Billy Evans had one of the most varied non-playing careers in baseball history. The third umpire to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, Evans umpired during most of the Dead Ball Era in the American League and augmented his umpire's salary by writing a syndicated sports column from 1920 to 1927. After he retired as an umpire, Evans served as general manager of the Cleveland Indians, farm director for the Boston Red Sox, and president of the Southern Association, before wrapping up his baseball career with a stint as general manager of the Detroit Tigers. He even served a year as GM of the Cleveland Rams of the National Football League.
Known as "Big Boy Blue" or "The Boy Umpire," Evans became the youngest umpire to be hired by the majors when he joined the American League in 1906 at the age of 22, not a comfortable position to be in at a time when most games were worked alone by umpires. Through his actions and on field judgment, Evans built a reputation as one of the fairest arbiters in the game. Unique among his profession, Evans openly admitted that he was fallible and could make mistakes. The man behind the plate for Walter Johnson's first major league game, Evans later confessed that Johnson's fastball sometimes came to the plate so quickly that he would close his eyes before making a call. "The public wouldn't like the perfect umpire in every game," he contended. "It would kill off baseball's greatest alibi---'We wuz robbed.'" In 1947 his book Umpiring From the Inside was published. A superb umpire's manual, the book has withstood the test of time for its sound advice on the mechanics of umpiring and handling game situations.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, on February 10, 1884, Evans had a comfortable childhood. When he was still a young boy, the Evans family moved to Youngstown, Ohio, where his father, a Welsh immigrant, worked as a superintendent in a Carnegie Steel Mill.
Active in sports, Evans played football and baseball at Cornell University. His baseball coach, former Baltimore Oriole and future Detroit Tiger Manager Hughie Jennings, called Evans a fine outfielder, but Billy's playing days ended with a football-related knee injury.
Evans spent two and a half years at Cornell studying law, before his father's death forced him to leave school to help support his family. Billy became a newspaper reporter for the Youngstown Vindicator, earning $10 per week. It was this line of work that led him to attend a Protective Association game between Youngstown and Homestead. When the regularly scheduled umpire failed to appear due to illness, Evans was persuaded to umpire the contest. He wound up working in the league for a few more days, and was then hired for $150 a month, a substantial increase from his newspaper salary.
Evans umpired in the minors for just a couple of years in northeastern Ohio. In 1905 he stopped into a clothing store owned by former ballplayer Jimmy McAleer, who told Evans he had seen him umpire and liked what he saw. American League President Ban Johnson, acting on McAleer's advice, offered Evans $2,400 per year plus a $600 bonus to umpire in the American League. Evans said that looked like all the money in the world and claimed to break all speed records in getting his acceptance back to Johnson in a tersely worded telegram reply saying, "Yes and thanks!"
Evans quickly built a reputation as a "fair and square umpire" capable of handling any situation that arose on the diamond. He often said the trick of umpiring relied upon three talents: the ability to study human nature and apply the findings, ability to be at the right angle to make a call and the ability to bear no malice. Billy demonstrated this third skill in St. Louis in September, 1907, when his skull was fractured by a bottle thrown by a 17-year-old fan, following a controversial call. Immediately following the assault, Johnson came to St. Louis to announce he had hired an attorney and would prosecute the young offender. To his dismay, however, Evans refused to press charges, saying the youth's parents were nice people and the kid had apologized for throwing the bottle.
But Evans was not a saint. If pushed he would not back down, and in September 1921 was involved in a fistfight with Ty Cobb under the stands following a game. Cobb was irate over a strike call in the late innings. During the argument Cobb reportedly told Evans that he would whip him right at home plate, but would not do so because he knew he would be suspended. Evans invited Cobb to the umpire's dressing room for the post- game festivities. The brawl itself took place under the stands, with players from both teams forming a ring for the combatants. According to some accounts of the incident, many Detroit players rooted for Evans. Several witnesses later said the fight, which ended in a draw, was the bloodiest they had ever seen. Cobb was suspended for the next game, which Evans umpired wearing bandages.
Among his colleagues, Evans was well known as a mentor for young umpires, generous with his time and advice. Evans also became a strong advocate for the establishment of formal school training for umpires to meet the growing demand for officials. He was highly critical of organized baseball for doing little about the situation. Ironically, if the present day umpire school system existed during the Dead Ball Era, Evans would probably have never gotten a chance to umpire in the major leagues. Yet his umpiring philosophy sounds like something straight out of a handbook: "Good eyes, plenty of courage?mental and physical?a thorough knowledge of the playing rules, more than average portions of fair play, common sense and diplomacy, an entire lack of vindictiveness, plenty of confidence in your ability." Nonetheless, he was not afraid to admit his mistakes. He once called a ball foul before it stopped rolling. When the ball struck a pebble and bounced back into fair territory, the manager of the team at bat rushed onto the field, cursing Evans and demanding he reverse his ruling. Billy responded, "Well, it would have been a fair ball yesterday and it will be fair tomorrow and for all years to come. But right now, unfortunately, it's foul because that's the way I called it."
Evans retired as an umpire in 1927 to become General Manager for the Indians. During his years with Cleveland, the team showed steady improvement on the field, and Evans was credited with signing Bob Feller, Tommy Henrich, Wes Ferrell and Hal Trosky, among others. He left the Indians in 1935 because of a salary dispute and accepted a job as Farm Director for the Boston Red Sox. His association with Boston ended in 1941 when the club passed up an opportunity to sign Pee Wee Reese, after Evans had lobbied hard to obtain the services of the future Hall of Famer. In 1942 Evans was named president of the Southern Association. He remained in that position until 1946, when he took a job as executive vice president and general manager of the Detroit Tigers, a post he held until his retirement in 1951.
Evans was known as a good family man, though his baseball activities often kept him away from his Cleveland home. He married Hazel Baldwin in 1908, and the couple had one child, Robert, who enjoyed a successful career as a radio executive. Evans died in Miami, Florida, on January 23, 1956, after suffering a stroke while visiting his son. He was buried in Knollwood Cemetery, in Mayfield Heights, Ohio.
NOTE: A version of this biography first appeared in Tom Simon, ed., Deadball Stars of the National League (Washington, D. C.: Brassey's, Inc., 2004).