This annotated week in baseball history: Dec. 2-8, 1899

On Dec. 6, 1899, Jocko Conlan was born. He would go on to a brief major league playing career, hitting .263 in 128 games. Despite such mediocre numbers, though, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974. Richard explains how it happened.

For lack of a better word, major league baseball has gotten a lot more standardized in the period following World War II. Before that, the game had a number of features that fans today would regard as highly unusual.

For one, people would show up at ballparks claiming to have some measure of talent and request a tryout with a major league club. As often as not, teams would give it to them. A good portion of the time, these people had no business at all on a major league field, but with no organized minor leagues or scouting in the modern sense, teams evidently felt obliged to give people a chance, lest the next Wagner or Mathewson pass them by.

As late as 1949, baseball still had “courtesy runners” for players who were injured in such a way that they needed to leave the field temporarily, but not so badly that they couldn’t return to the game by the next inning.

Baseball’s early period also used only two umpires—one behind home plate and one in the infield—for most games. Besides the obvious difficulties of calling a game with two umpires, a problem arose when an umpire was too ill to work a game. Since one umpire couldn’t do it alone, teams had to find someone to fill in.

Generally, the teams would select a trustworthy member of one squad—often an older player or coach—to serve as an umpire for the day. Such is what happened to Jocko Conlan.

Conlan had played in the minor leagues for many years, but reached the majors with the White Sox—his home town team—only at age 34. He was not much of a major league player: In his rookie season he hit just .249 in limited duty. Brought back at age 35, Conlan was in the midst of another mediocre season when fortune intervened.

Although the exact details are unknown, most versions of the story agree on a few details: The White Sox were hosting the St. Louis Browns on an extremely hot day in Chicago. One of the umpires (usually listed as Red Ormsby) was overcome with heat exhaustion, and Conlan volunteered to replace him.

After being marked as acceptable by Browns skipper Rogers Hornsby, Conlan took his position. An inning or so later, there was a close play on the bases—often cited as involving Luke Appling—and Conlan ruled against his teammate. Conlan’s own manager came out to argue, but Appling spoke up, saying Conlan had gotten the correct call.

From this a career was launched, but Conlan did not transistion straight from major league player to major league umpire. Firpo Marberry—for many years the all-time and single season leader in saves—had been appointed an MLB umpire with no minor league apprenticeship with disastrous results.

The league was determined not to repeat that, so Conlan had to serve his time in the minors as an umpire before he could move up the bigs. (And, of course, he had to finish his playing career, which ended after the ’35 season.)

Conlan was called up to the majors as an umpire in 1941. His career as an umpire stretched through a number of memorable moments in baseball history. In the regular season, he twice was present when players hit four home runs in a single game, seeing Gil Hodges do it in 1950 and Willie Mays in 1961.

Conlan was umpiring at first base when Bobby Thomson hit his home run off Ralph Branca of the Dodgers to win the 1951 pennant. Eleven years later, Conlan would watch from his post as the Giants scored four runs in the ninth inning to snatch the 1962 pennant from their now cross-state rivals in LA.

As the second base umpire in Game One of the 1954 World Series, it was probably Conlan who officially signaled to Vic Wertz that he was out after Willie Mays tracked down his hard-hit ball to make “The Catch” in center field. Conlan’s resume included not only his World Series and pennant-playoff appearances, but also six All-Star games, including three behind home plate.

He was also known as something of a personality in baseball. In contrast to most umpires who dressed with a staidness befitting their position, Conlan typically wore a polka-dot bow tie when he umpired. Moreover, as a southpaw, Conlan signaled outs with his left hand, unique among umpires.

No telling of the story of Jocko Conlan is complete without mentioning his relationship with Leo Durocher. “The Lip” and Conlan were both big personalities, so it was almost inevitable that conflict would occur.

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The most famous story about the pair concerns Duorcher attempting to kick dirt on Conlan and connecting with the umpire’s shoes instead. Although Conlan was generally good-natured, this set him off and he responded by kicking Durocher back. The two went at it for a while until, presumably, Durocher was ejected.

But Leo would provide the story’s punchline: Since Conlan was umpiring home plate, he was wearing thick toed shoes and shin guards, meaning the manager got the worse of the kicking exchange.

Conlan would serve as an umpire through the 1964 season. Describing umpiring, Conlan—who stood just 5-foot-7—reported that umpires had to have “thick skin and a strong heart,” as well as both having and commanding respect. At his retirement, league president Warren Giles honored Conlan by saying that he knew “no one who has been more dedicated to his profession, more loyal to the game in which he has been such a big party.”

That loyalty and dedication was rewarded in 1974 when Conlan was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee. His plaque—which sadly does not display him with trademark bow tie—cites Conlan’s “sunny disposition, accuracy and hustle.”

Conlan died in 1989, shortly after the season had begun. His obituary appeared in The New York Times, a fitting final honor for a man whose Hall of Fame trajectory began on a hot day with one of baseball’s odder traditions.

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