A boy named Tommy was born in 1870 in Manchester, England, where he and his family lived until he was 14 years old. Like most boys in Manchester his age, Tommy played cricket. When Tommy’s family immigrated to the United States in 1884, he had to learn a new game, so he naturally chose the one that looked most like his beloved cricket. Tommy’s interest in baseball, however, was less with the playing the game itself and more with the study of the rules. He read editions of Sporting Life and watched many organized games, usually as a bat boy.
By the time Tommy was 24, he had no experience playing organized baseball, but was already an umpire in the New England League. Four years later he was discovered by National League umpire Tim Hurst, who recommended Tommy as an umpire in the National League. His first few years of umpiring were tough, particularly as Tommy discovered that most of his rulings were not backed by the league president.
Enter Ban Johnson, who wanted to end “rowdyism” in his new American League in 1901, and promised umpires who would join his league that he would back them in that endeavor. Tommy Connolly signed on for the inaugural season of American League baseball and became a Hall of Fame umpire with more than a quarter century of service.
The first test of Connolly, and Ban Johnson’s promise to back him, came from 30-year-old star pitcher Joe McGinnity of the Baltimore Orioles. McGinnity had a late start to his career, but had established himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball in two seasons in the National League. For reasons that remain unclear, the 5’11 bigger than his 207 lb listing McGinnity became upset with the 5’7 140 lb Connolly. The disagreement escalated quickly when McGinnity kicked Connolly and spit tobacco juice in the Englishman’s face. The skirmish quickly became a full-scale riot, including cleared benches, brawls throughout the field, and police with batons. McGinnity was arrested and brought before a judge following the melee.
Johnson, eager to make a statement, banned the instigator, McGinnity, for life.
In one of sport’s oldest and most enduring of story lines*, McGinnity’s suspension was reduced to 12 games on appeal.
*The Black Sox and Pete Rose are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Though Connolly didn’t get the backing he desired from the league president, some action ended up being all that was required. For the rest of his career, Connolly had the respect of the players, and rarely had to resort to ejection (though he did famously run Babe Ruth).
As for McGinnity, he continued his career by joining the New York Giants and becoming the rowdy counterpart to the refined Christy Mathewson. National League President Harry Pulliam once fined McGinnity for “attempting to make the ballpark a slaughterhouse” when the pitcher mounted an opposing catcher in order to throw a series of punches after a game-long verbal dispute.
McGinnity was also a key player in both the original “Merkle boner” game and the replay. In the first game, McGinnity was the guy who found the ball and threw it out of the Polo Grounds in order to prevent the Cubs from recovering it and tagging second base. Johnny Evers, of course, found a ringer creating the controversy that necessitated a replay.
Prior to that replay, McGinnity was the key player in a more sinister plot. With Christy Mathewson scheduled to pitch, the team’s other ace pitcher was expendable. So it was plotted that McGinnity would bait Frank Chance, traditional Mathewson killer, into a fight that would get both ejected. Joe hurled insults at the Cubs’ star player, stepped on his toes, even spit at him, but Chance wouldn’t bite. Frank Chance went on to get a key hit in the Chicago Cubs win over the Giants.
The Giants released McGinnity prior to the 1909 season, but it was not the end for the “Iron Man” who pitched at least 14 more seasons in the minor leagues, primarily as a player-manager.
Joe McGinnity, of course, wouldn’t have made it into the Hall of Fame (either the Half-Baked variety or the real deal), had he not been a great pitcher. Though his major league career was on the short side, he was dominant once he found the strike zone*, thanks in part to an underhand curve he called “Old Sal”. He ended with 60.4 rWAR and 120 ERA+ in 10 seasons. In addition, he distinguished himself by being the brawler that kick-started (and perhaps spit-started) the career of one of the most respected umpires in baseball history.
*In 1900 McGinnity led the league in both walks (113) and hit batsmen (40 – 3rd most in a season all time).