A spouse in every port

April 17, 2019

Irwin 2In the early days of television, WOR in New York had a weekday program called Million Dollar Movie—one of the first features to bring movies to TV audiences. I was reminded the other day of one of the movies I saw on that show when I was about 12 years old: The Captain’s Paradise starring Alec Guinness and Yvonne DeCarlo, the former Peggy Middleton. Guinness played a ferry captain who had two wives simultaneously, one in Gibraltar and one in Morocco.

This film came to mind when a member of a Facebook baseball group I frequent posted some 19th centuries photos and asked for help in identifying the players. I was able to name all of them, including Arthur Irwin, who was one of the more colorful characters of the 15,000-or-so men who have played major league ball.

Irwin 1Irwin—who also had his hand in about a half dozen other sports—was born in Toronto in 1858 but grew up in South Boston. He was a feisty, light-hitting shortstop and, after turns in amateur and minor league ball, he played in the bigs from 1880 to 1894. In two of those years, he was a player-manager. He was the starting shortstop for the 1884 Providence Grays of the National League; that team beat the New York Metropolitans of the American Association in what is now recognized as the first interleague national championship series.

Irwin, who was widely disliked, was frequently in the middle of baseball controversies, including an open revolt against National League owners. In 1890, Irwin was among the members of the Brotherhood of Professional Base-Ball Players—the game’s first union—who bolted from the league for one season and formed their own league—popularly known as the Players’ League.

Irwin 4.jpegTracing Irwin’s career after that is enough to make a person dizzy. He managed major and minor league teams, owned a pieces of a couple of minor league franchises for a while, umpired for a year in the National League—throwing out nine players in fifty games—coached baseball at Dartmouth College and on-and-off at Penn, and in 1907 became a a scout for the New York Highlanders—forerunners of the Yankees. By 1912, most of the Highlanders roster were players whom Irwin had scouted.

One of the players Irwin coached at Penn was the future novelist Zane Grey whose first baseball book, The Short-Stop, includes a dedication to Irwin, and whose second baseball book, The Young Pitcher, features a character, Worry Arthurs, who was based on Irwin.

In 1909, George Stallings, the New York manager, rented an apartment that overlooked Hilltop Park, which was in northern Manhattan where the New York Presbyterian/Columbia medical complex is now. From that apartment, Irwin, using binoculars, stole signs from the visiting teams and used mirrors to relay the signs to the Highlanders on the field until the practice was exposed.

Irwin - 6 - DPL Digital Collections.jpeg

FRANK CHANCE/Detroit Public Library

At the end of 1912, Frank Farrell, president of the New York club, promoted Irwin to business manager and gave him carte blanche. That led to rift between Irwin and Frank Chance, who was then managing the team, and Chance wound up resigning before his contract was done, telling The New York Times that he “did not think it was possible to assemble so many mediocre players on one club.”

After leaving the Highlanders, Irwin knocked around the minor leagues as a manager. During that period, in 1921, he was managing the Hartford Senators in the Eastern League when he noticed Lou Gehrig, then a Columbia student, playing for a semi-pro team. Irwin talked Gehrig into signing with Hartford—the first pro contract for the Iron Horse. That got Gehrig into trouble at Columbia, because he was not supposed to be playing pro ball and playing on the college team as well. He had to skip a year of play at Columbia.

Irwin 5Gehrig wasn’t the only contribution Irwin made to pro ball. In 1883, when he was playing with the Providence Grays, he broke two fingers on his left hand. So he modified a buckskin driving glove so that he could continue to play, and he wore it from then on. Prior that, only first basemen and catchers wore gloves, but Irwin’s innovation became a trend, and almost every fielder had a glove by the next season. Irwin made a deal with a manufacturer to market the glove under his name.

Irwin didn’t limit his energy to baseball. He was also president of  short-lived pro soccer league in 1884 and he was involved in one way or another in boxing, roller hockey, rugby, and marathon bike races.

He scored one of his biggest successes when he patented a mechanical football scoreboard that was adopted at fields around the country and earned him a lot of money.

In 1921, Irwin, who was ill with a serious stomach condition, left New York City for Boston aboard the steamship Calvin Austin and went overboard in what was almost certainly a suicide.

Oh, about Alec Guinness.

After Irwin died, it was revealed that he had married one woman in Boston in 1883 and another woman in Philadelphia in the 1890s. He had three children with the first wife and one with the second, and he was still married to both when he died. He almost never saw the family in Boston and provided them with almost no support.

Pitching great Waite Hoyt described Irwin as one of the most disgusting men he ever knew. But somebody liked him: He was posthumously elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, at least in part because of his leading role in turning the foundering Toronto Maple Leafs into a successful franchise.

Read Eric Frost’s profile of Irwin by clicking HERE.

Read Kevin Plummer’s article about Irwin, including his role with the Maple Leafs,  by clicking HERE.

 

 

 

3 Responses to “A spouse in every port”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    The twist at the end evoked memories of a family story I can’t write about publicly — the day one of my cousins showed up at my uncle’s funeral with a second wife no one had known about. Yes, he was still married to his first wife, and when the women encountered each other… Well, you can imagine. The ‘hidden’ wife was tired of not being included, and instigated the confrontation. Things did work themselves out eventually, albeit with a certain residual awkwardness.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I don’t want to say it was common, but I knew of two cases among folks of my grandparents’ generation in which a man had a wife in Italy and a wife in the United States. In Irwin’s case, sons from the two marriages met by chance when they visited him in a hospital. That was before the matter became public.

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