Historicist: Playing the Field
The double life of Arthur Irwin, baseball star and polygamist.
In honour of the return of baseball, we bring you this piece from our archives, originally published on April 7, 2012.
Toronto-born Arthur Irwin was one of the unique figures in sports in the late nineteenth century. As a star shortstop in the major leagues, he was an innovator, credited with inventing the baseball glove and the squeeze play. As an entrepreneur, he helped establish professional baseball in Toronto, among other successful business ventures.
And, after his apparent suicide in 1921, when he leapt into the Atlantic Ocean from a passenger steamer, Irwin made his biggest headlines of all. It was only after his death that the press uncovered the double life he’d been leading for 30 years, with two wives and children in separate cities.
The son of an Irish blacksmith and his Canadian wife, Arthur Albert Irwin was born in Toronto on February 14, 1858, but moved to Boston with his family as a small child. Growing up in South Boston, Irwin attended public school and developed into an all-around athlete. His play with local amateur and semi-pro baseball teams as a teenager attracted attention. And, in 1879, he was recruited to the major league Worcester Ruby Legs.
Of only average height and weight for the era—just under six feet and 160 pounds—Irwin was a light-hitting shortstop whose career was buoyed more by his outstanding fielding prowess and leadership skills than his proficiency with the bat. But, in 1883, after moving to the Providence Grays of the National League, he enjoyed a career season, recording 116 hits with a .286 batting average.
At one point that season, Irwin broke two fingers on his left hand—not an uncommon experience for players in the days before baseball gloves. But, as teams carried only 11 players, the Grays could little afford to be without their crack shortstop (who was alternately nicknamed Doc, Foxy, Sandy, and Cutrate). So Irwin bought an oversized buckskin driving glove, added padding, and sewed the third and fourth fingers together as one to better protect his bandaged fingers.
With that, Irwin has been credited with inventing the fielder’s glove, although others contest his singular authorship. Fellow players were intrigued by the advantages of Irwin’s glove in gameplay—and by the fact that spectators did not jeer his unmanly use of protection as many expected—and most soon adopted his innovation. Within two weeks, Irwin reached a deal with Draper and Maynard, a struggling leather goods firm in Ashland, New Hampshire, for it to be the exclusive manufacturer and seller of the “Irwin glove.”
If a career year and a forward-thinking invention weren’t enough, in 1883 Irwin also married a Boston woman, Elizabeth, and four children soon followed.
On the field in 1884, Irwin was an important component of the Grays team that captured both the National League pennant and the very first interleague playoff (or World Series) over the New York Metropolitans.
He won another pennant with Boston of the American Association in 1891 as a player-manager to cap a respectable career, which was good enough to earn him posthumous induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
With his playing days behind him, Irwin turned to coaching full-time, with stints at clubs in the major and the minor leagues until shortly before his death in 1921. Irwin resided in Philadelphia for a time, first as manager of the University of Pennsylvania baseball team in 1893, and then working with the Phillies. It was here that the 36-year-old Irwin became smitten with May, a local twenty-something. Whether the still-married baseball man and May formally wed is not entirely clear, but they certainly began acting publicly as man and wife, and settled in New York City to parent two daughters and a son, Harold.
By this time, Irwin was a frequent visitor to his hometown of Toronto, regularly earning mention in local newspapers even if he was just visiting friends. In late 1896, when professional baseball was in the doldrums in the city (attendance had been so low in 1895 that the Maple Leafs played part of the season in Albany) Irwin gathered businessmen and rejuvenated the local team. It was Irwin’s idea, in becoming part owner and manager of the minor league Maple Leafs, that the team play at the lacrosse stadium on Toronto Island, a profitable venture for years to come.
The Leafs had a strong season under Irwin’s tutelage in 1897, winning the Eastern League championship. But late in the 1898 season, Irwin traded many of the team’s best players to the major league Washington Senators. The transaction proved doubly controversial when Irwin was announced as the Senators’ new manager the very next season. Nonetheless, Irwin retained partial ownership in the Maple Leafs and would return to Toronto to coach them in 1903 and 1904 before moving on to coach other minor league teams and to scout for the New York Highlanders.
During his stint in Toronto, Irwin also operated a shoe store catering to the city’s elite. He was something of a businessman and, as his invention of the baseball glove proved, always looking for a new commercial idea to develop.
In other sports, he promoted boxing matches, roller hockey games and, as owner of a chain of bicycle tracks, marathon bike races. He was influential in the establishment of the first professional soccer league in North America, and a strong promoter of rugby.
In the 1890s, Irwin invented a mechanical scoreboard which he first introduced to intercollegiate football at Harvard, and which was quickly installed at stadiums across the continent. According to the Toronto Star (July 23, 1921), he also invented a means “of reproducing individual football plays by telegraph.” Earning a hefty annual royalty of $1,500 for the rest of his days for the scoreboard alone, Irwin was a wealthy man by the 1910s.
He was coaching in Hartford of the Eastern League in 1921 when, at the age of 63, Irwin quit baseball due to ongoing health problems. What had been abdominal trouble was diagnosed as stomach cancer that June, and he was given but a short time to live. Irwin—who’d put on considerable weight since his playing days—lost 60 pounds in one two-week span.
It was while he was in hospital that his two families first became aware of each other. When Harold, his 27-year-old New York–based son, visited his father in the hospital, he was shocked to hear from staff that his 37-year-old brother Herbert, previously unknown, had also visited.
Irwin left the hospital in early July and began to settle his affairs. He sold his stake in the scoreboard business for just $2,000. Of that, he gave $1,500 to May, his New York wife. The other $500, he sent to Elizabeth in Boston, along with a letter explaining his sale of the scoreboard rights. “God bless you all,” he concluded the letter, and added in a postscript: “The bills were terribly heavy.”
The letter shocked the Boston family because for many years, Irwin had shown them little affection, having dedicated most of his time and efforts to the second family. On the few occasions he had visited Boston, Irwin often referred to his son Herbert as Harold, and had to be repeatedly corrected. According to the Star (July 21, 1921), Elizabeth later claimed that though “she had never suspected him…her relatives years ago had insisted that he had another woman in his life.” Irwin sent her so little money over the years that she was all but destitute.
On July 14, 1921, an ailing Irwin departed New York City aboard the steamer Calvin Austin. To fellow passengers, he appeared depressed and despondent, telling one: “I am going home to die.” When the ship pulled into Boston, the former baseball player was missing, his clothing and luggage left in his stateroom. Presumed to be lost overboard, Irwin’s death was ruled a suicide. His body was never found.
It was only after news of his death hit the newspapers that his polygamist ways were uncovered and reported from coast to coast. Irwin’s teammates and business colleagues professed that they knew nothing about his double life.
Both widows maintained that they were the most important in Irwin’s life. May, the Star reported, “said that in the 27 years he had never been away from home more than a few days at a time when he would make trips to look at young ball players on college teams and in the minor leagues.”
On the other hand, his first wife, Elizabeth, took solace in Irwin’s end-of-life journey. “I feel confident and happy in the belief,” she told the New York Times (July 21, 1921), “that, although he had this other woman in New York, he was on the way to me when he died—that he knew he was dying and that he turned to me as the woman he really loved at the last. He wanted to die in my arms.”
But Herbert was not as willing to let sleeping dogs lie. With the assistance of Irwin’s younger brother John Irwin—a major league baseball player and now proprietor of the New Weymouth Hotel at Nantasket Beach—he questioned his father’s financial affairs. Seeking financial recompense for the destitute widow in Boston, they accused Irwin’s long-time business partner, Julian P. Hart, of underhandedness in the sale of the scoreboard royalties.
Not all were willing to rule Irwin’s death a suicide. There were rumours, recounted in David Nemec’s The Great Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Major League Baseball (University of Alabama Press, 2006), that Irwin had withdrawn $5,000 from his account prior to sailing—perhaps enough motive to prompt theft and murder. Others, more compellingly, suggested that because the doctor who’d diagnosed Irwin’s fatal illness had never come forward, he had faked his death. According to a 1922 letter at Cooperstown from a former teammate of Irwin queried: “How can Arthur Irwin be dead? I just saw him in Oklahoma.” To such insinuations, one of Irwin’s sisters merely replied: “With Arthur, you never know.”
Other sources consulted: Thomas Carson, “Baseball’s First World Champions: The Providence Grays,” in Ken LaZebnik and Steve Lehman, eds., Base-Paths: The Best of The Minneapolis Review of Baseball (Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1991); Louis Cauz, Baseball’s Back in Town (Controlled Media Corporation, 1977); National Post (July 1, 2006); New York Times (July 17, 1921); Toronto Globe (March 26, 1902); Toronto Globe and Mail (June 15, 1981; May 3, 1982; February 21, 1989)
Toronto Star (December 9 and 11, 1896; January 7, 1898; July 2 and September 2, 1903; February 21, 1989; June 5, 1994); and Ottawa Citizen (February 21, 1989).
Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.