Lion of the League


Lion of the League

Bob Emslie and the Evolution of the Baseball Umpire

Larry R. Gerlach

432 pages
22 photographs, 3 illustrations, index


May 2024


$39.95 Pre-order

About the Book

Robert Dean Emslie (1859–1943) spent fifty-six of his eighty-four years in professional baseball—eight as a player and forty-nine as an umpire. When arm problems ended his career as a Major League pitcher, he turned to umpiring, serving in that capacity for thirty-five seasons, then as an umpire supervisor for thirteen years. His longevity is all the more remarkable considering he toiled during the three most contentious and difficult decades umpires ever faced: the years from 1890 to 1920, when baseball transitioned from amateur to professional sport and from regional business to commercial entertainment industry.

Emslie endured the rough-and-tumble umpire-baiting 1890s, the Deadball era, injuries from thrown and batted balls, physical and verbal assaults from players and fans, and criticism in the press. Among his most notable games, he called four no-hitters and worked as the base umpire in the famous Merkle’s Boner game between the New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs at the Polo Grounds in 1908. He often clashed with Giants manager John McGraw, who nicknamed him “Blind Bob.” Yet he was widely praised by players and his peers. Honus Wagner, the great Pittsburgh shortstop, ranked Emslie the best National League umpire he had seen during his twenty-year career. Umpires Bill McGowan and Billy Evans respectively regarded him as “the greatest base umpire of all time” and “one of the greatest umpires the game ever produced.” Emslie was also the acknowledged master of baseball’s rules such that National League presidents regularly consulted with him on controversial calls and protests. Emslie accepted a position as the chief of National League umpires, serving as an adviser to the National League president.

Lion of the League is the biography of an umpire whose career spanned the formative years of modern baseball.

Author Bio

Larry R. Gerlach is professor emeritus of history at the University of Utah and past president of the Society for American Baseball Research. He is the author of The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires (Bison Books, 1994), and coeditor of The SABR Book of Umpires and Umpiring.


“A handful of pioneering arbiters have won plaques in Cooperstown: Klem, O’Day, and Connolly. Bob Emslie is the grievous omission. Larry Gerlach is our game’s great expert on umpires, and he tells Emslie’s story brilliantly while breathing life into baseball’s early days.”—John Thorn, official historian of Major League Baseball

“Those who share my fascination with the history of baseball will enjoy this book. To those who share my fascination with the history of the profession of umpiring, this will become a sacred text. Thank you, Larry Gerlach. You took one of the forefathers of the game and brought him to life.”—Ted Barrett, rule analyst for the MLB Network and former Major League umpire, 1994–2022

“I’ve long felt that Bob Emslie, a trailblazing umpire and one of our cherished inductees, was worthy of a detailed biography, and Larry Gerlach is the perfect author for the project. He is a passionate baseball historian who has previously published fascinating work about the underappreciated men and women in blue. This book is another triumphant effort by Gerlach that offers many little-known anecdotes and details about a Canadian baseball legend that hasn’t been talked about nearly enough.”—Scott Crawford, director of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame

“Bob Emslie never had it easy, but Larry Gerlach has captured the tragedy along with the glorious essence of this extraordinary baseball man’s career of sixty-plus years. From the hotbed of 1870s baseball in southwestern Ontario, Emslie’s trail included an eventual, though brief, Major League pitching prowess, ultimately surpassed by on-field umpiring for more than thirty years followed by front office oversight of the position. Gerlach’s prodigious research details the ways in which the umpire’s role evolved from a barely tolerated annoyance to a central place in the game’s lasting success.”—William Humber, Canada’s foremost baseball historian and a member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Prologue: From Gentleman Arbiter to Folk Villain
1. Grounding in Guelph
2. Coming of Age in London
3. Pitching for Pay
4. Curveball Artist
5. Comeback Trail
6. Learning to Call ’Em
7. Reaching the Majors
8. To the Bushes and Back
9. The Not-So-Gay Nineties
10. Standing the Gaff
11. Deadball Veteran
12. Dean of Umpires
13. Umpire Supervisor
14. Late Innings
Epilogue: Lion of the League

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