In his Pulitzer Prize winning book on the American Civil War The Killer Angels, author Michael Shaara comments that there’s nothing quite so much like God as a general on a battlefield. Maybe. But you know, an umpire on a baseball diamond (especially before replay) is damned close.
When I started to do a personal Hall of Fame I decided to add contributors to the Hall and that included umpires. Of course then I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about 19th Century umpires other than a smattering of names. So I’ve begun some research into umpiring. Here’s a short look at a few things I’ve found.
1. Initially umpires sat (literally sat) in a chair to the side of the diamond and were asked to render “judgments” on plays if asked by either team. In other words they weren’t involved in balls and strikes or close plays at first or anything like that on a regular basis. I think that was the thing that got my attention most. Apparently the original teams never anticipated the modern umpire.
2. During the early years the umpire, once it was decided he would do such things as call balls and strikes, stood off to the side of home plate. That made it difficult to determine if a ball went over the plate, especially the corners, but it was easy to determine if it was high or low. This was the reason that early players were allowed to call for a high or low ball from the pitcher. If they pitcher was supposed to throw a high one and tossed a low one, it counted as a ball without reference to whether it went over the plate or not. I always found that to be a silly rule, but now it makes a little more sense.
3. Early umps tended to be locals who knew and understood the game. Each home team was supposed to supply an umpire with the visitors getting something like veto rights if the guy was a known “homer.” Occasionally there were fights over the use of a particular umpire and sometimes a team would refuse to play if a certain ump was used.
4. As the 19th Century came to a close, more and more umpires were retired players or players who were hurt. There doesn’t seem to be an actual rule disqualifying an umpire from calling a game involving a team he was playing for, but it was discouraged. Actually a handful of players were considered so honest that they were used to ump games for their own teams (try that today).
5. The American Association began to pay ($140 per month) umpires in 1882, and had the league determine which umps would cover which games, thus establishing the first “modern” umpiring set up. The National League had a group of acceptable umpires, but teams were allowed to pick from them.
6. In that same year Richard Higham was banned for advising gamblers on which games to bet on when he was umpiring.
7. By 1901 the use of two umpires was becoming more widespread. Bob Emslie began umpiring in 1890 as a solo umpire and retired in 1924 when multiple umpires was the norm. The Player’s League used two umpires in 1890 and the NL encouraged it afterwards, but because team owners had to bear the expense of paying the umps, most teams still only used one. In 1902 the two umpire rule went into effect in the AL. The NL came along.
8 In 1933 the third umpire became standard in both leagues. That system was used sporadically prior to 1933, for instance in World Series or critical games, but was unusual prior to ’33.
9. In 1952 the current four man crew was established for all games, not just the World Series.
10. In 1963 the National League Umpires Association, the first umpires union, was formed. The American League umpires followed later.
11. There are 10 umpires in the Hall of Fame.
12. In 1885 Spaulding’s sporting goods company advertised for what is apparently the first umpire’s indicator (the clicker).