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After years of suffering in silence, baseball umpires have started to speak out against fan and player abuse. It's about time, but lest the arbiters get the idea that their troubles arc the product of some relatively recent social malaise, they should know what umps faced in the 19th century.
Joe J. Ellick should be one of the big heroes of Umps Lib, if only because he wrote the first national article describing the hazards of calling plays during the early days of professional ball. The article, entitled "Experiences of a Base-Ball Umpire," appeared in Lippincott's magazine in 1886, the same year that marked the beginning—and end—of Ellick's umpiring career.
As a 30-year-old former ballplayer and manager, Ellick should have known better than to get into the business of umpiring games. Born in Cincinnati, he broke into organized baseball in 1875 at the age of 19, played almost every position and managed Chicago of the Union Association in 1884. In those years he surely learned that umpiring was no job for the thin-skinned, mainly because this was the era when only one ump was assigned to a game and made every decision regardless of whether or not he had a clear line of sight.
Complicating the lone umpire's task was the determination of players on both sides to win by any means, which frequently meant confusing, intimidating. or even physically abusing the umpire. "Our catcher trod on the umpire's feet with his spikes and shoved his big mitt in his face so he couldn't see the play," wrote Giant Manager John McGraw after he retired. "While playing third base for the Orioles, I evolved the little trick of hooking my hand inside the belt of a base runner on third when a fly was hit to the outfield. In this way I could prevent him from getting a quick start in an attempt to score after the catch. A lot of runners were thrown out due to the time thus lost. As there was only one umpire in those days and he had to watch the play in the outfield, it was easy to get away with the trick."
John Heydler, president of the National League from 1918 to 1934 and an umpire before the turn of the century, wrote, "The things they would say to an umpire were unbelievably vile and they broke the spirits of some fine men. I've seen umpires bathe their feet by the hour after McGraw and others spiked them through their shoes." Still another ump, Tom Lynch, recalled a game in which an irate Washington grounds keeper, following a decision unfavorable to his team, unleashed two dogs he kept chained to the clubhouse. Several players armed with bats saved Lynch from being torn to pieces.
Despite such working conditions, Ellick became a National League umpire in July 1886, making his debut in a game between Detroit and the Senators. "It was my misfortune," he wrote, "that this proved a very close contest." It was also his misfortune that Ellick failed to notice a runner "cut third base while my attention was attracted to a play at first base." The oversight allowed the continuation of a Detroit rally that resulted in a 5-4 victory for the visitors.
As soon as the game was over, Washington fans began scaling the fences in an effort to get to Ellick. Only a quick response by several policemen and Senator players prevented violence, but the rookie umpire was considerably shaken.
The next day Detroit won a 13-1 laugher, but the third game of the series was again close and, wrote Ellick, "The crowd was noisier and more brutal than ever." After Ellick had been escorted from the field by Washington police, National League Secretary N. E. Young decided not to risk the young man's health again. "Dear Joe," he wrote in a note delivered following the game, "after witnessing the dirty conduct of the mob today, I thought best to send you to Philadelphia, rather than keep you here for three more games to receive such unjustifiable abuse."
In the City of Brotherly Love on July 31, Ellick made a first-inning call against the Phillies. "No sooner had my decision been given than pandemonium seemed to be let loose," he wrote. "Howls and hisses rent the air. Blasphemy and obscenity were hurled at me. Kindly threats were made to mob and kill me. And this was kept up during the entire nine innings.... After the game a portion of the audience rushed upon the ground. One man went so far as to raise his arm to strike me, but his courage failed and the police took care of him." According to The New York Times, the Philadelphia police were "compelled to draw their revolvers to keep the crowd from doing Mr. Ellick bodily harm."
Young promptly transferred Ellick to New York, where Cap Anson of the visiting Chicago White Stockings continued the harassment. Then it was on to Boston and Chicago, where Ellick decided to give up umpiring while still in good physical shape. When he returned to hometown Cincinnati, he was received as one who had come back from a foreign war. "My friends welcomed me cordially...," he wrote. "Some of them, indeed, had expected that I would return bruised and battered and broken up: but I showed them that I had gone through all my moving accidents, all my hairbreadth 'scapes without receiving a scratch."