Tag Archives: Big State League

The Fortitude, Honesty, and Respect of Controversial Umpire Bill Brockwell


Baseball umpires have a seemingly thankless job, and Bill Brockwell often faced the un-forgiveness of Nashville managers and players for three seasons beginning in 1950. The Tulsa native had umpired in the inaugural Sooner State League (Class D) in 1947[1] and West Texas-New Mexico League (Class C) in 1948[2]. He umpired in Texas’ Big State League (Class B) in 1949, including a 16-inning game pre-season game won by San Antonio of the Texas League (Class AA) over Austin[3].

Elevated to the Southern Association (Class AA), there were no notable conflicts during his rookie season of 1950. “Nemesis” may be too strong a word to describe him when he called games in which the Vols were participating, but at least the disdain for him did not begin until his second season in the league.

In the seventh inning against Birmingham at Sulphur Dell on May 31, 1951, Vols shortstop Daryl Spencer offered a few choice words to Brockwell as a commentary on the plate umpire’s ability to call balls and strikes. The ump quickly sent Spencer to the showers, but that was not the last time.

One week later, on June 5 in Birmingham, Spencer got the “heave-ho” again from Brockwell, this time for arguing on a missed force play that Daryl thought should have been an out. Spencer had now been thrown out of three games, and his adversary had tossed him twice.

In Chattanooga on July 29, Vols catcher Bob Brady was chased for complaining too long on a called ball thrown by Nashville ace Pete Mallory. That seems to have set another confrontation off against the game’s decision-maker. It appeared Barons left fielder Don Grate was hit by a batted ball while running from first to second which should have been an out, but none of the three umps called it, and the entire Vols dugout erupted towards Brockwell.[4]

No further clashes seem to have occurred, and when Charlie Hurth named his pre-season selection of umpires for the 1952 season, William “Bill” Brockwell was listed as a returning arbiter.[5] Once the season began, Brockwell did not get off to a great start in the eyes of the Nashville players and manager.

There were no issues in the first game, as Little Rock invaded Sulphur Dell for a two-day, three-game set beginning with the home opener on April 12. Nashville lost, 9-6.

The next day was a double header, scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. But the ire of Nashville sports writer Raymond Johnson rained down on the umpire crew when Brockwell called both games at 2:12 p.m. due to rain and the condition of the field. According to Johnson, the umpires’ decision was flawed.

“The field was already in bad shape,” Brockwell told me (Johnson) in the dressing room after his decision, “and the groundskeeper said it would take more than an hour to get the field playable. It gets dark awfully early in this park. We didn’t want to keep the spectators waiting and then not play…”[6]

Johnson chimed in on that reasoning.

“Brockwell and (Paul) Roy who insisted that he do most of the talking although he was not the umpire-in-chief, apparently didn’t know that the field had been covered with large tarpaulins until about an hour before the game time…”

The rain stopped about the time of the decision to not play, and thirty minutes later, the field was dry.

Johnson continued. “Action like this causes a sour taste in the spectators’ mouths.”[7]

On June 3, one of the strangest calls in Sulphur Dell history transpired, and it involved Brockwell’s indecisiveness. In the fifth inning, Nashville’s third baseman Rance Pless (with a .364 batting average at the end of the year, the 1952 league batting title would belong to Pless) lofts a fly ball over the outfield screen and Blackwell signals the ball is a home run.

After a protest by Birmingham manager Al Vincent that lasted 10 minutes, the umpire reversed his decision and calls Pless’ stroke a foul ball. The Vols eventually lose to the Barons, 6-5; had the homer stood, Nashville would have won.

If Nashville fans in attendance at the game were expecting Raymond Johnson’s wrath in the next day’s newspaper, they didn’t receive it. Johnson quoted Brockwell’s explanation.

“The more I weighed the facts, the more I was convinced that I should reverse myself. I went over to (Nashville manager Hugh) Poland and said: ‘Hugh, I know you are going to blow your top but I’m going to have to change my decision. That was a foul ball. I cannot give you two runs and be honest with myself. Deep down I know I was wrong on that call. I know it’s a jolt to you and to your ball players.’ He accepted my decision in a much more gentlemanly way than I had expected.”

Johnson backed up the honesty.

“As a result of Brockwell’s intestinal fortitude on this occasion, Poland has much more respect for Brockwell…I do, too…It takes real guts to change a decision that takes away two runs from the home club before 3600 home fans…”[8]

At that point, the umpire may have gained the confidence of Poland and Johnson, but that did not mean he would not make arguable calls.

In the June 22 game between Nashville and Mobile in the Vols’ home park, Bama Ray swung at a pitch and missed, but the ball hit him in the back of his head. Brockwell called it a foul ball. The next game, working the bases at Sulphur Dell, he did not see the Bears’ George Freese drop the ball thrown to him as Rance Pless advanced, and Brockwell called Pless out at third.

On July 12, when he ruled Vols catcher Rube Novotney had interfered with Memphis’ Ed McGhee’s bat, awarding first base to the Chicks right fielder, it was business as usual when Poland took up for his catcher. Surprisingly, no one was tossed out of the game.

The next day in the second game of a double header, Johnson was on Brockwell’s bad side once again, as Nashville’s favorite son, Buster Boguskie, was tossed for arguing against a safe call at second base.

“Umpire Brockwell booted another in his usual fashion[9],” Johnson wrote.

Then, in the fifth inning of the game of July 18, Brockwell ejected four Nashville Vols in their 10-3 loss in Chattanooga. Boguskie was sent packing again 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.  Out of infielders, Rube Novotney had to play second base.

Then, Novotney was tossed four days later for protesting a called third strike in a 7-2 loss to Atlanta in Nashville.

It appears there were no further conflicts the rest of the year, and when Brockwell was named to the umpiring crew for the Mobile-Atlanta first-round playoffs, his umpiring career was soon to be over. Perhaps he had enough of umpiring, or the salary was not enough to support a new family. He returned to his home town of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to take a sales position.[10]

At the time of his death, he and his wife Mary, whom he married on October 31, 1951, had seven children and had been married 63 years before his passing. They had nine grandchildren, and twin great-grandchildren. Mary passed away on October 12, 2014.[11]

Note: An obituary for Bill Brockwell  could not be located; Mary’s obituary mentions the years of marriage.

[1] “Umpires Retained,” Miami (Oklahoma) Daily News-Record, September 15, 1947, p. 8.

[2] “WT-NM Umpires Named; Brockwell, Odom Open Here,” Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, April 18, 1948, p. 13.

[3] “Baseball Marathon (Box Score)”, Austin American, April 3, 1949, p. 19.

[4] “Bama Ray Slams Out 2 Homers,” Nashville Tennessean, July 30, 1951, p. 11.

[5] “Charlie Hurth Names Umps,” Nashville Tennessean, March 16, 1952, p. 16

[6] Raymond Johnson, “One Man’s Opinion,” Nashville Tennessean, April 14, 1952, p. 15.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Johnson. June 5, 1952, p. 22.

[9] Johnson, July 14, 1952, p. 12.

[10] “Umpire Changes of Southern Association Made,” Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi), February 25, 1953, p. 13.

[11] Obituary, Mary Harpole Brockwell, Santa Fe-New Mexican, November 2, 2014. http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/santafenewmexican/obituary.aspx?pid=173002024, accessed July 18, 2017.

Sources

Baseball-reference.com

Nashville Tennessean

Newspapers.com

Wright, Marshall D. (2002). The Southern Association in Baseball, 1885-1961. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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