Robert Daniel Kean Emslie retired from pitching before being asked to umpire – a second career that lasted 33 years
We know that Guelph has contributed its fair share of top-notch players to the NHL and other hockey leagues, both domestic and international. But now that it’s summer and baseball season is officially underway, perhaps we should take a look back at some of the Guelph-born players who made it to the big leagues in the early golden age of the game.
It was, after all, the era of the championship-winning Guelph Maple Leafs.
Charles Maddock, born in Guelph in 1849, was reputed in his day to be the greatest baseball player in Canada. He played for the Guelph Maple Leafs and was said to be the best catcher in North America.
Later he was an umpire and then the manager of a minor league team called the Toronto Canucks. He died in Toronto in 1927.
Thomas N. Smith was born in Guelph in 1851. He played second base for the Brooklyn Atlantics and shortstop for the Empires of Detroit. He was also an umpire. Smith’s athletic career was cut short by poor health. He died in Detroit in 1889.
Born in Guelph in 1868, Daniel C. O’Connor briefly played first base for the Louisville Colonels of the American Association in 1890, the year that team won a pennant. He died in Guelph in 1942 and was buried in Marymount Catholic Cemetery.
James Cockman was born in Guelph in 1873. He stood only five-foot-six (1.67 m) tall and weighed 145 lbs (65.7 kg), but won a Canadian League batting title in 1897 while playing for the London Cockneys. Cockman played third base for several teams: the Toronto Canucks, the Roanoke Magicians, the Newark Sailors, the Reading Coal Heavers, the Minneapolis Millers, the Milwaukee Creams, the Lincoln Railsplitters, and finally the New York Highlanders (later called the Yankees).
At age 32, he was the oldest player to make his major league debut with the famous New York team. Cockman died in
Guelph in 1947 and was buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park.
William M. “Bunk” Congalton was born in Guelph in 1875. He picked up the nickname “Bunk” while a student at the Guelph Collegiate. Congalton was an outfielder and could also pitch. According to newspaper reports of the day, he was noted as a fast runner.
Congalton played for the Guelph Maple Leafs, the Toronto Canucks, the Hamilton Hams, the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago Orphans, the Cleveland
Naps, the Columbus Senators, the Omaha Rourkes, the Port Huron Marines, and the Boston Americans.
As a minor league star he twice led the league in batting average. As a major league player he ranked in the top ten in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and home runs. On one occasion in Columbus, Congalton was arrested for gambling when police raided a poker club.
Congalton died in Cleveland in 1937. Ironically, he suffered a fatal heart attack while attending a baseball game.
The Guelphite with the most remarkable career in baseball was Robert Daniel Kean Emslie, born in the Royal City in 1859. He has been called the Dean of Umpires and the least-known famous umpire in baseball history.
Emslie began his career in Ontario, pitching for the Harriston Brown Stockings and the St. Thomas Atlantics. His devastating curve ball earned him a job on the pitcher’s mound with the Baltimore Orioles.
Emslie pitched for three seasons with the Orioles and one with the Philadelphia Athletics. In his first year in the majors he set a record for Canadian-born pitchers by starting and finishing fifty games; 32 wins, 17 losses and one tie.
Unfortunately, throwing that killer curve ball cut Emslie’s playing career short. The wear and tear on his arm and shoulder left him unable to throw any kind of ball without great pain. “I knew my arm was dead,” he said later.
Emslie thought his career in baseball was over. Then one day in June of 1887 he attended a game in Toronto. He was asked to fill in for an umpire who could not work due to illness. It was the beginning of a career as umpire that would last 33 years. Emslie was the first Canadian full-time, major league umpire.
Ball players, fans, team owners, sports writers and fellow umpires considered Emslie one of the best the game ever knew. He rarely ejected a player from a game, although he would not tolerate the use of foul language.
However, there were times when he was involved in controversy. One was the incident known as “The Merkle Boner.”
In a game between the New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs, Emslie made a disputed call following a hit by Giants player Fred Merkle. The call went against New York. After the game, Giants manager John McGraw dubbed Emslie “Blind Bob.”
According to baseball legend, to prove to McGraw that his eyesight was perfect, Emslie went to a Giants practice with a rifle. He placed a dime on the
pitcher’s mound, stood behind home plate, took aim, and picked off the dime with a single shot.
Another story says that Emslie challenged McGraw to a shooting contest with apples as the targets. McGraw allegedly declined, sarcastically telling Emslie, “Maybe you can see apples, but you can’t see baseballs.”
During a game between Brooklyn and Boston, angry Brooklyn fans jumped onto the field when Emslie called home team player Tom Daly out at home plate. It was common for unhappy fans to yell “Kill the umpire,” but on this occasion it looked as though they might really do it.
Daly and other players grabbed bats and came to Emslie’s defence, standing off the howling mob.
Emslie called his last game on Oct. 2, 1924. The man from Guelph was the oldest umpire in the major leagues at 65 years and eight months. He had called a record 4,231 games.
He was then appointed the National League chief umpire, responsible for scouting, inspecting and coaching new umpires.
Emslie retired to St. Thomas, Ontario, where he coached youth baseball. He died in 1943.
He’s been inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and the Guelph Sports Hall of Fame.