Magazine article The World and I

Doing the Best They Can : Mayhem and Mirth in the Baseball Umpires' World

Magazine article The World and I

Doing the Best They Can : Mayhem and Mirth in the Baseball Umpires' World

Article excerpt

Around the turn of the twentieth century, baseball fans considered the abuse and assault of umpires a part of the game. Umpires were routinely cursed, threatened, and mauled on and off the field; two were even killed. Indeed, during the 1886 baseball season, a sign appeared on the outfield fence in Kansas City, Missouri. It read: "Please Don't Shoot the Umpire; He's Doing the Best He Can." It wasn't meant to be funny.

One umpire, Clarence Owens, became known as "Brick" after one was thrown at him by an irate fan. Billy Evans suffered a fractured skull from a thrown bottle; Jack Sheridan was beaten unconscious by a mob of fans. Robert Ellick was escorted off the field by police with drawn guns, an incident that convinced umpire Phil Powers to carry a gun that he used to hold off raging fans. On at least one occasion, vicious dogs were set on an umpire. Ernest Thayer's famous poem "Casey at the Bat" even includes the passage: " 'Kill him! Kill the umpire!' shouted someone on the stand; and it's likely they'd have killed him had not Casey raised his hand."

Umpires rarely retaliated against rebellious players by ejecting them. That attitude existed in part because of the umpires' genuine fear of crowd reaction. But the main reason was because league officials instructed umpires not to eject players--except in extreme cases--since fans had bought tickets to see these men play. That failure by the leagues and umpires to instill and maintain discipline further eroded the shaky status and authority of the men whose job it was to bring order to the game. As a result, working conditions for baseball's early umpires became ever more dangerous.

Things may have improved in the modern era, but umpires have still been threatened or physically assaulted. Some even had their cars burned. In 1945 Joe Rue was slugged by "Greek" George, who was expelled from the game for life. Rue's career included being "mobbed, cussed, kicked, punched, and hit with mud balls and whiskey bottles. I've been hospitalized with a concussion and broken ribs." Billy Williams spoke of a man who whispered to him in Houston, "If the Astros lose tomorrow night, you'll be dead by morning."

In a game in the late sixties, Emmett Ashford called two quick strikes on Julian Javier. Javier stepped out of the box and hollered, "Why [do] you call that a strike when you know I can't hit it?" "Get back in the box or the next pitch will be a strike no matter where it is," warned Ashford. When the temperamental Javier refused, Ashford told the pitcher to deliver and called the strike. When he lifted his mask to calm the distraught batter, Javier slugged him twice. (Ashford would refer to the blows as "strike 4 and strike 5.")

Be perfect, then improve

The umpire is expected to be perfect at the start of his career and to improve each day thereafter. His has always been a thankless, difficult task. This was especially true in the old days of the single umpire, who stood directly behind the pitcher. Out of the umpire's view, a runner could cheat by going directly from first to third, or perhaps a runner could be tripped or punched in the face by an opposing fielder. The umpire was often expected to make decisions on incidents he couldn't even have seen.

Early umpires were considered dumb, blind, incompetent, and crooked. From the start it came naturally to the fans to distrust and revile these "enemies in blue." The hostility is best exemplified by an old anecdote: One day the devil challenged the Lord to a baseball game. The Lord, smiling, proclaimed: "You don't have a chance. I have Ruth, Cobb, and all the great players up here."

"Well," snickered Satan, "I've got all the umpires!"

Public criticism and ridicule aside, throughout the long history of the sport it has been the player, not the umpire, who has sullied baseball's reputation. There is evidence to suggest that many players, possibly even including Ty Cobb, took money to "throw" games. …

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