Updated: Apr 9
The game of baseball was gaining traction at the national level following the Civil War, and the first organized leagues were starting to crop up. This was still the era of ball when the pitcher was just a guy who served up something to hit, so games were typically high scoring affairs. The batter would actually tell the pitcher where he wanted the ball thrown – it was a while yet before somebody decided that the pitcher should be helping the rest of the defense in trying to keep the batter off the basepaths.
Wild Bill Hickok loved this new sport, and attended every game he could. He would even go out on the field prior to the game and play ball with the kids while waiting for the game to start.
Bear in mind that outside of any embellishments to his life’s tale by later authors, Wild Bill was absolutely amazing as a gunfighter, and his feats with a revolver were well known by the public at large. Nobody wanted a piece of him.
Baseball umpires have a history of being large and burly fellows. They are large and burly because for much of baseball's history, an umpire had to be prepared to defend his calls against physical violence, either from the players themselves or the fans. This may come as a bit of a shock, but sports fans can become unruly when things don’t favor their chosen team.....
Today it is common to see rival fans fire epithets at each other on Facebook or Twitter, but back then they commonly fired bottles and fists, and knives or even bullets weren't out of the question. All of these would be fired in person with nary a keyboard in sight.
On a Saturday afternoon in 1866, the Kansas City Antelopes were preparing to square off at home against the rival Atchison Pomeroys. The Pomeroys had recently beaten them soundly, and the rematch was much anticipated. Truth be told, a rematch had already been scheduled and cancelled due to rioting fans, so this was actually Antelopes-Pomeroys Rematch 2.0. The fans of the day took their baseball quite seriously.
The Kansas City officials were anxious for the game to be played, but understandably concerned about the possibility of violence and rioting at the event. Having learned that Wild Bill was in town, they approached him and requested that he be behind the plate to umpire the game, and indicated that they would make an exception to the city ordnance which prohibited anyone from carrying guns in town. Hickok, an enthusiastic baseball fan and supremely confident in his ability to discourage violence, readily agreed to the arrangement.
And so it was, dear reader, that famed gunman Wild Bill Hickok, wearing two revolvers and whatever passed for umpiring gear in the 1860's, was standing behind home plate* on a Saturday afternoon, ready to call the game at first pitch. The officials assumed that the irate fan didn’t exist who was willing to argue a call against Crew Chief Hickok with a brace of Colt's, and they were correct. The Antelopes peacefully concluded a 48-28 thrashing of those pesky Pomeroys.
Major League Baseball did not technically exist at the time, and when it did, neither the Antelopes nor the Pomeroys were part of it, so I would like to apologize for the misleading, if sensational, title of this post. So feel free to resume whatever you were engaged in prior to clicking on this post, but just know that there was this one time that Wild Bill Hickok umpired a professional baseball game. And I think that’s awesome.
*The umpire may have been on the first base line or possibly behind first base in that time period.
Here is a link to Clavin’s book, which is a great read.
When writing this up, I took the opportunity to do some of my own research, and there are certainly sources who doubt the veracity of the above incident. I was able to contact the author of the book, Mr. Clavin, and he cited multiple news articles from the time period, as well as another well-researched author, Joseph Rosa. Regardless, heckuva tale.