It’s Opening Day – and no matter who wins and who loses, baseball fans will have something to say about the umpires. The first pro ump in the big leagues was a man named Billy McLean – who, when he wasn’t calling balls and strikes, was occasionally challenging hecklers to fistfights.

Link: The first major-league umpire was a Philadelphian (Philly.com)

Today is the first official day of the Major League Baseball season, at least if you don’t count the games last week in the Tokyo Dome.

Opening Day is always exciting because, at least for a day, no matter how your team did last year, this year could be the year. Anything is possible, though no matter what baseball fans will have something to say about the umpires.

It’s not an easy job, calling balls and strikes, saying who’s out and who’s safe. Depending on who you talk to, replays help get the handful of wrong calls right, or show just how many wrong calls the umps make.

Maybe it’s ironic that baseball turned to professional umpires as a way to convince the public that the game was on the up and up. When the National League launched in 1876 then hired the first pro umpire, a man called Billy McLean. He was English-born, but he was raised in Philadelphia, and a prizefighter who would take part in bouts into his sixties! The man sometimes called Professor Billy wore glasses and a top hat, and was considered so fair-minded that the National League agreed to pay him a whopping $5 per game.

But Billy McLean had a temper. One fan wrote to warn him that if he came to Boston it was at his own peril. “Sir, you are a coward,” he wrote back. “If you are not, write and inform me where you can be found, for in that case I shall certainly find you when I go to Boston again.”

Another time the heckling and jeering got so intense that McLean challenged every last spectator to a fistfight.

And on this day in 1884, McLean got so mad at the taunting that he picked up a bat and threw it into the crowd – which hit a fan and got him briefly arrested.

So maybe this year, don’t go too hard on the umpires. At least not while they’re near the bat racks.