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They Called Me God

The Best Umpire Who Ever Lived
By Doug Harvey, Peter Golenbock

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They Called Me God

CHAPTER 1

A WONDERFUL LIFE

— 1 —


I’ve had a wonderful life. I was an umpire in the major leagues for thirty-one years, from 1962, when John F. Kennedy was president, until 1992, the end of the George H. W. Bush presidency. That’s a lot of games: 4,673, to be exact. During that time I don’t believe I ever made a wrong call. Perhaps that’s why the players lovingly referred to me as God.

The Society for American Baseball Research voted me the second-best umpire in the last hundred and something years, taking a backseat only to Bill Klem, who was known by his admirers as the Old Arbitrator and by his detractors as Catfish, because they said he looked like one.

When they called to tell me that I had finished second only to Mr. Klem, rather than acting pleased, I told them I was offended.

“Dig him up,” I told them. “Let’s have a go at it.” I said that because I like to think I don’t take second place to anybody. If they brought back Bill Klem, I’d be happy to go head-to-head with him anytime. Have a little contest.

There’s an old saying that they hire you to be the best, and then they expect you to be even better. For me, that’s what umpiring is all about. It’s a tough racket, believe me.

Often I’m asked to give young umpires advice, and here’s my most important piece of advice: When you’re umpiring behind the plate, stop trying to be perfect right now, because if you’re that hard on yourself, you’re not going to make it. You’ll have a nervous breakdown before you get out of high school ball. There was just one perfect umpire, and they put him on the cross. At the end of the day, the hardest part of the job of umpiring behind the plate is not beating yourself up when the game is over. I’ve seen guys—professionals—walk around in a panic for three days straight because they know on the fourth day they’ll be behind the plate again. Umpiring behind the plate is, after all, the hardest part of the game.

I can tell you this because I was as guilty of doing this as anyone. Every day I knocked myself out, trying to be as perfect as possible. When a pitcher wound up, I would watch him, and it was just me and the ball. Watching that pitch—watching every pitch—would take so much out of me. When I strode onto the field, the outside world would disappear, especially that last month of the season when it really tore at your guts. You didn’t want to miss a thing. During games toward the end of the season I had a feeling of being mesmerized.

I gave it everything I had, and when I stepped off the airplane coming home at the end of the season, my wife, Joy, said I looked like walking death. I’d be completely worn out.

I am very proud of my profession. Without the umpires, the game wouldn’t survive. I can remember during one of my early years in Major League Baseball I umpired a spring-training game in Arizona between the San Diego Padres and the Cleveland Indians. After the game was over, one of the managers came to me and asked if my crew and I would stay and umpire three more innings. This took place in the early 1960s, when major league umpires were barely making a living wage. I didn’t think it right that we should be asked to work overtime for nothing, and so I told them we’d do it for $25 each. It wasn’t like I was asking for the moon.

“Screw it,” the manager told me. “We don’t need you. The catcher for each team can do it just as easily.”

This was the sort of disrespect we were used to back then. Our crew walked toward the backstop, and as we were starting to walk off the field, a riot broke out. Twenty players were in a stack. It hadn’t taken ten minutes.

The Padres’ catcher was calling balls and strikes, and he called a pitch a strike, and the Cleveland batter said, “Are you shitting me?”

“No,” said the catcher, who stood up and took off his mask, and the batter slugged him. Before I knew it, both teams were mixing it up on the field. All because there were no umpires. Baseball, you see, isn’t a game you play on the honor system.

The umpire is there for one reason and one reason only: to make sure one team doesn’t gain an unfair advantage. In tougher words, to make sure one side doesn’t cheat. It’s that simple. For the game to have meaning, it has to be fair. The only thing standing between fairness and chaos is the umpiring crew.

— 2 —


Throughout my entire career, my emphasis was on integrity. I never wanted to be accused of bias, and I never wanted to be charged with giving anything less than my best, no matter whether it was the first week of the season or the last, whether the two teams were fighting for a pennant or whether the game had no meaning in the standings.

It was the last week of the 1975 season, and I was umpiring a series in which the first-place Cincinnati Reds were playing the last-place Houston Astros. The Reds had clinched it, and Sparky Anderson, the manager, announced he was going to play his second-stringers.

I was the crew chief and I was umpiring on the bases that day. I called my crew together. I wanted to make sure none of the other guys decided to make calls with the purpose of speeding up the game and getting us back to the hotel.

“Hey, fellas,” I said. “You may have a guy on the bad club, if he bats .240 he gets twice the raise. You have no right to mess with that. Just call the game the way it is.”

I didn’t want to do what I had seen other crews do: Just call strikes in order to get this meaningless game over as fast as they could. I could see who was in a hurry and who wasn’t, who had a good strike zone and who didn’t. And so could the players.

To be an umpire you have to be willing to sacrifice, and those sacrifices can be physical as well as mental. In my first year umpiring, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson threw a pitch and the catcher missed it, and the ball caromed under my mask and broke off two teeth, which I spit onto the ground.

Fellow umpire Shag Crawford came over.

“You’re bleeding,” he said. “You should have someone look at it. Let’s get you out of the game.”

My pride was in my work. For me to leave the field they would’ve had to carry me off. I wouldn’t do that to my partners. They would have to work one man short if I left.

“Hold it, Shag,” I said. “It doesn’t make any difference whether I’m sitting in a waiting room at the hospital or umpiring baseball. I’d prefer umpiring baseball.”

I told him I would attend to it after the game.

The next day a dentist told me I would need to take time off for him to work on my damaged mouth, but I said no. He gave me a shot to stop the bleeding, and I went on to umpire that afternoon. The bleeding continued off and on, and I used chewing tobacco to stanch it during the last few weeks of the season. I was in misery.

I went to another dentist, who packed my mouth with cotton, but still the bleeding continued.

Two months later my mouth was infected.

Before that, I was in Pittsburgh umpiring the Game of the Week: the Pirates against the San Francisco Giants. All the way across the country, my wife, Joy, was at home in California giving birth to our first child. At the time, commissioner Ford Frick didn’t allow us to go home for the birth of a child. After the game, I got a call. Joy had given birth to a son, whom we named Scott.

I didn’t get to see him until he was two weeks old.

That’s what I call sacrifice.

That’s some of what I gave up for my profession.

— 3 —


In all of baseball history there are only ten umpires in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and I’m proud to say that I’m one of them. I was elected in 2010. The other umpires who were elected are Jocko Conlan, my former crew chief; Al Barlick, another of my former crew chiefs; Hank O’Day, who umped in the nineteenth century; Tommy Connolly, who was active from 1901 until 1931; Bill Klem, who was an umpire from 1905 to 1941; Bill McGowan, Cal Hubbard, Billy Evans, and Nestor Chylak, who were all in the game for between twenty and thirty years. All were cited for their character and their umpiring skill. Being elected to the Hall is an honor I will always cherish until the day I die—which, by the way, may occur sooner rather than later. I have been stricken with cancer, and the diagnosis isn’t great.

“What’s my chance of living through this?” I asked my doctor.

“Well, not that good,” he said.

“What are my chances?”

“Fifty percent,” he said.

“I’ll beat that,” I told him. “You want to know why? Because every day I walked out onto that field with three other fine gentlemen, and nobody in the stands of sixty thousand people liked us when a call went against their team. Moreover, two ball clubs didn’t give a shit whether we lived or died. Fighting cancer is a lot easier. I know I can beat this.”

If you’re going to live, attitude is everything. And that’s the way it was with my work. I loved my job. I hated when we had a day off. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t wait to get back on the field. If I had a two-week vacation, I couldn’t wait to go back behind the plate my first day back. Everyone else wanted to get their feet wet, to start at third base and work their way around to second and then to first before going back behind the plate. The fewest calls during a ball game are made at third base.

Not me. I wanted to make sure I could still umpire balls and strikes.

During one off-season I went to Baja California looking for an engine for my Model A. I stepped out of my car to ask where the guy who owned the engine lived, and a German shepherd came out of nowhere and tore up my left leg. I had to get twenty-two stitches.

In the hospital, they put a white salve on the wound and wrapped me in wet sheets and put ice over it. I laid like that for hours.

Fred Fleig, the National League secretary-treasurer in charge of the league’s umpires, called me in the hospital.

“Doug,” he said, “why don’t you stay home for spring training and get your energy back?”

“Fred,” I said, “why don’t I get my ass back to spring training and see if I can still umpire?” That’s the way I was.

The doctor ordered me to take time off. But to my mind there was no place for time off. You have to get back to what you know and love.

I’m sharing this so those youngsters who desire to become umpires—or just baseball fans in general who appreciate the intricacies of the game—can understand how I did what I did for as long as I did. I also want them to appreciate how blessed I’ve been to have been allowed to work on the hallowed baseball diamonds across America for so many years.

I firmly believe that Babe Ruth had it right. When Ruth was dying, baseball honored him by giving him a day, and in his speech at Yankee Stadium he remarked, “The only real game in the world, I think, is baseball. You’ve got to start way down at the bottom, when you’re six or seven, and if you’re successful and you try hard enough, you’re bound to come out on top.”

The Babe could have been talking about me. I knew I wanted to be an umpire when I was six years old. My dad was an umpire—and a damn fine one—and I wanted to be just like him. I wanted nothing more than to be out on that field, and I umpired in the major leagues for thirty-one wonderful years, and for that I’m very grateful.

I loved what I did, loved the feeling of camaraderie, the feeling of togetherness, the feeling that, Hey, we are who we are: We’re umpires.

Here’s just a little bit of what I learned and experienced along the way. I wish I could still be out there. I never should have retired. I’ve regretted it ever since. I’m telling you, baseball today could still use Doug Harvey.

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