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Giving Umpires Some Love

By Ben Grafe


Ryan Englekirk knows about umpires. After all, he used to be one. Maybe that’s why the PhD candidate in AU’s History Department is sympathetic to their plight. 

After leaving umpiring, he returned to school in 2007 and earned his BA in history from AU in 2009. Due to his love of public history and the admiration and respect he had for his faculty mentors, he decided to continue his education and was accepted into the PhD program. During all that time, though, Englekirk’s interest in baseball never waned. He maintained friendships with other umpires he had learned from and worked beside for years at the semi-pro and youth levels. 

And for years he has been gathering information and oral histories on umpiring. He hopes his paper, "'Kill the Ump!': The Growth and Decline of the Major League Umpire’s Waistline 1970–2012," will generate conversation around umpire’s health and safety. He presented the paper at this year’s Robyn Rafferty Mathias Student Research Conference and walked away with the Professional Presentations Prize, which will cover his expenses at a professional peer reviewed national conference at which he is presenting the paper. 

"There is a lack of literature in the field," says Englekirk. "Most scholars have ignored the umpires."

His paper, part of a larger project to examine the ways the profession is changing, looks at training and labor conditions for umpires over the past three decades. 

Downsizing Umps 

One of the most obvious ways umpires have changed is pretty basic: they’ve gotten smaller.  

Englekirk believes the death of John McSherry from a heart attack on opening day 1996 shocked baseball to the point where it allowed the era of the large umpire to go by the wayside. This in turn changed how umpires settled physical disputes on the field and challenged previous notions of masculinity within the professional umpire community. 

In addition, social media, money, the web, and modernization of the game are changing the way we think about baseball and the roles umpires have in the game. "Now the Internet has allowed you to follow all the games and has opened the world to see umpire mistakes," he says. Umpires today are under more pressure from fans and the media. The enhanced coverage from social networks lets fans see their mistakes and often leads to increased ridicule of their profession. After all, any call is easy to make when you can look at it in slow motion, from 10 different angles, and rewind it 100 times. On the other hand, as Englekirk points out, "umpires have three-eighths of a second from the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand to when it hits the catcher’s glove to make a call." Englekirk hopes this paper will go beyond the "stereotype of the blind, obese idiot who needs a phone book to make the right call: These are people, this is a serious profession, and [umpires] take their profession very seriously," he says. 

Digging for Sources 

With so little academic information out there on the profession of umpiring, Englekirk had to put in a lot of effort to gather sources. 

"I draw upon interviews with minor and major league umpires, memoirs, newspapers, archival film, memoirs, and some journalistic works," he says. Drawing upon his personal experience and networks, Englekirk brings his readers a unique take on umpiring. "My biggest challenge has been finding where umpiring fits within the larger scholarly historical debate."

The former umpire says that although the history of umpiring is not his academic specialty (his dissertation is about the influence of the free-speech movement on the rights of high school students in the 1970s and 1980s), researching the topic has sharpened his focus as a historian. "Engaging myself in this subject has made me realize why I came back to school," he says. 

And he hopes it will open people’s eyes to the umpiring profession so that the next time they see an umpire "kick a call" they will have a little sympathy for the men in blue.