#Shortstops: Bill Stewart’s career as an official swept through MLB, NHL
While Stewart appeared in some White Sox exhibition games, he never played for Charles Comiskey’s club in the regular season, instead spending the 1919 season in Louisville rather than on the eventual American League pennant winner. After a five-year break from professional baseball – during which time he appears to have scouted for the Red Sox and coached Harvard’s baseball team, among other jobs – Stewart’s last years in minor league dugouts (1927, 1928, and 1931) were spent mostly in managerial roles, though he often inserted himself into the lineup in 1927 and 1928.
Stewart spent the next few springs and summers as an umpire in the International and New York-Penn Leagues before moving up to the National League late in 1933. His first major league game occurred on Sept. 23 behind the plate at the Polo Grounds, where he used the whiskbroom for the first time. The next year, he would join the NL staff on a full-time basis.
Upon his arrival at Boston Braves Spring Training camp in March 1934, John Kieran of The New York Times wrote about Stewart for his “Sports of the Times” column.
“He is the only big league hockey arbiter among the major league umpires. He is a chunky chap with a fine crop of dark hair – until he takes off his cap,” Kieran wrote. “The doffing of his chapeau discloses a large area of shining dome. He accounts for the denuded area by putting the blame on too many shower baths, but he was once a right-handed pitcher in half a dozen leagues and it may be that his top thatch was burned off by scorching liners coming back through the box.”
Baseball was a fine sporting option for Stewart during warmer months, but the chill of winter necessitated another pastime. Growing up in Boston, winters meant hockey. Stewart was very involved in Boston-area hockey circles, coaching a variety of amateur teams and officiating for others.
On Feb. 24, 1923, Stewart was one of the referees for the second game in a best-of-three series between Princeton and Harvard at the new Hobey Baker Memorial Rink in Princeton. Deemed by The New York Times correspondent as “one of the cleanest” games played at Princeton that season, Stewart found himself the center of attention.
“In the heat of the battle in the third period Referee William Stewart fell, striking his head on the ice with such force as to be knocked out temporarily,” the Times correspondent noted after the Crimson’s 2-1 win.
Fortunately, he recovered to finish the game and returned several days later to referee the third game of the series.
In 1927, when he took his first professional managerial job with Nashua of the Class-B New England League, Stewart had just spent the 1926-1927 hockey season as a referee for the Canadian-American League.
Working his way up the ranks to head referee in the Canadian-American League, Stewart in Nov. 1931 received a full-time referee appointment with the National Hockey League, with whom he had occasionally officiated games as early as 1928. First, though, he had to resign from the hockey coaching staff at M.I.T. after a six-year coaching tenure there.
According to a Boston Globe story regarding the naming of Stewart’s successor, “the announcement [came] as a pleasant surprise to the student body.”
It is not clear whether the “pleasant surprise” was Stewart’s resignation or the choice for the new coach.
Stewart’s tenure in the NHL was not always smooth. He was intimately involved in one of the league’s few forfeited games.
Stewart was confident that his team could make another run for the playoff title.
“My contract with the Hawks runs another year,” he said after the final game on April 12. “And we’ll be out to repeat again next year.”
When asked whether he would consider managing a major league baseball team, Stewart replied, “I guess I’ll stick to umpiring as my baseball career. As Bill Klem said, ‘You can’t beat those hours.’”
A week later, he would be the third base umpire on opening day in Philadelphia as the Dodgers routed the Phillies.
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Despite his playoff success, the Black Hawks faltered early in the 1938-1939 season, though there were a few bright moments. One in particular occurred before the opener on Nov. 3, when Chicago Cubs manager Gabby Hartnett presented the Stanley Cup to Stewart in a pregame ceremony. Such pleasant times were few and far between, causing Stewart’s firing less than halfway into the season.
“I don’t think I had it coming,” Stewart said. “I have had no trouble with any of the players and have no complaint or particular alibi.”
Stewart spent the rest of the hockey season as a spectator. The following year, he dusted off his whistle and went back to being a National Hockey League referee.
He remained in the NHL’s officiating ranks until 1941, when he claimed the league “jobbed him” out of a job.
In 1956, Stewart was named head coach of the United States national hockey team which would visit Moscow for the world championship tournament the following March. When the Soviets occupied Hungary to tamp down the revolution there, the U.S. State Department pulled the team from the tournament. Yet they were still allowed to travel to Europe that winter for a 25-game exhibition tour.
Even with his new hockey role, Stewart was still active in baseball, scouting for the Cleveland Indians and then the Washington Senators. Seemingly the only thing which could slow him down was the stroke he suffered in Feb. 1964, one which ultimately led to his death at 69 years of age.
Matt Rothenberg is the manager of the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum