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Between the Lines

Black and Blue Men in Blue/ the Original Blue Man Group

By Greg Rubano

They stand impervious and imperial. Make your argument short. Watch your language. Don’t show them up by stepping out of the batter’s box and mumbling to yourself. Don’t make faces or shake your head more than once. Touch them and you are suspended

But what if you are sure that the runner had beaten the throw? No need to charge out onto the field or go toe-to-toe with the ump. Instead, calmly request that the call be reviewed by the New York powers that be. Far removed from the drama, these custodians of the video replay will deliberate for a few minutes while the fans catch up on their social media responsibilities, texting their friends about post game plans they have been exploring throughout the game.

There are many reasons that baseball is no longer America’s favorite sport. Even as football’s violence continues to enthrall the country, baseball has become increasingly civilized, less entertaining. In the game’s early days, an admission ticket promised the possibility of spikings, fisticuffs, and rowdyism between players. It also provided open season on the player’s sworn enemy- the umpire. As good as umps have it today, their predecessors did not. Dated by the diamond -shaped home plate (pentagonal home plate began around 1900), the late 19th century rendering “A Hot Time on the Diamond” shows an embattled Mr. Magoo-like umpire determined to stand firm against an incensed mob of players and fans. Judging by the ghoulish portraits of the fans ready to jump onto the field, Julius Caesar had a better chance of repelling his assassins. Indeed, while calling balls and strikes, Umpire McKinley did hear a fan yell out, “They shot the wrong McKinley.”

On many an occasion, the men in blue finished a game black and blue. Umpire Jim Rice made clear the reality of the vocation: “I’ve been mobbed, cussed, booed, kicked in the ass, punched in the face, hit with mud balls and whiskey bottles.” A fellow ump commiserated: “It’s a dog’s life. Worse than that, for sometimes people speak kindly to dogs. We are outcasts, pariahs, things to be insulted by ten thousand fans a day.” In reality, the umpire’s window of possible abuse went beyond the game’s duration. Fearful of reprisals from fans (and charges of collusion with bettors), umpire’s traveled incognito, their hotel lodgings known only to league presidents. On occasion, that secrecy could be compromised. An incensed crowd followed a minor league ump to his hotel. The ump sought refuge in a room on the top floor, but the mob remained, threatening to lynch him in the morning. Finally, at 11 at night, the ump raised his hotel window and announced he had reversed his decision against the hometown boys. Appeased, the crowd left.

Malevolence towards the men they wished to wear black and blue reached into the moral deliberations of the family itself. In an 1886 Chicago Tribune publication, an anonymous youngster seeks maternal approval of his plan to belt the umpire right between the eyes: “Let me clasp his throat, dear mother, in a delightful grip with one hand and with the other bat him several in the lip.” Understanding his mother’s reluctance to condone such violence, he reassures her that “while the happy people shout, I’ll not kill him, mother dearest; I will only knock him out.”

Well-known composers fed the frenzy of umpire baiting and assault. In a 1910 song, “Let’s Get the Umpire’s Goat,” a fan beseeches the ump “to go somewhere and die.” Jack Norworth, the composer of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” wrote the song. Norworth had never seen a baseball game prior to writing his classic, but quickly came to understand that a stable diet of obscenities, catcalls, and character assassinations went well with peanuts and cracker jack. A 1909 musical comedy by John Philip Sousa featured a song that acknowledged the demands of the vocation: “An umpire needs a cool and level head that isn’t hard to hit. So when fans beat his frame, they’ll have a nice place to sit.” Of course, all this was when lawsuits and medical insurance coverage were pipedreams. Speaking of pipedreams, a tobacco ad around this time suggested that its product would help curb the natural desire to kill the ump. A few puffs would even make the umpire seem “almost human.” Strong stuff, indeed.

On occasion, umpires and managers could see eye to eye. Rhode Island Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie told of a minor league game in Fall River in which Lajoie suggested to the umpire than he expand the strike zone so as to bring a merciful end to a game in which Fall River was ahead 11-2. Umpire Cunningham concurred and called the next Fall River batter out on three straight questionable strikes. Unfortunately, Lajoie had failed to tell his teammate of the deal. The victimized batter responded by slugging Cunningham, engaging in a prolong assault. Afterward, so little of the ump’s clothing remained that players had to form an escort to the clubhouse. Still unsatisfied, the player later stole Cunningham’s clothes from his suitcase, and burned them in a bonfire about which he danced madly. Cunningham retired from baseball the next day.

Cunningham wasn’t the only one to think that enough was enough. Umpire Pollack was at first quite the stout fellow. Despite having his hair pulled, his shins kicked, and his stomach punched, he entertained no thoughts of submission. Then one day “a big fellow walked up to the front of the stands, dropped his bull dog onto the field and yelled, “Sic him.” “It was then that I resigned,” explained Pollack.

There was little sympathy for the umpire’s plight. Baseball pioneer Spaulding proclaimed that the players and fans’ taunts and assaults were simply acts of good Americans “exercising their democratic right to protest against tyranny.” First and foremost businessmen, baseball owners knew that as sadistic and bullying as they could be, fans paid admission to the ballpark, in some way a precursor to UFC fans who put down good money to see fighters bloodied into submission. Consequently, only token moves were taken to discourage the violence and mayhem. One team installed barbwire to discourage attacks from fans. On occasion, an extra policeman or two might be hired. However, when a young umpire destined for later Hall of Fame inclusion wavered between life and death as a result of having his skull fractured by a thrown bottle, the league began policing actions. An alarmed Ban Johnson, American League president, now made it his business to protect and defend the umpire from mistreatment. Towards that end, a second umpire was employed and suspensions and fines for abusive behaviors were instituted. Of course, this concern for curbing the game’s rowdyism was needed if the game was to be promoted as a proper venue for families and young women.

Not all umpires were passive victims willing to grin and bear it. Ex-boxer Billy McClean found opportunity to display his pugilistic skills within the confines of the batter’s box and on one occasion threw a bat at taunting fans. Umpire Ferguson went further, using a bat to break the arm of a player who had called him a liar. Some umps took the offensive in other ways as Hall of Fame second baseman Eddie Collins discovered when an ump spat in his face, afterward explaining, “I don’t like college boys.” Perhaps the saliva bath was a symbolic repayment on behalf of all those umps that had been hit in the face by tobacco juice. Of course, umpires who engaged in retaliatory action put themselves at risk of being fired, even as those who shunned confrontation faced charges of cowardice. Retaliation could take other forms, however, as when Umpire Jack Sheridan refused to award first base to notorious umpire abuser John McGraw of the New York Giants when McGraw was hit by a pitch. McGraw was hit four more times in the same game and mysteriously never made it to first base. Perhaps being an ump couldn’t have been so bad. In fact, one condemned inmate was granted his last wish to ump a game played within the prison walls. After the game, all delusions of grandeur dispelled, the inmate was hanged unceremoniously. It could have been worst. He could have been hanged during the seventh-inning stretch.

Of course, not everyone believed that the umpire’s plight was so dire. To make that case, the editor of Baseball Magazine (1909) recalled a game played when despite “fearful verdicts on the basepaths,” the umpire was treated “like a gentleman and a czar.” In fact, he got through the game without being kicked and no player challenged him to a fight after the game. Clearly then, there were civilized and affable natures beneath those rough exteriors. Misunderstood delinquents. That the umpire happened to be John L. Sullivan, heavyweight champion of the world? Totally irrelevant.