Billy McLean: MLB’s First Professional Umpire

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The word umpire was initially used in legal matters. The original umpire was someone who had the authority to settle disputes between two parties. Think judge not “yer out!” Then in the 17th century, it was used for the first time in a gaming sense, but not in association with baseball. In this case, it was used in relation to wrestling. Since this 17th-century grappling contest, umpire has slowly become a word almost singularly related to sports. These days an umpire is someone who makes sure that the players of tennis, cricket, and baseball are following the rules.

Baseball’s First Professional Umpire

And while tennis and cricket are great, we aren’t concerned with such trivial pursuits. In this case, we are discussing the greatest of all games, baseball. And like most games, baseball began as a leisurely pastime, played for fun and not for monetary gain. But as time went on and monetary opportunities revealed themselves, the game became a business. Owners purchased grounds for ball fields and started paying their players. But what of the lowly, often despised umpire? When did their professional career begin?

April 22, 1876

April 22, 1876, is the date of the birth of Major League baseball. On this fair-weathered Saturday afternoon, the Boston Red Stockings took on the Philadelphia Athletics at the Jefferson Street Grounds. The Athletics played host before a crowd of 3,000 fans. Boston won the contest 6-5. Gambling was present and Jim O’Rourke recorded Major League baseball’s first-ever hit. Many notable things happened that day, including baseball’s first professional umpire, a man named Billy McLean.

Billy McLean

The perfect candidate for an umpire is someone who is level-headed and fair-minded. McLean, a former boxer, had all of these notable attributes and more. So respected was McLean that when he asked to be paid $5 dollars a game (roughly $130 in today’s money) National League officials agreed to his request. At the time umpires were solely volunteers provided by the home team. But now, with the advent of Major League Baseball, Mclean changed umpiring from an amateur position to a profession.

McLean began umpiring in 1872 with the National Association and continued his career until 1890. All told he umpired 435 games, including three no-hitters, during his 14-season career. He died on February 3, 1927, in Philadelphia, the same place that he brought about the beginning of professional umpiring. He was 91 years old.

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Players Mentioned:

Jim O’Rourke