While fans have long marveled at the “iron man” feats of players like Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken Jr., umpire Bill McGowan personified longevity behind home plate, calling balls and strikes in 2,541 consecutive games during a streak that lasted 16 years. In his nearly 30-year career as a major-league umpire, McGowan would oversee the grand old game on the field in his own way, both figuratively and literally.
Born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1896, Bill started down the road that led him to the big leagues at a young age, umpiring in the Tri-State League at age 17. He gained valuable experience over the course of the next four seasons, overseeing contests in a semi-pro league in 1914, the Virginia League in 1915, the International League and New York State Leagues in 1916, and the Blue Ridge League in 1917. McGowan gradually began his ascent up the ladder of professional baseball in 1923-24, umpiring in the Southern Association, formerly the Southern League, at the level we would consider AA today.
Beginning in 1925 and for the next 29 years, Bill McGowan was an esteemed American League umpire, gaining a reputation among players and managers as “tough but fair.” Known for getting the calls right, he was long regarded as the premier umpire on the A.L. circuit, which spawned his nickname, “No. 1.”
Often described as ‘colorful” and “pugnacious,” he displayed the assertive personality needed to enforce control of the game on the field. At under 5 foot 10 inches and 180 pounds, McGowan was an average-sized man who nonetheless commanded respect from players and peers alike. He also clearly respected the game he was charged with arbitrating, hustling to the plays on the field, and getting himself in good position to make his calls. Bill kept himself in excellent physical condition and always believed that all umpires should do the same. McGowan was known as a theatrical referee, using dramatic gestures and loudly delivering his verdicts. Fans often found him as entertaining as the ballplayers they came to see.
Bill was civil to team managers, but firm in his decisions. Today McGowan’s virtues of patience and restraint would be considered fairly remarkable, since he ejected a mere 61 players in three decades. Bill’s sterling record was not spotless, however, as he was suspended twice by the president of the American League, once in 1948, for hurling a baseball and ball-strike indicator at Washington players and another time in 1952, for refusing to talk to the press about a player he ejected from a game in St. Louis.
McGowan umpired his first game April 14, 1925 and his last on July 27, 1954. During this time, Bill McGowan enjoyed important milestones along the way, among them, having the honor of umpiring behind home plate October 4, 1948 in the first-ever American League pennant playoff game, a contest in which Cleveland defeated Boston, 8-3. Bill also umpired the first All-Star game, July 6, 1933, at Comiskey Park in Chicago, home of the White Sox. He later worked the sidelines in eight different World Series—1928, 1931, 1935, 1939, 1941, 1944, 1947, and 1950.
The extraordinary run of consecutive games for which he became known began with his first major league contest April 14, 1925, and lasted for an amazing 16 years, a period during which he didn’t miss a single inning of any game he worked. The streak ended on September 3, 1940. After a long and distinguished career, McGowan finally gave in to arthritis and retired in 1954.
He opened the Bill McGowan School for Umpires in Florida in 1939, where he tutored dozens of future umpires. The ‘Dean of Umpires’ indoctrinated them the right way, extolling the virtues of physical fitness and a fair, civil and tough approach to conducting the game on the field. McGowan also founded a school in College Park, Maryland, known today as the “Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School.”
He was once quoted, “My advice to young umpires is this: Make the players and managers respect you by your hustle. Keep on top of plays. Always try to give a manager or player a civil answer. Then walk away, tough.”
Bill McGowan died in 1958 at age 58 at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, two days after suffering a heart attack. Unfortunately, he was not alive to witness his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992.