The Double Life and Strange Death of Phils Manager Arthur Irwin

I’ve been reading quite a bit lately about former Phillies managers*. By far, the most interesting tale I’ve found has been that of Arthur Irwin, manager of the team from 1894-1895.  He was quite a character. He is credited with adding fingers to the baseball glove (he did so to protect two broken fingers) when he was a player, he was UPenn’s head baseball coach for numerous years, and as a pro manager he led one of my favorite squads in Phillies history, the mid-1890s squad led by Big Ed Delahanty and lefty catcher Jack Clements. After leaving the Phils, he continued to manage and scout for a number of minor league teams.

But it is his death in July of 1921 that makes him worthy of further study. He had relinquished his position as scout for the Hartford club of the Eastern League a few weeks earlier due to abdominal trouble, caused by stomach cancer. The former Phillie skipper was also suffering from “nervous attacks”. He decided to book a berth on a ship, the Calvin Austin, to ride from New York to Boston. Once at sea, he told a fellow passenger on the steamer, “I am going home to die.” Irwin didn’t make it home. When the steamer pulled up in Boston, Irwin was not on board. “Irwin was with a party of friends aboard the steamer. Members of the party said today that he was depressed when he left them before midnight.”  They never saw him again.

It was a few days after his disappearance that the incredible truth was revealed. The July 20th New York Times screamed: “IRWIN’S DOUBLE LIFE BARED BY SUICIDE” in all caps. It turned out that Irwin had two families, one in Boston, with a wife named Elizabeth and three kids, and another in New York City, with a wife named May and three kids. The New York wife never had any idea she was married to a two-timer. According to the Gettysburg Times on July 22, 1921, “Mrs. Irwin and her son, F. Harold Irwin, first heard of the Boston family from a reporter. They were in the widow’s apartment at 565 West 192nd Street. ‘I cannot believe it,” Mrs. Irwin said. “Since we were married 27 years ago in Philadelphia, Arthur has been a model husband. He was seldom away from home for more than a day or two at a time.'”

Elizabeth, whom Irwin had married first but who he had spent much less time with in the past 30 years, wasn’t quite as unprepared for the news. “I never suspected my husband even when years ago members of my family tried to tell me there was…probably another woman.”  According to the New York Times, “She uttered no blame for her husband, but said the missteps of her husband must have been entirely the fault of the woman in New York.” She further consoled herself with the fact he had been headed for Boston at the time of his death. “I feel confident and happy in the belief that, although he had this other woman in New York, he was on the way to see me when he died-that he knew he was dying and that he turned to me as the woman he really loved at the last. He wanted to die in my arms.”

His death was a compelling human interest story, but it was also a quite a mystery. Did he kill himself because he was so physically ill or because he was so devastated by what he had done? Was he murdered, as perhaps someone knew that he had just made $2000 and were hoping to get their hands on it? Did he die at all, or was it all an elaborate ruse to get out of the hole he had dug for himself? You know, like Elvis. Questions and conspiracy theories abound, spurred on by the mysterious acts of his final days.

Before he hopped on the ship, he sent a check to his “legal” wife Elizabeth in Boston for $500 and a note reading, “God Bless You All”. It was unusual in that he had almost never shipped money home or sent such cryptic notes.

He had made $2000 the day before he boarded the steamer, as he had sold the rights to an electric scoreboard he had helped to create. (You can read about Harvard “watching” the 1920 Rose Bowl on one such scoreboard here. I told you Irwin was an interesting dude.) But the check on the bill of sale was made out to “Seeler”, and no-one named Seeler was ever found. $500 of the sale went to Elizabeth, and the other $1500 went to May in New York. So much for Elizabeth’s claim that he loved her more.

Of course, with any good double life and mysterious death story must come a few conspiracy theories, and this one comes to us courtesy of a great piece on Irwin in the Torontoist:

There were rumours, recounted in David Nemec’s The Great Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Major League Baseball (University of Alabama Press, 2006), that Irwin had withdrawn $5,000 from his account prior to sailing—perhaps enough motive to prompt theft and murder. Others, more compellingly, suggested that because the doctor who’d diagnosed Irwin’s fatal illness had never come forward, he had faked his death. According to a 1922 letter at Cooperstown from a former teammate of Irwin queried: “How can Arthur Irwin be dead? I just saw him in Oklahoma.”

Needless to say, if anyone reading this has any further information about this incredible story, we would love to hear it. I have had little success finding any sort of postcript to this story, and would love to hear how things turned out for both families. Please leave a message in the comments with your email address.

*Fun fact, the Phillies had 22 managers during the time that Connie Mack ran the A’s. In the pic below, that’s Irwin holding the ball and giving the “Heil Fuhrer” salute. Love that photo. Check out the babe on the fence ad. 


One Comment on “The Double Life and Strange Death of Phils Manager Arthur Irwin”

  1. A fascinating article about former Phillies’ manager, Arthur A. Irwin. I had never heard about the possible sighting of Irwin in Oklahoma after his “presumed death”. I had always heard that he jumped overboard (from the ship, on his way from New York to Boston), once he learned of his own terminal illness.

    I had also heard there was some question regarding his real name, and whether he was actually born in Canada or the U.S. Is there additional scholarship on this matter?


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