One thing you’ve got to admit about Hank O’Day whether you believe he should be in the Hall of Fame or not: The guy had a fascinating all-around career. O’Day is the only baseball figure to play in the majors, manage, and umpire. Bet he had a bunch of stories to tell. Alas, it’s a bit late to hear them since he has been dead since 1935.
Now O’Day has a chance to be brought back to life, in a way, since he and his baseball career are being examined anew by the Hall of Fame’s Pre-Integration Era Committee scheduled to meet the first week in December at the Winter Meetings. O’Day is one of 10 nominees on the committee ballot and just as it does in regular Hall voting it takes a 75 percent plurality to be approved.
O’Day was born in Chicago in 1862 (he died just shy of his 73rd birthday) and he played Major League ball for teams you have never heard of that are only dimly remembered at best. A right-handed pitcher, he broke into the majors in 1884 with the Toledo Blue Stockings and then spent a year with the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. Then he hooked up with a team you have heard of, the New York Giants. O’Day was not a great pitcher and his career was cut short by a sore arm. His lifetime record was 73-110, although in 1890, his last season, he had his best season, going 22-13. This is when he apparently suffered the career-ending arm injury.
One of the peculiarities of O’Day’s baseball career was the path he followed. When forced to retire from the field he turned to umpiring, an aspect of the game he was involved in for 30 years. However, in 1912, O’Day took a respite from calling balls and strikes and served as manager of the Cincinnati Reds for one season. In 1914, he did the same for the Chicago Cubs. He didn’t have much more success running a team than he did pitching, so he always gravitated back to umpiring, his true calling.
It is for his achievements as an umpire that O’Day is on this ballot. It is basically impossible for someone living in 2012 to have an accurate gauge of O”Day’s skills calling them the way he saw them, but if the choice of umps to work important games relied on their reputations and evaluations 100 years ago the way they do now, then O’Day was greatly esteemed as an arbiter.
Except for his mini-breaks managing, O’Day was an umpire from 1895 to 1927, and he appeared in 3,986 games behind the plate or on the bases. His 2,710 games calling balls and strikes is the second most in history behind Bill Klem. O’Day was chosen to umpire in 10 World Series, including the first one ever played between the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates in 1903. His last Series was in 1926.
In-between, O’Day was the chief official for one of the most controversial plays in baseball history during a hotly contested pennant race in September of 1908. The play went down in lore as “Merkle’s Boner.” The Giants and Cubs were playing a critical game and it was 1-1 in the ninth inning with the Giants at the plate. Harry “Moose” McCormick was on third base and Merkle, a 19-year-old rookie, was on first. New York shortstop Al Bridwell smacked a drive into center field.
McCormick crossed home plate, apparently ending the game. But Merkle did not run to second base as fans burst onto the field to celebrate a 2-1 Giants victory. Savvy Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers yelled for the ball from his outfielder. Evers was aware of the rule stating Merkle had to touch second for the run to count, although custom at the time did not always enforce that regulation on game-winning hits. When centerfielder Solly Hofman threw the ball towards the infield Giants pitcher Joe McGinnity, who had been coaching first, intercepted it and tossed it into the crowd. Somehow Evers got a ball into his hands and tagged second base. The base umpire had not seen the goings on and the ruling fell to plate ump O’Day, who had been watching.
O’Day called Merkle out because McGinnity interfered with the play. After consultation with O’Day, the other ump, Bob Emslie, called Merkle out for failure to touch second base. With fans cluttering the field and darkness falling, O’Day did not allow play to be resumed, and it ended 1-1. His Merkle ruling was appealed by the Giants, but was upheld by the National League Board of Directors. Sure enough, There the Giants and Cubs tied for first place were ordered to replay the tie game. The Cubs won the game and Merkle was forevermore blamed for losing a pennant.
Rarely does an umpire ever gain such notoriety as O’Day did from that incident, and sticking to his guns is not why he is nominated for the Hall of Fame. But perhaps the play is illustrative of his game handling and rule awareness.