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April 28, 2011

Wezen-Ball

Bill Stewart, MLB Umpire & NHL Referee (and coach!)

by Larry Granillo

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are going on right now in the National Hockey League. Over the last couple of nights, four different Game 7's have been played, with two going to overtime. It's only the first round, sure, but that means absolutely nothing to the games' intensity. As much as I love baseball, there really is no sport that does overtime/extra-innings/etc. better than hockey.

Anyhow, watching some absolutely fantastic hockey the other night, I was inspired to do a little research about the overlap between the two sports. It didn't take me long to find something fascinating. In 1955, Bill Stewart retired as the senior-most umpire in the National League, having officiated in four World Series and four All-Star Games in his 22 years of service. That wasn't Stewart's only career, though. From 1928 through 1941, Stewart was also a referee in the NHL, doing his baseball work in the summer and his hockey work in the winter. In 1937, Stewart left his refereeing duties and took over as coach of the Chicago Black Hawks, leading the underdog team to victory in the Stanley Cup Finals.

That's right: in six month's time, Bill Stewart went from umpiring the World Series in October 1937 to winning the Stanley Cup as the coach of the Black Hawks in April 1938. He was the first American-born coach to win the Stanley Cup in its history.

From 1913 through 1922, Fitchburg, Massachusetts-native Stewart toiled away in the minor leagues as a pitcher and outfielder. He spent a year-and-a-half in the Navy after (according to Wikipedia) becoming the first player from the International League to enlist for World War I service. He had a chance to join the 1919 Black Sox at the start of the season, but missed out when he broke his arm by falling down a flight of stairs while employed as a census worker. In 1921, Stewart started his off-season work as a hockey referee in the Boston area.

In 1928, the NHL hired Stewart as a referee. At about that same time, Stewart began managing minor league clubs in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He finally took up umpiring in 1930, spending his first few years in the Eastern, International, and New York-Penn leagues. In 1933, Stewart joined the ranks of the major league umpires.

In 1939, Stewart was interviewed by the Associated Press for his unique role in the two sports. The article discussed Stewart's life, but ended with this juicy quote about his relationship with fans:

"Once," he recalls, "I was umpiring at York in the New York-Pennsylvania league when 200 or 300 brave men got me down and started kicking me. They drove them off with tear gas, but they exploded it right in my face. Once I had to have a police escort out of the Boston Garden after a hockey riot."

Stewart's last season as an NHL referee was in 1941, having done double-duty for eight years. In his remaining years as an umpire, Stewart was involved in some memorable moments, including Johnny Vander Meer's second no-hitter (as the home plate umpire), Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard 'Round the World, and an incorrect call in the 1948 World Series (he was proven wrong with photos in the next day's papers) that, ultimately, led to photographers being banned from the field of play.

Two years after his retirement, Stewart coached the U.S. Hockey Team on a tour of Europe. Stewart died in 1964 after suffering a stroke. In 1982, he was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.

My knowledge of NHL history isn't all that great, so maybe Bill Stewart's story is well-known. It's certainly the first I had ever heard of it, though, and I found it to be intriguing. If Stewart was merely an official in each league, it'd be a story worth telling. Try as I might, I just can't imagine Joe West trading time between Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden. But Stewart also took a brief foray into coaching that brought him and his team the Stanley Cup. That's the kind of story movies are made of. With hockey's playoffs going on right now, it's the least I can do to share it with you.

4 comments have been left for this article.

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