May 26, 2022
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Bob Emslie was an umpire.
That’s how the St. Thomas, Ont., native identified himself well after he called his final major league strike.
In fact, he was so closely linked to that profession that it’s listed as his occupation on his death certificate — despite the fact that he hadn’t officiated a professional game in more than two decades prior to his passing on April 26, 1943.
And his pride in his work was well-founded. He’s widely recognized as one of the best umpires of his era and Hall of Famer Honus Wagner selected him and Bill Klem as the top umpires he had ever encountered. Emslie’s knowledge of the rules was so encyclopedic that National League presidents regularly consulted with him on controversial calls and protests.
But one drawback of him consistently referring to himself as an umpire was that he managed to shortchange his brief but spectacular major league pitching career. Emslie was so modest about his mound prowess that many fans had no idea that before he began calling strikes, he was twirling them at a superlative rate for the American Association’s Baltimore Orioles in the mid-1880s.
And for one magical season, in 1884, the 5-foot-11 right-hander was the Orioles ace and a highly regarded “curveball artist” who would establish Canadian big league records for wins (32), complete games (50) and innings pitched (455-1/3).
On October 8, 1884, when Emslie notched his 32nd win of that campaign, he couldn’t have foreseen that he was establishing a record that would still stand more than 137 years later, and will likely never be broken.
This was part of the almost secret resume of a man who when out and about in St. Thomas, Ont., in his later years rarely spoke about his professional career. And his pitching accomplishments were even more remarkable when you consider that he never seriously contemplated playing professional baseball until he was in his 20s.
Emslie was born on January 27, 1859 in Guelph, Ont., to his Scottish immigrant parents, Alexander and Mary. He was the second youngest of seven children (He had three sisters and three brothers) and became obsessed with baseball at a young age when he started watching George Sleeman’s powerhouse Guelph Maple Leafs contend for Canadian championships.
His family moved to London, Ont., in 1868 where he’d hone his skills as a player, but his parents clearly saw no future for him in the sport. When he was 15, Emslie was dispatched to Waterville, Kan., to learn the pharmaceutical business with his brother Alex, who was 13 years older than him. He would man left field for a local team there, but returned to London in 1876 when the grasshopper plague wiped out his brother’s business.
Back in Canada, his diamond skills continued to improve, but his parents still insisted that he learn a trade. In a first-person remembrance uncovered in the Elgin County Museum archives, Emslie wrote that back in London he trained to be a jeweller, but never finished due to “too much thought about baseball.”
In 1878 and 1879, he impressed as a pitcher with an amateur London team and then was picked up by a formidable squad from Harriston, Ont., that also boasted fellow Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer and Woodstock, Ont., native Tip O’Neill. By this time, Emslie had already begun baffling hitters with his curveball.
“Bob Emslie was some shucks those days, and the manner in which he could bend a baseball around a batter’s neck filled the natives as well the opposing batsmen with utter amazement,” a story in the November 21, 1918 edition of the St. Thomas Times Journal said, reflecting on Emslie’s amateur career in Canada.
Emslie and O’Neill led the Harriston squad to a Canadian championship in 1880.
Over the next two years, the talented right-hander pitched for teams in Toronto and London where he pitched against the St. Thomas Atlantics, one of the best semi-pro teams in the country at the time. The Atlantics were so impressed with Emslie that they signed him away from the London club after the contest.
Beginning on May 24, 1882, the St. Thomas squad embarked on an exhibition tour in the Northeastern U.S. It was supposed to be a brief three-game excursion, but it ended up lasting 26 contests.
“All that we had with us when we left was the shirt and collar we wore and our uniforms done up in newspapers,” Emslie wrote in his remembrance.
Remarkably, Emslie pitched all 26 games for the St. Thomas club – including many against pro teams – and finished with an 18-8 record on that road trip. He was so masterful in two match-ups against the Interstate League’s Camden club that he was offered a contract by the team.
“This was a lucky trip for me,” wrote Emslie in his remembrance. “After our second game in Camden, I signed an agreement to join their team after the St. Thomas club had finished their trip.”
The then-23-year-old hurler landed with Camden in the summer of 1882 and in his pitching debut with them on July 8, he spun a 3-0 shutout over the American Association’s Baltimore Orioles. He continued to dominate for Camden that season and for part of the next before the team folded in the summer of 1883. That was when the Orioles, managed by Billy Barnie, swooped in and signed him.
Emslie made his first start for the Orioles on July 25, 1883 and proceeded to go 9-13 and post a 3.17 ERA while completing 21 of his 23 starts to finish that season. His performance solidified his status as a top starter with the O’s for 1884.
During this period, pro teams generally relied on two starting pitchers and there was no relief corps to speak of, so the starters were expected to be on the mound for the entire contest. In 1884, the pitcher’s box was just 50 feet from home plate and the batters were allowed to request a high or low pitch. According to David Nemec’s excellent 2004 book, The Beer & Whiskey League, while the National League allowed pitchers to throw overhand for the first time in 1884, the American Association continued to “restrict pitchers to sidearm deliveries.”
The latter two rules unquestionably made it more challenging for the pitcher, but that was hardly a hindrance for Emslie in 1884. Heading into that campaign, he was already being touted as an elite pitcher by the local press. In a season preview article in the Baltimore Sun, the paper contended that the O’s “should compete favorably with any in the association” and deemed the club’s two starting pitchers, Emslie and Hardie Henderson, as “no doubt among the best pitchers in the country when well supported in the field.”
That was strong praise from the notoriously critical Baltimore media of the era. After the O’s horrid 1883 season that saw them finish 28-68 and dead last in the American Association, the press corps lambasted team members for their lack of discipline and love of the bottle.
“It would be well to remember the position of last year’s Baltimore Club in the pennant race, which was largely due to the drunkenness of the men,” read a line in a pre-season article in the Baltimore American newspaper.
On top of the hostile media, the home fans at Oriole Park had also garnered a reputation for being ill-tempered, so much so that barbed wire was installed around the playing surface to protect the players from projectiles being hurled at them. Signs were also erected warning fans that rowdy behavior and abusive language would not be tolerated.
“Baltimore is getting a reputation as a tough town to play in,” reads a portion of an article in the July 17, 1885 edition of the Baltimore Daily News. “Management alone cannot be faulted for its poor judgement. Players prefer to play elsewhere for less money than play in Baltimore. Everything is fine as long as he is perfect but one mistake and he is ridiculed and jeered, not only at the park, but on the thoroughfares.”
So it was into this atmosphere that Emslie entered and excelled. In that magical 1884 campaign, he won 16 of his first 21 starts. Over the course of the season, he tossed a two-hitter and three, three-hitters, including a pair of them back-to-back against Toledo on June 4 and 5. On five occasions, the Canuck righty hurled 10 or more innings, including a season-high 15 innings on July 10.
His devastating curveball was the key to his success. By this time, Emslie was wowing his teammates, opponents, fans and even athletes from other sports with his trademark “bender.” Baseball History Daily shared an account of well-known cricket player Spencer Thomas Oldham marvelling at Emslie’s curveball while watching a game between the Orioles and St. Louis Browns in August 1883 that was originally published in the Baltimore Sun.
“I was sitting just in line with the pitcher and catcher. That fellow Emslie was a terror,” Oldham told the Baltimore Sun. “I saw balls break in the air without touching the ground. They just curved around and fooled batters that funny.”
Oldham contended that he saw a pitch from Emslie “start straight, shoot down and then up again.”
In 1918, the St. Thomas Times Journal ran an article about Emslie’s pitching career that also heralded his curveball.
“Many experts of the period named Emslie as the greatest curve ball pitcher in the game and his curve was a thing of beauty, but deadly in its effect,” read one portion of the article. “It was quoted for years after the great pitcher quit the playing end of the game by newspapers as the ideal curve, and was held up for comparison before all new pitching marvels.”
Among the many highlights for Emslie in 1884 was hurling against fellow Canuck and London, Ont., native Bill Mountjoy and the Cincinnati Reds on May 26 at Oriole Park. This contest represented the first time that two Canadian starting pitchers had faced off in a major league game. Both hurlers went the distance, but Emslie emerged as the winning pitcher in the O’s 11-3 victory.
Mountjoy, however, would exact his revenge in two subsequent match-ups against Emslie that season. The Canadians went head-to-head again on July 13 and September 21 and Mountjoy’s Reds won 9-2 and 11-10 respectively.
But Emslie was so much of a workhorse for the O’s that season that he tossed complete games on three consecutive days against Toledo from June 4 to June 6, registering three-hit victories in the first two games, but dropping the third 4-2.
“The home club played a much looser fielding game than usual, and Emslie, who had been in the box three successive days, was hit freer than usual,” read a sentence in the June 7,. 1884 edition of the Baltimore Sun, that described the previous day’s contest.
On top of his epic workload on the mound in 1884, Emslie also showcased his versatility in the field. On May 30, while the Orioles were taking on the Columbus Buckeyes in a home contest, O’s catcher Jim Roxburgh suffered a nasty cut to his finger and was forced to leave the game. This sparked a flurry of moves from the O’s. Bill Traffley was forced to shift from first base to catcher while right-fielder Gid Gardner transitioned to first base. Emslie, who had been a solid outfielder during his amateur days, was inserted into right field and proceeded to record two hits and register an outfield assist on a strong throw to third base.
It should also be noted that there was no designated hitter in the American Association, so Emslie hit on the days he pitched and registered a .190 batting average. Among his 37 hits that season were six doubles and three triples.
And if you examine a list of Emslie’s starts from 1884, it’s a testament to the number of innings he logged that he was still able to post a 2.75 ERA despite allowing 10 or more runs in six different starts. The low point of his season came on August 18 when the Philadelphia Athletics scored 20 runs off him – 16 of which were earned – in a nine-inning 20-1 road loss.
Perhaps Emslie had been out the night before that start. Almost all of the surviving photos of Emslie depict him as a sharply dressed and dignified looking man. And on the banquet circuit in his later years, he preached the value of clean living. But Emslie was no angel during his playing days.
A 2013 SABR article written by Marty Payne entitled “Beer Tanks and Barbed Wire: Bill Barnie and Baltimore” cites two instances in which Emslie was fined by the O’s for missing curfew. In each case, he was out with his pitching mate Henderson, a big burley, undisciplined right-hander who loved the night life. Emslie’s first infraction netted him a $10 fine, while the second cost him $100 – a princely sum at the time.
In the second instance, Payne reports that Emslie, Henderson and Gardner connected with fellow Canadian Tip O’Neill and O’Neill’s St. Louis Browns teammate Fred Lewis during the 1884 season to go to a party at a house owned by a woman named Maud Abbey in St. Louis. Later in the evening, undoubtedly after copious alcohol had been consumed, O’Neill hurled a spittoon at the hostess’s head and the police were called. Emslie and O’Neill escaped before the authorities arrived, but Henderson and Lewis did not and were arrested. Barnie got word of the incident and fined Emslie $100. Payne concludes that Emslie and Henderson were “the source of many of Barnie’s headaches during the 1884 season,” but the two combined to account for 59 of the club’s 63 wins that year.
On October 8, 1884, Emslie got the start at Oriole Park for an afternoon game against the formidable Louisville Eclipse and their ace Guy Hecker. As impressive as Emslie had been that season, Hecker’s numbers were even more mind-boggling. He had been a virtual one-man pitching staff for the Eclipse and would finish the season with 52 victories.
Although both teams headed into the game at least 20 games over .500 (Louisville 64-38 and Baltimore 60-40), with only six games remaining in the season, neither could catch the New York Metropolitans at the top of the standings.
The Eclipse’s offence was anchored by third baseman Pete Browning and outfielders Chicken Wolf and Monk Kline, all of whom batted over .290 in a circuit where the league batting average was .240. In contrast, Emslie – as he did all season – pitched for the weak-hitting O’s who posted a collective .233 batting average with their top hitting regular being outfielder Jim Clinton, who batted .270.
Fortunately, Emslie’s curveball was in fine form that day and he held the Eclipse to two runs on four hits, while striking out six, in a 3-2 triumph. The account in the Baltimore American newspaper described two of the hits off of Emslie as “scratch” hits – in other words, tappers in the infield that players legged out.
And in this, his 48th start of the 1884 season, Emslie registered his 32nd win – a number that still stands as a Canadian record.
Following the campaign, the O’s participated in a series of exhibition games in New Orleans.
“While playing in one of those games, I hurt my arm back of the shoulder,” Emslie wrote in his remembrance. “I felt it go at the time. I tried everything, but it never got right.”
Unfortunately, Emslie was never an effective professional pitcher again.
In 1885, he went just 3-10 and posted a 4.29 ERA in 13 starts for the O’s before he was released and signed by the Philadelphia A’s. He was hit hard in four games with the A’s and eventually landed back in Canada with the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs in 1886. He’d pitch for a pro club in Savannah Ga., in 1887 before hanging up his playing spikes.
His second career on the diamond started when he attended an International League game between Hamilton and his former Toronto teammates on Canada Day in 1887. The umpire for that contest failed to show up and Emslie was summoned from the stands to officiate. At the end of the match-up, both teams thought he did an excellent job.
Word spread quickly about his fair and steady demeanor as an umpire and he was hired by the International League. Emslie passionately embraced his new profession and, away from the field, he could often be found reviewing the rulebook.
He’d continue to call games in the International League through 1889 before moving on to the American Association in 1890 and then to the Western League in 1891. On August 19, 1891, he was promoted and umpired his first National League game.
Over his next 33 seasons as a National League umpire, he called countless memorable contests, including four no-hitters. Most famously, he was the base umpire in the “Merkle’s Boner” game played at the Polo Grounds on September 23, 1908. This late-season showdown pitted 19-year-old first baseman Fred Merkle’s New York Giants against the Chicago Cubs in the heat of a pennant race. In the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs and the game tied 1-1, the young Merkle, who was in his first full big league season, had singled and was on first base while veteran Moose McCormick was on third. Giants shortstop Al Bridwell stepped to the plate and lined a single to centre field that knocked base ump Emslie off his feet. McCormick waltzed in with the winning run and euphoric Giants fans spilled on to the field to celebrate their team’s walk-off win.
After seeing McCormick cross the plate, Merkle detoured towards the Giants’ clubhouse without touching second base. Heady Cubs infielder Johnny Evers noticed this and retrieved a ball and touched second base and claimed that Merkle was out. Emslie said he could not make the call because he didn’t see the play, but home plate umpire Hank O’Day ruled Merkle out, meaning that the winning run didn’t count and the game was still tied. With hundreds of fans on the field, the game could not be resumed. The Giants would protest the contest, but National League president Harry Pulliam upheld the decision and ordered the game be replayed. The rematch took place just over two weeks later, on October 8, with the teams deadlocked atop the National League standings. The Cubs won 4-2 to claim the National League pennant.
The Merkle game represented one of Emslie’s many clashes with Giants legendary manager John McGraw, who playfully dubbed him “Blind Bob.” But Emslie hardly had vision problems. In fact, many of the players from that era, including Cooperstowners Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson – ranked him as one of the finest umpires they had ever seen.
“Emslie will listen to a reasonable argument,” wrote Christy Mathewson in his 1912 book, Pitching in a Pinch: Baseball From the Inside. “He is one of the finest umpires that ever broke into the league, I think. He is a good fellow . . . Emslie is the sort of umpire who rules by the bond of good fellowship rather than by the voice of authority.”
Emslie umpired until 1923 and then accepted a position as the chief of National League umpires. He’d also later serve as an advisor to the National League president.
In retirement, he settled back in St. Thomas, Ont., with his wife, Helena, whom he had married in 1893. The couple had two children, Jack and Helen. In his later years, Emslie attended an Anglican church, helped coach youth baseball and enjoyed bowling, curling and golf.
In a rare interview with the St. Thomas Times Journal in February 1938, the then 79-year-old Emslie lamented the lack of toughness in modern pitchers.
“Nowadays a pitcher feels overworked if he’s in there twice a week. Can’t understand it,” Emslie grumbled.
One could just imagine how he would feel about today’s starting pitchers.
In that same article, Emslie shared that he had few regrets about his professional career.
“If I had it to live all over again, I wouldn’t want it to happen any other way,” he reflected. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
Just five years later, on April 26, 1943, Emslie died of chronic myocardial degeneration. According to the Mayo Clinic, this is a disease of the heart muscle that can cause heart failure. Emslie passed away at his St. Thomas home, leaving behind his son, Jack, and daughter, Helen. His wife, Helena, had passed away six years earlier.
His funeral was held at his residence on a Wednesday afternoon and he was interred in the St. Thomas Cemetery, where his grave can be found in the mausoleum today.
After his death, Emslie was immortalized for his accomplishments. In 1946, he was named to the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Honor Roll as an umpire and 40 years after that, he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. A field in St. Thomas also bears his name.
This is all very impressive for a Canadian whose parents were determined to make him a pharmacist or a jeweler. And on the off chance that you hear a baseball historian mention Emslie today, they’re likely to talk about his umpiring career, but the taciturn Canuck should also be remembered for the records he set in 1884, during his one magical summer as a curveball artist with the American Association’s Baltimore Orioles.
Please support Cooperstowners in Canada
For 11 years, I’ve been offering my articles and blog posts for free on Cooperstowners in Canada. I’m now asking for your support to help fund my writing, research and the ongoing costs associated with this site to keep it going. Please consider making a donation by Paypal.
A big thank you to the following people who helped me in my research:
Amber Mandich, St. Thomas Elgin Archives, in person
David Matchett, Canadian Baseball Historian, email February 5, 2019
Jess Huber, St. Thomas Public Library, email exchanges
Arthur McClelland, London Public Library, Phone research, February 1, 2019
Lesley Buchanan, St. Thomas Cemetery, in person, August 2017
Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame website
Baseball-Almanac.com – Knickerbocker Rule Change Timeline
Baseball-Almanac.com – Umpires Who Were Former Major League Baseball Players
“A Cricketer on Baseball,” Baseball History Daily, June 6, 2016
Retrosheet.org – The 1884 Baltimore Orioles Regular Season Game Log
Cicotello, David, Bob Emslie SABR Bio
Anderson, David W., Hank O’Day SABR Bio
Handwritten Log Sheet of Emslie’s 1884 starts from St. Thomas Elgin Archives files
Achorn, Edward, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey (New York, New York: Public Affairs New York, 2013)
Fleming, G.H., The Unforgettable Season – 1908: The Cubs, Giants, and Pirates in the greatest race of all-time (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Shuster Inc., 1981)
Gerlarch, Larry R. and Bill Nowlin, The SABR Book of Umpires and Umpiring (Phoenix, Arizona: SABR, 2017)
Humber, William, Diamonds of the North — A Concise History of Baseball in Canada (Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995) p. 89-92.
Humber, William, Cheering for the Home Team: The Story of Baseball in Canada (Erin, Ont.: The Boston Mills Press, 1983), p. 119.
Humber, William and John St. James, All I Thought About Was Baseball: Writings on a Canadian Pastime (Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1996) p. 81 to 85.
Mathewson, Christy, Pitching in a Pinch: Baseball From the Inside (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1994 (originally published in 1912))
Murphy, Cait, Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History (New York, N.Y.: Smithsonian Books, 2008).
Nemec David, The Beer & Whisky League (Guildford, Connecticut: The Lyon’s Press, 2004)
Shearon, Jim, Canada’s Baseball Legends (Kanata, Ontario: Malinhead Press, 1994) p. 33-37.
Shearon, Jim, Over the Fence is Out – The Larry Walker Story and more of Canada’s Baseball Legends (Kanata, Ontario: Malinhead Press, 2009) p. 80-85
Cosens, Donald L., “An Outline of the Life of Robert D. Emslie,” St. Thomas Elgin Archives document, 1995
Miklich, Eric, “The Pitcher’s Area,” 19th Century Baseball (www.19cbaseball.com)
Payne, Marty, “Beer Tanks and Barbed Wire: Bill Barnie and Barnie,” SABR Spring 2013 Baseball Research Journal
“The Base-Ball Season – Everything in Readiness for Exciting Contests in the Diamond Field,” Baltimore Sun, March 17, 1884, p.6.
“A Splendid Opening of the Season,” Baltimore Sun, April 8, 1884, p. 4.
“A Bad Defeat for the Baltimores at Oriole Park,” Baltimore Sun, April 19, 1884, p. 4.
“Two Victories for Baltimore Games Elsewhere,” Baltimore Sun, April 22, 1884, p. 4.
“The Buffaloes Defeat the Baltimores – Heavy Hitting by Both Clubs,” Baltimore Sun, April 23, 1884, p. 4
“The Baltimores Out-Field the Mets and Win Another Game,” Baltimore Sun, May 3, 1884, p. 4.
“Base Hits,” Camden Courier Post, May 7, 1884, p. 1.
“The Cincinnati Americans Draw A Row of Goose Eggs,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 30, 1884, p. 2.
“The Baltimores Defeat the Metropolitans by 5 to 3 in a Well-Played Game,” Baltimore Sun, August 28, 1884, p. 1
“Baltimore-Columbus,” Detroit Free Press, June 3, 1884, p. 7.
“Both the Baltimore Clubs Win Yesterday by the Same Majority,” Baltimore Sun, June 4, 1884, p. 5
“The Baltimores Defeated by the Toledos 4-2,” June 7, 1884, Baltimore Sun, p. 5.
“The Athletics With Their Batting Clothes On,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 19, 1884, p. 2.
“Louisville Again Beaten – Emslie’s Fine Work in Box A Rough Joke on Whiting,” Baltimore American, October 9, 1884.
“Baltimore 3 Louisvile 2,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, October 9, 1884, p. 4.
“Bob Emslie Smokes As Crowd Jeers and Knocks Off His Hat,” St. Thomas Times Journal, May 22, 1907 (photocopy)
“Foul Tips Lays Umpire ‘Bob’ Emslie’s Great Success Bare,” St. Thomas Times Journal, September 11, 1909, p. 1.
“Thirty Years Indicator Man: Bob Emslie Upsets History,” The Courier (Harrisburg, Pa.), March 5, 1916, p. 2.
“Bob Emslie Has Been Call’Em 29 Years,” St. Thomas Times Journal, July 1916 (exact day absent from photocopied article).
“Kaiser Bill Robs Bob Emslie of Chance For Inspiring Record,” The Courier (Harrisburg, Pa.), October 20, 1918, p. 2.
“Bob Emslie As A Pitcher May Be New to The Fans,” St. Thomas Times Journal, November 21, 1918 (photocopy)
“Bob Emslie Picked as All-Star Umpire,” St. Thomas Times Journal, April 7, 1930 (photocopy).
“Bob Emslie Could Go and Umpire Tomorrow,” St. Thomas Times Journal, February 5, 1938.
“Ball Umpire, Dead,” St. Thomas Times Journal, April 26, 1943, p.1.
Bob Emslie file: St. Thomas Cemetery (photocopied newspaper articles. Many do not have dates)
Bob Emslie file: St. Thomas Elgin Archives (photocopied newspaper articles. Many do not have dates)