In Memoriam: Frank Pulli, Umpire

Frank Pulli 1Baseball announcers today like to comment on a bad call with the cliche, “No one goes to the park to watch him umpire.” Fair enough—but not totally accurate. I may have been the only kid in America who tuned in to baseball games just to watch the umpires. Many of my earliest baseball memories involve the demonstrative strike call of umpire Dutch Rennert. His right arm shoots straight up, then a decisive step with which he indicates the number of strikes. No one in the ballpark—or watching at home—was ever in doubt when Rennert was behind the plate. After Mets catcher Gary Carter, Rennert was the baseball guy who I most wanted to be like.

As a kid, the umpires seemed to me to be a mysterious and magical group of individuals. We heard plenty about the on- and off-field exploits of the players, but no one ever talked about the umpires. Who were they? Where did they come from? Umpires are at their best when they are unnoticed. No players or managers arguing over calls, no announcers criticizing their poor vision, no fans shouting that they could have made a better call from the upper deck. And there have been some greats among the umpiring brethren. In addition to Rennert, I fondly remember the precision and understatement of Doug Harvey, one of the very few who has been honored in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Of course, sometimes we do know about the umpires, and when we do, it’s not usually for good reasons. There’s “Cowboy” Joe West, known at least as much for his wrestling moves as for his umpiring, and widely perceived as the worst in the business at the latter. There’s “Balkin'” Bob Davidson, whose unofficial nickname is pretty self-explanatory. And there’s Angel Hernandez, a notoriously argumentative umpire whose eyesight is so bad, he can’t even get the call right with the use of video replay.

(The general moral of this story is that if the umpire has a nickname, it’s likely hard earned.)

So when the news came yesterday that retired umpire Frank Pulli had died, those who remembered him reacted with praise, and it was heartwarming. Pulli umpired in the majors for 28 years, during which time worked four World Series, six NLCS, four NLDS, and two All-Star Games. He is perhaps best remembered for his use of a field-level video camera to properly assess a disputed home run call during a 1999 game between the Marlins and the Cardinals. (Naturally, baseball officials reprimanded Pulli for the improper use of technology, with the brilliant argument that “Part of the beauty of baseball is that it is imperfect.”)

You may never have heard of Frank Pulli, and that’s how it should be. He didn’t look for fights with managers or players, and he didn’t seem to be under the delusion that folks bought tickets to watch him umpire. But he did his job, did it well, and did it for a long time. That’s what an umpire should be, and that’s why those were the folks that I most wanted to be like.

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