpire big-league games until 1890. He died in Philadelphia on February 3, 1927.

5 Comments

Interesting article. I bet no one messed with him.

I would love to hear how he spent his remaining 37years (in Philly?)- Did he live with family, had he saved anything? was he a famous persona? Just interested

From Clipper, July 17, 1880:

July 17, 1880
Wm. McLean, Umpire.
We present to our readers this week the portrait of William McLean, who is widely and favorably known as an umpire to the fraternity and the habitués of the baseball grounds throughout the country. He has for many seasons been identified with the baseball world, and as a painstaking, conscientious and honest umpire has had but few equals. Though he did not court popularity, he was very sensitive respecting the spectators’ appreciation, and, rather than bear the insults and abuse of partisans, who are to be found among the spectators at every game, he has recently decided to abandon the onerous and thankless task of umpiring. In his retirement baseball will lose one of its best umpires, and one who has always endeavored to be impartial in his decisions. The following facts respecting the antecedents of the subject of our sketch may be found interesting at the present time in view of his retirement. He was born Dec. 3, 1835, at Preston, England, and at the age of seven years accompanied his parents to this country, settling in New York City. He remained in this city until about 1866, when he migrated to Philadelphia, where he has since resided. He played cricket with the old Union Club of Newark, N.J., over eighteen years ago, but began his career as a baseball-player with the amateur organizations of Philadelphia a few seasons later. He played right-field, first-base and change-pitcher at various times with the following Quaker City Clubs: Village, Randall, Pastime, Patterson, West Philadelphia, Expert, Eureka, Canavan and the new Expert, managing, captaining and paying all the expenses of the three last-named. During the last ten seasons he umpired a majority of the principal professional games, and the leading newspapers of the country have commented upon his umpiring in the highest terms of praise. We could fill more than our allotted space in enumerating the games he has acted as umpire in, but it must suffice to say that he officiated in that position admirably during the six concluding games between Boston and Providence for the League championship in 1879, and in token of his impartiality was presented with a handsome gold medal. Possessed of admirable skill and power McLean in his earlier days figured favorably in all manly pastimes at all calculated to improve the physical health. He is at home with the gloves, being generally conceded to be one of the most scientific sparrers in America, is by no means a poor pedestrian, and is also something of a gymnast, being, by the way, the popular proprietor of a large and well-appointed gymnasium in Philadelphia, which is the Winter headquarters of the many professionals who hail from that city.

***

For his later years, you will have to dig.

Nice piece, John. I signed up to write Billy’s bio for SABR but other projects have interfered. But I got interested in him when in 1925, when baseball was celebrating the 50th year of the NL, he came to Boston for the Golden Jubilee game. It is written in the SABR book on Braves Field. I thought it was fascinating that he, along with George Wright and John Morrill were some of the last remaining people from that first NL game you mention. I liked that the newspaper account said he did a jig even at 90-ish years old!

Great stuff, Bob; thanks!

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