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:
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.
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.