Ex-umpire calls them like he sees them in biography

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Umpiring, Doug Harvey writes in his autobiography, “is like a disease.”

Hooked at an early age, Harvey umpired for 31 major-league seasons and 4,673 games and “loved every minute of it.” He was the ninth umpire to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame (Hank O’ Day became No. 10 in 2013). Notified by the Society for American Baseball Research that he was voted the second best umpire of all-time behind Bill Klem, Harvey’s response was typical.

“Dig him up,” said Harvey, who turned 84 on March 13 and is battling cancer of the throat. “Let’s have a go at it.”

That’s the pugnacious backdrop for Harvey’s book, co-written with author Peter Golenbock. “They Called Me God: The Best Umpire Who Ever Lived” (Gallery Books; hardback, $27, 274 pages) is a cantankerous, funny, breezy, blunt and gruff look at Harvey’s career as an umpire (and as a basketball referee, too).

The title tells the reader where Harvey stands on the subject of umpiring and the respect he deserved (“if you called me anything but sir, Mr. Umpire, or Doug, you’d be ejected,” he says). He believed he was the best (players gave him the nickname “God”), and he was on the field for some of baseball’s most memorable calls — Kirk Gibson’s home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, the Juan Marichal-John Roseboro bat incident in August 1965, and the 1968 World Series, where his correct “out” call of Lou Brock at the plate in Game 5 was the turning point of the series.

But for a guy who prided himself — and deservedly so — on getting his calls right, Harvey has a few factual lapses in this book that should have been caught by Golenbock or by those who edited the book.

More on that in a bit.

Harvey’s life story is a classic tale of a man determined to be the best at his craft. He was a hard worker as a youth, following the lead of his father (a man with a strong work ethic and values who also umpired). He had a failed first marriage and a troubled son from that reunion, but his second marriage has lasted more than 50 years and produced two sons. He writes vividly about his ascent from the low minors to the major leagues, peppering the reader with entertaining stories at each level. Readers will discover who Harvey enjoyed watching (Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton and Pete Rose are a few), and managers he’d butt heads with (Tom Lasorda, Red Schoendienst and Fred Hutchinson).

Harvey benefited from the knowledge of his first crew chief in the majors, fellow Hall of Famer Al Barlick, but also weathered the brunt of the umpire’s anger and disdain. Barlick had another umpire in mind for promotion to the majors instead of Harvey but was overruled.

Harvey’s philosophies of umpiring are solid and smart, and umpires today certainly could learn something from his “Twenty Second Rule,” for example. Harvey always gave a manager or player 20 seconds to explain himself, then would say, “now it’s my turn.” Then he would give his reasoning, backed by his knowledge of the baseball rulebook.

Control was important, and Harvey never lost it. “If you can get rid of the screaming and hollering, you’ve got them,” he writes.

And if a player or manager would continue to be a pain, Harvey would find a way to even the score, if not right away, then down the road. That makes for some hilarious (for the reader, not the players) anecdotes. Harvey had integrity, but he was not beneath a little payback when he believed the occasion merited it.

Harvey umpired in the National League from 1962 through 1992. He writes that the first player he ejected in his rookie season was Joe Torre of the St. Louis Cardinals; however, Torre was playing for the Milwaukee Braves.

Also in that rookie season, Harvey tells about an important lesson he learned, about calling a pitch a strike before it crossed the plate. He writes that he called the batter out on strikes to end the second inning and even gives the date (May 11, 1962). The batter never looked at him, but calmly said over his shoulder, “young fella, I don’t know what league you came from, but home plate is seventeen inches wide, same as it is here. If you want to stay up here, wait until the ball crosses the plate before you call it.”

The hitter was Stan Musial.

Fantastic story. Except Musial, who indeed was called out on strikes, led off the inning.

Harvey writes that “one evening in Cincinnati, a writer came into our dressing room before a ball game” to tell the umpires about the death of Hutchinson. That’s an unlikely scenario, since Hutchinson died on Nov. 12, 1964 — nearly a month after the World Series ended. He also writes that Hutch left the Reds during the middle of the 1963 season, when in fact, it was 1964.

And even in the 1968 World Series, in the pivotal play that involved Brock being tagged out by Bill Freehan (“Had Brock slid, he would have been safe, and I’d have called him safe. But he didn’t, and it changed baseball history”), Harvey writes that St. Louis was ahead 3-0, when in fact, it was 3-2.

There are a few others, but these were the most glaring.

Harvey gives the reader a sense of the lonely road life of an umpire, who has to remain neutral even away from the field. Alcoholism was common, and until umpires formed a union, medical and retirement benefits were woefully inadequate.

Harvey’s stories, even the ones that might be a bit incorrect, are interesting and makes this book an extremely fast read. There is a truly funny story about Lou Piniella near the end of the book that I won’t spoil by revealing, but even Lou still would be red-faced about it. And Harvey’s induction into the Hall of Fame was a touching, satisfying moment.

There is no doubting his sincerity when Harvey writes that “I never should have retired.”

“I’ve regretted it ever since,” he laments.

Umpiring is a thankless job, in which the arbiters are supposed to be perfect on Day One and improve with experience. Harvey came as close as any to stay perfect during his career, and while “They Call Me God” has some flaws, it remains an engaging read.
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  1. Meliah's Avatar
    I bet it's an interesting read. In regards to the mistakes I would blame the editors/fact checkers and not Harvey, guy is 84 and can not be expected to remember exact dates or if Musial led off or finished an inning over 50 years ago