In late April 1989, the Associated Press reported the death of long-time umpire Jocko Conlan in Scottsdale, Arizona: Jocko Conlan, a National League umpire for 24 years who had been the oldest living member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, died Sunday [on April 16th]. He was 89.
The cause of death was not announced.
Mr. Conlan, known as one of the feistier umpires of his day, was 5 foot 7 and 160 pounds but an umpiring giant, and in 1974 became the fifth umpire inducted into the Hall of Fame.
”Right or wrong, the umpire’s always the villain,” Mr. Conlan once said. ”That’s the way it’s been for 100 years, and you learn to take it. Ballplayers do dumb things. Day in, day out, they throw to the wrong base. Nobody boos. We call a close one and 40,000 scream.”
He once got into a celebrated kicking match with former player and manager Leo Durocher. Upon news of Mr. Conlan’s death, Mr. Durocher remembered the umpire fondly.
”We had our battles on the field but we were good friends off the field,” Mr. Durocher said. ”That’s where it counts. He was a fine umpire and a fine man.”
You can read more about Durocher and Conlan here. Around the same time, a Chicago newspaper retold the story’s of Conlan’s beginnings as an umpire “in 1935, a softer age. The White Sox were in St. Louis for a double-header with the Browns. The temperature was 114 degrees and rising. In those days two umpires, not four, were assigned to each game.
The heat got to Red Ormsby, who was working the bases. Ormsby passed out during the first game. As he was being carried off the field, Harry Geisel, who had the plate, told rival managers Jimmy Dykes and Rogers Hornsby play couldn’t continue until a second umpire was recruited.
Jocko Conlan, a reserve outfielder riding the bench with the White Sox, piped up and said to Dykes: “I’ll umpire. I can’t play, anyway.”
“That’s for sure,” Dykes replied. “We all know you can’t play.”
In his 1967 biography, “Jocko,” the man said: “Luke Appling of the Sox hit a ball between the outfielders and it looked like a triple. As Luke ran around the bases, I ran along with him. Luke wasn’t the fastest runner in the world and I kept yelling, ‘C’mon get the trunk off your back.’ I was his teammate and I was rooting for him to get the triple. Luke came into third base and the ball came in from the outfield, and they had him.
“‘You’re out,’ I said.
“Dykes was coaching at third and he screamed.
“‘Out? What do you mean, out? He’s safe!’
“I said, ‘He’s out.’
“‘The man was safe,’ yelled Dykes.
Appling was still lying there in the dirt. He looked up at Jimmy.
“‘Papa Dykes,’ Appling said. ‘He’s right.'”
Here’s a description of Conlan: “Jocko was vain. He was only 5 feet 7 inches and 160 pounds. He was pugnacious and had the jaw of a bulldog. He wore bow ties and had a cocky walk. He was a talker, full of stories of how it was and how it should be today. He also had an iron grip. When he shook hands, he didn’t let go. In retirement, he become a compulsive letter-writer.”
“He was the nicest guy you’d ever want to work with,” said Augie Donatelli, who for eight season was among Jocko’s partners. “He helped all the young umpires. And there was no one better off the field. He had friends in every city. Wherever we’d go there were always people waiting to see Jocko. And he loved to sing.”
“We called him the ‘Evanston Tenor,’ ” recalled Shag Crawford, who also worked with Jocko. Before he retired to Arizona, Jocko lived in Evanston [Illinois], near St. Francis Hospital. “He knew all the Irish ballads, dozens of them. And he had a terrific voice. His favorite was “When My Old Wedding Ring Was New.” If a place had a piano, Jocko would start singing. He sang solo. If someone chimed in he’d quit and say, ‘Okay, take over.’ He didn’t share the spotlight. But, God, he was tough. On the field he had a lot of stomach. He didn’t take anything from anybody.”
Jocko was a native Chicagoan, the youngest of nine children. He was born at 25th and Butler, within walking distance of Comiskey Park. At 12, he was a White Sox batboy. After shagging flies one day, when practice had ended, he spotted a shiny glove in the grass near third base. He picked it up and ran home.
“I got home and took the glove out and looked at it,” Jocko recalled. “I put it on and felt it, punched a hole in the pocket. It was so nice and oiled up and soft, just like a kangaroo leather or kid. A day or so later I went and played a game and, oh, boy, I could catch the ball one-handed. It was a right-handed glove and I was left-handed but that didn’t make any difference. I wore it on the wrong hand. I remember I said to myself, ‘Oh, gosh, this is the greatest thing that ever happened to me.’ ”
Years later, when Jocko was in the minors, he encountered Kid Gleason, who had been the White Sox manager. It was Gleason’s glove. Penitent, Jocko told Gleason how he ran off with his glove.
“So you were the one who swiped it?” Gleason said. “That was the greatest glove I ever had. If that glove helped make a ballplayer out of you I’m glad you swiped it. Now go on out there and get yourself in the big leagues.”
In 1954, Jocko said: “You’ve got to have a thick skin and a strong heart. You’ve got to have and command respect. Without them, you’re nothing.
“You’ve got to be fair and firm. You don’t alibi or admit you missed one. Sure, sometimes after a close play, you realize in your own heart you called it wrong. What do you do then? You just try to call the next one right. You don’t try to ‘even up’ on the next call. That would be making two mistakes instead of one.”