1/28/11 - baseball umpires

In today's excerpt - major league umpires are the very integrity of the game and have served baseball well. The surest sign of their good work is in those games when they are largely unnoticed. However, there have been a few that were noticed—and even some that were notorious:

"In 1882, Richard Higham became the only umpire ever accused of dishonesty on the field. He was allegedly in league with gamblers, and on flimsy and dubious evidence (his accuser was a team owner angry about a call) he was thrown out of the sport.

"This isn't to say that umpires are morally or ethically pure. Most of them would admit they aren't, and even if they wouldn't, their history is dotted with brutish, scheming, or narrow-minded behavior. George Magerkurth, a habitual barroom brawler who worked in the National League from 1929 to 1947, was suspended for ten days in 1939 when he got in a fistfight during a game at the Polo Grounds in New York with the Giants shortstop Billy Jurges.

"Bruce Froemming, who retired after the 2007 season, his thirty-seventh, as the longest-serving umpire in major league history, was suspended for ten days in 2003 when a religious slur directed at an umpiring administrator, Cathy Davis—he referred to her as 'a stupid Jew bitch' after an argument over travel arrangements—was caught on her answering machine. And in 2001, Al Clark lost his major league umpiring job after twenty-five years when he was fired for habitually cashing in the first-class airline tickets baseball provides the umpires for coach seats and pocketing the difference. Subsequently, he went to jail for fraud as part of a scheme to profit on phony memorabilia. Clark, who umpired in the 1978 American League playoff game between the Yankees and Red Sox (the game won by Bucky Dent's home run), Nolan Ryan's three hundredth career victory, and Dwight Gooden's no-hitter at Yankee Stadium in 1996, would sign baseballs and authentication documents certifying that the balls were used in those and other games, even though they weren't, then share in the profits of their sales.

"Even so, rarely if ever have the acts of major league umpires threatened the honor of the game, though a couple of incidents have come to light showing them tiptoeing up to the line. In 1989, two umpires, Rich Garcia and Frank Pulli, were put on probation after the commissioner, Fay Vincent, learned through baseball's security office that they (along with Don Zimmer, then the manager of the Chicago Cubs) had placed bets with an illegal bookmaker (who was also a drug dealer) on sporting events other than baseball games.

"Froemming was among a handful of umpires who were chastised in the 1990s for asking ballplayers to sign baseballs they could then turn around and sell; baseball prohibits this as a conflict of interest, especially since the practice generally includes an implied threat.

" 'I'm getting ready to pitch—I was about to go out and warm up—and my catcher is trying to prepare for the game,' the former knuckleballer Tom Candiotti recalled in 2003 about a game in 1996 when he was with the Dodgers, whose catcher was Mike Piazza. 'And Froemming is telling Piazza this story about how one time Johnny Bench wouldn't sign baseballs for him, and Bench went oh for four that day with three called strikeouts, or something like that. So Piazza stopped stretching and signed the baseballs.'

"Anyway, the point is not that umpires are well—or badly—behaved. It's that even egregious behavior doesn't do much to raise their profiles. Even sex and death don't seem to put umpires in the public eye. Everyone knows that Joe DiMaggio was married to Marilyn Monroe, ... but it's mostly a secret that the onetime National League umpire Dick Stello was married to the 1970s porn star Chesty Morgan, a woman often referred to as having 'the world's largest naturally occurring bosom,' whose measurements were said to be 73-32-36.

"Finally, who is John McSherry? Except among umpires, who revered him, he's forgotten, unless it is as the spur that moved baseball to insist that umpires improve their physical condition. On April 1, 1996, opening day in Cincinnati, McSherry, who weighed well over three hundred pounds, was behind the plate when his heart failed. With the count 1-1 on the third batter of the game, Rondell White, McSherry called time and moved toward the home dugout. He signaled to someone, perhaps the team doctor, then collapsed and died, the only umpire ever to perish on the field."


Bruce Weber


As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires


Scribner a division of Simon and Schuster


Copyright 2009 by Bruce Weber


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