This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave. ~Elmer Davis
In 1934, the Great Depression had cast a shadow across the entire United States like the great plumes of scorched earth that choked out the sun in the dust bowl of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas panhandle. An estimated 20% of the US population was unemployed. Agrarian and industrial communities alike were struggling to stay afloat – swimming against the riptide of geographic turmoil and economic uncertainty.
It was a hard time to be a veteran – particularly a veteran of WWI where a nation’s memory of war was fading to be replaced by more domestic and immediate concerns. Names like the Somme, Verdun and Ypres that had carved deep and visible scars across the psyches of an entire generation of Europeans were but distant echos and accoustic shadows from fairy-tale, haunted lands with names like Belleau Wood and The Argonne. The fighting had taken its toll on our young country whose brawny idealism had been wounded by the machinery of modern warfare. This was a new kind of conflict fought in trenches and against an unseen and lethal enemy. There were battles with 90% casualty rates fought with such vicious ferocity that men often simply disappeared under a barrage of artillery. Victories were sometimes measured in yards of ground. It was a new generation of guns, germs and steel that would serve as a chilling prelude to a next great war that would claim 20m souls. Yet, for those who lived through it, The Great War was like a brief and violent storm whose lessons were endured and then set aside like so many badges of youth, tucked away and forgotten – along with the memories of 320,000 casualties marked by monuments of those missing, killed and wounded. It spared no one including those young immortals in pinstripes playing America’s greatest game – baseball.
Emmit “Red” Ormsby was born on April 3, 1895 in Chicago, Illinois. He grew up as a physical force of nature – enjoyig all sports but excelling at baseball. As a strapping right hander who mixed an above average fastball with a delightfully wicked spitball, he opted to play semi-pro ball in 1912 for Green Bay in the Wisconsin-Illinois Minor Leagues. Red pitched well enough to graduate into a starting rotation of St Paul in the American Association. That year, he shined hurling several complete games while racking up impressive stats – – a dominant ratio of strikeouts to hits and fewer earned runs. Red was going places and baseball was his meal ticket.
In 1914, war broke out in far off places like the Dardenalles of Turkey and along wispy meandering rivers in Belgium and France. By 1917, the US had been drawn into the conflict and Red had not hesitated to do his duty – he joined the Marines. At Quantico, he briefly played on an armed forces baseball team along another green recruit, all-star second baseman Eddie Collins. He was quickly shipped off to France with the Fifth Corps– a fighting unit that would soon be decorated for valor in several battles including the decisive Argonne Forest campaign.
In the Argonne, Red’s strong arm earned him a spot on the grenade throwers roster. Grenaders were essential elements to bolster the conventional fire power of infantry units. The massive Allied offensive in the Argonne would include confusingly close hand to hand combat with trench lines sometimes exchanging hands multiple times across a no man’s land as short as 25 feet. If the bloody stalemate was to be broken, the Allied Expeditionary Force under General “Black Jack” Pershing would need to be its catalyst.
In what would go down as the bloodiest campaign to date in Marine Corps history, the Argonne became a killing field shattered by unsurvivable enfilading machine gun fire, errant artillery and a deadly swirling ground fog of poison mustard and phosgene gas. On a late Autumn afternoon, Ormsby had infiltrated toward the front lines of the fighting — preparing for a suicidal offensive when he was wounded in the back. In addition to this injury, he was overwhelmed by poison gas which partially seared the lining of his lungs.
Ormsby would survive his encounter with the Germans and return to the US as a decorated veteran. His injuries eliminated any possibility of his continuing to compete as a player. Yet, his love of the game, could not move him away from the cut grass and red dust diamond. Red Ormsby decided to become an umpire.
Over the next 19 years, Ormsby would rise to become one of baseball’s premiere umpires including presiding over four world series and league championship series. Ormsby had a booming voice that sounded “ like two steam ships bickering for their right of way along a lakefront.” He was also master and commander at home marrying and fathering a dozen children. Like many veterans, his injuries never fully healed and he spent his entire career suffering from severe back pain. In the days before unions or employment protections, workers understood that the inability to perform one’s job – even as a result of temporary disability or illness – essentially meant unemployment.
According to his grandson, Red secretly donned “a back brace in almost every game he umpired for 19 years. Nobody in the American League, except the other umpires knew about his back. If the league front office had known about it, he wouldn’t have been umpiring. If they had checked the records at Hines Veterans Hospital they would have seen that he was listed as 74 percent incapacitated. But with straps and braces of an umpire, nobody could tell and if they did, they never said anything.”
On this day at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, it was hard to tell that the depression was still raging like a fever across America’s working class. The stands were filled to capacity as the White Sox were squaring off against the hated Detroit Tigers. Birdie Tebetts was catching for Detroit with catcher Mike Tresh catching for the White Sox. Ormsby was calling the game from behind home plate and he was in pain. Author and historian C. Brian Kelly chronicled Ormsby’s story in a November, 2006 Military History magazine article that described the veteran umpire’s difficult circumstances. “During the depression, an injured day off work was tantamount to a pink slip. A good American League umpire could make up to $300 a month, according to catcher Birdie Tebbets – a tidy sum in those days. ‘With 12 mouths to feed, we all knew that Red Ormsby needed his job. On that particular day, we were not about to see him lose it.”
Tebbets could tell that Ormsby was hurting and laboring to breathe. The scarring on his lungs from the phosgene gas was now regularly impeding his ability to catch his wind. It was on this day, according to Kelly, that Tebbets and Tresh caught the best games of their careers when they threw this disabled veteran ump a lifeline.
“A guy hit a ball up the right field line and Emmett ran up the line to make the play. When he came back to home plate, he said, ‘‘Birdie, I’m getting very dizzy and can’t see the ball right now. It’s from my Army (injury) thing and don’t know what to do about it. I don’t want to quit as I’ll probably lose my job.” For the first time in Tebetts career, an umpire was actually admitting to being blind.
“I said, ‘look Red, you just sit tight and when I raise my right hand after the pitch, it’s going to be a strike. If I raise my left glove, it’s gonna be a ball.’ Sure enough, the pitch came in and I raised my right hand. ‘ S-T-R-I-K-E!’ bellowed the veteran umpire. And we went through the hitters this way until the end of the inning. “
It was now Tresh’s turn and he did not hesitate to replicate the secret pitch call code for Ormsby. For the next several innings, both catchers called the game until Ormsby recovered his breath and vision. At one point in the sixth inning, Tebbets saw Ormsby lean in and whisper something to the White Sox catcher. The following pitch, Tresh did not raise his hand. Red Ormsby was back in charge of the game.
Years later, Tebbets revealed this story in an amusing biography, Birdie: Confessions of a Baseball Nomad. Tebbets shared that he would never expect that kind of relationship between players and umpires to exist in today’s free agent, self-centered game. “But in the 30’s and 40’s, it was a different place and time. We looked out for each other.”
For Red Ormsby, father of 12 and World War I veteran, there was never any doubt about duty – – to his family, to his country and to his sport. He ruled across a 19 year diamond studded universe of all-stars like “Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Bitsy Bobby Shantz, Leo Durocher, Lefty Gomez, Connie Mack, Babe Ruth, Jack Dittmer, Joe DiMaggio and others. ‘Ty Cobb,” he would say, was the greatest of them all.”
Emmit “ Red” Ormsby was just one of many veterans who gave so much and then came home just to “get on” with his life. He did not expect anything in return for his service – except perhaps a chance to work. On that day, Red’s umpiring career was in jeopardy at Comiskey Park. It was only when two wily catchers found a way of paying back an aging veteran that they added yet another colorful footnote to humanity and to the grand narrative of America’s greatest game.