May 1, 2006
You Could Look It Up
Why Baseball Is Obligated to Throw the Book at Delmon YoungOn September 6, 1927, the manager of the Toledo Mudhens of the American Association was suspended for an indefinite period for inciting an attack on an umpire named Derr. The manager, a former National League outfielder named Casey Stengel, was a temperamental fellow who had played under the king of the umpire-baiters, John McGraw of the New York Giants, but on the occasion requiring his suspension, he outdid his mentor.
That Labor Day at Toledo, Derr was calling the plays at first base. The Mudhens had been leading the pennant race, but were in the midst of a losing streak that had dropped them out of first place; tempers were running short. When Derr called a Mudhen out on a close play at first base, Stengel came running out to argue. Whatever he said--use your imagination--it got him thumbed from the game. That was standard operating procedure. What happened next was new. Stengel didn't leave the field. He turned towards the stands and began conducting them like a band leader, exhorting them. Writing about it a few days later, John Kieran of the New York Times said,
The Mudhen manager delivered a tactful speech in the manner of Spartacus addressing the gladiators or Marco Bazzaris cheering on the Greeks at the Battle of Laspi.
None of the news reports of the day specified what Stengel shouted to the crowd. Undoubtedly it was something along the lines of "Are you going to take that? Are you going to let him rob us like that?" The answer was no: the rescue of umpire Derr from several hundred aggrieved hometown fans required police intervention.
As you might expect, the riot slowed up the game.
There are good umpires and bad umpires, union umpires and scab umpires, regular umpires and vacation substitutes, major- and minor-league umpires. From the point of view of the players, they must all be one and the same and equally inviolate. As Red Smith wrote in 1980,
The game laws make no exception in this regard. When an umpire calls you out on a debatable swing, you may question his eyesight and his competence; state your views of his physical appearance and social charms; inquire into his breeding and the circumstances of his birth; but you may not, must not, lay an infidel finger on his person. He gets the full protection of the law accorded to whooping cranes and other endangered species.
It's not that the umpire is anyone special, or that his authority is god-given. The reason is simple: when the umpires aren't respected, the game ceases to function. Baseball had a 40 year experiment with trying things the other way, and it didn't work.
The National League was founded in 1876, but it took nearly four decades for a functional umpiring program to be established. The umpires were not thoroughly professionalized until well into the 20th century. One of the earliest contrasts between the style of baseball offered in the National League and the upstart American League was that the latter had a professional umpire corps. The National League did not maintain a coherent year-to-year umpiring staff until much later, and the NL's umpiring ranks were subject to high turnover, and were often the victims of blatant disrespect from the league office.
In the early days of the senior circuit, umpires didn't have the power to put players out of games; players were fined rather than ejected. Since the fines were paid by the clubs, the players never felt the pain. Actual suspensions tended to be injuncted by sympathetic local judges. There was no incentive to respect the umpire, just the reverse, since intimidating the arbiter might get you a close call later in the game. As the historian Eugene C. Murdock wrote, "The scope of undisciplined behavior in baseball of the 1890s would be difficult for modern fans to grasp. Disputes with umpires, player brawls, and angry fans on the field were almost daily occurrences." As an 1888 bit of doggerel put it, "Ye Umpire: First in gore, first in pieces, and last in the hearts of his countrymen." In the 1880s, the National League president went so far as to encourage his umpires to give the close calls to the home team.
The 1890s Baltimore Orioles exemplified the benefits of "gaming" the umpires. "Steve Brodie once pulled off an umpire's mask and cap," Burt Solomon wrote in Where They Ain't. "McGraw and [Hughie] Jennings and [Joe] Kelley would surround a man in blue and walk him backward all over the diamond." With this sort of behavior tolerated, there was no way for fans to know if the calls being made were truly impartial or not. With the on-field behavior of the players inciting the fans (and, as some players would claim, vice-versa), teams also had difficulty attracting women and families to the ballpark. National League president John Heydler, an umpire during this period, said, "The Orioles were mean, vicious, ready at any time to maim a rival player or an umpire… The things they would say to an umpire were unbelievably vile, and they broke the spirits of some fine men. I've seen umpires bathe their feet by the hour after McGraw and others spiked them through their shoes."
In 1898, the National League adopted the Brush Resolution (named so for its author, Reds owner John T. Brush), which mandated the permanent expulsion of recalcitrant players who used "obscene" language. Strangely, "profane" language would still be tolerated. A disciplinary board was created to mete out punishment--but it never met, and umpire abuse (and foul language) continued unabated. Compounding this was the single umpire system, with just one arbiter working each game. It wasn't until 1911 that the presence of two umpires was mandated by the league. Three-ump crews were not mandated until 1933, and a rule requiring four umps was not adopted until 1952. A solitary umpire was literally a man against an army, besieged by players of both teams and the crowd. Asked to do too much, he was at best easily distracted, at worst vulnerable to intimidation.
In contrast, when Ban Johnson became president of the Western League (the American League's precursor) in 1894, his plan was "to make ability and brains and clean, honorable play, not the swinging of clenched fists, coarse oaths, riots or assaults upon the umpires decide the issue." It took a while, his intentions complicated by his decision to engage John McGraw as manager of the American League's version of the Orioles (the old Orioles having been "contracted" by the NL after the 1899 season). McGraw didn't get the memo about clean play--in truth, his temperament and life history made him incapable of doing less. On May 6, 1901, he actually harassed an umpire into reversing a decision, just one example of a pervasive campaign of intimidation. Later that month, a players-versus-umpires scrap that expanded into a full-scale riot, complete with spectators and baton-wielding police, resulted in the lifetime ban of Orioles pitcher Joe McGinnity; he'd instigated the fight by kicking the umpire and spitting tobacco juice in his face. Johnson reduced the ban to 12 games on appeal--some things never change. The next season began the same way, with the Orioles subject to more expulsions and forfeits. McGraw himself was suspended in April for inciting a crowd to attack an umpire--an ironic charge in light of Stengel's later actions. McGraw finally jumped to the National League before Johnson could force him out, a move that benefited both men.
The American League's support of the umpires had several positive effects. First, public confidence in the game went up. With umpire abuse out of hand, the game had been in danger of becoming what pro wrestling is now. Second, the game got faster. The game wasn't stopped for a beef after every out and strike call. Even John McGraw acknowledged that umpire baiting was self-defeating for the game. "It is not so popular with the public," he wrote. "The fans get tired of continual wrangling. Naturally they prefer to see a ball game, that being what they came for." Simultaneously, he blamed the fans for the problem in the first place. "It was their encouragement of rough tactics that egged the players on. An attack on the umpire often was a genuine treat for them."
In contrast, Johnson fixed the blame where it belonged. "The troublesome owners and players are, as a rule those who want something better than an even break. They are the very ones the sport-loving public will not encourage. The American people love fair play. Games won by the employment of rowdyism and bulldozing tactics will not receive the endorsement of the patrons of the sport."
Eventually, things began to get better as the American League grew in popularity, and the National League owners were forced to concede that their style of play had generated the wrong image for the sport. They too began to support their umpires with suspensions. On July 10, 1911, Sherry Magee of the Phillies was called out on strikes by umpire Bill Finneran. When Magee tossed his bat--apparently not at the umpire--Finneran put him out of the game. It was the second day in a row that Magee had been ejected. Enraged, he turned and punched Finneran in the mouth, knocking him out cold. NL president Tom Lynch fined Magee $500 and suspended him for the rest of the season, later reduced to 36 games. Even with the reduction, the suspension arguably cost Philadelphia the pennant. On June 7, 1917, McGraw was put out of a game by umpire Bill Byron (known for his quick thumb) after the Giants didn't get an interference call. McGraw confronted Byron after the game, and a fight ensued, with the manager giving the umpire a split lip. NL president John Tener suspended McGraw for 16 days and fined him $500. In 1927, Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis decreed that any assault on an umpire would result in a suspension ranging from 90 days to one year.
And that's largely the way it has been since then. Physical attacks on umpires have largely been trained out of the game. Physical assaults and intimidation of umpires has all but ceased. The catalog of incidents that that can be loosely defined as "assaults" is brief:
Throwing a bat at an umpire is a new wrinkle; it has never happened before. Whatever Young's motives or intentions, over a hundred years of baseball history argue for a decisive reaction from the International League. Umpiring is difficult enough (and, some would say, bad enough) to complicate the job with the threat of violence. Baseball learned that at the end of the 19th century. It's not too late to reinforce the lesson.