ROCHESTER RED WINGS 2017 YEARBOOK

The Silky Smooth Arbiter

By Bill Flynn

Of Irish immigrant parents, Francis (Frank) “Silk” O’Loughlin was born August 15, 1872 in Rochester’s “Dutchtown,” growing up in the northwest part of the city around Hague Street. Silk gained his nickname as a young boy when he sported long blond curls.  He played amateur ball for years here but in 1895 was asked to umpire a game between the locals and a team from Palmyra. Positive reviews encouraged Silk to continue umpiring and he was soon hired on by the Atlantic League. Next came promotions to the New York State League and then the Eastern League- in which Rochester fielded a team. In 1902 O’Loughlin jumped to the new American League- the circuit had attained big league status a year earlier- and Silk stayed with the AL for 17 seasons.

This was the “dead ball” era, a rough and rowdy time for baseball- on the field and from the stands- with just one or two umpires patrolling the grounds. Said O’Loughlin about the umpiring profession: “He must be possessed of no end of nerve, have excellent ability, a firm temper, be quick and sharp and above all, must know the rules thoroughly. A man is always out or safe, or it is a ball or a strike. The umpire, if he is a good man and knows his business is always right. I am always right."

 O’Loughlin was known for his impeccable on-field dress, booming voice and his trademark bellow “Striiiike Tuh”. And while he was praised by most for being fair and impartial on the field, no umpire can please everybody.  

After an 1897 game in Cortland, NY the Homer Republican reported that “about 200 men and boys” gathered to throw rotten eggs at O’Loughlin as he left a street car. The entire police force was called in to stop a riot. In 1899 at Rochester’s Culver Field Silk reportedly belted a fan and then tussled with two others outside the gate. The Democrat and Chronicle said later that day he was “assaulted and badly handled” near the downtown Four Corners. According to a 1907 clipping from the Detroit Press AL President Ban Johnson was seriously considering forbidding the sale of pop at league games because too many bottles were being tossed at O’Loughlin. And the story goes that enraged minor league fans once dragged O’Loughlin from the ballpark to a nearby river after his ruling lost the game for their team. Again and again the arbiter was held down in the water, challenged to admit he blew the call. “The runner was out,” Silk defiantly gasped between dunkings before making his getaway.   

Still, O’Loughlin was so popular in Rochester in 1904 that the Democrats backed the 32-year old for state senate representing the 44th District. At the nominating convention, a motion to consider others besides Silk was shouted down, somebody yelled “Play ball!” and O’Loughlin gained unanimous selection. Although he lost (handily) to the Republican nominee Silk was understanding in defeat with the quote, “My friends.. told me an umpire was a strong card. So is the shipping tag tied to a wad of imported cheese.

O’Loughlin umpired in five World Series and called balls and strikes for six major league no-hitters, a record since 1901. Retrosheet.org credits him with 164 ejections including the first imposed on Ty Cobb, May 2, 1908. Cobb was booted for shoving the umpire after a play at home plate. A 1950 Henry Clune column in the Democrat and Chronicle mentions another Cobb confrontation after Silk called the Georgia Peach out on strikes. “Silk, I think your eyes are going bad,” the angry Cobb snorted. “You ought to get glasses.” The umpire shot back, “You’re standing too far from the plate today. That’s why you’re letting them go by.” “Why, Silk,” complained Cobb. “Have you got the nerve to try and tell me how to bat?” “Well,” O’Loughlin said with a shrug, ”You’ve got the nerve to try and tell me how to umpire!”

Silk was not above having some fun on the ballfield. During his very last game umpiring, Labor Day 1918, Washington coach Nick Altrock argued furiously with O’Loughlin over a call at first base. Suddenly the umpire swung with a punch and down went Altrock. It wasn’t until Silk “counted him out” and Nick jumped up to shake hands that the crowd realized it was all just a put-on.

The memory of the umpire lives on at Rochester’s popular Silk O’Loughlin’s restaurant on St.Paul Boulevard, bordering the Genesee River and Lake Ontario. The area has housed an “O’Loughlin’s” going back over a hundred years, owned for a time by a nephew of Silk’s. Current owner Mike McKeon constantly needs to explain the origin of O’Loughlin’s to folks and says that the place may be better known today as O’lies (O-lees). But he’s never considered a name change. “It’s kind of a landmark,” he says. “And it’s always been O’Loughlin’s and I think it should stay O’Loughlin’s.”

Silk spent off-seasons in Rochester, enjoying daily walks and golf at Oak Hill Country Club. At just 46, he was a casualty of the 1918 influenza pandemic, dying in Boston on December 20, 1918. O’Loughlin left an estate to his wife Agnes worth $14,737 (over a quarter of a million dollars today) including 98 acres of property in Orleans County. In Rochester, a service was held at Blessed Sacrament Church. O’Loughlin was buried at Holy Sepluchre Cemetary.

Silk O’Loughlin was inducted into the Frontier Field Walk of Fame in 2010.

Thanks to historian Tony Kissel and the Baseball Hall of Fame for their assistance; research help via the Democrat and Chronicle. For historical Red Wings stories and sound visit Bill Flynn’s website at flynnflam.com.