How Umpires Work


Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Armando Galarraga delivers a pitch to the New York Mets on June 24, 2010. Earlier that month, Galarraga had pitched a near-perfect game before a blown call by umpire Jim Joyce. See more baseball pictures.
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Armando Galarraga delivers a pitch to the New York Mets on June 24, 2010. Earlier that month, Galarraga had pitched a near-perfect game before a blown call by umpire Jim Joyce. See more baseball pictures.
© Keith Bedford/Reuters/Corbis

If there's no crying in baseball, there shouldn't be any apologies either. Yet, major league umpire Jim Joyce did both in 2010 when he blew a call that would have given Detroit Tiger pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game. Galarraga was one out away from throwing the jewel when Jason Donald grounded to first base. Miguel Cabrera darted to his right, snagged the ball and flipped to Galarraga, who bounded off the mound to cover first. Donald was clearly out. Still, Joyce unfurled his arms as a giant condor unravels its wings and ruled the Cleveland Indian "safe."

Galarraga, Cabrera and the other Tigers reacted in disbelief. Tiger manager Jim Leyland raced on to the field in an argumentative mood, but his protests were ignored. Those watching at Comerica Park in Detroit exploded in a deafening chorus of "boo." Replay after replay solidified that Joyce had indeed made the wrong call. Joyce emotionally admitted to reporters after the game that he had made a horrible, horrible mistake. "It was the biggest call of my career," he said, as tears welled in his misguided eyes, "and I kicked it. I just cost that kid a perfect game." Joyce was so distraught that he met with Galarraga and personally apologized [source: Beck].

It was an honest error, made by an honest umpire, although Major League Baseball refused to overrule the decision. The episode, however, underscored the hazardous terrain baseball umpires navigate when they step between the lines. Baseball is a game of inches, and umpires hold the tape measure. They are the arbiters of what is right and what is wrong, tasked with making sure the rules are followed and that each team gets an even shake. Sometimes they succeed, other times not. When they screw up, they sometimes do so -- as in the case of Jim Joyce -- royally.

So it's no wonder that baseball umpires are often the focal point of hatred and angst. It's not hyperbole to say that umpires are perhaps the most vilified people in sports.

"I couldn't see well enough to play when I was a boy, so they gave me a special job — they made me an umpire," Harry Truman once chimed [source: Baseball-Almanac].

Go to the next page to find out how umpires prepare for a job where, according to sportscaster Ernie Harwell, they suffer "more abuse than a washroom wall" [source: Baseball-Almanac].

The Call to Duty

Umps have been getting business for decades. Here, Leo Durocher, player-manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, argues with legendary umpire Bill Klem, center, about a call. In this picture, Klem had just begun his 36th year of arbitrating.
Umps have been getting business for decades. Here, Leo Durocher, player-manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, argues with legendary umpire Bill Klem, center, about a call. In this picture, Klem had just begun his 36th year of arbitrating.
© Bettmann/Corbis

"If you're liked by the coaches and players, you had it made. You had to do a good job to be liked. If they didn't like you, you might have been in for a hard time." Uncle Gil rarely had a hard time when he reminisced about his life calling balls and strikes to a local newspaper reporter nearly 40 years ago. For decades, Gil Lee umpired many a game in a grimy, upstate New York burg.

To me, Uncle Gil was always the quintessential baseball warrior, marching off to combat with a king-sized chest protector and steel mask, ready to battle those who would sully the purity of the game with things like spitballs (when the pitcher puts a foreign substance on the ball, like spit) and phantom tags (when the umpire mistakenly thinks a fielder tagged a runner). I learned many things about the game from Uncle Gil, although I refused to follow him behind the plate. (I got enough grief at home and school.) The main thing he taught me is that if an umpire doesn't love the game, he wouldn't do a good job. (Note: There weren't any female umpires in Uncle Gil's day, but women can apply to umpire school. As of July 2013, the major leagues still hadn't seen a female umpire officiate a game though.)

Umpires came to baseball seemingly as an afterthought in the 19th century. Their main task was to make sure that teams didn't cheat. Back in the day, a baseball team was only as good as how well its players swindled their opponents. Fielders often pushed runners off base then tagged them out. Runners ran straight from first to third without touching second base. The umps put a stop to such tomfoolery. The methodical cheating subsided, and the umpires remained. One umpire — chosen by the home team — morphed into three by the 1930s. Today's regular-season, big league umpiring crews have four members [source: Keri].

As the official arbiters of the game, umpires have the following responsibilities:

  • Calling the action at home plate, including balls, strikes and outs; fair and foul balls; and interference. The homeplate umpire also notes if the batter has been hit by a pitch.
  • Calling the action at the bases and in the outfield. These duties fall to the first, second and third base umpires in the majors. First and third base officials also have to keep an eye on fair and foul balls along their respective lines, as well as deferred strike out calls for left-handed batters (third base ump) and right-handed batters (first base ump).

Becoming an Ump

Bruce Froemming looks into the stands on Aug. 16, 2006, before he umpires his 5,000th game of his major league career. He joined Hall of Famer Bill Klem as the only other umpire to reach that milestone.
Bruce Froemming looks into the stands on Aug. 16, 2006, before he umpires his 5,000th game of his major league career. He joined Hall of Famer Bill Klem as the only other umpire to reach that milestone.
Credit: © Adam Hunger/Reuters/Corbis

All across the country, thousands of men and women umpire games from Little League to college. Those that want a whack at the big time have to stand tall and travel down a road often difficult to transverse.

Most major league umpires start out in the backwaters of the game, spending their summer evenings and weekends refereeing myriad youth, softball, high school and recreational leagues. The rules and steps for becoming an umpire are different for each rung on the ladder. Most leagues offer training courses. Would-be umpires join associations, which require the novice to become "certified," a needed designation if a person wants to umpire eventually at the highest levels [source: Vulcan].

As for Major League Baseball umpires, they have to attend school to learn their trade (really, they do). There are three schools for umpires in the United States, where prospective umps learn how to handle themselves in game situations. They study the rules, mechanics and even the philosophy of umpiring [source: Major League Baseball]. (I came up empty when I attempted to find whether Plato mentioned anything in his dialogues about calling balls and strikes.)

The top graduates — about 16 percent — ultimately find work in the minor leagues. Major League Baseball doesn't start considering hiring an umpire until he gets to Triple A, the pinnacle of the minors. That's because openings in "The Show" are few. There are 68 umpires in the majors and 225 in the minors. Most spend, on average, eight to 12 years in the low-paying minors before they earn their way to major leagues [source: Major League Baseball].

When "the call" comes, the umpire has to be ready. Sometimes they are, other times not so much.

No Joy in Mudville

New York Yankees manager Billy Martin (c) is shown arguing with umpire Tim McClelland over the amount of pine tar on the bat used by George Brett of the Royals, who got a two-run homer in the ninth inning. Brett came charging out of the dugout moments later.
New York Yankees manager Billy Martin (c) is shown arguing with umpire Tim McClelland over the amount of pine tar on the bat used by George Brett of the Royals, who got a two-run homer in the ninth inning. Brett came charging out of the dugout moments later.
© Bettmann/Corbis

"Kill him! Kill the umpire!"shouted someone on the stand; And its likely they'd have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

When Ernest Lawrence Thayer wrote the immortal poem "Casey at the Bat" in 1888, he knew that baseball fans and players viewed the umpire with the utmost disdain. Still, "mighty Casey," was a magnanimous slugger who could silence a jeering crowd with a raised paw. These days, players aren't as noble. Like petulant children, they sometimes cry, stomp and even spit when an umpire rules against them.

Stories of such on-field histrionics are legion. One of the most vitriolic occurred in 1996 when Baltimore Oriole Roberto Alomar spat in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck after a called third strike. The incident did not keep Alomar out of the Hall of Fame, however (and it didn't stop the two men from eventually developing an unlikely friendship). In 2006, Tampa Bay prospect Delmon Young threw a bat at a minor league umpire, striking him in the arm. The league suspended Young for 50 games.

Then there's Kansas City Royal player George Brett crazily storming out of the dugout on July 23, 1983, after home plate ump Tim McClelland nullified a home run Brett had just hit against the New York Yankees. McClelland ruled, after some prodding by a wily Yankee manger named Billy Martin, that Brett used an illegal bat (too much pine tar, don't cha know.) Brett madly charged out of the Kansas City Royal dugout, arms flailing, eyes bulging, lips and tongue screaming hysterically. Days later, American League officials overturned McClelland's ruling, saying McClelland should never have called Brett out. Instead, McClelland should have tossed the bat.

Life on the Road

All that grief is a lot for an umpire to deal with for only $120,000 a year, although senior umpires can make $350,000. Unlike ballplayers, major league umpires aren't exactly pampered. While the players fly on charter jets paid for by the teams, umpires take commercial flights when traveling. While major leaguers make hundreds of thousands a game, sometimes for doing nothing (read: A Rod and many others), umpires receive an estimated $340 a day for expenses, such as hotels, rental cars, food and tips [source: O'Connell].

You would think such a lack of respect would force most major league umpires to call it quits after a year or three. It's a long season, after all, starting in early March with spring training, and ending for some in November after the World Series wraps up. Yet, turnover is so low that there's usually one job opening a year [source: O'Connell].

It's a lonely job, umpiring. Yet, umps are always trying to better themselves. They study video of hitters and pitchers. They also regularly review their calls. And despite their dismal reputations -- "I've never questioned the integrity of an umpire. Their eyesight, yes," Leo Durocher quipped -- the accuracy rates for major league umps are astounding -- 97 percent for calling balls and strikes and 99 percent in the field [source: O'Connell]. Consider that a baseball player is considered a standout if he hits .300. That means they only have to do their job correctly 30 percent of the time. If you or I did that, we'd be fired.

Still, some very bad calls in recent years have many people wondering whether umpires need help, such as instant replay. It's a controversial topic.

"I'm an old-school guy ... " Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker told MLB.com. " ... If they could come up with something that would show a proper angle and do it in a very short period of time, I'd be for it."

Many, however, balk at the idea. "They're going to get some right. They're going to get some wrong," Pittsburgh Pirate catcher Michael McKenry said of the umpires. "That's just part of it. Nobody is perfect at the end of the day" [source: Singer].

Play ball!

Author's Note: How Umpires Work

Umpires are people, too. Years ago, I spent a summer as a research assistant for a famous writer who was authoring a book about the minor leagues. This minor league was Single A, the lowest of the lows. The umpires made little money and were forced to travel on their own to some dirty little towns. They worked hard. If memory serves me — it was a long time ago — only two umpires worked the game, one calling balls and strikes, the other out in the field. It occurred to me at the time, that they, just like the players, wanted a shot at the big time. Alas, like most of the players, most umps never make it beyond the minors.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Baseball Almanac. "Umpire Quotes." (July 1, 2013) http://www.baseball-almanac.com/quotes/umpire_quotes.shtml
  • Beck, Jason. "Missed call ends Galarraga's perfect bid." MLB.com. June 3, 2010. (July 1, 2013) http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20100602&content_id=10727590
  • Keri, Jonah. "Does Baseball Need Umpires?" The Wall Street Journal. Oct. 14, 2009. (July 2, 2013) http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704107204574469381382610114.html
  • Major League Baseball. "How to Become an Umpire." (July 2, 2013) http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/official_info/umpires/how_to_become.jsp
  • O'Connell, Jack. "Much required to become MLB umpire." Major League Baseball. Aug. 28, 2007. (July 2, 2013) http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20070827&content_id=2173765&fext=.jsp&c_id=mlb
  • Singer, Tom. "Expansion of replay stirs new round of debate." Major League Baseball. "July 27, 2011. (July 2, (2013) http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20110727&content_id=22392098&vkey=news_mlb&c_id=mlb
  • Vulcan, Nicole. "How Do I Become a Certified Umpire." Houston Chronicle. (July 2, 2013) http://work.chron.com/become-certified-umpire-14769.html