The Trouble With Umpires

George Stallings was on his deathbed on May 13, 1929 when his doctor asked why the former baseball manager had a bad heart. Stallings was reported to have said, “Bases on balls, doc … those damned bases on balls.”

He may not have had enough time to give further detail, but couldn’t Stallings have been a little more specific? Was it the failure of his pitchers to throw strikes, or the failure of the umpire to call them?

A pitcher’s aim is to throw strikes. That’s what they do, or at least what they want to do. Umpires, on the other hand, use their judgment to call them as they see them. Therein lies the one word that have haunted them since before Abner Doubleday was knee-high to a shin guard: judgement.Ump

I believe that should Stallings have been able to carry on the discussion, he would most certainly pinned the blame on umpires. That’s a great yoke for arbiters to carry, the cause of his death being the decisions of umpires.

But that’s nothing new. Umpires have been criticized and disparaged for years. The pay scale is probably pretty good these days, but defending one’s decision in the old days could actually lead to fights among players, managers, and fans. The umpire’s job can often become a thankless one, too, as being judge and jury often leads to having to take cover.

One such instance occurred in Nashville on September 12, 1915. The Chattanooga Lookouts had taken the first game over the Nashville Vols at Sulphur Dell when all hell broke loose.

In the bottom of the second inning, umpire Dan Pfenninger removed Nashville outfielder George Kircher from the coaching box. When Vols manager Bill Schwartz argues against Pfenninger’s action, unhappy fans begin to toss bottles from the grandstands. The trash literally covered the field.

The disturbance continues for nearly ten minutes as a few fans begin to infiltrate the playing field and are dispersed by an officer. Four spectators who had been seen hurling bottles onto the field were arrested.

Play resumed, but in the bottom of the third umpire Ted Breitenstein twice reversed a decision at second base and another disturbance began as a bottle aimed at Pfenninger strikes Nashville catcher Gabby Street on the arm.

Pfenninger forfeits the game to the Lookouts 9-0 after the crowd surged onto the field and threatened Chattanooga manager Kid Eberfield. He had climbed into the bleachers to take a bottle away from a raucous fan who had hit him on the head with a thrown bottle. Lookouts players removed their leader from the fray and intercede in their leader’s verbal barrage.

Stallings, who was a pugnacious bulldog of a manager, would probably have sided with Eberfield’s actions and taken great delight in those two particular umpire’s plight.

But shielding oneself from players, managers, and fans was not always the responsibility of the umpire himself, as leagues began to take a protective approach. Havoc was not to reign at each and every disagreement.

For example, Southern Association president Robert H. Baugh must have had enough of such shenanigans and on October of 1916 decreed that beginning with the 1917 season any player put out of a game by an umpire would be automatically fined $10.

Rules of conduct that included fines did not always make for keeping the peace. On June 25, 1941, Nashville pitcher Boots Poffenberger was suspended for 90 days by league president Trammel Scott. It seems Boots was upset with umpire Ed “Dutch” Hoffman’s calls, and in the fifth inning of the previous night’s game had been ordered off the field by the arbiter after “continual griping and use of abusive language”.

Instead of leaving the field, Poffenberger turned and threw the ball at the umpire, hitting him in the chest protector but not injuring.  Commenting on Poffenberger’s suspension, Nashville manager Larry Gilbert declared, “I’m through with him.  He won’t pitch for Nashville any more”.  Poffenberger won 25 games the previous season and had won seven and lost only three up to the unfortunate confrontation.

But he never pitched for Nashville again.

We have to hand it to the ump for keeping his head in the game, too. On April 25, 1948 in Mobile, Buster Boguskie of Nashville and the Bears’ George Shuba were both ejected for scuffling at second base after Shuba’s hard slide in an attempt to break up a double play.

As the two were rolling in the infield dirt Mobile’s Stubby Greer, who had been at second, ran home and when Nashville coach George Hennessey protested umpire Red McCutcheon’s decision to count the run, Hennessey was tossed.

And on July 18 of that same year umpire Bill Brockwell ejected four Nashville Vols in their 10-3 loss in Chattanooga.  Buster Boguskie was sent packing for arguing a strike decision, manager Hugh Poland was sent to the showers after continuing the debate, Johnny Liptak was chased for a comment as he passed Brockwell on his way to coach first base, and Ziggy Jasinski, who had taken Boguskie’s place at bat, was banished after making another remark that Brockwell did not like.

Someone has to be in control, don’t they?

Stallings would have been upset at the umps for an entirely different reason in another game 1952. On April 25 the start of the game in Nashville was delayed by twelve minutes due to the belated appearance of umpires Walt Welaj and Andy Mitchell. They exclaimed they “were rubbing up baseballs”.

Twelve minutes can’t be so bad, but isn’t that another thing umpires do before each game? Was there more baseballs than they could handle that day?

A few guys give the position a bad name, however. All the way back in 1903, J. E. Folkerth, the baseball umpire who had passed bogus checks of $25.00 to Nashville manager Newt Fisher and three others, was given a sentence in criminal court this morning of three years in the state prison.

Crime doesn’t pay, even if you receive the benefit of the doubt; but steps were taken in the 19th Century to hire and keep the best umpires.

The organizing of the inaugural Southern League for the 1885 included the hiring of an umpire staff of four men at $75 per month and $3 per diem for expenses. That was decent pay by some standards: in 1878 National League teams had to pay umpires $5 per game.

By the end of the season, five of the eight clubs requested that the league president consider increasing that amount. It was hard to keep them on the staff if they were underpaid and could not cover their expenses.

And the owners did not want to pay it out of their own pockets, either.

Beyond that, one season was all it took for conscientious owners to realize the importance of having their games to be overseen in an honest and worthy manner. It was still a “gentlemen’s game”, and it was to have stayed that way.

And going nose to nose with an umpire to argue a call can be hazardous to one’s health, as not all umpires remain “gentlemen”. On October 22, 1933, while managing a barnstorming team playing in Mexico City, Nashville’s Lance Richbourg was struck in the face by Cuban umpire Senor Hernandez after Richbourg disputed a decision at home plate.

For the remainder of his career and beyond, Richbourg suffered from the effects of sciatic rheumatism. Could his encounter have been the cause?

And then there are substitute umpires. Consider the case of one James Hillery, a multi-talented player for Nashville’s first professional team. A gentlemen? Yes. Qualified to call balls and strikes when no league umpire is present? Yes.

But how long does the honor of an umpire last, no matter that his reputation precedes him.

On April 1, 1885 before a home town crowd of 1,500, a clear picture of what lies ahead begins to focus. The newly-formed Nashville Americans topped the visiting Clevelands by a score of 15-7 on that day. There is nothing unusual about that, but James Hillery was asked to serve as umpire.

Was he filling in for an ump who didn’t show up for the game? Had umpires in the fledgling league not been assigned for exhibition games?

There is no evidence that he did other than discharge his duties as asked and as expected. But something happened, lending to the fact that all umpires, and players for that matter, should always hold themselves to the standard set before them.

Without more detail other than the reporting of its occurrence, on June 1, 1885 visiting Chattanooga wins over Nashville 6-2. After the game, the directors of the Nashville Baseball Club indefinitely suspended third baseman James Hillery for drinking, and assess a $50.00 fine. Although he returns 10 days later, a precedent is set.

Rogues, rhubarbs, and umpires? Just part of the game.

In defending the standing of his trade in his book Standing the Gaff (1935), long-time Southern Association umpire Harry “Steamboat” Johnson may have said it best:

“A doctor has an undertaker to cover his mistakes, and umpires don’t. When (a physician) makes a mistake, it is buried and forgotten. When I make one, it lives forever. Play ball.”

© 2015 Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Filed under Biography, History, Opinion, Research, Vintage

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