It was the fourth of July, 1958, and the fans seated inside Campbell Field were restless. Missoula (Montana) Timberjacks manager Jack McKeon grew impatient. So did his players. The Great Falls Electrics also noticed they were supposed to have begun the game by now. But both umpires were nowhere to be seen. Bernie Giovino and Laurence Henry “Dutch” Rennert were still in their dressing room. A prankster locked them inside. The two eventually got their freedom, as befitting to the holiday.
That was the story, as written by The Sporting News. I am not familiar with Campbell Field, but it is kind of hard to believe Dutch Rennert was ever missing in a ballpark. The man was loud.
Rennert was born on June 12, 1930, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. In his mid-20s, Dutch (I can not find where he acquired the nickname. For what it is worth, he was listed as “German-Irish”), was a single young man living in Las Vegas, Nevada. In John C. Skipper’s book Umpires: Classic Baseball Stories from the Men Who Made the Calls, Rennert admitted the combination of his age, his status as a bachelor, and Vegas’ many casinos made for a “dangerous situation.” To ground himself and stay out of trouble, he began umpiring in a rec league filled with military teams. Retired American League umpire Joe Rue noticed Rennert. Rue went to Rennert’s home and told him he clearly did not know the rules of the game, but he had natural ability and should go to umpiring school. Rennert took Rue’s advice. Augie Donatelli was a National League ump and an instructor at the school. He told Rennert that because he was a “little guy” (Rennert was listed at 5-foot-8), he would have to “bounce around a little — and use your voice.”
Dutch moved up after his 1958 year in the Class C Pioneer League, calling balls and strikes in 1959 in the Class B Three-I League. He might have set himself back a couple of years or decades when he declined an invitation to ply his trade in the Florida Instructional League — Rennert had already secured a post office gig over the winter.
Rennert finally made The Show on September 8, 1973, serving as arbiter of third base in Montreal for a Mets-Expos contest. His first assignment behind home plate was three nights later in Atlanta, and it was a weird one. Hank Aaron was sitting on 709 career home runs, so whenever he came up to bat, special baseballs with invisible ink were used to track the potential real Aaron dinger balls from the faux round-tripper spheres. Rennert was comfortable enough to comment to Aaron that handling the special baseballs made him nervous. ‘How the heck you think I feel?” Aaron replied.
Dutch’s moment in the spotlight came in Game 5 of the 1980 World Series, when NBC broadcasters Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek spotlighted Rennert’s unique umpiring skills, although it does not really seem like they had much of a choice.
Rennert was critical of his performance, saying a year later he was “embarrassed” watching the video. “The thing that I noticed most was how my uniform didn’t fit worth a crap. I looked like hell.”
You would think Rennert’s strike call of a loud, elongated “STEEEEEEERIKE!” with one knee on the ground and either an authoritative finger pointing towards a dugout or the full hand displayed would be considered hot dogging with extra mustard, a hot dog hat on top of a hot dog hat, something the players of yesteryear would not care for. The opposite was apparently true, because in 1974, after his first full season in the major leagues, Rennert was rated by the players as one of the best umpires in the National League. Considered “Above Average”, the one-sentence comment printed in The Sporting News of Rennert was “Colorful and hard working.” It was a much nicer report card synopsis compared to Lee Weyer’s, whom despite also under the header “Above Average” received the comment “Would be better if he lost weight.” Rennert in 1983 was ranked no. 1 by the players, beating out longtime winner Doug Harvey, whose nickname was “God.”
Not that everyone in baseball considered Dutch better than God Almighty. The Mets in particular seemed to take umbrage with Rennert. Mets catcher Jerry Grote claimed he always put cotton in his ears when Rennert was umping home plate. (Rennert in turn considered Grote the “grumpiest ballplayer” he had ever seen, “a real hate-his-mother type of personality.”) In a 1978 game, Mets manager Joe Torre was ejected for arguing that Rennert spent too much time letting Reds manager Sparky Anderson argue with him (Anderson was also ejected). In 1986, the Mets skipper was Davey Johnson, and one time he was so angry with Rennert that one of his teeth fell out while debating an allegedly heinous call.
Then there was the 1986 NLCS. The Mets, in particular Gary Carter, were convinced Astros pitcher Mike Scott was scuffing the baseball. (Scott’s teammate Bob Knepper admitted in 2010 he probably was.) Rennert was scheduled to ump home plate in Game 4, a Scott start. Carter not so subtly tried to put the allegations in Dutch’s head in Game 2, after he doubled and stood on second base where Rennert was stationed that night.
“How do you explain something like that last night?”, questioning the pitching of Houston’s Mike Scott, who struck out 14 Met batters. Rennert replied, “He was sharp.” Carter said, “It was the best stuff I’ve ever seen.” Rennert quipped, “It must have been, because that’s the worst you have ever looked.”
What is remarkable about the anecdote is Rennert shared it the next day. He shared his thoughts of the series to his hometown newspaper The Oshkosh Northwestern after every game. Dutch might have rightfully assumed nobody outside of Oshkosh, Wisconsin would read his thoughts, but it is weird in 2021 to read an umpire quoted about anything regarding a call, let alone an ump zinging a future Hall of Famer, the next morning.
Rennert ended up pissing off the Astros more than the Mets. He ruled Wally Backman did not run out of the basepath in the 9th inning of Game 3 (eh). Part of Rennert’s defense in The Oshkosh Northwestern was that ABC color commentator Tim McCarver told him afterwards at a cocktail party his ruling was correct. His drinking buddy the next night set up Rennert perfectly for one of his boisterous strike calls the next evening; McCarver said it was the other way around.
Rennert was safely out of the spotlight in left field for the classic 16-inning Game 6 considered by even Met players who participated in the World Series the following week as the best game ever played. Dutch was also on the diamond for Mike Schmidt’s four homer game at Wrigley Field, and at third base for Pete Rose’s 4,192nd career hit, the night after Riverfront Stadium loudly booed him for calling an obvious strike on Rose.
The opposite of those experiences came on August 5, 1987 in Houston. Rennert incorrectly ruled Giants outfielder Chili Davis did not catch a line drive by Kevin Bass. It allowed the Astros to tie the game and win in extras, making the Giants losers of seven of their last nine. Giants manager Roger Craig said it was the worst call he had ever seen and “I’ll never forget this as long as I live.” San Francisco Team President Al Rosen instructed reporters, “If you talk to him, tell him he ought to retire.”
The Giants loss that day kept them in third place in the NL West five games out of first. They then won five in a row, eventually winning the division title by a cool six games. Some credited Rennert for the turnaround. “It sure got them fired up,” Rennert later said in an article where he admitted he got the call wrong. “I understand that the next night at Candlestick, there was a sign that said ‘Dutch Treat.’ I’ll tell you one thing: Thank the Lord I didn’t have to go into Candlestick that night.”
An Oshkosh Northwestern reporter sat down and watched Game 4 of that year’s NLCS between the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals with Dutch Rennert and his wife. Rennert offered a couple of good lines. He said he had not watched a full playoff game that year until that night. “I don’t usually watch three hours of baseball on TV. That’s like a mailman delivering mail on his day off.” Upon seeing Giants third base coach Don Zimmer, Dutch said of Zim, “If we had a dime for every dollar he blew at the track, we’d have it made.”
Rennert was back at Candlestick for Game 4 of the 1989 World Series, where the national television spotlight was on him once again.
Alas, the Dutch Renaissance period could not last. The trouble first began when Major League Baseball tried to actually have the strike zone called as instructed in the official rule book. A March 1988 New York Times piece on the subject provided this amazing paragraph:
Size counts, too. Lee Weyer of the National League is 6 feet 6 inches and hefty; Dutch Rennert, one of his crew partners, is maybe 5 feet 7. Weyer acknowledges that his size partly explains why he’s known for having ”the widest strike zone in the game,” and why everybody’s swinging when he’s at home. Rennert, whose ”scissors” crouch behind the plate leaves his rear knee just off the ground, declares himself a ”shoe-shiner.” Asked to identify what he considers a strike, Rennert points from his belt buckle to the midpoint between his knees and ankles. When Ed Vargo, their league supervisor and a strict constructionist, heard these descriptions, he put his head in his hands and moaned.
Poor Lee. Anyway, that July, a brief missive from one Don M. Olds of Vacaville, California was printed in The Sporting News under the title“Thespian Umpire”. Mr. Olds believed Rennert was destined to have a runner from third steal home while finishing up a strike call, putting him out of position to make an accurate verdict. “Showmanship is great,” Don wrote, “but Rennert is not P.T. Barnum, and the game should come first.”
Rennert’s final postseason appearance as a home plate ump came in 1990. McCarver, now working at CBS, noted Three Rivers Stadium was too loud for Dutch’s calls to be heard. Rennert’s voice managed to rise above the Pirate faithful, barely.
Managers, general managers, coaches, and scouts were asked in 1991 to rank umpires in five different categories. Rennert was deemed the third best in the NL, behind Bruce Froemming and Paul Runge. Rennert announced his retirement after the 1992 season, citing the weakening of his eyes and knees. He was 62.
Rennert passed away in 2018. He spent his retirement back in Oshkosh competing and winning golf tournaments, and relaxing in Florida, where for one September evening late in the 2015 season he was home plate umpire Tom Hallion’s guest of honor. Hallion dedicated one of his strike calls that night to Rennert.
“Well he’s just about there but not quite,” Rennert said of Hallion’s impersonation. “Got to get a little more experience.”
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now