History Of Umpiring
Traditionally regarded as villains by fans, adversarial autocrats by players, and invisible men by the press, umpires have been, as Furman Bisher put it, "submerged in the history of baseball like idiot children in a family album." Yet the umpire is baseball's indispensable man, for the arbiter transformed baseball from a recreational activity to a competitive sport and has personified the integrity of the professional game. Since attorney William R. Wheaton officiated the first recorded "modern" game on October 6, 1845, umpires have made important contributions to the National Pastime. Indeed, the history of the umpire mirrors the distinctive eras and developments of the game itself.
From the creation of the modern game in the 1840s through the Civil War, the umpire was the personification of base ball (two words then) as an amateur sport played by gentlemen. According to the September 23, 1845, rules of the Knickerbocker Club of New York, which created modern baseball, the president of the club "shall appoint an Umpire, who shall keep the game in a book provided for that purpose, and note all violations of the Bylaws and Rules." As "match" games between clubs became more frequent, three officials were commonly used--one umpire chosen by each team and a neutral "referee" to decide the often partisan split decisions. In 1858 the National Association of Base Ball Players sanctioned a single umpire, sometimes a spectator or even a player, chosen by the home team with the consent of the rival captain.
Despite increased status, umpiring in the major leagues was an uncertain, stressful, and even dangerous occupation through the end of the century. Frequent revisions in the rules and innovations in playing techniques made the umpire's job exceedingly difficult, while the physical and verbal abuse from fans and players alike often made an umpire's life intolerable. Umpires were routinely spiked, kicked, cursed, and spat upon by players, while fans hurled vile epithets and all manner of debris at the arbiters. Mobbings and physical assaults were frequent, so much so that police escorts were familiar and welcome sights to the men in blue.
Between World Wars One and Two, when baseball dominated the nation's sport consciousness as the National Pastime, umpiring became a career vocation instead of a limited occupational opportunity. Expanded schedules meant seven months of employment, and umpires received better salaries and more recognition. Staff stability became the norm: an umpire who passed muster the first two or three years could look forward to a long career. Umpires continued to be vexed by arguments with players, insults from fans, and occasional flying objects, but the vicious rowdiness declined. The physical abuse was curtailed significantly because of the stiff penalties imposed for fighting and bottle tossing, while the verbal abuse abated as league officials and the press did an about-face after the infamous Black Sox Scandal by proclaiming the umpire the personification of the game's integrity. To underscore their role as independent arbitrators, umpires had to make travel arrangements separate from players and patronize different bars, hotels, and restaurants.
Umpiring had become a desirable and respectable vocation, but the odds against a major league career were far greater for umpires than for players. Competition was keen, as normally only one or two of the some two dozen umpiring positions came open each year. And the low pay, primitive working conditions, wearisome travel, and vicious abuse from players and fans that characterized the life of the minor league umpire drove out those who would or could pursue other employment. Moreover, there was no prescribed system of career development. Becoming a professional umpire was a matter of chance opportunity or personal contacts; there was no systematic evaluation or supervision of minor league arbiters; and advancement, even to the major leagues, was sometimes more a matter of politics and personalities than merit or ability. Nonetheless, those who persevered as "men of the cloth" and proved their mettle in the big time enjoyed a secure and esteemed career. Where Tim Hurst justified working as an umpire by saying, "You can't beat the hours," Bill Klem would declare, "Baseball to me is not a game; it is a religion."
Umpiring, like baseball itself, was enormously popular in the days following World War Two. By 1949 some fifty-nine minor leagues provided extensive on-the-job training for an unprecedented number of aspiring arbiters, but it was the umpire training school that was responsible for postwar umpires being so much better prepared than their predecessors. George Barr of the National League opened the first umpire training school in 1935, and in 1939 Bill McGowan of the American League established a second school. In 1946 Bill McKinley, who attended both the Barr and McGowan schools, became the first graduate of a training school to reach the major leagues. By the mid-1950s training school graduates were common, and by the 1960s it was virtually impossible to become a professional umpire without attending one of several training schools.
The umpire schools had profound effects on umpiring. First, graduates of the training schools were more knowledgeable of rules and more skilled in techniques than the earlier "self-taught" umpires. Second, formal training had the predictable effect of imposing uniformity of style and personality, as students were instructed "by the book" and maverick characters were weeded out. Finally--and most significantly--the umpire school was the catalyst that transformed umpiring from vocation to profession.
The professionalization of umpiring had profound effects. Formalized instruction and systematic career development attracted more middle-class college men, as umpiring was increasingly viewed less as a way of staying in professional sport than as a desirable career choice. And, reflecting the demographic shifts that prompted continental expansion, most umpires, like players, now hailed from the Sun Belt or the Pacific Coast. The lone area in which umpires lagged far behind players in mirroring the social changes of society at large was race. It was not until 1966, twenty years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line, that Emmett Ashford joined the American League and became the first black major league umpire. (He was also the first black professional umpire, breaking in with the Southwestern International League in 1951.) In 1973 Art Williams integrated the National League. Despite the strong presence of Latino players since the 1940s, Armando Rodriguez (1974) and Rich Garcia (1975), both in the American League, were the first Hispanic umpires in the majors.
Eight years later the Umpires Association made major advances under the new leadership of Richard G. "Richie" Phillips, a Philadelphia lawyer who also represented National Basketball Association referees. A second umpire's strike on August 25, 1978, lasted only one day, owing to a court injunction against the Association, but a third strike from Opening Day to May 18, 1979, won major concessions for the union, including a salary schedule of $22,000 to $55,000, based on years of service; annual no-cut contracts; $77 per diem while traveling; and two weeks' midseason vacation. The aftermath of the prolonged strike, which demonstrated the power of the Association and the inadequacy of replacement umpires, was marked by ill will between the union umpires and "the Class of '79"--the four "scab" umpires retained on each league's staff. A fourth strike of seven of the eight 1984 playoff games was settled by the intercession of new Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who granted the umpires a sizable increase for playoff and World Series games as well as providing that the money go into a pool that would be distributed in part to umpires not working postseason contests. A fifth strike was averted in 1985 when an arbitrator--former President Richard M. Nixon--awarded umpires a 40 percent pay increase for the expanded best-of-seven playoff series. An MLUA strike appeared certain in 1991 until prodding of both sides by Commissioner Fay Vincent produced an eleventh-hour settlement.
The new four-year contract called for a salary scale ranging from $61,000 to $175,000 and a third week of in-season vacation, in exchange for a return to a "merit" instead of "rotation" system for postseason assignments. However, agreement on the pact came too late to avoid using substitute umpires for games on Opening Day.
By the early 1990s the MLUA had transformed the umpiring profession as well as the role of umpires in major league baseball. Although most attention has been focused on contract negotiations, umpires have also successfully used the power of the Association to seek from league presidents and the commissioner the impositions of fines and suspensions on players, managers, and even owners for objectionable conduct and comments.
The growth and success of the umpire's union was made possible by two factors. First, with the expansion of franchises from the traditional sixteen (8 in each league) to twenty in 1961-1962, twenty-four in 1969, and twenty-six in 1977, umpires became a numerically significant force. Second--and far more important--was television, which not only brought unprecedented publicity to umpires but also generated the enormous revenue that made it possible for major league baseball to meet the monetary demands of umpires as well as players.
Finances aside, television was a mixed blessing for umpires. If heightened visibility underscored the umpire's skill and central role in the game, it also glaringly exposed errors to millions of viewers. The photographer's camera had occasionally exposed an incorrect call, but television's instant replay both emphasized mistakes and encouraged second-guessing. When slow-motion replays began to be shown on scoreboard screens, one crew in 1975 left the field and refused to return until the practice stopped. Television also affected performance and appearance. It had once been axiomatic for umpires to develop a subdued, even somber appearance, and take pride in anonymity. But in the Age of Television, arbiters began to project themselves into leading roles.
From the time televised games became popular in the early 1950s, some umpires played to the camera through flamboyant, demonstrative motions when making calls. While a few like Emmett Ashford and Ron Luciano subsequently developed "showboating" to a fine art, umpires no longer shunned the spotlight of publicity; Luciano even parlayed his popularity for comedic calls on the field into a career in the telecast booth and as a writer.
The physical appearance of umpires was also tailored for the public eye. Increased emphasis was placed on size, as taller and more muscular men were in vogue--perhaps to personify the umpire's authority in an antiauthoritarian age. The American League's adoption of gray slacks in 1968 and maroon blazers in 1971 was part of an effort to project a distinctive "sporty" image, as was the case later when umpires in both leagues began wearing numerals on their sleeves and baseball caps with letters designating league affiliation. Similarly, contact lenses were favored over glasses. By the early 1990s the "casual look" was completed when umpires wore short-sleeved shirts without jackets during hot weather and satin warmup jackets on cool nights.
During the course of a century of major league baseball, the umpire became transformed from a despised, untrained, semiprofessional "necessary evil" to a respected, skilled professional who epitomizes the integrity of the game itself. In the process some arbiters became immortalized in record books for notable achievements and distinctions. J.L. Boake umpired the first professional league game (1871), Billy McLean umpired the first National League game (1876), and Tommy Connolly umpired the first American League game (1901). Hank O'Day and Connolly umpired the first modern World Series (1903), while Bill Dinneen, Bill Klem, Bill McGowan, and Cy Rigler worked the first All-Star Game (1933). Bill Klem holds the record for most seasons in the majors (thirty-seven), most World Series (eighteen) and most World Series games (one hundred-eight). Al Barlick and Bill Summers worked the most All-Star Games (seven). Doug Harvey has umpired the most League Championship Series (nine) and LCS games (thirty-eight). George Hildebrand holds the record for most consecutive games umpired (3,510). (Babe Pinelli has claimed that he did not miss a regulation game in his twenty-two-year career.)
Emmett Ashford was the first black professional umpire in both the minor (1951) and major leagues (1966) and Charlie Williams first to work the plate in a World Series (game 4) (1993), while Armando Rodriguez (1974) was the first Hispanic umpire in the majors. Bernice Gera was the first female professional umpire (1972), although she worked only one game in the Class A New York-Penn League; Pam Postema's bid to become the first woman to umpire in the major leagues ended in 1989 with her release from the Triple-A Alliance after spending thirteen years in the minors. Evans was the youngest (twenty-two) and Klem the oldest (sixty-eight) to umpire a major league game. Seven umpires are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame: Jocko Conlan (1974), Tommy Connolly (1953), Bill Klem (1953), Billy Evans (1973), Cal Hubbard (1976), Al Barlick (1989), and Bill McGowan (1992).