In 1887, Cincinnati Fans Really Did Try to Kill the Umpire

Baseball, beer, and bad calls have proven a volatile mix here for 133 years.

Among baseball’s hallowed traditions stands the God-given right of fans to abuse the umpire. Within limits, of course. Yet, on one hot August day in 1887, Cincinnati fans got so riled up the umpire had to flee for his life and only a police escort saved him.

Photograph courtesy of The Illustrated Police News, Digitized by University of Minnesota Libraries

The 1887 season was reasonably good for the Cincinnati Red Stockings, who finished in second place behind the St. Louis Browns with a record of 81–45, rebounding from a dismal 1886. The Red Stockings at this time played in the American Association, not the National League. The American Association assembled the bad boys of baseball between 1882 and 1891, horrifying the puritanical National League by charging lower prices for tickets, playing baseball on Sunday and — most shocking of all — serving alcoholic beverages at the ball park. The National League tut-tutted that this was all to be expected from fans in the “river cities” of Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Louisville and St. Louis, where morals and social standards were apparently questionable.

On Sunday, August 21, the Red Stockings squared off against the Brooklyn Greys in the final of a three-game series. Cincinnati had dominated the first two games, and fans were hoping for the sweep.

To remind ourselves how long ago 1887 was in baseball years, understand that the wooden planks upon which fans sat at League Park were not yet known as “bleachers.” Instead, the crowd sat upon what were then referred to as “bleaching boards,” from the idea that they were out there bleaching in the sun.

Baseball games did not require a crew of umpires back then. In fact, only a single umpire officiated on August 21, 1887. He was a former ballplayer named John H. “Jack” McQuaid of Chicago. He was in his second season as an umpire, and he eventually officiated nearly 1,000 games for the American Association and later for the National League.

Among the Cincinnati roster in this rebuilding year was Hugh Nicol, acquired from St. Louis after the previous season. Nicol was an outfielder with a hot bat, but his stellar feature was lightning speed and the ability to steal bases.

The game against Brooklyn at first looked like the Red Stocking sweep was assured. Going into the seventh inning, Cincinnati led 7-4, but Brooklyn’s bats came alive. By the bottom of the eighth inning, Brooklyn was ahead, 9-7. Red Stocking outfielder George Tebeau lofted a home run, and the crowd went wild. With two men out, Nicol managed a triple and the fans thirsted for the steal. With shortstop Francis Fennely at bat, Nicol made his move.

Fenelly was in a slump, and most everyone expected him to strike out. As the Brooklyn pitcher let fly, Nicol dashed toward home. The pitch was a strike, as expected, and the ball landing squarely in the catcher’s mitt with Nicol just seven feet from the plate. And then, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer [August 22, 1887]:

“He did something else, this prince of base-runners. He swung slightly off the baseline from third to home and then with a mighty effort sprang forward, clearing the arms of the catcher with a bound and landed upon all fours at the plate. A shout went up from the spectators that might have been heard for squares. It was increased as Nicol picked himself up and commenced brushing off his clothing.”

The celebration suddenly ceased as Umpire McQuaid called Nicol out. By leaving the baseline, he had forfeited the run. According to the Illustrated Police News [September 10, 1887]:

“The crowd, or at least a greater part of it, at once made up its mind that McQuaid had given a wrong decision. They commenced hissing. This in a moment changed into more demonstrative signs of disapproval. They hooted and yelled, and a break for the grounds seemed certain. The greater part of this show of indignation was confined to the bleaching boards.”

Some fans jumped onto the field to take the argument into Umpire McQuaid’s face. And then, the Illustrated Police News reported, disagreement took an ominous turn:

“Out from the boards flew a beer glass at the umpire. Another, and a second and third followed. The private police were hustling about endeavoring to quiet matters, but met with little success. A glass came from the pavilion and brought up almost at the umpire’s feet.”

For a time, McQuaid sought safety in the manager’s office as the police charged into the stands to restore order. Eventually, only one man was arrested, a printer named “Nat” Page, described as a mild-mannered citizen who got overly enthusiastic about baseball.

Play resumed, and Brooklyn scored five more runs. The final score was 14-9. The Red Stocking fans earned a scolding from The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [August 22, 1887]:

“Had it not been for the timely arrival of the [police] the uprising might have proved serious as the spectators were worked up to a fever beat of excitement and many liquor-soused fellows in the crowd seemed capable of doing anything that would bring the national pastime into disrepute and incite a general disturbance.”

Umpire McQuaid survived and called balls and strikes for another seven years. He died suddenly in Chicago, aged 36, just before the start of the 1895 season.

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