Over the Plate: Arlie Latham’s Own Baseball Stories, No. 4
“Pity the Poor Umpire!” Cries One Who Knows – A Few of the Rules by Which That Unpopular Official is Supposed to Be Governed and Some of His Experiences with an Outlaw League.
Whenever I go to a ball game and hear the wolves in the bleachers howling “Kill the umpire!” I feel like crawling into the nearest hole and pulling the hole in after me. I can see the air as thick with stones as with raindrops, and I can still feel that old familiar “bupp!” as when some well-directed dornick [cited in the Oxford English Dictionary as a dialectal US term originating in the mid-19th century, meaning “pebble, stone or small boulder” –jt] used to knock me from under my hat. Umpiring is a great life, so it is—not.
When an umpire gets into a city, bowed down with the weight of the armor plate which he uses on the field of carnage, he can say with truth, “I haven’t got a friend in this city. There’s not a man here would loan me a nickel. I’m an outcast.”
I’ve been an umpire in a good many leagues in my day—from the Land League down to the Spinster’s League, where they bat .911 and never catch anything but a cold—and I’ve noticed a few things. I’ve felt things too. I wouldn’t look nearly so old if it hadn’t been for umpiring. I’m considerably over fifty, and I look all of forty-five. It’s terrible!
Well, anyway, one of the things I’ve noticed is that the further an umpire gets into the business the more particular the club owners get. In the big leagues the umpire is supposed to know what to do, and he does it—sometimes. But when he gets over his head in the sticks, he’s handed a list of rules and regulations that he’d have to go to college to learn. And when he’d have them learned his eyes would be ruined from overstudy, so that he wouldn’t be able to tell a strike from a June bug.
“An umpire should not dine with the players—nor on them.
“An umpire should always use his own toothbrush when possible. He should always carry one clean collar.
“He should never bandy words with the spectators. If they should crown him with a pop-bottle, let him remember that it is the only their way of expressing the joy in their innocent hearts.
“He should never use abusive language to a ball player. If he rules a player off the grounds, and the player refuses to go, let him call a policeman to eject him. If the policeman cannot eject the player, let him call the reserves. He’ll need them for his own protection.
“He must not try to borrow money from players or club managers. He would not get it, anyhow.”
Everyone likes to ride the poor ump, and those that have the least ability do it most. I’ve seen good men—pitchers who had everything but a mustache—get along fine with the umpires. And I’ve seen bushers with nothing on the ball but the stitches, and others who couldn’t hit a barrel if it were rolled at them, crabbing the umpires every game they played.
Sometimes the ump is to blame—but not always. And that reminds me.
One Sunday, back in Cincinnati, we were playing a game before a crowd of about eleven thousand people. McQuaid was the man slated to umpire, but he got sick and couldn’t show up. Bancroft, business manager of the club, and Patsy Tebeau, the then manager of the Cleveland club, finally decided on an umpire who lived in Covington, Ky.
Well, for about five innings everything was rosy. Crowd in good humor, players full of pepper. But about the fifth inning the ump began to blow, and put reverse English on his decisions. At last, after one particularly raw decision, the spectators began to climb out of the stands onto the field. Some of them started to throw things, and the whole mob surged toward the umpire. Two men who worked around the grounds got hold of a very long rope and ran out with it in order to head the crowd off and drive it back to the stands.
That’s where they made their fatal mistake. When the ump saw that rope he thought they were going to hang him. He turned tail and got out so fast that his feet only hit the high places. The last thing seen of him he was passing through Cumingsville [today spelled Cumminsville—jt], seven miles away, his ears pointed up wind, and his coat tails standing straight out behind. And at that time he was just settling down to run. The chief of police found him next day, and took him home in an airship.
But what happened to me was worse. Listen to this and you’ll laugh. But judge if I laughed at the time.
About eight years ago I was umpiring in the South Atlantic League. One day I was officiating in Augusta, Ga., and made a decision that I know was correct. The manager of one of the teams didn’t think so, however, and he swore for five minutes without repeating. Well, I said to myself, I’ll fix you, mister. You to the stable. So I ordered him to the club house.
“What!” he yelled. “Why, you big blank-blank-blank”—and he went off in another spasm.
When he wouldn’t go of his own accord I ordered two specials to assist him. They did, and he bucked like a billygoat all the way off the field. Before the game was over I had to put five of his men in the manger with him.
Unfortunately, the very next game I umpired this gentleman and his brood were along. They started trouble right off the bat. Things got so bad eventually that I had to have him up before the President of the league, where, I may say, he nearly lost his job.
One day when I was about disgusted I got a telegram from the Tri-State League, offering me $500 a month if I’d come there and umpire. The Tri-State at that time was an outlaw league, and it meant that I’d have to do the loop-the-loop act. I went to a friend of mine and asked him what I’d better do.
“Why, you big dub,” he said, “jump!”
I did; and a few days afterward I found myself with the outlaws. The first game I umpired in that league went seventeen innings. Fine! Not a kick. The second game went fourteen innings. Great! Not a whisper. I was going along in that league like a house afire. The league owners congratulated me. What do you think of that? The league owners congratulated the poor umpire. I felt like a rookie who has just struck out Ty Cobb. But it didn’t fool me out of a sense of my position.
“Don’t,” I told them. “Never congratulate an umpire. To-day he’s a prince, and to-morrow he’s a bum.”
I was elated over it, though, and I think I had cause to be. But pride goeth before a fall, as the good Book says. And the next game—bing!
The game was at Williamsport, Pa., and before a big crowd. Williamsport had a fast team in those days, and a great many of the players afterward became famous in baseball. Well, along about the middle of the game the visiting team was leading by a few runs. Williamsport got a few men on bases about the fourth or fifth inning, and Jim Delahanty came to bat. He picked one and sent it sizzling down the third-base line. It went foul by about a foot and a half. I called “Foul!” but the players and crowd began to howl “Run! Run!” and Jim continued around the bases like a race horse. When he got to third base I headed him off and sent him back. Wow! What a roar! The wolves began to ride me, the players began to crab, and it looked as though the seething mixture was going to explode right there.
I got them started again at last, but I was afraid to take my station behind the catcher. I knew he’d let a high fast one go by, and I knew when he did I’d get it right in the teeth. Smack! How do you do? Not for me. I went behind the pitcher. Even at that the catcher threw them back with all his speed, and the pitcher was letting them slip through his hands. But I was too wise. I ducked, and let them go by too.
The game was over at last. Williamsport had lost, and I prepared to leave the field. The crowd stuck. I could see them winding up to deliver their famous fast one. I could feel my head getting bumpy already. When I went into the little shelter at one side of the field to change my shoes five policemen surrounded me to escort me from the field.
The action started; and as usual I was one the receiving end. A fellow with a big auto drove up and told me to get in. I did. So did the cops. They surrounded me. The fellow driving the auto ran it out into the middle of the field and stalled it. What the rocks did to that auto was a shame. The driver ordered us to get out. He said the machine had broken down.
“You got us here,” said one of the cops, “and now you get us out of here, or I’ll pound your head in.” The rocks were pretty thick by this time, and some of them landed in the car with a smack that would rattle your teeth. Finally we got under way and made for the gate licketty-split. The gate was jammed with autos and carriages and we couldn’t get through. This was a home run for us, though, and we made the complete circuit. We didn’t dare stop, so round and round the field we went, sometimes on two wheels and sometimes on four. When we’d come round to the gate we’d take one look at the jam, and then away we’d go again around the field. The mob was running after, and scattering before us, and the rocks were “bupping” into that machine speedier than Matty’s fast one.
Finally the gate was cleared and we zipped through it. Outside was a rockpile, and the gang was waiting with their arms full. The rocks came so fast they looked like a shower. They flew over our heads, they pinged into the sides of the car, they crashed into the radiator. We simply roared along that road, and suddenly we were safe. But the car looked as though it had been through the mill. And the poor cops—oh, how do you do! But the man they were out to get—me—I didn’t have a scratch!
But just the same, I say, pity the poor umpire.
“It is only their way of expressing the joy in their innocent hearts.”