William Joseph Klem (1874-1951), born in Rochester, New York, wanted desperately to be a professional baseball player as a boy. His small size and his failure to stand out in trials with pro teams, however, relegated him to sandlot ball.
In the early 1900s, while working in a steel mill, Klem began umpiring semipro games. An American League umpire at the time urged him not to make a profession of officiating, calling it a rotten business. It was too late, however, for Klem had found his calling.
Bill Klem was fond of telling players who inquired whether
a ball was fair or foul, "It ain't nothing until I call it."
Klem was recognized early on as the best arbiter in baseball. When he first joined the National League, umpires often worked games alone. Even after more officials began to be used, Klem continued always to serve as the home plate umpire, owing both to his ability to take control of a game and his impeccable judgment at calling balls and strikes. Only in 1921, after 16 consecutive years behind the plate, did Klem begin to rotate with the other umpires in his crew and take a turn working the bases.
From the outset of his career, he strove to establish his authority. In an era when umpires often got into fistfights with players and fans and were universally loathed, Klem was never less than a gentleman. During arguments with players or managers, he would draw a line on the field with the toe of his shoe. Protestors were then warned that if they crossed that mark, they were gone. Klem would then calmly walk away.
He nonetheless could lose his cool on occasion. One challenge that was almost guaranteed to provoke him was to call him “Catfish.” Since he truly did resemble the piscine creature, the sensitive umpire would often vehemently eject his offender.
Klem retired from officiating after the 1941 season to become chief of National League umpires, a position he held until his death in Miami, Florida, on September 16, 1951. During his long career, he officiated in a record 18 World Series, the last of which was played in 1940. Klem was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953.
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