I’ve always liked umpires. Oh, I know, you’re not supposed to think that. You’re supposed to hate ‘em, and scream at ‘em, and despise them with the fury of a thousand ruler-wielding nuns and what-not, and the only people who think otherwise are the sorts of people who like kicking puppies, drowning rabbits and cheering Steve Garvey. Yeah, yeah, I know all that. I just can’t help it.
They’re these blue-clad figures on the diamond who clearly look like they’re past their primes in life, constantly accused of blowing games for teams, and universally vilified for doing a bad job. Really, if you think about it, rooting for umpires is a natural extension of being a Cubs fan for me.
Beyond that, I got a huge kick out of Ron Luciano’s books as a kid. Well, I got a big kick out of his first one—each one was far less than the one before. That doesn’t change the fact that “The Umpire Strikes Back” is still the funniest and most entertaining baseball book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read Bill Lee’s The Wrong Stuff and Catcher in the Wry by Bob Uecker. I’ve read it so many times that my copy is falling apart from overuse. Luciano was a great storyteller, and he even makes you understanding and sympathetic toward umpires when they intentionally shirk rules like the balk call. (What, like you don’t have a rule at your office you try to avoid because it’s such a pain in the tuckus? C’mon).
My favorites are the umps who last for frickin’ ever in the game. They appeal to my historic sense. They last longer on the field that anything not named Connie Mack. Take Bill Klem, for instance. Forget how well-respected an arbiter he was for a second. The man jawed with Frank Selee and Leo Durocher. He called games featuring Kid Nichols and lasted until the eve of Stan Musial. There’s just something extremely cool about that. Sure, that’s a mighty nerdy use of the word cool, but that’s OK, this is The Hardball Times, after all.
Which brings me, ever so belatedly, to the subject of this column, Bruce Froemming. The longest-tenured umpire currently working, he will step down in a few weeks, ending a career after 37 years. When he came up in 1971, “Gunsmoke” was still on the air, the Charles Manson trial was concluding, America was still in Vietnam, Jim Morrison and Nikita Khrushchev were still alive and Jesse Orosco was going through puberty. Johnny Carson had been on TV for a shorter time back then than Conan O’Brien has been now.
Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre hadn’t yet begun managing. Hell, Whitey Herzog hadn’t begun managing. Every single team has changed owners since then. He’s been around longer than free agency and one-fifth of the game’s franchises.
You know how much people like to make “Julio Franco is so old .. . ” jokes? Froemming was the home plate umpire when Franco had his sixth MLB game. It was Froemming’s 413rd time working the plate in a four-man crew.
That was nothing, though. In the NL that year were six men who went on to win 300 games and five other starters who ended up in Cooperstown. By the end of the year, Froemming worked the plate on at least one occasion for every last one of them.
Among other things, here’s what Froemming’s era has seen:
- Nine men won their 300th game.
- When he first began umpiring, the Cubs were not—yes, that’s right, NOT—the team with the longest World Series drought. It was the A’s.
- Nineteen teams have won the World Series, and 24 have played in it.
- Two teams have played in Washington
- Nineteen men have managed the Senators/Rangers. Twenty-three have run the Cubs.
- When he showed up, only nine men had hit 500 homers; only 14 were over 400, and 30 over 300. There are now more than twice as many men in the 500-homer club, three times as many in the middle group, and almost four times as many over 300.
- Seventeen men have gotten their 3,000th hit.
- A pitcher has thrown 300 innings in a season 37 times.
- The game’s all-time home run king has changed. Twice.
That last bit points to one of the most memorable events Froemming was on hand for. He had the pleasure of working first base when Hank Aaron cranked out No. 714 on Opening Day, 1974. Only two pitchers (Rick Reuschel and Frank Tanana) can say both Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds homered off of them, but Froemming worked the plate when they each homered. Hell, he was present when Bonds cranked his fourth homer.
He’s seen some other memorable moments as well. He’s worked five World Series, including two of the biggest upsets of all time, the 1988 and 1990 defeats of the seemingly unstoppable Oakland A’s. He was on second when Kirk Gibson hit his blast off Dennis Eckersley.
It hasn’t all been fun highlights, though. In the infamous Eric Show Game, he was at second base. After Show drilled Andre Dawson in the face with a fastball, the Cubs spent all day trying to retaliate, ending the day with seven ejections.
As an umpire, Froemming made his mark early on, being responsible for one of the three great moments in umpiring history. In fact, his was certainly the greatest of those three moments.
Three greatest moments in umpiring
Tom Gorman, long time National League official, was responsible for the third greatest incident in the history of the boys in blue. For years he’d had run-ins with one of the game’s great arguers, Leo “the Lip” Durocher. Few umps liked Durocher—hell, few humans liked him—but Gorman and Durocher had an especially bitter feud.
One game in the early 1970s, while Gorman manned first base in a game against Durocher’s team, Gorman found himself involved in a very unusual play. On a slow groundball in the infield, one of Durocher’s hitters somehow, some way (trying to avoid a tag?) ran into Gorman at first. He was momentarily knocked out, the lad nailed him so hard.
He awoke to a familiar halitosis-wreaking voice demanding, “Well, was he safe?” Gorman didn’t even need to open his eyes. “If that’s you, Leo, he’s out!”
The second greatest moment in umpiring history came about 15 years later, in the Rick Camp game. Due to rain delays, the surreal, topsy-turvy 19-inning contest set a new record for the latest finish in the history of baseball, with the last out coming at 3:55 a.m. Nearly an hour earlier, in the 17th inning, home plate official Terry Tata called Darryl Strawberry out on strikes. Both Strawberry and manager Davey Johnson protested, earning them both thumbs to the showers.
After the game ended, and with sunrise approaching, a young reporter asked the ump why he’d tossed the two men for arguing the call. Bleary-eyed, the sleep-deprived man responded with those immortal words that have since been carved into the Tomb of the Unknown Umpire: “Son, at three o’clock in the morning, there are no bad calls.”
Those moments both pale in comparison to Froemming’s day in the sun. Sept. 2, 1972, at Wrigley Field, veteran pitcher Milt Pappas is pitching the greatest game of his life. He’s making short work of the opposition inning after inning. Behind the plate Froemming calls the game without incident, as batter after batter goes down without making it to first.
By the middle of the game, people start to murmur to each other across the park. Not only does Pappas have a no-hitter going, but he’s aiming for a perfect game. Through seven, and then eight innings, not a man reached against him.
After making short work of the first two batters in the ninth, Pappas was just one out away from immortality. He got a 1-2 count on pinch hitter Larry Stahl, the last man standing. All he needed was for Froemming to call just one more strike. He threw one outside. Froemming called it a ball. He missed the strike zone again. Froemming yet again called it honestly, making it a full count. Pappas threw another one beyond the strike zone. Again, Froemming called it a ball, and the spell was broken.
Though Pappas preserved the no-hitter, the more precious prize had been denied him. Livid, Pappas screamed at Froemming that he was an idiot. He could have told his children and grandchildren that he called a perfect game, but now he’d blown it. After the game, reporters asked Froemming how he could not give Pappas those pitches. Didn’t he realize how famous he would be as the man who called a perfect game? “Yeah, who’s the guy who called the first perfect game?” Silence from the reporters. ”That’s how famous I would’ve been.”
In all the years since, Pappas hasn’t stopped screaming bloody murder about that game. I don’t begrudge him one bit for being furious when it happened. No one’s ever come that close only to lose it on a walk. Hell, I could understand him still refusing to get over it if he thought the pitch was a strike.
But if you’ve ever had the pleasure to hear Pappas speak about that game, that’s not how he comes off. He doesn’t say it was a terrible call because the pitch caught the corner. He points out that in Don Larsen’s perfect game, his last pitch was a few feet outside the strike zone, but the ump gave it to him. Therefore, based on this sample size of one, Froemming should’ve given him the call. Left unsaid, but rather clearly implied, is that Froemming made the right call.
Frankly, I would still be sympathetic to Pappas if he’d said “Three innings ago a pitch there had been a strike! Two innings before it had been a strike! The previous batter he called that spot a strike!” Calling a consistent strike zone means a helluva lot more than calling the textbook strike. But Pappas hasn’t said that.
I’ve also heard complaints that Froemming was smirking/grinning when Pappas went off on him after the walk. If true, that’s not an entirely classy thing to do, but I can’t say I blame him. Umps get screamed at all the time when people think they’ve gotten the call wrong. It must be a little humorous to catch flak because someone knows he made the right call.
He showed pretty damn impressive professionalism and adherence to his standards on that day. If ever there was a day to intentionally muff a call, it was right there. He stayed true to his eyes, and as a result he inadvertently became far more well-known for what he did than any other ump who witnessed perfection. The man deserves some accolades for that.