Planet of the Umps

A Baseball Life from Behind the Plate

Ken Kaiser and David Fisher

Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One

dreaming about being are broke and an umpire. Thanks to baseball, I got to be both. I didn't grow up wanting to be an umpire. I grew up in Rochester, New York. I was a pretty tough kid-in my senior year in high school my classmates voted me Most Likely to Hold Up a Grocery Store. Some of the people I grew up with are in prison. Throughout my whole life I was always the biggest kid and I was always strong. I didn't work out with weights, I didn't exercise, I was just naturally strong. In high school I probably weighed 260 pounds. I guess I inherited my size and strength from my father and my uncles, who were all big men. I was born in 1945 while my father was serving in the Army. He was a military policeman stationed in North Africa guarding German prisoners. The prisoners loved him-because his name was Kaiser, they figured he was one of them. My father wasn't much of a drinker, but he celebrated my birth by going into a bar and getting drunk and ending up in a fight with three sailors. For years he didn't finish that story, so one day I asked him about that fight. Naturally I expected him to tell me in detail what he did to those sailors. I liked to imagine him celebrating my birth by beating up three sailors.
Instead he said, "They beat the daylights out of me. What'd you expect? There were three of them."

My father and mother were hardworking people, good people. After the war my father worked as a security guard at Eastman Kodak. For a long time my mom had her own television repair shop, The Tube Center. My parents taught me the difference between right and wrong and to respect and tolerate other people. I got my temper all by myself. I never looked for trouble, but when it showed up I didn't walk away. For a big kid, I was a reasonably good athlete. In baseball I played first base. I could hit the ball a long way, but I didn't hit it that often. Even though I was such a big kid, I didn't play football until my freshman year at Thomas Aquinas High School.

I didn't really want to play football. I didn't particularly like it. But one day in science class the teacher, Father Klein, was demonstrating the strength of a vacuum. He sucked all the air out of a sphere which caused its two halves to lock together. Even a team of horses couldn't pull them apart, he explained. He had each kid in the class come up to the front of the room and try to pull them apart. When my turn came I went up to the front of the room and pulled them apart. I don't know who was more surprised, Father Klein or me. He couldn't believe it. Truthfully, neither could I. "Maybe they're broken," I suggested.

I don't know how I was able to do it. I was lefthanded, so I figured that might have made a difference. But, as a reward they made me play football. Mr. Kaiser, you're so good in science you should go out and smash into other people. I didn't know very much about playing the game of football. On my first day of practice they put me on the defensive line. On the very first play of my football career the ball carrier came running right towards me. This game isn't so tough, I thought. But as I went to tackle him he stiff-armed me in the face. He stuck his finger through my face mask and got me right in the eye. That kid knocked me down with his finger. Oh, I get it, I thought, now I understand how to play football. The next time that guy came running at me I grabbed his face mask, ripped his helmet off his head, and slugged him right in the mouth.

That's not how you play the game, they said. I lasted maybe a week before my football career ended.

I wasn't a great student. I have no doubt I would have been a much better student if only I had gone to class. My parents had sent me to Thomas Aquinas, a strict Catholic high school, hoping I would learn discipline. I didn't last there very long. One day in class a teacher named Rosey smacked me on the knuckles with his ruler. I glared at him, "Don't you ever do that again," I warned.

He did it again. That probably was a mistake. I stood up and rammed him backwards into the chalkboard, knocking him down. He sent me to the principal's office. Father Hart, the principal, was a stern man and told me, "You're going to get ten whacks."

"I don't think so," I said. "I'm going to West High School." I turned around and walked out of the building. I respected authority, but I didn't allow authority figures to abuse me.

The only person I ever heard of who grew up intending to become an umpire was Bill Haller, my first crew chief and one of the finest people I've ever known. He claimed he knew he wanted to be an umpire when he was twelve years old. Bill must have had an interesting childhood. I think if people really knew how tough a job it is, even if you make it to the big leagues, they wouldn't even try it. I'll tell you how tough it is. An old-time American League umpire named Bill Kinnamon said that if he had known how tough it was to become an umpire he never would have given up his job with the Internal Revenue Service!

This was a guy who thought working for the IRS was better than being an umpire.

People decide to become an umpire for all kinds of reasons. Don Denkinger became an ump because his girlfriend who worked for the airlines ran away with a pilot. In that situation some people get drunk; he decided to become an umpire. Terry Cooney quit his job as a prison guard when he got a zero on the oral part of the sergeant's exam. Actually, it wasn't his idea; one of the inmates saw an ad for the umpire school on baseball's Game of the Week and suggested it to Cooney. While in college Teddy Barrett started umpiring high school games because it paid $45 a game. But Teddy really intended to become a professional boxer. He ended up sparring with heavyweights like George Foreman and Greg Page. Eventually he figured out that getting yelled at by some manager or player was a lot better than getting punched in the mouth by George Foreman.

And it amazes me sometimes that people think umpires aren't that intelligent.

When I graduated high school in 1964 I had no precise plans for my future. I would basically describe my life as sort of a day-to-day proposition. When I got up in the morning my long-range plan was lunch. But, in those days, winters in Rochester were brutal. It was always cold and we got a lot of snow. A friend of mine, an ex-boxer named Eddie O'Hara, told me he had enrolled in umpire school in Daytona, Florida. He asked me to drive down there with him and split the expenses. I didn't really focus on the part about umpire school. The only thing I heard him say was Florida. Everybody in Rochester knew all about Florida: It was where the sun went for winter vacation. I closed my eyes and saw beautiful beaches and pretty girls in bikinis, I felt the warmth of the sun on my face and heard the surf rolling in....

Umpire school definitely was not part of my fantasy. I had never umpired a game of baseball in my life. In fact, I had never been to a major league game. The only thing I knew about umpire school was that they didn't look at your SAT scores. Hey, if you could afford the tuition they didn't even care if you could pass a blood test. But it was the only school I'd ever heard of that didn't have detention. I had no desire to be an umpire, but I really didn't want to stay in Rochester for the winter-so I went to Florida and enrolled in Al Sommers' Umpire School.

Umpire school is sort of like military basic training, but without any of the fun. The first umpire school was started in 1935 by a National League umpire named George Bart. Four years later, American League umpire Bill McGowan opened the second school. That was pretty much it for expansion. Two schools, that's the way it's been ever since then. This was not exactly a growing business. Before the schools were established people would learn how to umpire by working in the minor leagues. In those days, long before the existence of television, just about every small town had its own minor league team. There were more than fifty different minor leagues, so they needed a lot of umpires. Those umpires were paid terribly and treated worse; about the only thing they ever got for free was tar and feathers. People were always quitting, so it wasn't too hard to get a minor league job.

The first graduate of umpire school to get to the major leagues was Bill McKinley, in 1946-and he had attended both of them. For a long time nobody took the schools too seriously. Managers used to yell at McKinley, "You're telling me you had to go to a school to learn how to be so stupid?" But by the time I enrolled it was pretty much impossible to progress as an umpire without attending one of the two schools.

There were about a hundred people in my class. For me, umpire school was a winter vacation, but most of the other people really wanted to be there. I couldn't figure out what they had been doing with their lives, so that being cursed at, having things thrown at you, having your car vandalized, sharing a room with another young umpire in five-buck-a-night motels, driving unbelievably long hours and not seeing your family for six months-for a salary of $100 a week-was an improvement. I was eighteen years old, the youngest person in the school, so I didn't know any better. Clearly, what motivated most of the other students was the dream of eventually making it to the major leagues.

Almost definitely that wasn't going to happen. Chances of even one person in any class getting to the majors were very slim, and, realistically, chances of that one person being Ken Kaiser were probably a little less than me winning the swimsuit competition in The Miss America Pageant.

There were all types in my class. People with money and people who were struggling. We had some really bright guys and some people whose ladders didn't have all their rungs. People from the inner city and people from small towns. We had guys who had been driving trucks, teaching school, working in plants, and even some former major league players. Dale Long, who hit home runs in eight consecutive games while playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was in my class. Danny McDevitt, a Dodgers pitcher who looked like he was going to be a big star before he hurt his arm, was in my class. Long and McDevitt had been in the major leagues, so everybody sort of assumed they couldn't miss making it back as umpires. But, neither one of them ever got out of the minors.

We had good athletes and not such good athletes. I'll never forget one kid from Boston was so uncoordinated that every time he tried to do a jumping jack he'd smack himself in the side of the head. This is absolutely true, he just couldn't do a jumping jack. He'd throw his hands up into the air but his feet wouldn't move, and then, when he focused on moving his feet, he'd hit himself in the head. It was more like a jumping jackass.

I think he eventually became the commissioner of baseball.

Okay, maybe not.

Every class had its share of characters. For example, a classmate of mine claimed he had been beamed up to a Martian spaceship. One of the most memorable students to attend Al Sommers' school was a kid from Chicago who looked like he had some talent. The staff had decided to recommend him for a minor league job, until the day he surprised everyone by running into the office shaking and crying. He wasn't exactly the person he claimed to be, he explained. Apparently, back in Chicago he and a partner had beaten some people out of some money. As a result his partner had been murdered, but he'd gotten away. He was hiding out in umpire school. Talk about finding the last place in the world people would look. He had decided he was going to change his life, he was going to become an umpire. Things had gone really well until he'd gone into town that day-and spotted the hit man who had killed his partner. He was terrified. My guess is the staff wasn't too thrilled about it either.

They made a flight reservation for him that afternoon. They booked it under an alias and snuck him out of town. It was just like a movie, except I don't think this person had really understood the job description. Working third base in front of 56,000 fans in Yankee Stadium is probably not a really good hiding place.

There was absolutely no way to predict who would make it to the big leagues. They used to tell a story about one kid who seemed like he couldn't miss. He was big and tough, he had great judgment, he knew the rules, he could handle arguments-the whole package. At the end of the six-week course the very best graduates are offered jobs in the low minor leagues. Baseball was all set to offer him one of those jobs-until the St. Petersburg police found him at three o'clock one morning directing traffic in his underwear.

I knew the basic rules of baseball. Nine innings, three outs, three strikes, four balls. Baseball had always seemed like a pretty simple game to me. Hit the ball and run. Get the ball to the base before the runner. If a pitch crosses the plate between the batter's knees and chest it's a strike, if it's higher or lower or misses the plate it's a ball. The only thing I didn't know was how much I didn't know. What do you do about an obstruction? Give him the Heimlich? What call do you make if you get hit by a batted ball in fair territory? That one I knew: I call a doctor. What's interference? That's what you get on your television set when one of your neighbors is using an electric saw.

Baseball, we were taught, is a simple game made complicated by the existence of players and managers. Without them, no umpire would ever have a problem.

Most people go to umpire school because they love baseball. They grew up rooting for their home team, cheering for their favorite players, maybe even collecting baseball cards. My favorite player was the Dodgers' center fielder Duke Snider. I had a big card collection. But the very first thing taught in school-and maybe the single hardest thing to learn-is that as an umpire you can't have any favorites. You have to despise every player and manager equally.

From the first day, umpires are taught that players and managers are the enemy-the absolute enemy-and that on the field the best thing that can happen between a player or manager and an umpire is nothing. That players and managers aren't interested in forming meaningful relationships with umpires. As far as they're concerned, the real function of an umpire is to become an excuse for their mistakes. Most of the time, when a player screws up he knows there is only one courageous thing he can do to appease the fans: blame the nearest umpire.

The truth is that not all players and managers are bad. Some of them are much, much worse than that.

So, the first lesson an umpire learns is that the only thing to root for is a fast game.


Copyright 2003 by Ken Kaiser