It’s a lethal combination: a manager not known for being particularly warm toward his players, a pitcher with gobs of talent and a short fuse, and an umpire who wasn’t afraid to throw his weight around.
It all came to a head at a game at Fenway Park on June 7, 1938. The manager was Ossie Vitt, in the first year of his first major league managing job. The umpire was Bill McGowan, regarded as one of the best in the majors. The pitcher was Johnny Allen.
Allen, not lacking in gumption, had told Yankees scout Paul Krichell that he was a pitcher. After seeing for himself this was the case, Krichell – who had signed Lou Gehrig, among others – signed Allen. But after three years in the Yankees’ rotation, Allen had worn out his welcome in the Bronx with his attitude, and he was dealt to the Indians.
The change of scenery did Allen good. He won 20 games in 1936, but all the headlines in Cleveland went to another pitcher, rookie phenom Bob Feller. The next year, Allen went 15-0, and had a chance to go undefeated on the last day of the season and match the American League record for consecutive wins, set by Walter Johnson. The Indians lost 1-0, with the only run scoring on an error by third baseman Odell Hale. Manager Steve O’Neill had to restrain Allen from fighting Hale after the game.
The next year, O’Neill was out and Vitt was in, an unknown quantity who had put together a sterling reputation – and record – as a minor league manager since 1925. On the June day in 1938, Allen was in fine form after the first inning at Fenway Park. But Red Sox player/manager Joe Cronin complained to McGowan about Allen’s undershirt. He was wearing a long-sleeve shirt, but the sleeves had been cut, and the flapping right sleeve kept Red Sox players from being able to pick up the ball as it came from Allen.
McGowan, who had tossed Allen from a game earlier that year in St. Louis, ordered Allen to remove the undershirt, and Vitt agreed. “There is no doubt that McGowan is 100 percent right in asking you to change your shirt,” Vitt was quoted in the next day’s Plain Dealer as saying. But Allen refused in what Plain Dealer writer Gordon Cobbledick, in a front-page story, called “one of the most astounding exhibitions of insubordination in the history of baseball.”
Vitt then fined Allen $250, and brought in Bill Zuber. But the big hero of the day was Johnny Humphries, who got the win in six innings of relief. Allen refused to pay the fine, and ended up selling the shirt to a Cleveland department store for $250 – the amount of the fine. The store (partially owned by Indians owner Alva Bradley) then put it up in a display window. Eventually, the shirt was displayed at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Ultimately, the rift between Vitt and Allen wrecked another season. In 1940, Vitt suggested that Mel Harder wasn’t earning his salary, and the players finally had enough. Harder, Allen (no doubt a willing accomplice) and other players went over Vitt’s head to Bradley, saying they couldn’t win with Vitt. The players later retracted their statements, but the damage had been done. The Indians lost the pennant to the Tigers on the final weekend of the season. Vitt’s contract as manager wasn’t renewed, and he never managed in the major leagues again.
Allen’s contract was sold to the St. Louis Browns after the 1940 season, and he bounced around the majors for the next five years, only once winning more than six games in a season. The Giants released him in 1945, signaling the end of his major league career.
In one of the great ironies of life, Allen, the bane of umpires in the American League, became a man in blue himself in the minor leagues, rising to chief umpire for the Carolina League. He died in 1959 at the age of 54.
McGowan umpired until his death in 1954 at the age of 58. Like Allen’s shirt, he ended up in the Hall of Fame – elected by the Veterans Committee in 1992.