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George Moriarty:
Half a Dozen Roles in Half a Century

In part 2 of his series of players turned umpire, Schechter recalls the poet and ruffian George Moriarty, who was a true career baseball man. In addition to playing and umpiring in the Majors, he was a manager, scout, writer, and goodwill ambassador.

By Gabriel Schechter , February 2, 2017
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Original artwork by Joey Enos.

When Hank O’Day was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2013, he was ballyhooed as the first Hall of Famer who played, managed, and umpired (full-time) in the Major Leagues. That’s an impressive trifecta, but it represents only half the baseball roles performed by one baseball lifer in more than 50 years in the game. Add columnist/poet, goodwill ambassador, and scout, and now we’re talking about George Joseph Moriarty.

Born in Chicago in 1884, Moriarty was one of seven children; his brother Bill played six games with the 1909 Reds. Only 16 when he turned pro in 1901, George spent three seasons in the Three-I League before making his Major League debut with the Cubs late in 1903. Hitless in one game and 0 for 13 in four games for the 1904 Cubs, back to the minors he went. He got a break from Tim Hurst, an ex-umpire scouting for the New York Highlanders. As Moriarty put it, “Tim liked players who could argue both vocally and physically,” and the next thing he knew, he was playing full-time in the American League.

Well, not exactly full-time. In three years with New York, he played every infield and outfield position but never nailed down a regular post. He did record a career-high batting average of .277 in 1907, but the following season dropped to .236. That winter, he was sold to the Detroit Tigers and his life changed forever. When he retired a half-century later, he was working for the Tigers.

In 1909, he took over from Bill Coughlin at the hot corner, a job he held for the next six seasons. He contributed a .273 average and a league-leading fielding percentage at third base to help the Tigers take their third straight pennant. He duplicated that average in the World Series, scoring four runs before leaving Game 7 early with an injury from being spiked in Game 6.

Named the Tigers’ captain, the universally popular Moriarty was never a standout player, a career .251 hitter with scarce power whose clunky hands were compensated for by a strong throwing arm. Speed was his greatest asset, and from 1907 to 1914 he averaged 30 stolen bases a year. Contemporaries marveled at his ability to steal home—he was trumpeted as “the man who wouldn’t die on third”—and columnist Joe Williams wrote that he stole home successfully 14 times in 17 attempts in a two-year period.

After being traded by the New York Highlanders following the 1908 season, George Moriarty became the Detroit Tigers’ regular third baseman until 1915.

Nobody disputed his reputation as one of the toughest customers in baseball. Here are a few of his more notable fights:

  • 1905: Indianapolis Manager Ed Barrow wouldn’t stop heckling him, so Moriarty beat him up. This was the one that got Tim Hurst’s attention.
  • 1908 or 1909: Spiked by Hobe Ferris of the Browns, he waited for the right opportunity and used a sweep tag to nail Ferris in the jaw and knock him unconscious for a half hour.
  • 1909: Red Sox catcher Bill Carrigan, after tagging Moriarty out on an attempted steal of home, spat in his face, so Moriarty tore off Carrigan’s mask and flattened him with one punch in the face.
  • When Ty Cobb picked on a teammate, Moriarty intervened, handed Cobb a bat, and said, “A fellow like you needs a bat to even things up when fighting an Irishman.” Some sources say Cobb backed off; others say Moriarty “worked over Cobb” before he got away.
  • His most celebrated fracas, in 1932, will be detailed later.

While a player, Moriarty declared that his only hobby was writing poetry. That included song lyrics, many of which were published, including titles such as “When I Went to School with You,” “Bonehead Plays,” and “It’s a Long Road to Dublin.” His prolific output of baseball poetry included a quartet of tributes to participants in the upcoming 1919 World Series, a 1918 appeal on behalf of war bonds, and paeans to Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, and Frank Chance. He also wrote a column for Baseball Magazine.

When Moriarty’s playing career ended in 1916 after 920 hits in 1,075 games, he turned to managing with Memphis of the Southern Association. But he fell victim to a typhoid epidemic, which took the fun out of it, and he turned to umpiring. Hired by the American League without prior experience, he was assigned to partner with future Hall of Famer Billy Evans in the two-man system in use then. He credited Evans, his mentor, with making him a fine umpire. “For eight years, Evans helped me. Billy was a great arbiter, a wizard on rules and knotty problems. He brought me out of the fog. He was a genius, and a great guy for taking pains with the other fellow.”

After five seasons, Moriarty earned his first of five World Series assignments. In his first Series game behind the plate, Game 2 in 1921, he called a two-hit shutout by Waite Hoyt. He witnessed another gem as the plate umpire in Game 4 in the 1925 Series, 37-year-old Walter Johnson’s six-hit, 4–0 victory over the Pirates.

Detroit owner Frank Navin (right) replaced Ty Cobb with George Moriarity as the team’s skipper in 1927. After two seasons, Manager Moriarty returned to umpiring. 

A year later, when Ty Cobb was ousted as Tigers manager in the wake of a gambling scandal, Detroit owner Frank Navin turned to Moriarty, his old captain and favorite, as his new manager. Moriarty took a team that had finished sixth with Cobb in 1926 and brought them in fourth in 1927 with an 82–71 record. In 1928, however, the offense faltered, and a 68–86 record made Moriarty yearn for the carefree, impartial life of the umpire. In his resignation letter, he declared, “My contact with the game from the sandlots up has taught me to accept the reverses of baseball with the same spirit that accompanies success.”

Rehired by the American League, he logged another dozen years as an umpire. In a 1935 poll of players, he was voted the top umpire in the American League; future Hall of Famer Bill McGowan was the runner-up. Moriarty listed three key qualifications for a good umpire:

  1. Become familiar with the difficult angles of various plays and learn to choose the most advantageous position from which to give his decision.
  1. Digest the rules. He should have a definite idea of their application.
  1. The psychological phase . . . be familiar with the temperament of the player—how to handle an excited athlete in a moment of stress.

Of course, there’s stress and then there’s the kind of stress Moriarty faced on Memorial Day in 1932 at League Park in Cleveland. He had the plate, with Bill Dinneen on the bases, as the visiting White Sox clung to an 11–9 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning. Milt Gaston threw a pitch to Earl Averill that catcher Charlie Berry felt was strike three. But Moriarty called it a ball and Averill smacked the next pitch for a game-tying triple. Moments later he scored the winning run for the Indians.

Berry wanted to fight Moriarty at the plate, but everyone got off the field safely. When the White Sox yelled at Moriarty in the runway leading to the clubhouse, the 200-pound, 47-year-old Moriarty challenged the whole White Sox team to a fight. Gaston stepped forward, and Moriarty decked him with one punch. To even the odds, three more White Sox jumped him: Manager Lew Fonseca, Berry, and catcher Frank Grube. Dinneen tried to intervene, but Moriarty waved him off. He shouldn’t have.

All the White Sox were fined, and Gaston got a 10-day suspension. Moriarty was reprimanded. But he had bigger problems—a broken hand from the Gaston punch plus assorted cuts and bruises, one from getting kicked in the head. He didn’t return to action until July 11, worked a doubleheader that day, was sidelined again until August 4, and worked the plate just once in his next 21 games. He took that reversal philosophically, too, telling columnist Joe Williams, “They may throw me out of the league, but they aren’t going to knock me out,” then topping himself with this gem: “All I can tell you was that a good time was had by all.”

Moriarty had three more World Series assignments: 1930, 1933, and 1935. The first two went well, and in 1930 he had the plate in Game 1 and Game 5, two Lefty Grove wins over the Cardinals. Given the honor again as the plate umpire in 1935, he instead wound up at the center of a Series-long firestorm. It began in the first inning of Game 1, when he scolded the Cubs for bench-jockeying Tigers’ first baseman Hank Greenberg with anti-Semitic shouts. The hostility reached its climax in the sixth inning of the final game, when he called the Cubs’ Stan Hack out for leaving the baseline in a crucial spot.

There was plenty of turmoil in between, including three ejections meted out by Moriarty in Game 3. Cubs Manager Charlie Grimm and National League President Ford Frick accused Moriarty of deliberately steering decisions toward his old team, the Tigers. They made no mention of Moriarty’s two plate assignments, in which Lon Warneke of the Cubs held the Tigers to one run in a pair of victories.

Umpire Moriarty is shown here talking to the Chicago dugout after ejecting Cubs manager Charlie Grimm from Game 3 of the 1935 World Series.

The writers had plenty to say about the increasingly rancorous arguments, reaching a consensus that Moriarty’s calls might have been correct but that the language he used while arguing with various Cubs was abusive and profane. Here’s a sampling of columnists’ takes:

  • Richards Vidmer: “There was a certain arrogance in his manner, a belligerent attitude at all times and the obvious desire to be conspicuous. If he swore at the Cubs, that was all right with me. Goodness knows he was being sworn at. But he didn’t have to swear with gestures so that everybody in the park could feel sure he wasn’t telling them a bedtime story.”
  • Westbrook Pegler: “Moriarty swore at the Cubs . . . [who] screamed and tossed in their beds all night and had to have sedatives to cool them out after Moriarty scolded them . . . He is now formally accused of language tending to impair the morals of a ball club.”
  • Edward Burns: “He cursed and ranted at the Cubs in the presence of their home constituency, according to patrons in earshot. He lost his poise completely.”
  • Joe Williams: “Moriarty helped matters along by chasing Grimm and two of his hired hands. . . . From then on he was an open target for more uncalled for abuse than was ever directed at an umpire. (It was brought out at the Landis hearing that the umpire had split an infinitive, used a double negative and pronounced boil ‘berl.’”)

As Charlie Grimm put it, “I don’t say he is crooked. I say he is angry and an umpire who loses his temper can be as mean as a fly-bitten mule. . . . I was being showered with not only profane but the most obscene language I ever had to take from anybody.” For their trouble, all the verbal combatants, including Moriarty, were fined two hundred dollars by Landis.

Moriarty shrugged it off and spent the winter in the offseason sidelight he had launched in the 1930s. He traveled the country, speaking to high school students, service organizations, church groups, and any assemblage that would be receptive to his message and instruction. As he put it, “Baseball needs more great individual stars such as [Babe] Ruth. . . . It is by teaching the game on the sandlots that this hope can be realized. That is why I have given so much of my time in recent years to baseball missionary work among the youngsters—an endeavor that merits similar attention from all who are connected with the game.”

In 1940, the 56-year-old Moriarty retired from umpiring, having worked 3,047 regular-season games plus 32 in the World Series and the 1934 All-Star Game. The American League hired him to continue his missionary work as part of their public relations staff. Later the Tigers added him to their scouting corps, and he was credited with signing Harvey Kuenn, Bill Tuttle, and Billy Hoeft. He retired for good in 1958 and died six years later. His front-page obituary in The Sporting News was headlined: “Battling Moriarty—Ump Who Loved to Fight.”

Here is Moriarty’s 1913 tribute to Christy Mathewson:

When Mathewson stepped in the box
It was a cinch that twirling fox
Would show some classy heaving.
He watched those birds up at the plate
And had them swinging like a gate,
His shoots were so deceiving.
He kept the sluggers in a daze
With wondrous twists and fadeaways
Whenever he was flinging.
He always had the confidence
And those who tried to hit the fence
In vain were only swinging.
In pinches he was cool as ice
And needed no teammates’ advice
Because he feared no hitter.
He knew the slants that would deceive,
And had them hiding up his sleeve
Except the slimy spitter.
He seldom got into a hole;
All hurlers envied his control,
They’ve said, “I’d like to buy it.”
I’ve heard it said more than one time
That he could pitch across a dime
If he were forced to try it.
He had a million pitching tricks,
And so they nicknamed him “Big Six”—
The name just seemed to fit him.
It meant he had six arms in one,
And you would say it’s true, my son,
If you tried to hit him.
There is a bunch of pitching beauts,
Some have great slants and drops and shoots;
Some threw the pill much faster.
But if you count, you’ll find just one
Great pitching marvel—Mathewson—
He was the pitching master.




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