Baseball’s Early Umpires and Babe Ruth Stories

In the early days of baseball, officiators of the game weren’t so much umpires as much as they were someone who would watch the action and occasionally settle an on-field dispute, whether it deal with a call or not [I recently participated in an exhibition game against a traveling group of players who “played old-time baseball; rules of 1845”. The officiator did not make any calls.  Also, he stood way off to the side, somewhat where a modern third base coach would sit.]

It was thus agreed that there would need to be an official umpire making non-partisan decisions over the game.  With only one official instead of the modern four (or six, in playoffs [or zero, as 2009’s playoffs proved]), players soon learned how to take advantage of situations.

Sam Crawford, who still holds the record of most career triples nearly a century later, used to “run with one eye on the ball and the other on the umpire.”  Therefore, if an umpire was watching the action in the outfield or concentrating closely to a play on second base, a runner heading third could bypass the bag completely, and run in a curving path from the shortstop area to home plate without ever touching third.  With the umpire’s back turned, much to the dismay and exclamations from the other team, he had no way to refute that the runner rounded the bag fairly and scored legitimately.  Such was old-time baseball.

In one instance, Daniel Orkent and Steve Wulf write:  “In Cincinnati at the turn of the century, Crawford told Lawrence Ritter, the great National League first baseman Jake Beckley attempted this subterfuge and came around to score without a play even being made on him.  Umpire Tim Hurst, whose attention had been directed elsewhere, nonetheless called the runner out: “You got here too quick,” Hurst told Beckley.

Years later, towards the beginning of the 20th century, two umpires began officiating each game.  One particular young umpire was Billy Evans.  He is said to have been working a game in Chicago with Tim Hurst when rough spectators began throwing bottles and other items onto the field.  Evans, working one of his first games ever, looked toward Hurst for help during the chaos.  However, Hurst kept the game going all the way to the finish.  After the game concluded, Hurst told Evans, “They [the spectators] got no control.  When the weather warms up, watch out—they’re deadly at a hundred yards.”

Coincidentally, Evans was pelted in the head by a rogue bottle but five months later.  After a long recovery, he umpired another twenty-two years eventually working off the field with the Indians, Red Sox, and Tigers.

Perhaps the most famous umpire of all time was Bill Klem, a no-nonsense gentleman who took umpiring very seriously.  No other man did more to revolutionize the profession than Klem, best known for introducing arm motions for making calls behind the plate and developing a chest-protector to be worn underneath the shirt.

In 1905, Klem umpired his first game in which he encountered John McGraw.  After ejecting the manager of the Giants, McGraw replied, “I’m going to get your job, you busher.”

Klem, a man who entered baseball during a time of roughness and brash behavior, calmly spoke:  “Mr. Manager, if it’s possible for you to get my job away from me, I don’t want it.”

Klem went on to manage for 36 more years, carrying himself with a recognizable sense of arrogance and self-confidence.  As told in Baseball Anecdotes, “unhappy with a called strike, Frank Frisch turned and looked at Klem.  The umpire, as Frisch later told the story, responded immediately: ‘Don’t ever do that again, young man.  Don’t look back when I call a strike.  Just you concentrate on your hitting and you’ll get the greatest job from the greatest umpire that ever lived.’”

Bill Klem, oftentimes referred to as “The Old Arbitrator”, worked in an incomprehensible eighteen World Series’, spanning from 1908 to 1940.  Perhaps the most famous of all the Klem stories is his exit from baseball:

“St. Louis was playing the Dodgers, and when Billy Herman made a tag play on a Cardinals runner at second, Klem called him out.  As the runner protested that Herman had never actually tagged him, Klem turned and walked away.  ‘I’m almost certain Herman tagged him,’ the umpire said to himself.  ‘Then,’ he recalled later, ‘I almost wept.  For the first time in all my career, I only ‘thought’ a man was out.’  Immediately after the game, Bill Klem retired.”

* *

Babe Ruth, after being diagnosed with cancer in 1946, appeared at Yankee Stadium for Babe Ruth Day on April 27th, 1947.  After a short period of remission from his illness, he became sick once again during the summer of 1948.  He came back to Yankee Stadium once more on June 13th, for the 25th anniversary of the stadium.

His male nurse assisted him into his Yankee uniform, and he stood in the middle of a posed shot with other Yankees from the ’23 team, with Joe Dugan and Wally Pipp (best known for sitting out and allowing Lou Gehrig to play 1st base, ultimately starting Gehrig’s improbable consecutive played games streak) placing their hands on his shoulders.

W.C. Heinz wrote, upon Ruth’s introduction to the crowd, Ruth walked out into the cauldron of sound he must have known better than any other man.

After a short speech, Ruth walked back into the clubhouse.  Dugan accompanied him.

“How are things?” Dugan asked.

“Joe, I’m gone,” Ruth replied. “I’m gone, Joe.”  The men embraced, in tears.

One of the more famous stories of Ruth’s funeral involved Joe Dugan and Waite Hoyt, two of the pallbearers.  It was a very warm day, and Hoyt turned to Dugan and quipped that he could use a cold beer.  Dugan responded, appropriately, “So could the Babe.”

Babe was no ordinary man.  Ruth possessed a magnetism that was positively infection.  When he entered a clubhouse or a room, when appeared on the field, it was as if he was the whole parade.  There seemed to be flags waving, bands playing constantly…

– Waite Hoyt


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