April, 1950

Right around Christmas in 1949, Daniel Joseph McDevitt walked out his back door as state troopers were breaking down the front. He was a good Catholic, which meant he was always guilty of something. This time it was forgery; not bad enough for its own commandment, but still–the cops seemed pretty pissed.

They would put the 63-year-old in cuffs two different times as the year came to a close, arresting him first on charges of cheating with fraudulent pretense, forgery, and uttering forged instruments. He’d post bail, and then they’d come back a few days later, this time waving charges of illegally conducting various medical courses in one hand and banging down his front door with the other. 

McDevitt operated out of a Philadelphia office at Broad and Germantown, where for a hundred dollars, sometimes two, he’d send his clientele off with college degrees from any one of the four schools he ran with a rubber stamp. Authorities had tallied 235 nurses, dentists, chiropractors, philosophers, veterinarians, and masseuses operating across the Pennsylvania commonwealth with a certificate from the university of Broad and Germantown on their walls. McDevitt hadn’t limited customers to state schools, giving out a diploma from the Kansas City University of Physicians and Surgeons as well. That’s what one of his last clients had ordered; the one who had turned out to be a private investigator. 

By the spring of 1950, they were looking for him again. It was almost baseball season, and if it were any other year, McDevitt would have been limbering up for another summer on the diamond. He had found a lot of ways to serve Philadelphia in his life, both in its exam rooms as a chiropractor and on its ball fields as an umpire, where he was the one doling out judgment. But by the third time the police were looking for him on new charges that April, McDevitt was dangling from the end of his wits. So he started walking. 

The open sky above him became the ceiling of St. Stephen’s at Broad and Butler and the rows of the church became the walls of the confessional. He huddled in the box where people whispered their sins and waited for his to catch up with him. 

“What makes an umpire?’” Ernie Stewart, a former major league ump, once asked. “First of all, you must have judgment… It isn’t something that you develop; it’s something that is God-given. You are born with that kind of judgment.”[1]

Judgment, however, is skewed by desperation. On the field, McDevitt’s was unmatched; a beloved and popular figure in both his family and his work, he was never maligned by his colleagues and barely ever assaulted by the crowd. He had an agreeable strike zone, a tolerance for contempt, and could make critical judgments in a cloud of dust and spikes as angry fans’ moods hinged on his reaction. But McDevitt’s wife had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and he had a pile of unpaid medical bills. 

He sat in that box, where God’s forgiveness is more attainable than the law’s, and weighed his options. Confession may be good for the soul, but it’s hard on the wrists. And in baseball, it’s simply a waste of time.

“The shortstop doesn’t come to you and say, ‘Sorry, I kicked the ball.’ He kicked it, that’s all; everybody knows, and you go on with the game,” former major league ump Shag Crawford once said. “The same thing with an umpire; if you kick it, you just handle whatever arises from your error of judgment and go on with the game.”[2]

July, 1926

It was a red-assed summer in the 1926 New York-Penn League: Bloody faces, screaming mobs, bones popping out; every inning played had the potential to be some violent maniac‘s breaking point. 

One night, a manager took a swing at an umpire, who then needed police protection to avoid a “beating” from the mob, who had naturally come down onto the field to see if they could help speed things up.[3] This was one of three instances in the evening in which the cops had to form a protective bubble around the umpire and the first of two in which they actually succeeded at doing so. The third time, they couldn’t get to him and he was punched in the chest.

The following month, an umpire was hit in the face repeatedly by the manager of the Shamokin club, who in turn suffered a compound fracture in his arm when the two of them scuffled to the ground.[4] At some point between a bone piercing his skin and biting down on a wooden spoon, the manager was informed he’d been suspended.

“It seemed like old times,” gushed a writer in the Scranton Tribune.

It was this blender of swinging fists into which Daniel Joseph McDevitt stepped once again to maintain order. He desired to be open with the fans, often introducing himself and explaining his in-game decisions. His balls and strikes were typically agreeable and a reputation began to grow from his affability and theatricality. 

“Maybe I’m being family-centric; maybe this is a small town paper puff piece; maybe some other umpire somewhere has the exact same thing written about him. Who knows,” says McDevitt’s grandson, also named Daniel. “In the same way we need content for internet publications, maybe they just needed stories, too.”

There are plenty of other Daniel Joseph McDevitt stories; like when he was trying out for the Brooklyn Dodgers, or umpiring the first Negro Leagues World Series in 1924, or introducing his son, Daniel McDevitt’s father, to Connie Mack at Shibe Park.

“I think not making it with the Dodgers, he wanted some connection to baseball, and if he could do it through umpiring, then so be it,” McDevitt says. “Being a player back then paid horribly; being an umpire didn’t pay better, so he needed a second job to make that work. But he wanted to be connected to baseball, still, somehow. Baseball’s always been in the family blood.”

While working in the International League in 1923, McDevitt helped lead a protest in response to what he felt had been the unfair firing of another umpire named William Phyle. Phyle had gotten himself into trouble when, during a crucial call at first base, he’d made a confusing hand gesture no one could discern as “safe” or “out.” They had just settled on “safe” when Phyle revealed he’d actually meant the opposite, leading to fans hooting and, even worse, hollering.[5] 

The gaffe received even more scrutiny because the president of the league, John Conway Toole, had been in attendance. When pulled into the fray, Toole had mulled over the hysterical statements of each side, left town by train, and then safely made his decision to fire the umpire in question from two hundred miles away. 

McDevitt went on the record: “We don’t believe that Phyle was treated fairly by President Toole, and we are going to back him in this controversy.”[6]

When he saw a man being treated unfairly, McDevitt had walked away from his job. And when it turned out Toole had fired Phyle not for waggling his arms, but for leaving a game without permission, he was in good enough graces to be reinstated after asking for his job back–how else?–politely.

It was a good thing McDevitt stuck around. When the spittle flew, he met it with a smile; when the heckling started, he responded with wit. They called him “Doc” because he was also a chiropractor, and he considered umpiring an annual “vacation” from his practice.[7] They also called him “Sunny” because of the warmth he’d bring to a circumstance in which everyone else was screaming. When he was considering leaving the NYP League years later, fans were said to be “anxious” about even his potential departure.[8]

And then one night, he bashed a man’s face bloody.

August, 1926

Al Trethaway knew how to run. He finished first in the 100-yard and 220-yard dashes at a Wilkes-Barre church picnic in the summer of 1913, leading to a regionally recognized sprinting career.[9] In the summer of 1926, he was 39 years old, and after his hometown Wilkes-Barre Barons won a game with a two-out, ninth inning steal of home, he ran onto the field after the last out.

Trethaway said he had just been crossing the diamond with some other guys, one of whom had told home plate umpire Daniel Joseph McDevitt that he’d been “rotten.”

“I second the motion,” Trethaway admitted to shouting.

In Trethaway’s version of what happened next, McDevitt didn’t respond; at least, not with words. Violence, in his mind, had been the only answer to such a jab, and with his mask in his hand, the victim claimed, he took a swing at Trethaway’s head. 

McDevitt claimed Trethaway had been hurling “vile” taunts his way all night, and when he’d seen the fan approaching him in mid-yawp, he’d thought, well, maybe if I hit him hard enough, he won’t get to hit me at all. 

Trethaway’s bashing “prompted several hundred fans to the rush field,” according to an account, but Trethaway was ready to handle the matter himself. With his face covered in blood, he was still able to spot the visiting Elmira club’s bat rack and grabbed one, his intent as clear as his vision was not. 

When that didn’t work–the players managed to wrestle the weapon away from him–he went after McDevitt with his bare fists. Three policemen hastily escorted McDevitt into the dugout, where they hunkered down for fifteen terrifying minutes until backup arrived and pulled apart the league’s third full-on riot of the season.[10]

The next day, the two men shook hands. McDevitt swore he hadn’t–and would never–hit a man with his mask, as doing so could kill them, and Trethaway conceded that the blow he claimed had come from the mask may have been struck by McDevitt’s fist. The court, for some reason relying on the short term memory of a man with very recent head trauma, considered the matter closed. The Police Magistrate yammered on about peacekeeping and sportsmanship long enough for a lesson to feel delivered, and the local paper chalked up the spasm of bloodshed to the recent heat wave (despite there already having been two other riots that summer).[11] 

The most brutal encounter of his career behind him, by September, McDevitt was still respected on the circuit. Still good-humored. Still alive. 

Then his bus pulled into Scranton. 

A savage summer in the NYP League was crawling toward its end. McDevitt had tried his best to maintain order, but the chaos was starting to find a way past his charm. As spirits wilt and armpits sweat, diplomacy only gets harder. And once they get brained by a soda bottle, nobody’s as charming as they used to be. 

It wasn’t McDevitt’s fault that his crewmate, an umpire named Slavin, was having a hard time making up his mind all night. The disgruntled murmuring began in the second inning when Slavin called out a Scranton runner on a close play at first. A few batters later, Scranton was still trying to set up the same scoring opportunity when Slavin called another runner out at first on another close play–and again, the home team didn’t agree.

Scranton had all of three hits on the night, so everybody was in a shitty mood when the eighth inning rolled around. Slavin had managed to duck back out of the crosshairs for six innings and let the home offense take the abuse, but in the eighth, there was yet another occurrence of what was apparently his biggest weakness… a close play at first. 

This time, Slavin felt, the throw had pulled the Wilkes-Barre first baseman off the bag, and he called the Scranton runner safe. 

There’s only one right way to call a game to a home crowd and Slavin had been calling it the other way. But now the Wilkes-Barre players began to encircle him, and he fired his only bullet pretty quick, ejecting their manager. It did nothing. As the situation grew uglier and uglier, McDevitt stepped out from behind home plate and announced that actually, the runner was now out. 

Whether McDevitt was trying to keep his crewmate alive or genuinely believed the call had been wrong, it’s tough to imagine anything in the rules that would have let him do such a thing, let alone want to in front of increasingly frothing onlookers. The first row leapt at the fence like velociraptors and tore onto the field, where they were neutralized by the police. But barrage after barrage of soda bottles continued until after the game, when the cops protected Slavin and McDevitt and managed to get them safely out of hurling distance.[12] 

Perhaps it was the seething masses of sports fans produced by New York and Pennsylvania that made McDevitt consider a change. When the president of the Pacific Coast League tempted him with a gig the following winter, offering better pay and a step closer to the major leagues, he thought about it long enough to make his local fans anxious.[13] 

“I decided the best thing to do would be to return [to the New York-Penn League]… and take chances for a job in the majors in the near future,” he told one reporter. “I surely hate to give the idea of the trip to the Coast the air, but I feel I am doing the best thing.”[14]

More often, an umpire doesn’t get the luxury of time when making a decision. A ball lands in a glove, a runner slides into a base, everybody looks at a man in a little hat to tell them what it all means. With the moment dangling, soda bottles reared back, the stench of indecision intensifying with every second of delay, McDevitt made his calls as best he could and hoped each one didn’t get him killed. 

March, 2022

From St. Stephen’s, McDevitt headed to his sister Martha’s house on Jerome Street. Back then, Shibe Park was around the corner. Today, Philadelphia’s timeless Boner 4Ever mural makes the intersection a cultural touchstone. 

Martha was a peaceful woman who loved to watch a good fight and a stout woman always handing other people a plate. She came from a big family that made more big families, and found a way to make every wisecracker or wallflower feel special. Her family filled the dining room; framed windows to the past, back when all of those pictured had been laughing or smiling or, in her brother’s case, simply staring. 

“My grandmother… you could poke her like a marshmallow,” says Dan McCormick. “By the time I got into high school, most of the people in the dining room were dead. So she would tell stories.” 

At some point in human history, they invented names other than “Daniel.” But in certain Irish bloodlines, this development was entirely ignored. McCormick is the son and the great nephew and the cousin of three separate Daniels, including Daniel Joseph McDevitt, his great uncle; the brother of his grandmother Martha.

“She adored him,” McCormick says. “I always got the idea that my grandmother and my great uncle probably had very kindred spirits and were really good-natured people. I have great photos of him, he always had a twinkle in his eye. She really regarded him quite highly and saw him as having an exciting life. It’s a shame about the end.”

The McDevitt siblings were a massive brood; McCormick says there might have been as many as 13 of them. Some did not make it to adulthood, and tragedy brought the survivors closer. He remembers making gin and tonics for his aunts as they gabbed on the porch; hearing stories about the McDevitt siblings showing up for dances in the neighborhood together; appearing on Phanavision at ball games in groups of thirty and congregating at a pub afterward. Always people laughing, somebody cooking, baseball on in the background. 

“They say the Irish culture is divided into two: Those who always have a dark cloud and are kind of depressive, versus those who are happy-go-lucky, quick-to-smile, no matter what,” says McCormick. “And I will say my grandmother’s family was all like that: They just kind of took life as it came to them and made the most out of it. They did a lot together. When her siblings started to die, I think it was very hard on her. ”

Legacies are out of our hands. They put us in a hole and everything that follows is at the whim of the storytellers standing over us. Only our most compelling tales or most repeated lies push through generations to reach people we’ll never meet, who share our blood but not our time. Everyone becomes history; not everybody makes it. But you never know what your judgments will make you in the eyes of your judges.

In 1950, Daniel Joseph McDevitt reached Jerome Street–God wasn’t offering any immediate grace, he sought the next most powerful entity in his life. He made it all the way to Martha’s couch and put his head in his hands, but when the police arrived, they discovered his massive heart attack had beaten them there. 

McDevitt’s diploma mill was a hot item in the Inquirer during the last months of his life, images showing him in handcuffs or anxiously pursing his lips while awaiting a judge’s decision. It was all very public, and McCormick says, even in their family, it stayed that way.

“In a lot of big families, things are glossed over to make everything pretty,” he admits. “But they were pretty upfront and matter of fact. Again, in Irish culture, a lot of stories are sanitized. And it really wasn’t with him.”

There’s a chance that umpires are bestowed with godly judgment at birth. But it seems more likely that the right call isn’t always the correct one; just the one that pays the bills or keeps a glass bottle from bouncing off your friend’s skull. If it works out, nobody blinks. And if you kick it, you handle whatever arises and you go on with the game.

Image courtesy of Dan McDevitt

[1] “The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires,” Larry R. Gerlach, Viking Press, 1980, p. 209 

[2] “The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires,” Larry R. Gerlach, Viking Press, 1980, p. 209 

[3] “Players in Battles with Umpires as Miners Lose, 2 to 1,” Scranton Tribune, p. 21, 17 July 1926

[4] “Glenn Killinger Breaks Arm in Fistic Encounter with Ump; Is Suspended,” Harrisburg Evening News, p. 17, 26 July 1926

[5] “Phyle’s Decision on Lunte Causes Players to Howl,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY), p. 19, 16 July 1923

[6] “Four Umpires Resign from League Because of Phyle’s Dismissal,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY), p. 1, 17 July 1923

[7] “Popular NYP Arbiter is to Leave Circuit,” Dick Lutz, Harrisburg Telegraph, p. 21, 30 July 1926

[8] “Umpire McDevitt Sold to Pacific League–Fans Anxious,” Dick Lutz, Harrisburg Telegraph, p. 21, 30 July 1926

[9] “Churches’ Picnic Proves Enjoyable,” Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, p. 6, 9 July 1913

[10] “Umpire Hits Fan with Mask,” The Wilkes-Barre Recordp. 19, 3 August 1926

[11] “Sports Chatter,” The Wilkes-Barre Record, p. 21, 4 August 1926

[12] “Poor Umpiring Sends Eganites Down in Defeat,” The Scranton Republican, p. 16, 2 September 1926

[13] “The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires,” Larry R. Gerlach, Viking Press, 1980, p. 209

[14] “Black Signs Paper; McDevitt to Stick,” Dick Lutz, Harrisburg Telegraph, p. 19, 14 October 2015

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