Today we’re looking at what makes a hero, or what makes a goat. When do we adore someone, and when do we despise them? The story of Arthur Irwin might give us a few clues.
Music by jjstiano at Looperman, and artwork courtesty of Wikipedia.
To learn more, take a look at the following transcript of the episode:
The Slimiest Man in Baseball
In a highly polarized world, we like to think of things, events, and even people in black or white terms. They’re good or bad. They’re a hero, or a goat. We give up shades of grey, and maybe we shouldn’t.
If you had met Arthur Irwin, you would probably like him. Or maybe you wouldn’t. He was a baseball player’s baseball player. Yet as great as he was as a player and innovator in baseball, he’s also been described as “one of the slimiest men in baseball.” Arthur Irwin was a series of contradictions that remain unresolved.
Irwin was born in Toronto in 1858. His family moved to Boston while he was still a child, giving him a chance to learn “America’s favorite pastime.” He played local, amateur ball until 1879 when he was recruited for the National Association team, the Worcester Ruby Legs. As intriguing as this team’s name was, they might actually have been known simply as the Worcester Worcesters. Whatever the case, joining the Worcester team was Irwin’s ticket to the big leagues as the team joined the big time National League the following year.
He moved from there to the Providence Grays, the Philadelphia Quakers, and eventually the Washington Nationals. In the 1889 season he was the Washington team’s player manager, but was forced to move on when the team folded at the end of the season.
Irwin bounced around, managing several other teams until he landed up with the minor league team in Toronto in 1897. In 1898 he traded some of Toronto’s best players to the Washington Senators, and then joined that team as coach. Not surprisingly, that raised more than a few eyebrows.
Though Irwin raised hackles, he was a person that wasn’t easily ignored. He was the inventor, or at least the popularizer of the baseball glove. One day in 1883 while playing for Providence, Irwin was suffering from two broken fingers. Baseball gloves were only worn by the catcher and the first baseman at that time, so Irwin had to improvise. He took a buckskin driving glove and converted it to a mitt. This not only allowed him to take some of the pressure off of his broken fingers, but it seems to have improved his game because he continued to wear the mitt long after his fingers had healed. Seeing what the mitt had done for Irwin, other players copied him and baseball gloves became the standard for players throughout the league by 1884.
As brilliant as that innovation was, Irwin had a darker side. While working in the American Association, he was accused of encouraging teams to pinch players from National League teams in the face of an agreement that forbade exactly that. While running the Cincinnati Reds in 1891, finding himself short of playing talent, Irwin brought in his brother John to help out. The cries of nepotism rang loud, and Arthur was forced to drop his brother when it became apparent that John really wasn’t that good.
While controversy seemed to dog Irwin, he was still great at his job. In the 1895 season with Philadelphia, under his management the team had a season attendance record of 474,000 fans, a record that would not be beaten by any other major league team that century.
Though Irwin’s management in Philadelphia brought financial success, he was personally unpopular with the team owner and the players. He was perceived as meddlesome, and the plays he tried to teach the team were complained about as too difficult.
Interestingly, Irwin also coached the University of Pennsylvania’s team, apparently on the side, and one of his players was the future writer of Western stories, Zane Grey. Irwin made an appearance in Grey’s book, The Young Pitcher, as the character Worry Arthurs.
Irwin worked in baseball as a player, coach, manager, scout, and umpire for decades. He popularized the baseball glove developed intricate and often winning strategies, and created a legion of fans and detractors. He was a polarizing figure. You loved him or you hated him. There seemed to be no in-between.
But it was in 1921 that the strangest story of his life emerged. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, his families, both of them, came to visit him in hospital. His first wife, Elizabeth who he married in 1883 journeyed from Boston to be with him. His second wife, May,, who he’d married in the 1890s came in from New York. As a man who had worked in many cities over the decades, it was probably fairly easy to keep knowledge of the two families apart from each other. So the polygamy certainly came as a surprise to his two wives and five children.
A few weeks after the extremely awkward meeting of his two wives, Irwin boarded a ship in New York and headed for Boston. When the ship arrived in Boston, Irwin was nowhere to be found, and it was concluded that he must have committed suicide by jumping into the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s tempting to make Arthur Irwin a hero for his legacy in baseball, or a goat for his abrasive behavior and his family life, but doing one or the other ignores who he really was. Like all our possible heros and goats, Irwin was both good and bad. If we idolize him for his contributions to baseball then we minimize the people he hurt. If we think only of those people, we’ll forget that he shaped a game that is now played on sandlots around the world, and watched on TV by millions. And, ultimately, highlighting that everyone is complex, our heros included, may be Arthur Irwin’s most important contribution.
Baseball Reference https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/i/irwinar01.shtml
Society for American Baseball Research https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/e5e7bfa4
Baseball Hall of Fame http://baseballhalloffame.ca/blog/2019/02/14/hall-of-famer-arthur-irwin-6/
Archival Portrait https://www.loc.gov/resource/bbc.0319f/