October 20, 2017

Singing Bill

February 20, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Some major league umpires in the early 20th century were colourful characters but none were as entertaining as Wild Bill Byron.

The always quotable Byron was a poet and would often break out in singing to reply when a player or manager would dispute one of his calls. This made him very popular with fans, who often liked their umpires with their heads on a platter in those days, and with some players and managers. His antics earned him the nicknames “Singing Bill” and “Hummingbird”. One of the quips he used on towards a rookie disputing a third strike call was: “You’ll have to learn when you’re older / You can’t hit with the bat on your shoulder!”

William J. Byron was born on September 8th, 1872 in Detroit, Michigan. The Hummingbird’s career in baseball started in 1892 when he was 20. While working as a steamfitter, Byron tried his luck at minor league baseball. He was a fine player other than the fact he could not hit and he soon found himself out of baseball until 1896, when he became working as an umpire in the Michigan State League. He worked in and out of the league for a little less than a decade before the South Atlantic League, a Class C minor league, offered Byron better work. Byron accepted and he soon moved down south.

While he was a great umpire, Byron was also a great baseball man and a good judge of talent. It was never more evident than when umpiring in the South Atlantic League in 1905, he saw what he thought was one of the best hitters he had ever seen. Byron contacted a friend who worked for the Detroit Tigers and told him about the outfielder. In August 1905, the Tigers liked what they saw and they purchased the contract of Tyrus Raymond Cobb. The rest, as they say, is history.

From there, Byron continued to move up the minor league ranks quickly and in 1913, the National League contacted Byron and hired him to umpire NL games full-time for the upcoming season. Byron was paired with veteran umpire Cy Rigler and the pair would work their first game together in Philadelphia on opening day when the Phillies played the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers won 11-3 under rainy skies in Philadelphia and the game went by without incident.

In the National League, Byron was given a new nickname, ‘Lord’. The NL was so happy with his performance that they gave his crew the responsibility of umpiring the 1914 World Series between the Boston Braves and Philadelphia Athletics. The Braves swept away Connie Mack’s Philadelphia club and Lord Byron was behind home plate for the series-clinching game.

One person, however, was not a fan of Bryon’s antics. That person was New York Giant manager John McGraw. It actually should be no surprise that the gruff, quick-tempered manager and the singing, happy umpire weren’t best of friends. In fact, at most Giant games Byron umpired, McGraw would always make a point of coming out to argue one of the umpire’s calls. Every time McGraw sprung from the Giants’ dugout to protest the call, Byron would start singing to the beat of the popular wedding song, “Here Comes McGraw!”

This feud reached a boiling point on June 5th of 1917. The action all started in Cincinnati on the 5th in a game between the Reds and Giants when after a near fight occurred, Byron ejected four players and both managers. As much heat as Byron took, he had a quick thumb to throw players out of ballgames. Two days later, Byron again tossed McGraw for arguing an interference call against the Giants. It was the second time in three days and the fourth time in his career that McGraw had been thrown out of a game by Byron.

After the game, the two ran into each other beneath the grandstands. From there it escalated, here is what transpired in the words of Manager McGraw:

“I met Byron near the umpire’s dressing room after the game. I had been ordered [out] from the field during the game. Byron said to me: ‘McGraw, you were run out of Baltimore’ I answered: ‘Do you say that I was run out of Baltimore?'”

“He answered, ‘That’s what they say about you.'”

“I answered, ‘Well, don’t you say that about me.'”

“He answered, ‘Well, you were run out of Baltimore.’ Then I hit him. I maintain that I was given reason.”

McGraw hit him twice before fans and Red players on their way home intervened, one swelled his nose instantly and the other split his lip. National League president John K. Tener didn’t care the reason and he suspended McGraw indefinitely one day later. Eventually, Tener suspended McGraw 16 days and fined him $800. After handing down the sentence, McGraw went on a verbal tirade against Tener, saying the president favoured the Philadelphia club over his Giants and threatened the President.

For the record, Byron never confirmed or denied provoking McGraw and he never publicly made a statement about the incident. He quietly submitted a report to Tener and continued to umpire, never missing a game. The way Byron handled the situation with the always difficult McGraw was admired by other umpires and was one of the reasons that Wild Bill had received the nickname, ‘Lord’, from his fellow umpires. He constantly defended the men in blue, especially the younger ones who were always under scrutiny.

Byron last year umpiring in the NL was 1919. The baseball world was shocked that one of their favourites was no longer going to be calling their games. Byron told the league that he had gone back to plumbing and was making more money doing so. The league offered the veteran a raise and he laughed, telling them “it would not be worth while to leave [my] job unless they gave [me] a salary like that of Babe Ruth.”

When the Pacific Coast League heard of Byron’s resignation from the NL, the league came calling. They offered Lord Byron a part-time deal that would allow him to continue his plumbing business on the west coast while he called baseball games on the weekend. The New York Times said this upon hearing about Byron’s decision:

“Fans in the Pacific Coast League will enjoy Byron during the coming Summer, for Bill the Plumber is one of the most original umpires to make his appearance on the big time in many years. He will be missed in National League cities, as he had a manner about him that was entertaining. His ready wit and positive unconcern when a tempest raged among either players or fans were refreshing.”

Byron stayed four years on the West Coast before retiring for good. He returned to Michigan where he continued to run his plumbing business for many years. Sadly, Byron passed away on December 27, 1955 in Ypsilanti, MI USA. His quick and often humorous wit has never been replaced on the baseball field by an umpire. As he once told a player who was arguing that he foul-tipped a third strike: “It cut the middle of the plate / You missed because you swung too late.”

Source for the quotes: The New York Times

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