William Warren “Wild Bill” Setley was a career minor league player and umpire, and one of the most colorful figures in 19th and early 20th Century baseball.
He was born in New Jersey in 1871—Setley often claimed he was born in 1859; his grave marker and several sources still list this date, but there is a New Jersey birth certificate that confirms the 1871 date.
Setley spent the early part of his playing career in the Pennsylvania State League (PSL). The Shenandoah Evening Herald said in 1893:
“(Setley) kept the home management on the anxious bench for many weeks last summer by his daring and acrobatic plays on the diamond and his eccentric whims between games.”
As a pitcher, Setley was credited with introducing the hidden potato play (made famous nearly a century later when Williamsport Bills Catcher Dave Bresnahan pulled a similar stunt), and he was known for turning routine plays in the outfield into spectacular circus catches.
William A. Phelon said Setley was “crazier than Rube Waddell ever thought of being,” and described an incident “when the pennant hung on the final game,” with the winning runs on base in the ninth inning:
“Out came a fly to Setley. Instead of catching it squarely in both hands he deliberately turned his back, reached out behind and made a dazzling circus catch—almost an impossibility.”
Years later, another Pennsylvania paper, The Mount Carmel Item described him as:
“(O)ne of the most erratic players in his day and while here a dozen years ago he was in his prime, but for a pack of cigarettes or a drink of whiskey he was liable to throw a game.”
George McQuillan who played in several leagues Setley worked as an umpire said:
“He is one of the real wonders of the game, and it’s too bad the big league fans have never had the chance to see him in action.”
There were many versions of the most often told story about Setley, and Clarence “Pants” Rowland told the version that most often appeared in print:
“’I was managing Dubuque in the Three-I League at the time,’ says Rowland. ‘The game was being handled by Wild Bill Setley, who was quite the character in those days.
“’I was coaching at third base and we got a runner to first during the early innings. The next batter made a single and our runner started on the dead run from first, rounded second and bore down on third. Right at his heels was Bill Setley.
“The ball was quickly recovered and beat the runner to third by a couple of steps. Setley waved him out, and I had nothing to say. But you should have heard me yell when, on turning, he also called my other man out at second, although he was standing on the base. The third sacker had whipped the ball down to the second sacker, trying to complete a double play on our man who was trying for the base.
“’Where do you get that way? I demanded. You had your back turned on the play how could you call him out?’
“’Setley grinned, came over to me, and showed me a small mirror he had concealed in his hand. ‘I had my eye on the play all the time,’ he said, ‘and you know he was out.’ I was stopped all right, had nothing further to say.’”
Setley, on a few occasions, told a different version of the story. This one placed the event in Pennsylvania and substituted Jack Tighe for Rowland.
In this rendition, Setley claimed that on the way to the ballpark he received “an advertising mirror” as a present for his daughter. During the game, Tighe scored from second base on an infield hit, but Setley said:
“(I) knew he couldn’t have reached there if he had gone within 50 feet of the third bag. The crowd kept yelling ‘Throw the ball to third,’ and when the first baseman did so I called Tighe out. ‘What’s that? Out! What do you mean?’ He yelled, chasing out on the diamond like a wild man. ‘You are out for cutting third.’ ‘Well, if I did you didn’t see me’…’Be reasonable, Jack’ I replied, pulling out the mirror and holding it up in the palm of my hand before my face. ‘When I was running over to first I had this glass up this way watching you.’ That wilted Tighe and he walked back to the bench as meek as a lamb.”
The Texas League was one of the many minor leagues Setley worked as an umpire. On September 5, 1910, a triple-header (the first two games were five innings each) was scheduled between the Houston Buffaloes and the Galveston Sand Crabs on the season’s final day, with Setley working as the umpire in all three games. After the teams split the first two games, The Houston Post said:
“The last game of the Texas League race progressed nicely here until the second inning when (with Galveston at bat) (Gus) Dundon singled to left and (Joe) Kipp had walked. Then (Houston pitcher Roy) Mitchell and umpire Setley, while (Bert) James was at the bat, had some words. Suddenly Mitchell turned on the umpire and knocked him down. Setley arose and ran towards short position, when Mitchell threw the ball at him, striking him in the back of the head rendering him unconscious. Immediately the crowd surged into the field.”
The Associated Press added a few details, including that Mitchell “ran up and cuffed (Setley) several times,” after hitting him with the ball, and:
“(S)everal thousand fans had swarmed into the field, all of them apparently in sympathy with Mitchell.
“Setley remained motionless on the ground and the rumor spread like wild-fire over the field that his neck was broken. Six men picked him up, shouldered him and carried him to the club house, where a physician examined him only to discover that his pulse was perfectly normal and that he was uninjured. It suddenly dawned on the physician that someone was playing possum.
“’Come out of it Setley,’ said the physician, ‘no one is going to hurt you.’
“Setley ‘came back’ with a grin and said nothing but his feelings had been hurt.”
During the “riot” on the field, the Galveston club left the ballpark in a wagon “and returned to town.” The game was awarded to Houston as a forfeit.
Mitchell was arrested but quickly released on bond. Five days later he made his big league debut for the St. Louis Browns, beating the Chicago White Sox 7 to 2.
Somehow the Texas League and the National Commission failed to take any action against Mitchell for more than a month. The Sporting News said:
“It was a matter of surprise that Mitchell was allowed to come direct to St. Louis and continue play, as if nothing had happened.”
He was fined $50, and while it was announced he was also suspended indefinitely, he was allowed to begin the 1911 season with the Browns.
Setley was let go by the Texas League in November. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram said:
“(He) will always remember his short sojourn in this league as an umpire, as it probably was one of the most strenuous periods of his existence. His first appearance was in Fort Worth, where he narrowly avoided a serious conflict with a spectator, and he precipitated wrangles at nearly every point he officiated, with the climax coming in the memorable last day’s game at Houston.”
More Setley stories later this month.