Commonly known as the villains by fanatics, nonessentials by the press, and adversaries by the players, umpires have evolved in the history of baseball like stupid children in an album, as Furman Bisher expressed it.
However, umpires are the most indispensable entities in the world of baseball. These professionals are the ones who have transformed the baseball realm from being a recreational pastime to being one of the most competitive sports in the world. Along with that, they also uphold the integrity of the game.
The First Recorded Modern Game
On October 6, 1845, when the first ever modern game was officiated by William R. Wheaton, umpires made a significant impact on this national pastime.
Ultimately, the history of the umpire reflects the unique periods and advancements of the game itself. From the launching of this modern game in the 1840s up to the Civil War, umpires represented baseball as the basic sport played by gentlemen.
Based on the rules of the Knickerbocker Club of New York, an umpire will be appointed by the president of the club. The umpire will take note of the game, and when there are violations of the bylaws and rules, he should note it down. As the games of the clubs were getting more frequent, three officials were used.
Each team will choose an umpire, while there will be a neutral referee who will make split decisions. In 1858, only one umpire was approved by the National Association of Base Ball Players. Most often, this can be a player or a spectator chosen by the home team if it is approved by the rival captain.
During that time, no dress code was imposed; however, contemporary prints represent the ideal portrait of a true gentleman arbiter. They look so radiant with their cane, Prince Albert coat, and top hat.
These arbiters will either kneel, stand, or sit down on a stool located in the foul territory, which is near the first baseline. However, during the Civil War, they wore less formal attire. However, these arbiters still did not get any money for the services that they rendered except for the honor of being selected as the only judge of fair play.
The Professionalization of Baseball
After the Civil War, the popularity of the game spread, resulting in the professionalization of baseball. Consequently, professional umpires were used. In 1871, the National Association of Professional Baseball Players continued the practice of not paying the volunteers.
The home team will select the umpire based on the names provided by the visiting club. The arbiter will be provided with more authority by restricting appeals to decisions made based on rule interpretation instead of judgment.
However, in 1878, the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs demanded that umpires be paid $5 per game. Furthermore, in 1879, National League president William A. Hulbert chose the first umpire staff of baseball. It was composed of twenty men, and teams could appoint an arbiter.
Nevertheless, despite having compensation and an approved list, umpires still cannot escape from the homer syndrome or be suspected of conspiring with the gamblers.
Ultimately, in 1882, the former player and manager of the National League, Richard Higham, was removed from the league for advising gamblers on how to bet on baseball games, particularly the ones that he umpired. Hence, he became infamous for being the only umpire guilty of committing dishonesty on the field.
The Creation of Umpiring Staff
Also, during that same year, a new professional group known as the American Association created an umpiring staff that was chosen, paid, and designated to the games based on the decision of the league.
The umpires will receive a payment of $140 a month, and when they are on the road, they will be given $3 per diem for their expenses. It is a must that these American Association umpires wear caps and blue flannel coats while they are umpiring in games.
In the succeeding year, the National League already has its own uniformed and permanently paid staff. Hence, the professionalization of major league umpires, or men in blue, has finally been completed.
Despite the advancement of their status, umpires in the major leagues are feeling stressed, doubtful, and even in danger in their jobs throughout the end of the century. The rules and playing techniques were frequently changed, thus making the umpire’s job more difficult.
Additionally, the verbal and physical abuse from the players and spectators made the umpire’s life unbearable. Umpires were commonly cursed, kicked, spiked, and even spat upon by players.
On the other hand, the fans will likewise throw all kinds of debris at them. Physical assaults and mobbing are quite common,, so police escorts can be seen more frequently. From being a celebrated arbitrator to the most despised villain in the field, the transformation of the umpire was likely intentional.
Because of this, league officials and club owners would not favor umpires’ field decisions, would not do anything to restrict rowdiness, would not pay player’s fines, and even support sportswriters in describing umpires as scapegoats and scoundrels.
However, there are times that umpires would retaliate by throwing objects at the spectators or punching reports and players. But in the end, umpires are being punished for doing the things that they did.
That is why most umpires do not have any choice but to look for other jobs. In this period, when people hated the umpires, there were many turnovers in umpires since only a few men were able to endure the challenges, in addition to the poor working conditions. Nevertheless, despite having a turbulent era, the baseball league has produced some of the best umpires with historical significance.
The Most Notable Umpires
William B. “Billy” McLean was the first ever professional umpire. He was from Philadelphia and a part-time pugilist. McLean was well-known for his fairness and excellent ability. And because of this, the National League officials finally agreed to the $5 per game payment.
At the same time, he was given an expense-paid trip to every city in the league. During this period, two famous umpires, Robert V. Ferguson and John H. Gaffney, were well-known for their unique styles. Robert V. Ferguson, also known as “Death to Flying Things” and “Robert the Great,” became an iron-fisted autocrat.
On the other hand, John H. Gaffney was popularly known as “The King of the Umpires” because he was able to manage the game through diplomacy and tact. Gaffney was also the one who popularized the practice of working behind the home plate until the time that the player arrived at the base and then transferred behind the pitcher.
During his playing days in 1888, Gaffney was considered the highest-paid baseball umpire. He earns as much as $2,500 a year, in addition to the expenses of traveling on the road.
Ferguson also appeared in the first four-man crew of Major League Baseball on July 14, 1890. It was the American Association that first used the two-man umpiring crews.
However, because of the mix-up in the schedules, two two-man crews appeared in Brooklyn during the game. Ferguson was positioned at home plate, particularly in the first inning. Afterward, the umpires made a rotation around the bases in every inning. It was in the 1909 World Series when the next four-man crew was implemented.
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