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Early Umps

Updated on August 2, 2012

Before the Civil War, baseball umpires, and there was just 1 ump per game, dressed in top hats and Prince Albert coats and they sometimes carried walking sticks, the sticks for beating back agitated players and fans, right? Not likely. Base ball was a gentlemen's game and only became baseball after the Civil War and after the ruffians had taken over. Before the ruffians, the umps located themselves along the third base line and sat on a stool or at a desk and if they sat at a desk, they may as well have had a carafe of wine, although I'm not saying they ever did. Their primary responsibility was to ensure the players behaved like gentlemen. They also kept the score book, declared hit balls as fair or foul and settled any disputes the coaches and teams couldn't settle amongst themselves. Huh? Settle any disputes the teams couldn't settle themselves? The ump's going to determine fair or foul but the opponents are going to decide all the other stuff? How? Amicably? It was a ball! It was a strike! You're out! I was safe! I mean, if the ump isn't an ump, wouldn't there be a lot of disputes, nothing but disputes? Maybe not. Maybe, and for as long as it was a gentlemen's game, maybe they didn't need a real ump, you know, 1 of those beefy, sweaty guys with a lantern jaw.

Would the base ball system work for baseball? Well, let's imagine...

The ball game is tied in the bottom of the ninth, wait, they didn't play by innings, they played to 21, first team to 21 runs, uh, aces, wins. So it's 20 to 20 in the second inning or the fiftieth inning, and there's a man on third and the batter hits a grounder and the infielder throws home and the runner from third slides and it's a close play and from 1 side comes Earl Weaver and from the the other side comes Billy Martin and his sidekick, Lou Piniella, and the guy behind Weaver, that's the Hall of Fame infielder who, when asked which umpires he liked the best, responded: "The dead ones." The gentleman in the top hat, who, it must be said, discharged his duties without remuneration, what's he to do? He waits, I suppose, to see can the guys in the scrum there at home plate resolve the thing and if they can't, and he has to intervene, well, let's hope he didn't leave the house in the morning without his walking stick.

Dick Higham
Dick Higham | Source

The Civil War changed America, and changed baseball, spread it too, all across the country and for better or for worse, it was no longer a gentlemens' game. It was now everyone's game and the umps came down off their stools and out from behind their desks. The umps' authority was expanding; they no longer had to wait to see could the gentlemen work it out. The umps were deciding pretty much everything, and at least 1 ump, Richard Higham, was getting paid. Paid by the gamblers, that is, for advising them how to bet on games he umped. His was the rare case, though, the only recorded incident of an ump being anything less than upright in an era when not all ballplayers were...upright. Which isn't to say the umps weren't prejudiced. Often, when a visiting team arrived in a city or town, they would be presented by the home team with a list of locals considered acceptable as umps and the visitors would pick someone off the list to work a ballgame, and sure, the umps were honest joes but in an an era when umps were routinely trashed, that is, had garbage dumped on them, and reviled, and with everyone knowing where they lived, well, let's just say there were more than a few "homers," not balls hit out of the ballpark but umps who understood the consequences of a close call going against the home team

By the late 1870s, most umps were getting paid on a regular basis and some men were making a career out of it. 1 fellow, Billy McLean, was earning a salary plus per diem expenses but Billy apparently wasn't making enough. He was moonlighting and must have made sure everyone in the ballpark knew about his second job - professional boxer. Still, though, the turnover rate of umps was very high, what with the insults and the garbage and the mobs and the police escorts. Did you ever scream "Kill the umpire!" at a ballgame? Did you ever mean it...literally?

1 baseball game, played in Elmira, NY, in July of 1887, was umped by arguably the most famous umpire of all, although it was maybe the only game he ever umped - Mr. Samuel Clemens. Mr. Clemens said beforehand how he'd only call balls and strikes if he felt like it. OK. And he insisted he be provided with a chair, a fan, an umbrella, and a pitcher of ice water. Must've been a very hot day. It was old style base ball, not baseball. I guess folks were nostalgic for the old days even back in the old days. And what else, there were 2 umps, including our Mr. Clemens, and a referee. A referee? Sounds like they were more serious about their scrums than they were about their ballgames. It was 2 umps along the sidelines, on stools or maybe in Adirondack chairs and we don't know where the ref was positioned. He must have been close by, though, close enough to step in and decide, if the 2 umps couldn't agree, which maybe started its own scrum, right there along the third base line, which would have delighted the players and fans, I'm sure.

Samuel Clemens, Umpire in a Scrum
Samuel Clemens, Umpire in a Scrum | Source

Mr. Clemens mentioned something curious after his ball game, something tantalizing and without elaboration - the pitcher tried to bean the batter and the batter tried to batter the pitcher. That's baseball, not base ball, and did Mr. Clemens and the other ump and the referee intervene, since it's obvious the fellows couldn't work it out themselves? Or was it just Samuel Clemens being Mark Twain?

Nineteenth century umpiring was as thankless as umpiring today and probably somewhat more dangerous, but at least those nineteenth century guys didn't have to deal with electronic second-guessing, videoscreens in center field, monitors in the clubhouse, instant replay, slo-mo. All umps, since the first pitch was thrown (underhand,) have had to deal with thanklessness and with insults and with the loneliness. How many professions do you know where the better job a man does, the more invisible he becomes? Where, if you don't have anything rotten to say about the man, you don't say anything at all?

Christy Mathewson, famed hurler with the New York Giants, and an all-around good guy, tried once to say something positive with regard to the umps: Many fans, Christy said, and I'm paraphrasing, look upon an umpire as a sort of necessary evil to the luxury of baseball, like the foul odor that follows an automobile.

And Christy, remember, was being kind.


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    • HughC profile image

      HughC 5 years ago from New York's beautiful Hudson Valley

      thanks, twain was (is,) a great character, as entertaining as his stories.

    • HughC profile image

      HughC 5 years ago from New York's beautiful Hudson Valley

      thanks, trevor. i'm w/ you on the history of baseball - it's always fascinating and filled with wonderful characters and it wasn't overloaded with statistics, like today. just the basics.

    • TrevorBasile profile image

      Trevor Basile 5 years ago from Rockaway, NJ

      great article, Love reading about the history of baseball

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 5 years ago from United States

      Liked your hub about umps and particularly the part about Sam Clemens. Really a nice job, and yep, it's too bad umps have to get such a bad rap, but I suppose some of them earn it.