August 30, 2014

Tough Week To Be An Ump

September 13, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

In 1901, National League umpire Bert Cunningham had a rough week on the job.

Bert Cunningham turned in a pretty serviceable baseball career as a pitcher during the 19th century. He started his career in the American Association, had a stint in the Players League, and finished off in the National League. Over the course of 12 seasons, Cunningham produced 142 wins opposed to 167 losses. His best season came in 1898 as a member of the Louisville Colonels when he won 28 games for a 70-win Louisville team.

After the 1899 season, the National League discussed contracting down from 12 teams to 8. Louisville was one of the teams facing extinction so team owner Barney Dreyfuss engineered himself a deal. Dreyfuss accepted a smaller buyout from the NL ($10,000 – Baltimore received triple that) and also bought a stake in the Pittsburgh Pirates. He then traded all of the better players from Louisville to his new team, the Pirates. Pittsburgh received, among others; future Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke, Rube Waddell, Deacon Phillipe, Tommy Leach, and Cunningham.

However, Cunningham’s career in Pittsburgh never got started. He was sold in March to the NL’s Chicago Orphans, a full month before the 1900 season was set to begin. He appeared in nine games over the next two seasons for Chicago before calling it quits just over one week into the 1901 season. His final game was a 5-1 loss to Cincinnati, a game in which Cunningham pitched all nine innings.

Over a month later, Cunningham agreed to a contract with the National League to appear as a substitute umpire throughout the remainder of the 1901 season. Cunningham had some experience as an official as he often filled in when the umpire did not show up for games during his time in Louisville. His first day of the job was a doubleheader in Cincinnati between the Reds and the Philadelphia Phillies. The two teams split the twin bill and Cunningham hopped a train to Pittsburgh, where he would next officiate a game between the Pirates and Reds two days later.

Cunningham blamed the Pirates – specifically Dreyfuss – for cutting his career short. When he was released by the Pirates, he had voiced his displeasure to several former teammates and even wrote several offensive letters to Dreyfuss. According to a rumor, Cunningham approached Leach, his old Louisville teammate and current Pittsburgh player, before the game and announced that he would “get even” with the Pirates at some point in the game.

Whether it was his intention to even up the score with his former team or not, it certainly appeared that way. Both Leach and Claude Ritchey were thrown out of the contest plus the ball-and-strike calls seemed to be skewed towards Cincinnati. Despite this, Pittsburgh entered the bottom of the ninth inning down only one run to the Reds. With a runner on third and two outs, Kitty Bransfield laid down a bunt. Bransfield ran as hard as he could down the line and as his foot hit first base, the ball had not yet arrived in the first baseman’s mitt. He was safe and his club had just tied up the game.

Or so that is what everyone in the ballpark thought except for Bert Cunningham. He hastily called Bransfield out, wiping the run off the board and ending the contest. The Pirates and their hometown crowd went crazy. An enormous mob of spectators formed on the field and began charging towards Cunningham. Before the mob could reach him, two of Cunningham’s ex-teammates in Louisville, Wagner and Clarke, surrounded him and escorted him to safety. If it wasn’t for his two old ‘mates, Cunningham could have been seriously injured. Instead, he was on a train safely to his next job.

However, problems on the field did not escape Cunningham and this time, undisputedly, the right call was made. It was only three days later on the 4th, and Cunningham arrived in Cincinnati to do a contest between the Reds and the Brooklyn Superbas. With two outs in the third, Brooklyn outfielder Jimmy Sheckard stole second base but on the next play, he was caught napping by Reds catcher Heinie Peitz, who picked him off with a strong throw to end the inning. Sheckard, the only one in the park who thought he was safe, charged at Cunningham and began to curse at him repeatedly. The umpire warned Sheckard twice and when he did not comply, he tossed the outfielder from the game and fined him $5.

Nonetheless, Sheckard ignored Cunningham and began to take his place in left field. Brooklyn manager Ned Hanlon order Sheckard off the field and the player retreated back to the bench. However, only steps away from the dugout, Sheckard charged at Cunningham again and began to throw dirt on him and spat in his face several times. Cunningham was agitated and appeared to be ready to strike Sheckard but thought better of it and ordered two Cincinnati policemen to escort Sheckard off the grounds. After the game, Cunningham had this to say:

“That’s the limit and if any other player ever tries the same trick, I shall pick up a bat and use it. How do they expect the umpire to work if they get no protection? If these fellows think they can win games by such tricks, they’ll have to get somebody else. I think the manager ought to take some action.”

Hanlon did take action against Sheckard and fined him an additional $50. Cincinnati president John T. Brush asked NL president Nick Young to look into the incident but Sheckard was not given any additional punishment.

1901 was the first and only year Cunningham umped in the National League. Throughout the remainder of the year, his strike zone was often criticized by newspapers covering his games. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle went as far as calling all of his calls ‘farcical.’ It is not clear if Cunningham quit umpiring in the off season or if the National League did not renew his contract. Either way, it was the last seen of Bert Cunningham on a professional baseball diamond. He passed away on May 14th, 1952 in Cragmere, Delaware. He was 86 years old.

Comments

One Response to “Tough Week To Be An Ump”
  1. Mike Lynch says:

    Excellent as always, Brendan! Very enjoyable.

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