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Frank's Place: The first major-league umpire was a Philadelphian

Philadelphia's national reputation in 2016 is closely linked to that of its famously boisterous sports fans. But for most of its existence, as a 1956 Rotarian magazine article described, the city was regarded as "quiet, conservative, staid and straight-laced."

Philadelphia's national reputation in 2016 is closely linked to that of its famously boisterous sports fans. But for most of its existence, as a 1956 Rotarian magazine article described, the city was regarded as "quiet, conservative, staid and straight-laced."

Perhaps that historic desire for decorum explains why since the earliest days of American sports Philly has been a breeding ground for those charged with maintaining order - referees and umpires.

In fact, the first umpire in Major League Baseball history was a Philadelphian.

Billy McLean, whom sportswriters dubbed "Professor Billy," "Uncle Billy," and "Sweet William," was an unusually interesting and colorful figure for his black-and-white era, and I say that even though he once accused my great-grandfather - no doubt accurately - of trying to bribe him.

Though he resided here for more than 60 years, McLean was born in England, probably in 1833. Shortly afterward, his ironworker father emigrated to New York.

As a teenager, McLean haunted Patsy Kane's, a notorious waterfront bar where, from the worldly sailors who drank and fought there, he learned to box.

Short but quick and feisty, McLean became a successful pioneer in the still unregulated, bare-knuckled sport. His "fame as a pug," the Inquirer noted decades later, "extended from Atlantic to Pacific." Once, after beating Joe Coburn in New York, fans paraded him down Broadway.

Following the Civil War, McLean settled in Philadelphia. Boxing here was both wildly popular and illegal. Clandestine bouts were staged in cabins and abandoned mills along the isolated Wissahickon Creek. Police raided many of them, including the 1870 fight in which McLean and Joe Eadis were vying for a $500 prize.

When he wasn't fighting or toughening his fists by soaking them in a bizarre concoction of rock salt, white oak, and verdigris-the green stuff that forms on copper - McLean liked to play cricket and baseball. Displaying the toughness developed in the ring, he soon was officiating both sports.

Baseball in its early days was an unruly game. But in 1876, the owners of the new National League understood that to become a profitable business, the sport needed to project integrity and order. A good umpire could help ensure both.

Typically that job was handled by unpaid volunteers the home team provided. It was hazardous duty and umpires often were assaulted by gamblers, fans, and players. Occasionally, as in 1873, when Bob Ferguson broke a player's arm with a bat during an argument, one fought back.

For its April 22, 1876, debut - Boston vs. Philadelphia at North Philadelphia's Jefferson Grounds - the NL wanted a strong figure in charge. It turned to McLean, who proved to be a natural.

"So great was McLean's judgment, temperament, and fair-mindedness," one baseball historian would write, "that National League officials agreed to his demands for the unheard of fee of $5 per game."

By the time he stopped in 1890, he'd umpired more games than anyone and was among Philadelphia's best-known sports figures.

A middleweight, McLean fought exhibitions into his 60s, sometimes against active boxers like Philadelphia Jack O'Brien. He never lost that fighter's edge.

In 1889, while shopping in Center City, he encountered Joe Murray, a rival who'd once defeated him, apparently with some low blows. The two began to argue. Punches were exchanged. Display cases were smashed. Police were summoned.

"It was," the Inquirer noted, "a lively set-to."

He briefly operated a bookmaking business that set odds and took bets at a horse track across the Delaware River in Gloucester City. He was a regular at baseball games, where sportswriters loved to interview him. He competed in a few pedestrian - marathon-walking - events. He even served as a juror in the sensational trial of Lillian Emmanuel, accused of murdering a married real estate mogul in her Germantown home.

But McLean was best known for the gyms he long operated, first on Arch Street and then in Kensington. Boxing-though not necessarily prize-fighting - eventually gained respectability here, and among those he trained in the "sweet science" were wealthy aristocrats, Penn's boxing team, and the Philadelphia Athletics.

In his memoir, baseball Hall of Famer Cap Anson described getting into a ring with McLean during one of those sessions.

"I towered over McLean like a mountain over a mole hill," Anson wrote, "[but] McLean went around me very much as a copper goes around a barrel, hitting me wherever and whenever he pleased, and the worst of the matter was that I could not hit him at all."

The relationships he formed with Philadelphia's elite served McLean well. In 1914, at 81, he was named caretaker of Rittenhouse Square, a job that included gardening and supervision of the children who played in that green enclave. Though in 1908 he'd told reporters he'd inherited $100,000 from a wealthy English cousin, he continued to perform those physical duties for the rest of his life.

Mclean outlived his fame. In his final years, Philadelphians no longer recognized the old man who went daily to prune Rittenhouse Square's roses and talk to the children. When he died at 94 in 1927, his burial at Yeadon's Holy Cross Cemetery was sparsely attended.

Four years earlier, on McLean's 90th birthday, an Inquirer photographer had captured him in the square surrounded by dozens of bored-looking children. The mustachioed, bespectacled old man in the felt fedora and high-collar looked like a Victorian Age refugee.

The photo's caption said this aging relic of staid, straight-laced Philadelphia "once was a boxer of renown."

"But," it explained, unnecessarily, for its Roaring Twenties readers, "that was many years ago."