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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Negro League umpires


“Strike Three, you are out”!  Umpires are an essential but underplayed   part of a baseball game.  Most of the time they do their job correctly and leave the outcome of the game to the skill level of the players, as it should be.  However, like all humans, umpires make mistakes.  Occasionally an umpire’s judgement on a close play will cause a controversy, but it is seen as just a part of baseball’s overall nature as a sport.  On a close play, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers stole home in Game one of the 1955 World Series against the New York Yankees.  The argument between the home plate umpire and Yankee catcher Yogi Berra is a classic cut of baseball film history.  Berra, until his death earlier this year, continued to say Robinson was out. 

Umpires were also an essential part of Negro League baseball.  Last week marked the birthday of former Negro League umpire Percy Reed.  Born on May 10, 1910 in Mobile, Alabama; Reed lived most of his life in Cincinnati, Ohio where he became the main Negro League umpire for the “Queen City”.  From 1935 – 1937 he umpired the games of the Cincinnati Tigers, one of the city’s most renowned black teams.  The Tigers were a charter team of the Negro American League (NAL) in 1937.  When the Tigers folded, Reed went on to be the major baseball arbitrator for Negro League baseball games in the city until 1947.  He worked contest played by Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, and other great Negro League stars.

Due to the racial prejudice that existed in professional baseball in the early 1900s, there were only a handful of professional black umpires.  By most accounts, the Negro National League (NNL) founder Andrew “Rube” Foster used only white umpires for league games during the first two years of operation (1920 and 1921) before hiring black umpires W.W. “Billy” Donaldson and Bert Gholston.  Both Donaldson and Gholston had long, distinguished careers in Negro League baseball stretching into the 1930s and 1940s which included umpiring Negro League World Series and East West All Star Games. 

The responsibility for providing umpires for league games shifted to the home team beginning in the 1930s.  This led to a period of inconsistency in the quality of umpiring in Negro League baseball.   Visiting teams complained the umpires’ calls were tilted in favor of the home team.  Some players were not hesitant to voice their displea