Baseball Way Back: When an umpire led the Hawks to the Stanley Cup

The 1937-38 Blackhawks were one of Chicago's most unlikely champions.

Not only did they have a losing record in the regular season and win the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals with a replacement goalie found in a bar.

They were also led by a coach who spent his summers as a National League baseball umpire and had even been a pitching prospect with the infamous 1919 White Sox.

When Hawks owner Major Frederic McLaughlin picked Bill Stewart in 1937 to guide the team, the 41-year-old Fitchburg, Massachusetts native was the 12th coach hired since the inaugural 1926-27 season, the first being Linton Muldoon Treacy, better known as Pete Muldoon, a man who allegedly bestowed a curse upon the Hawks after leaving the team and complaining about McLaughlin's meddling.

Hawks fans attending games at Chicago Stadium were familiar with Stewart as an NHL referee.

I spoke recently to longtime Blackhawks public address announcer, broadcaster and historian Harvey Wittenberg, who said referee Stewart had a notable run-in with the Blackhawks on March 14, 1933 in Boston.

Wittenberg said a Boston player crashed into Hawks goalie Charlie Gardiner. Incensed that Stewart did not call a penalty, Hawks coach Tommy Gorman punched Stewart. After Stewart threw Gorman out of the game, Gorman ordered his players to leave the bench.

When the players complied, Stewart then dropped the puck and declared the game a forfeit, only the second in NHL history.

Cubs fans visiting Wrigley Field were familiar with Stewart as one of the men in blue, and Stewart came close to seeing action as a major league player himself.

The White Sox, impressed with his pitching with a Boston Navy yard team, signed Stewart in December 1918 and had him on the roster when the Sox opened training camp in Texas in 1919.

But Stewart, who injured his arm in a fall while working as a census taker, never pitched an inning of major league ball - his destiny was calling balls and strikes, not throwing them.

The new Hawks coach immediately set about retooling a team that failed to make the playoffs the previous year.

Stewart told Tribune reporter Edward Burns at training camp in Muskegon, Michigan, "I hope the fans won't expect us to be unbeatable. If they will be patient with our reorganization plans, I know we will give them a better show," promising less "fiddling around with meaningless passes" and vowing not to stand for "refusals to hustle." Having seen the team as a referee, he did not "believe the boys were dogging it," but some were discouraged and "of such temperament that they couldn't give their best."

"The interesting thing about the '38 team was that there were eight American-born players on the team, which at that time was unheard of," Wittenberg said. "The 1938 team set records that will never be broken, because, number one, they finished third in their division," two points ahead of Detroit, "to make the playoffs."

The team's record was a lackluster 14-25-9. They were outscored 139-97, with 22 of those goals by future coach Paul Thompson.

Goalie Mike Karakas, however, had a 2.80 goals against average.

Karakas was the key in the postseason, notching two shutouts as the Hawks stunned first the Montreal Canadians and then the New York Americans, beating both 2-1 after losing the first game of the series, to earn a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals to face the 24-15-9 Toronto Maple Leafs.

But there was a cloud hanging over the team. Karakas had fractured his big toe against the Americans.

"In those days, they only carried one goalie," Wittenberg said. "So the morning of the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals against Toronto in Toronto, Karakas could not get his skate on his foot."

The Hawks had enlisted the services of New York Rangers goalie Dave Kerr but were overruled by Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe and league President Frank Calder. Kerr was suiting up, when Alfie Moore showed up, saying Smythe had summoned him to report for duty.

Moore, a minor league goalie with 18 games of NHL experience with the New York Americans in 1936-37, had been plucked from a Toronto tavern by Smythe's right-hand man Frank Selke.

Stewart was furious and exchanged blows with Smythe in the corridor between the dressing rooms. Shortly after, he fought again with former Leaf Hal Cotton, who had helped break up the fight with Smythe. Stewart emerged from the fray with a bloody nose.

If the Maple Leafs thought the game was in the bag, though, Moore taught them otherwise, shutting the Leafs down after an early Gordie Drillon goal, as the Hawks won the first game 3-1.

Prior to game two, Calder turned the tables again, saying the Hawks couldn't use Moore in game two, forcing the Hawks to use minor league goalie Paul Goodman instead, and the Hawks lost 5-1.

Then in game three, Karakas returned wearing a special shoe, and the Hawks won two straight, including the finale at the Stadium, to secure the Cup. But the Cup was absent for the celebration.

"Toronto says no way we're going to lose this series to a team that had a losing record," Wittenberg said. "They were so confident, they didn't even bother to bring the Cup back to Chicago."

Stewart was justly celebrated as a "miracle man" - he was also the first U.S.-born coach to win a Stanley Cup.

But he didn't have much time to savor his success. It was baseball season, and time once again to don his umpiring gear.

But Stewart still had one more glorious moment to savor in 1938. He was the home plate umpire for the second of Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters.

Harvey Wittenberg
The Blackhawks won their second Stanley Cup in 1938 under baseball umpire and hockey referee Bill Stewart. Associated Press
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