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“This Fellow has about as much Judgment of Balls and Strikes as a Six-year-old Kid”

10 Sep

Umpire baiting was an art form for managers like John McGraw.  In 1906 Tim Murnane wrote in The Boston Globe about the way McGraw, and his players, intimidated a first-year umpire named John Conway during a game between the New York Giants and Boston Beaneaters.

On May 1 the Giants had defeated the Beaneaters 7 to 5, and according to Murnane:

“I was very much interested with the tactics of the Giants in a game here, when they found the clever Irvin Young in the box, and knew it would take extra work to defeat the local team.

“Umpire Conway was behind the bat in this game, and the New York boys went after the young umpire from the first ball pitched until the last man went out.  Conway was consistently giving Young the small end of the decisions on balls and strikes, and yet the New York men tried to make it appear that he was giving them a terrible roast.  The Giants worked like sailors, never letting up;  in fact, their good work with the stick and on the bases was commendable in every way, and what they were saying to the umpire could only be heard in the front seats, and perhaps that was a good thing for the game.”

Tim Murnane

Tim Murnane

Murnane said the actions of the Giants were reminiscent of those of McGraw and other members of the Baltimore Orioles in the 1890s, but “this time it was umpire and not their fellow players,” who were the target:

“As each man passed the umpire they would make some remark, until finally (Dan) McGann, (Roger) Bresnahan and McGraw were put out of the grounds by Conway.  Note the four names, all of Celtic origin, every man out for a salary, the umpire doing his best to please, and doing it certainly in a fair way to the visitors, and yet the trio must be doing something for effect, perhaps to give the umpire something to think of when he went to New York, or perhaps to affect his work in the next game.  There was an object in the uncalled-for nagging.  The result was that Pitcher Young was actually affected, and put up a weak all-round game as the contest went along, the Giants finally winning out as a result of his poor work.”

The Giants doubled-down on their harassment of Conway after the game was over.  Murnane said Fred Knowles, the Giants Secretary,

“(I)nformed me that the New York players complained of Conway’s breath, saying that he had been drinking and was under the influence of liquor during the game.  What are the honest facts?  A friend of mine at the same hotel with Conway and Bob Emslie (the other umpire) told me that he was with the umpires the night before, as well as that morning, and heard them refuse to take a drink of any kind.  I was speaking to Conway just before the game, and took pains to note if he had been drinking, and I can say positively that he had not.”

Murnane’s comments are curious, given that he said Knowles informed him of the accusation after the game, yet he claims he “took pains” to confirm whether Conway was drinking before the game began.

“Now, doesn’t it seem unfair to pass around cold-blooded lies about an umpire doing his duty, to a management who naturally listens to stories of this kind, and then tries to make it easy for players?  I could forgive every act of the New York men, as they are out for blood, and are fine ballplayers, but I must pass up players who will try to harm a good, honest fellow, for Conway is a good umpire and had the nerve to pick the big fellows out, and no two men in the business need the call-downs that McGann and Bresnahan do.”

Murnane’s Boston colleague, Jacob Charles Morse of The Herald, called the Giants actions “reprehensible,” but said the umpire was partially to blame:

“Had Conway started in at the very first a lot of trouble might have been obviated, but it was not until he had allowed the New Yorks to kick at strikes and decisions, to leave their places, something strictly forbidden by the rules, and to bellow like bulls.  Bresnahan could be heard all over the field telling the umpire to ‘get out.’  Early in the game a bunch gathered around the umpire without the least expostulation, and went back to their places when the seemingly felt like it.”

Despite McGraw, McGann and Bresnahan receiving three-game suspensions for their actions, Morse said “The penalty imposed for the actions of the individuals was ridiculously light; not at all commensurate with the gravity of the offense.”

Things did not get any easier for Conway.

He had another run-in with the Giants at the end of June which resulted in another McGraw ejection.

He was also assaulted by two different St. Louis Cardinals; William “Spike” Shannon in June, and Mike Grady in August.  The August incident, during a game in Boston, required police to escort Conway from the field and resulted in a three game suspension for Grady.

Mike Grady had two altercations with Conway

Mike Grady had two altercations with Conway

After a second incident with Grady; this time in Pittsburgh on September 4, The Pittsburgh Press took the side of the Cardinals catcher, and harshly criticised Conway:

 “Umpire Conway officiated the game at Exposition Park yesterday afternoon.  To be more exact, a man named Conway attempted to imitate a real umpire, but the attempt was a failure…this fellow has about as much judgment of balls and strikes as a six-year-old kid, and he makes some of the weirdest mistakes ever seen.  To make matters worse, Conway thinks he is funny and laughs at his poor decisions…The Press never condones umpire baiting, but Conway called one strike on Grady that was not within two feet of the plate, and it is little wonder indeed that Michael was exasperated.

“It is to be hoped that Conway’s career as an umpire in the National League will end with the present season.  There are a score more competent men umpiring in the minor leagues today.  Conway is not fit for the position he occupies.  He takes trouble with him wherever he goes, owing to his inefficiency.”

National League President Harry Pulliam apparently agreed; Conway was not retained for the 1907 season.

He joined the Eastern League in 1907, but trouble continued to follow him.  In June he was assaulted by Toronto Maple Leafs second baseman Tim Flood—which resulted in Flood serving 10 days in jail.

Tim Flood

Tim Flood


Less than a week later, after the Jersey City Skeeters scored a run in the ninth inning to beat the Newark Sailors 2 to 1, Conway was attacked by fans in Newark’s Wiedenmayer Park.  The New York Times said:

 “A mob waited after the game until Umpire Conway left the dressing room on the grounds for the train, and when he appeared in the street the mob hooted, hissed and threw mud at him.”

He was escorted to the train station by “a squad of policemen.”

Just weeks into the 1908 season Conway decided he had enough, and resigned.  The Sporting Life said he “quit umpiring to go into business.”

Conway never worked a professional game again, although he worked several Ivy League games before giving it up all together in 1910.  He died in Massachusetts in 1932–the same year McGraw, too ill to continue baiting umpires, resigned as manager of the Giants.

Roy Spruell

14 Aug

Throughout the first half of the 20th Century there were thousands of independent and industrial league baseball teams that operated across the country; the only distinction, in many cases, between the quality of these teams and their players and those in “professional” leagues was the “professional” teams were recognized by The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.

Given the economics of the game, which usually required players to be employed during the off season, it was often as profitable, or even more so, to play with an independent or semi-professional team that either paid the same or more as the “professional” leagues or provided the player with a job.

As a result, there are thousands of players, who while well-known names in the towns, cities and regions where they played, have been largely forgotten.

Roy Layton Spruell is one of them.

From 1920 until 1939 Spruell was a fixture in Southern baseball, specifically on the Gulf Coast, although his “official” statistics only indicate limited “professional” appearances between 1924 and 1936.

Spruell appears to have been born January 25, 1900 in Birmingham, Alabama according to state records and census data, (his grave lists his birth year as 1902, but like many players of his era, he likely subtracted a couple of years at some point during his career and the new date stuck).

Raised in Mobile, Alabama, he first made a name for himself in 1920 pitching with industrial teams at the Southern Kraft Paper Mill and White Swann Laundry Company in Mobile.

Two years later he was a member of an independent team in Mississippi, the Ocean Springs Regulars.  In addition to Ocean Springs, the loosely affiliated semi-pro league included independent teams from nearby Mississippi towns Biloxi, Gulfport, Pascagoula  and Wiggins, and industrial teams out of New Orleans, including the Choro Colas (later renamed RC Cola), the Tokay Teas.

The following season Spruell played for another Southern Kraft Mills team; contemporary newspaper accounts alternately called the team either the Moss Point or the Kreole Papermakers—the mill was located in Moss Point, Mississippi, but the team appears to have played home games in nearby Kreole.  Spruell’s older brother Harvey was his teammate with the Papermakers.

The 1923 Papermakers, Roy Spruell is standing second from right.  His brother Harvey is in the middle of the front row.   The other players are identified as: Standing at left - Manager McGee 2nd from left  - Pat McGee 3rd from left  - Matt Delmas 4th from left-unidentified. 6th from left - Sam Leslie   Seated at left - Johnnie Cunningham 2nd from left - Brother Nelson 4th from left - John Bell

The 1923 Papermakers, Roy Spruell is standing second from right. His brother Harvey is in the middle of the front row. The other players:: Standing Manager McGee, Pat McGee, Matt Delmas, unidentified, Roy Spruell, and Sam Leslie
Seated Johnnie Cunningham, Brother Nelson, Harvey Spruell, and John Bell.


In 1924 he signed his first professional contract, posting an 11-12 record for the fifth place Laurel Lumberjacks, in the six-team Cotton States League.  The following season, pitching for the last place (51-70) Alexandria Reds, Spruell was 14-10.

1924 Laurel Lumberjacks.  Roy Spruell is in the top row, third from left.  The player seated on the far left in the front row appears to be future big league pitcher Ray Moss who pitched for the Brooklyn Robins and Boston Braves.

1924 Laurel Lumberjacks. Roy Spruell is in the top row, third from left. The player seated on the far left in the front row appears to be Ray Moss, the only member of the Laurel club to play in the big leagues,; he pitched for the Brooklyn Robins and Boston Braves.

Spruell had his best professional season in 1926 as a member of the Hattiesburg Pinetoppers.  He led the team to the Cotton States championship with a 22-8 record, and got his name in newspapers across the country in August.  The Associated Press said:

“Friday the 13th was far from unlucky for Roy Spruell, pitching star of the Hattiesburg club of the Cotton States League, Spruell hurled the first no hit, no run game of his career.”

Spruell allowed just two walks (shortstop/manager Herschel Bobo also made an error) to the Monroe Drillers, but still only faced the minimum 27 batters.

The 1926 Cotton States League champion Hattiesburg Pinetoppers.  Roy Spruell is standing third from left.  Manager/shortstop Herschel Bobo is kneeling far left.

The 1926 Cotton States League champion Hattiesburg Pinetoppers. Roy Spruell is standing third from left. Manager/shortstop Herschel Bobo is kneeling far left.

At the end of the 1926 season Spruell was purchased by the Houston Buffaloes of the Texas League, but never played in Texas.  He started the season with the Memphis Chickasaws in the Southern Association and was released to the Knoxville Smokies in the South Atlantic League in May of 1927.  He was 10-10 in Knoxville and also appeared in 20 games in outfield.  The Spartanburg Herald called Spruell “the elongated righthander,” (he was listed variously from 6’ to 6’ 2”).

Spruell returned to the Smokies for the 1928 season, but a hand injury led to a slow start and with a 1-3 record at the end of May he was released and returned to the Cotton States League. He pitched professionally through the 1930 season, but struggled with injuries his last three seasons and pitched for several teams:  Laurel and Hattiesburg again (he also pitched for the Baton Rouge Essos when the Hattiesburg franchise relocated there during the 1929 season) as well as the Jackson Senators in the Cotton States League, and the Jacksonville Tars in the Southeastern League.

Spruell spent the next decade playing with and managing independent and industrial league teams in the South.  He played from 1931 to 1935 in the Mississippi Coast League, a strong semi-pro league with teams sponsored by union and industrial interests.

He left the Gulf Coast the following year, relocating in Savannah, Georgia where he played for and managed the Union Baggers—the company team of the Union Bag and Paper Company, operator of the world’s largest paper mill.  The team was considered one of Georgia’s best semi-pro and industrial teams, playing in the Coastal League, which included teams in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

The Union Baggers, circa 1937.  Roy Spruell, standing second from right.

The Union Baggers, circa 1937. Roy Spruell, standing second from right.

Spruell’s baseball career appears to have ended around 1940.

He eventually relocated to Pensacola, Florida and worked for the Florida Pulp and Paper Company; he suffered a heart attack at work and died in 1950

Roy Spruell shortly before his death in 1950.

Roy Spruell shortly before his death in 1950.

Like thousands of others who played baseball in small and large towns, and small and large leagues, throughout the country, Roy Spruell’s career brings to mind a passage from W. P. Kinsella’s great novel “Shoeless Joe:”

“For some reason, I recall the question at the bottom of the form sent by the Baseball Hall of Fame to everyone who has ever played professional baseball: ‘If you had it to do over again, would you play professional baseball?’  The historian at Cooperstown, Clifford S. Kachline, said he couldn’t recall even one ex-player answering ‘no’ to the question.  I wonder if any other profession can say the same?”

Thank you to Roy Spruell’s grandchildren, Paula Grady and Bob Gattis for sharing the photographs used in this post as well as a copy of Mr. Spruell’s obituary. 

Brought the League “Discredit throughout the South”

18 Jun

In the final weeks of the 1886 Southern Association season, second place Savannah travelled to Atlanta for a four game series against the league leaders.

Hours before the August 18 game, umpire John McQuade left Atlanta by train.  The Macon Telegraph called the circumstances of his departure “Mysterious.”  The Atlanta team said the umpire left town because he was bribed to throw the game by Isaac G. Haas, owner of Savannah.

The Telegraph said McQuade’s departure was the result of his being followed by a detective hired by Stephen Andrew Ryan, a wealthy Atlanta businessman who was one of the directors of the Atlanta team.

The paper quoted a Detective Jones:

“I was hired by Mr. Steve Ryan to shadow McQuade, and I did so.”

Jones went on to say that he saw the umpire speak with various people, including Haas, Savannah catcher John “Tug” Arundel and Ryan’s brother John, who claimed he tried to convince McQuade to stay and work the game.

Savannah pitcher Hank O’Day said the umpire told him “he had been offered money by Mr. Ryan, of the Atlantas, to stay and umpire the games in Atlantas favor and said that he would not and could not do so.”  Arundel said McQuade had told him he had been offered money by “one of the Atlanta officers.”

After McQuade left, Atlanta installed backup catcher Joe Gunson as umpire.  Atlanta shut out Savannah 2-0, The Constitution said “Gunson gave every close decision against Atlanta…his evident desire to be fair, carried him, frequently, too far.”

Joe Gunson, umpire for a day

Joe Gunson, umpire for a day

Savannah disagreed.   Haas demanded that, as had been done earlier in the year, when an umpire did not arrive in Savannah for a series—the teams selected umpires on alternating days.  Atlanta refused; claiming league rules gave them the right to name the umpire, and chose a former local player named George Whitlock to work the second game.

When Atlanta took the field at 3:30 PM the following day in front of a large crowd, the Savannah team was not present, The Telegraph said:

(Frank) Wells fired nine balls over the plate, which were caught by Gunson, and the umpire gave the game to the Atlanta by a score of 9-0.”

The Constitution said Savannah’s Hass “without cause declined to permit his men to play.”  The Atlanta police also got involved, arriving at the depot before the Savannah team was able to board a train and arresting five members of team, including O’Day and Arundel.

Arrested in Atlanta--Hall of Famer Hank O'Day

Arrested in Atlanta–Hall of Famer Hank O’Day

The Savannah Times said the police attempted to arrest the entire team, “but some of them dodged the officers and got away,” the five players were charged with “disorderly conduct and using profane language,” they were fined between $5 and $10 each and released.

The Times also claimed that Haas, and other Savannah team officers and fans were being “roughly handled,” and “pretty severely abused,” on the streets and in the hotels of Atlanta.

Within days McQuade made a statement under oath “that no Savannah director had endeavored to induce him to leave the city or bribe him in any way.”  McQuade also sent a letter to The Sporting Life and Southern newspapers claiming that Atlanta’s Ryan had tried to bribe him:

“Mr. Ryan, of the Atlanta club, came to me and said: ‘Here Mac, we must have the games; we have got to have them, and will give you one hundred dollars for each game.”

Regardless of the charges, and aided by the forfeited and canceled games, Atlanta won the Southern Association championship.  The season was over, but the allegations were not.

McQuade’s story was given additional credence after the end of the season.  Benjamin F. Young, a former Southern Association umpire, sent a letter to same publications McQuade had, and told a similar story.  Young’s letter implicated another prominent Atlanta citizen:  Henry Woodfin Grady, editor of The Atlanta Constitution, and a long-time supporter of baseball in Georgia.

Young said early in the 1886 season, while in Atlanta, Grady approached him and mentioned the hardship of umpire being responsible for their own travel expenses.  According to Young, Grady claimed he could “fix him up’ and said:

“’I can get passes for you on about every road you’ll have occasion to use.’  Knowing my reputation for honesty and fearing he had said too much, he failed to say ‘why’ he wanted me to take the passes, but it is evident he wanted me to favor Atlanta…Now a good many may say that Grady did not mean tany harm in offering me the passes.  If he had offered me money then of course, it would be a serious matter.  But Grady knew better than to offer me money, so he thought he could come to me in a roundabout way with the passes.”

By the turn of the century, charges such as these would have resulted in an investigation, but in Southern baseball in 1886, it was little more than a ripple.

At the end of season league meeting, the championship was “officially” awarded to Atlanta.

A resolution was introduced by the owners of the Charleston Seagulls which said Atlanta’s “treatment of visiting clubs, and behavior of their players,” had brought the league “discredit throughout the South,” and called for the team to be “censured and reprimanded.”  The resolution was adopted only after Charleston “was induced” to change “Atlanta” to “some club” in the text.

There were consequences; however, interest in baseball waned in Atlanta, and the city would not have another professional team until 1889.

Atlanta manager “Blondie” Purcell earned a return to the big leagues, finishing the 1886 season with the Baltimore Orioles in the American Association.  He played four more years, finishing with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1890.

Blondie Purcell

Blondie Purcell

Umpires McQuade and Young both finished 1886 in the American Association, and appear to have never again been approached with bribes.

Henry Grady, newspaper editor, segregationist, and “Spokesman for the New South,’ died three years later.

Henry Woodfin Grady statue in Atlanta

Henry Woodfin Grady statue in Atlanta

Stephen Ryan’s dry goods business collapsed in 1891, with debts anywhere from $500,000 to $2 million depending on the source, including losing $16,000 on the Bob Fitzsimmons /Jack “Nonpareil” Dempsey fight.  Accused of hiding assets he was jailed for 13 months.  Upon his release he rebuilt his business only to suffer a similar collapse with a year.  He died in Atlanta in 1908.

A Thousand Words—Atlanta Osceolas

1 Jan


George E. Johnson and Edward T. Payne were members of the Atlanta Osceolas in 1872.  The previously undefeated champions of Georgia met their Waterloo at Rome, Georgia.

The Atlanta Constitution said years later that the Osceolas:

“(W)on great fame glory and renown, but alas there came a day of disaster.  There was no rule about getting outside players.  So the club at Rome, GA which had been organized by the late Henry W. Grady (famous Georgia journalist) secured a professional pitcher from New York City.  The Osceolas never made but one measly hit…The erstwhile champions were ingloriously and ignominiously defeated and they returned home to disband and to play no more.”

Many of the players went on to be some of Atlanta’s most prominent citizens.  George Johnson became Atlanta’s recorder and Edward Payne the city’s tax collector.

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