Baseball Umpires: A Secret Society – Phillies Nation

Baseball Umpires: A Secret Society

Last week, I attended a program hosted by the Smithsonian in Washington, DC titled Baseball Umpires: A Secret Society. It was held at the National Museum of the American Indian and the crowd was comprised mostly of older white guys with a penchant for mid-century baseball. Luckily, I was sitting alongside some fellow NL East blogger friends.

The program featured former American League umpire and owner of a professional umpiring school, Jim Evans; 10-year veteran MLB umpire Ted Barrett; and New York Times columnist and author of As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires, Bruce Weber. With the help of moderator Phil Hochberg, a DC public address institution, they discussed intricacies of the strange and mysterious world of umpires. Did you know that in a given year, there are only 68 umpires in the majors, meaning less than 2,000 umpires have graced the fields of the big leagues all time?

When asked what is the hardest call to make in baseball, everyone agreed it is the steal of home.  It happened twice in the World Series and as we recall Chase Utley and Jayson Werth have done it more recently. Both Evans and Barrett said the number of things you have to watch for is unparalleled – a pitcher’s balk, catcher’s interference, batter’s interference, whether or not the pitch is a strike or ball, if there was a check swing, if it hit the batter, not to mention the fact that you are severely out of position to make the out/safe call at the plate. Evans admitted that there are undoubtedly plays where something out-of-the-ordinary happens and the out of position umpire is forced to make an educated guess on the actual outcome.

Another interesting anecdote was the one word that will warrant an automatic ejection.  It’s not the f- word, but rather “you”.  Yes, making an argument personal with the umpire (alongside a profanity-laced tirade, no doubt) will almost always get the manager sent to an early shower.

When asked about steroids in baseball, both umps said that although they did not have any direct knowledge of them being used, there were certainly players that had noticeable growth spurts that were suspicious.  This conversation led into the power of certain baseball players and Evans recalled a time when Albert Belle broke his bat on a check swing; with he and Jim Rice being the two most powerful guys they’ve experienced at the plate.

Also covered was the umpire evaluation systems which they believe has essentially has made strike zone is smaller.  Similarly, before 1975, AL umpires wore chest pads outside their uniform that made it more difficult for them to crouch behind catchers. With them standing higher, this led to an AL strike zone that sat a few inches higher than the NL.  After 1975, with the standardization of umpire uniforms, the zone regressed down to NL-standards.

Finally, when asked what’s the deal with a double plays that are turned without the SS or 2B touching second, Evans commented that they call what managers, owners and the powers-that-be want them to call. He referenced the one year, when they were instructed to call balks much more stringently. After calling 400 balks prior to the All-Star Break (the previous record was 80 in a single season), MLB reversed its policy and instructed umps call the balk less.

Being an umpire is a thankless job, but it takes a special kind of man (no women are currently in the umpiring system, but there have been a few) – one who takes pride in seeing a well-officiated game of baseball be played.  In that sense, they’re much like us fans, who just want to see an entertaining game…in which the Phillies win.  Hat tip to Kristen for the photos.



  1. Johnny

    February 25, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    That’s very interesting about “you” being the majic word. I guess it makes sense.

    Also, I think the automatic force out at second is getting out of hand. “The powers that be” should look into fixing that.

  2. Chuck

    February 25, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    National Museum of the American Indian???? Interesting venue for an event such as this.

  3. Brian Michael

    February 25, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    It was…but it’s the newest Smithsonian museum, so it had a really nice auditorium.

  4. Don M

    February 25, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    “you” is the magic word . . .

    Because you can say “THAT was a BullShht call” .. .. that’s just the guys opinion

    but if you add,.. “YOU are f-ing terrible”….then you’re gone

    I umpired baseball for like 7-8 years, ….once in a playoff game I had a guy argue a close play . . “That’s Horrible!!!”
    … no problem, he’s just venting because the call didn’t go his way..
    “YOU BLOW!” ..

    annddd now Your’re Gone!

    …and they ended up losing the game

  5. Chuck

    February 25, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    A few years back I umpired a little league game….for 10 year olds.

    In that particular league there was usually ONE umpire to do it all….and he stands BEHIND the pitcher looking in.

    It’s tough seeing where the ball lands…and also given the crazy pitching of 10 year old boys….it made it extra tough.

    Most parents and coaches thought I did a pretty good job….better than some the lousy calls by others….but there’s thisn one time where I totally bl

  6. Chuck

    February 25, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    sorry…hit “submit comment” by mistake.

    Anyway, I totally blew this one call and one of the coaches comes running out….screaming and gesturing…..all red in the face. I’m pretty sure he didn’t curse or anything….but he made a real jerk of himself in front of the kids and their families.

    After the game he apologized for his actions, saying he didn’t ever remember acting that way in all the years he coached (I must have REALLY blown the call!!). I really got the impression that he felt as though he truly disrespected the position of the umpire and the game itself.

    Umpiring is not easy.

  7. TBT

    February 25, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Kill the ump!!

  8. George

    February 25, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    Umpiring can be hard, for sure. It’s funny though, in many little league games, the parents get really nasty when an umpire even blinks. Yet I played for a while in a slow pitch league where every team was sponsored by a local watering hole, and nearly every “fan” had consumed an ice chest full of beer during the game. One of our umps was an old man with poor vision who sometimes even got the rules wrong. But he was such a nice guy, no one ever complained, no matter how soused they were.

    Having this program in the Museum of the American Indian (I can’t figure why our politically correct government didn’t name it “Native American”) seems appropriate to me. It hasn’t been that long since the only good Indians were supposed to be the dead ones. Many fans STILL think that about umpires.

  9. Phillibustering

    February 25, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    I missed that event at the Smithsonian, but I did read Bruce Weber’s book several months ago, and that was one hell of an eye opener, especially after the one sided focus on umpires during the 2009 postseason. Very rarely have I read a book where a perspective was presented so thoroughly and thoughtfully that I (and many other baseball fans) had never even considered at a serious level before. I never considered the fact (though it’s pretty obvious when you think about it) that umpires have plays they have to rehearse when certain things happen in a game the way same infielders have to know what bases to cover in different situations. Other issues about umpires aside – and as a baseball fan watching last October and November, there are many other issues – seeing things from their perspective makes me appreciate the whole game much more.

  10. WFC010

    February 25, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    Sucks that they didn’t have this program going in April, so I could go to that while I am down in Washington for the Phillies/Nationals game.

    Sounds like it was a really cool event, and I think I would have enjoyed it a lot.

  11. bfo_33

    February 26, 2010 at 8:07 am

    Nice write-up on an interesting event. Did they cover further use of technolgy in aiding rulings? One thing about baseball vs football is the lack of a crowd on most close plays. While the ump’s view may be impeded, there is certainly a camera angle that could get it right. I don’t like the traditionalist view that bad calls are part of the game. Everything available should be used to ensure the right calls.

  12. George

    February 26, 2010 at 9:03 am

    Many times, the camera angles are just as confusing as an “impeded” view. There would have to be about 1000 cameras to cover everything. They’d be blocking actual plays in some cases. Imagine Jayson Werth tripping over the camera needed to spot batter’s interference on a steal of home, and maybe even breaking his neck.

    I’ve seen far too many TV replays that weren’t enough on top of the play to see if a tag had been made or the runner touched the base. As fans, we question pitch calls, but never figure the parallax distortions of a camera that’s off-center.

    Also, if every play were open to review with all these thousands of cameras, the games would take so long and be so boring no one would want to watch.

    Generally, the umpires do a really good job. Cameras might catch a mistake here and there, but for the most part, they catch the ump being correct. And missed calls have a tendency to average out, so they’re really not that big a problem in the long run. On certain important and difficult calls, like whether home runs are fair or foul, or far enough, the appeals process might help, but that’s as far as it should go.

    It’s a human game, played and officiated by humans, and should stay that way. Controversy is one of the things that makes it interesting. Delays don’t.

  13. Brian Michael

    February 26, 2010 at 9:57 am

    Evans did talk about cameras in the game. Although he wasn’t opposed to more camera influence, he mentioned that technically the sport is not there yet. In the playoffs there are like 2 dozen cameras on the game, but at the parks during regular season games, there are only about 5 cameras. So yea, like George said, there are still plenty of times nowadays the camera can’t make the call eitiher.

  14. Don M

    February 26, 2010 at 10:45 am

    and how many times.. even from the best of 12 possible camera angles, in super-super-super-extra slow motion . . . can you still not tell 100% about some of these close calls. .

    The bad calls in the playoffs got magnified, but the umps get rated and reviewed, the guys working playoffs are the best of the best. I think they generally do a great job

    “Planet of the Umps” is a good book too, fast read.. funnny stories about a guy working his up through the minors, the “umpire locker room” being the janitor closet . . all that fun stuff, and then eventually working his way to the majors

  15. GWFightinsfan

    February 26, 2010 at 11:07 am

    Sucks I missed that event because I live literally right around the corner from there.

  16. bfo_33

    February 26, 2010 at 11:32 am

    During the regular season, bad calls average out. During the play-offs, not always. I also think the two best teams made it to the WS, with or without bad calls. This past playoff may have been an anamoly, maybe due to the weather,…, but most of the bad calls seemed pretty obvious upon review (didn’t need 3 minutes to figure that shot down the line in NY was fair, probably wouldn’t impacted the series if called right, but it may have stretched the series out another game, tiring pitchers,…. ). Review of home runs was a great start, but I think it could be expanded with very specific guidelines (by request of the ump if impeded view). Could even give 1 request per manager per game, but if not overturned upon review, any visit to the mound requires a pitching change (the only penalty I can think of). I know umping is hard and calls are going to be missed, but why not embrace all the tools available to get it right?

  17. George

    February 26, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    The game will only be as perfect as some people would like when it’s played and officiated by robots and computers. That may be an improvement to some, but to me is just a cut-and-dried yawnfest. Instant replays and reviews threaten to ruin the nuances of the game. It’s like turning the subtle taste of a roast into the stiff leather flavor of jerky. It’s like making a statue of Venus out of Legos.

  18. Civil Negligence

    February 26, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    I’d consider myself more of a NL East commenter than blogger, Brian. But it was certainly a great event. Hopefully more and more people will respect “Blue.”

  19. Eric

    February 26, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    As I recall, the American League umpires didn’t totally switch in 1975. I think it was for incoming umpires, with existing umpires “grandfathered in” with their preference for the outside chest protectors. I remember watching games in the 1980s where AL umps used the huge outside chest protectors.

    Consistency between the leagues improved again after 1999, when the AL and NL umpires were combined into one pool for the next season.

  20. Laura

    February 26, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    Sounds like an interesting event, thanks for recapping! It’s interesting that the umps call what they think the powers that be want them to call – that must be hard to keep up with!

  21. Jackelyn Wiford

    March 3, 2010 at 2:35 am

    Great blogpost, I bookmarked your blog post so I can visit again in the future, All the Best, Jackelyn Wiford

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