A quarter-century ago former MLB umpire Ron Luciano was a suicide. Re-reading his books now stirs laughs—but also sorrow for what killed him.
An old saying, usually wielded in indignation, declares that those who can, do, while those who can’t, teach. When I pulled my copy of former MLB umpire Ron Luciano’s Strike Two out again, I was reminded that enough baseball players can make the case: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, become umpires.”
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In his very first chapter, Luciano and his collaborator David Fisher noted that some players- or managers-turned-umpires actually could and did before they became arbiters. Pants Rowland went from World Series-winning manager (the 1917 Chicago White Sox) to umpire. Ed Walsh went from Hall of Fame pitcher to umpire. Relief pioneer Firpo Marberry—pitcher one minute, umpire the next.
At least one player got to do it while he played, even if he did become a later full-time MLB umpire. Luciano said that when Jocko Conlan was a White Sox outfielder, a game between the White Sox and the St. Louis Browns was disrupted when one of the base umpires collapsed from heat exhaustion.
Both sides agreed Conlan should take his place for the rest of the game. In the mid-1930s games between those teams caused stronger men to faint, but little did the Sox and the Browns know. Luciano swore Conlan already wanted to be an ump after his playing days. Earlier the same season, Conlan ran out a grounder hard and saw first base ump Brick Owens, hands in pockets, thumbs only sticking out. When Conlan hit the pad Owens just wiggled his thumb.
“I’ve got to hit, and run, and sweat,” Conlan hollered, “and that’s all there is to that play, that little wiggle?” Owens nodded yes. “At that moment,” Luciano said, “Conlan knew he wanted to be an umpire.”
Today’s players who believe with cause that today’s umpires are even more impressed with their own power than the umpires in Conlan’s day should learn the legend of George Pipgras. As a pitcher, he won Game Two of the 1927 World Series for the New York Yankees. As an MLB umpire in 1941, calling another White Sox-Browns game, Pipgras ejected seventeen players from their bench.
Luciano wrote that Pipgras got a call from then-American League president Will Harridge the following morning. Harridge wanted to know, not without reason, whether Pipgras’s senses went on strike. When Pipgras assured him no, they hadn’t, Harridge could barely speak above a whisper: “But, George, seventeen? Seventeen?”
Pipgras is also the MLB umpire who let Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg talk him out of calling a September 30, 1945 game on account of darkness in the top of the ninth. Well, Greenberg told Pipgras, since he could still see the ball we’ll just see about that. Pipgras relented, and Greenberg whacked a game-winning, and ultimately pennant-winning, grand slam.