balls and strikes and stanley cups

bill stewart

On the Tuesday, he coached the underdog Chicago Black Hawks to their second Stanley Cup win, and his players carried him on their shoulders — by Saturday, he was just another major-league umpire calling strikes on the grass at Boston’s Fenway Park.

That’s how it went for 43-year-old Bill Stewart, pictured above in April of 1938, at the busy end of his first and only full season as an NHL coach. Thursday he left Chicago with a smile on his face. “My contract with the Hawks runs another year,” he told the newspapermen, “and we’ll be out to repeat again next year.”

No-one had expected the Black Hawks to prevail that year. Here’s the Daily Boston Globe summing up the situation:

Accorded little chances of entering the playoffs, the Hawks, with an odd assortment of rookies and old-timers, responded to Stewart’s fiery leadership to upset one favored club after the other, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, champions of the National Hockey League.

The miracle man of hockey, Montreal’s Gazette called him. Some other adjectives that the newspapermen of the day applied to Stewart: chunky (Montreal Gazette); plumpish, partly bald (The Day); bald-headed pilot (Boston Globe); big-time ice pilot (ibid.); pudgy, bald sports veteran (ibid.); the Little General (Boston Globe); bald-headed William (Gazette); ordinarily soft-spoken little man (ibid.).

It wasn’t true, what was sometimes said of him: that he’d never coached a hockey team before he was hired by Chicago owner Major Frederic McLaughlin. In fact, though he’d only ever played the game on shinny rinks, he had coached high-school hockey in his hometown, Boston, going on to steer the hockey team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for seven seasons. He’d played some serious ball, too, including stints with the Montreal Royals and the Chicago White Sox.

b stewart

He started his umpiring in 1930, graduating to the majors in 1933. By the time he retired in 1955, be was considered the dean of National League arbiters. He took part in four All-Star games and five World Series.

Starting in 1928, he also served as an NHL referee. His reviews there were, predictably enough, good and bad. In 1936, The Ottawa Citizen deemed him undoubtedly high class: “He knows the hockey code and rules accordingly in a fearless manner.” Then again, in 1931, a player from the New York Americans, possibly Bill Brydge, saw fit to write a mid-season letter to the Toronto Star declaring Stewart’s “special wretchedness.” It was a long missive, with specific complaints, but we can boil it down to a single extract: “He is absolutely rank.”

Stewart did, memorably, forfeit a game in Boston’s favour in 1933 after one of Stewart’s predecessors as Chicago coach, Tommy Gorman, (1) punched him and (2) took his team off the ice to protest a tying Bruin goal.

In 1935, Stewart brought (as Montreal’s Gazette put it) “his methods of authority on the diamond into the Forum.” The Leafs were in town and ended up routing the Canadiens by a score of 10-3. In the first period, when Stewart got into an argument with Montreal coach Léo Dandurand, he did what came naturally: tossed his antagonist out of the game. When Dandurand wouldn’t go, the referee sought a policemen to enforce his order. There was a delay. The Gazette:

No officer of the law appeared, however, and Stewart returned to the Canadien bench and after a heated dispute with Dandurand, the latter finally rose from his seat, went behind the bench and stood there, continuing to direct his team without any undue inconvenience. And at the start of the second period Leo was back on the bench and stayed there for the rest of the game.

That’s the first I’ve heard of NHL coaches sharing the players’ seating, but I guess that’s how it worked then. (Is there enough evidence here to credit Stewart with the innovation of upright, ambulatory coaches? I don’t suppose so.) Also worth a mention: this wasn’t the first time Stewart had ejected a coach in the Forum: earlier that year, he’d tossed Chicago’s Clem Loughlin — the man he’d eventually succeed as coach of the Black Hawks.

Hockey refereeing was harder than baseball umpiring, Stewart said in 1937. In the latter, “it’s either a strike or a ball,” while hockey involved monitoring not only the puck but the behaviour of 12 speeding men. A referee’s most important function on the ice? Watching the blueline for offsides.

“If you miss a trip or a bit of scragging or interference,” he said, “you can depend on the players to even it up among themselves, but if you miss a blue line offside and a goal results you can’t call back that goal, and it may mean the game. But no matter what you do, you can’t be right in everybody’s opinion.”The toughest hockey game he oversaw was the longest ever played, March 24, 1936, the Stanley Cup semi-final game when Detroit and the Montreal Maroons trudged into six overtime periods before the Red Wings’ Mud Bruneteau finally scored. Stewart recalled stumbling into a Montreal restaurant at three in the morning, after six hours on his skates.

“Curiously,” he said, “it was my eyes that tired more than my legs that night.”

His coaching career didn’t last long in Chicago. He was fired in January of the 1939, not quite halfway through the season following the team’s Stanley Cup triumph. It was the old story: the Hawks were slumped, the fans were ornery, none of the player moves Stewart had made had made a difference. “Stewart,” as the Chicago Tribune wrote, “was the goat.”

He wasn’t bitter. At least, he wasn’t all bitter. He had good things to say about several of his players; regarding some others, he said,

Three or four of the Hawks have a certain amount of mechanical ability, but only God could help them think by sending each a new set of brains.

A pair of veteran players were appointed to replace him, Paul Thompson and Carl Voss, but the team fared no better under their direction, and they missed the playoffs.

Still, Stewart enjoyed that week in April of 1938. With the Stanley Cup won, he sang a song of team harmony and respect. “I can truthfully that not a cross word was spoken in our dressing room all season. There were no cliques; no petty jealousies, and the players worked for me with everything they had.”

Whether he got to see the trophy that represented the Hawks’ reward is an open question. The Stanley Cup, famously, was not in the building when Chicago beat Toronto on April 12 — it wasn’t even in Chicago. It only arrived on Thursday, which is the same day Stewart left town. Hard to say whether they met up — maybe on the platform at Union Station? Black Hawks centreman Doc Romnes picked up the coach and Mrs. Stewart at their hotel and drove them to catch their train out — they were the first passengers in his brand-new station wagon.

In Boston, Stewart’s Saturday started at Fenway Park, where he umpired a pre-season game between the city’s two big-league teams, the Red Sox and the Bees. Fans enthusiastically greeted Stewart; the Bees won.

In the evening, Boston fêted the coach in the ballroom at the Hotel Bradford. Three thousand people were expected, though I don’t know if they all ended up coming. Ford Frick was there, president of baseball’s National League, along with members of both the Red Sox and Bees. On the hockey side, NHL president Frank Calder was on hand with Art Ross, Charles Adams, and Weston Adams from the Bruins.

Stewart was asked, of course, whether maybe he was thinking of taking his coaching skills for a turn on the diamond. “I guess I’ll stick to umpiring as my baseball career,” he said. “You can’t beat those hours.”