The other night in Cincinnati Umpire Larry Goetz called an automatic third strike on Redleg Batter Frank Robinson while Robinson was still arguing with him about his call on the second strike. Subsequently, he ordered two of Robinson's protesting teammates from the game, in the next inning threw the opposing catcher, Wes Westrum of the New York Giants, out too for questioning a decision, and finished up by sending New York Manager Bill Rigney and a coach after Westrum. It was, in all, a full evening for Larry and one that the large crowd, which, though booing Goetz, nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed.
Baseball is probably the only sport in which disagreement with the decisions of duly appointed officials is an integral and welcome part of the game itself. In some sports you scarcely ever notice the officials, and in others you are annoyed by them.
But baseball is a spectacle and the actions of the umpire beyond strict performance of duty are part of that spectacle, and so are the reactions of the players to the umpire (or, more rarely, to other players and spectators).
Purists will resent this idea. They hold that arguments and fighting have no place in the game, and that the ideal umpire is he whose decisions go unquestioned and who therefore is not noticed. But baseball, happily, isn't cricket, and even such a conservative baseball man as Will Harridge, the venerable president of the American League, is pro-rhubarb. "I love to see Casey Stengel come out and argue," he recently told John Carmichael of the Chicago Daily News. "And so," he added, "do the fans."
Harridge, of course, is right. Cincinnati Coach Jimmy Dykes was defending a Redleg player a few weeks ago for yelling at an umpire after he had been called out at second base on a close play in a tight game. "Hell," said Jimmy, "if the player don't yell in a spot like that, the fans think he don't give a hoot whether he wins or loses. What do the umpires want him to do, just walk off the field like nothing happened? A player's got to beef."
Most umpires agree that rhubarb is part of the baseball diet, but they feel it must be controlled. In the minor leagues, where umpires frequently lack real authority or command, onfield arguments sometimes become ridiculous in their fury. Baseball isn't all that important.
Larry Goetz will tolerate a ballplayer who has to blow off steam, though admittedly not for very long. But Goetz simply will not condone anything that he believes is undermining the umpire's basic authority and, therefore, his control of the game.
He is forever telling young umpires to clamp down on rebellious players. Goetz feels that once an umpire lets a player get away with abuse of authority, he leaves himself open to an unmerciful bullying. He will then be challenged on every close decision, and the umpires' control of the game will steadily deteriorate.
A few years ago Wally Moon of the St. Louis Cardinals protested a strike called by a young umpire. Hot words were exchanged, and in from the third-base coaching box trotted Eddie Stanky, the skilled umpire-baiter who was then manager of the Cardinals. He soothed Moon, restored peace and then returned, apparently quietly, to his coaching" position. But as he walked past the umpire, he made a tart comment supporting Moon's complaint. Technically, he was disputing the umpire's judgment on balls and strikes, a luxury the rules expressly forbid to managers, lest each of the 150 strike-or-ball decisions in a game inspire argument. Technically, he should have been ordered out of the game. But the young umpire, seeing Stanky walking quietly on toward third base, said and did nothing.
After the game Goetz cornered his young cohort. "You know what you did?" he demanded. "You've made every other umpire's job in this league a little tougher. Unless somebody jumps on those guys right away, they'll be yelling now on every pitch, every decision. You give them an inch and they come at you from every direction.
"You know what it means?" Goetz went on. "It means I got a job to do tomorrow. I have to set those guys straight. Instead of having a nice quiet afternoon behind the plate, I'm going to have a tough job of work."
The next afternoon, with Goetz behind the plate, Wally Moon again took exception to a strike call. Again he lifted his face to the sky in mock despair and turned toward the umpire.
"Don't look at me!" Goetz snapped. "Turn around!"
Moon looked at him in amazement.
"Turn around!" Goetz seethed. "Don't look back at me!"
Moon backed out of the batter's box, angry now himself. In from third raced Stanky. Goetz watched, alert. Again Moon was quieted down, and again Stanky walked around the umpire on his way back to third. As he passed Goetz he murmured the derogatory comment Goetz expected.
Goetz said nothing and did nothing, save to move his left thumb in the general direction of the St. Louis shower room. Stanky walked to the coaching box, turned and faced the plate. Goetz, impassive, looked at him and moved his thumb again. Stanky grinned sheepishly, and walked off the field without a word. Goetz had reestablished command.
Goetz's attitude is undoubtedly the correct one. Rhubarb run wild will choke baseball, and it is best to prune it drastically on occasion with a Goetzian thumb. This may serve to justify Goetz's actions in Cincinnati the other night when Rookie Robinson backed out of the box and started to argue.
Now, there is nothing more galling to an umpire with 20 seasons in the major leagues behind him than having a 20-year-old rookie tell him he is wrong. What the umpire might tolerate in the veteran ballplayer he cannot abide in the neophyte. Goetz told Robinson flatly that the pitch was a strike and that that was that. When Robinson continued to argue, Goetz signaled the pitcher to resume pitching, and when the ball came to the plate he called it strike three. Robinson was out, the inning was over and the 18,909 fans in Crosley Field were ready to throw fellow Cincinnatian Goetz into the Ohio River.
Goetz, however, undoubtedly felt that he was entirely justified. The game, a tense one, had to be controlled; this was almost certainly the reason why he threw Westrum out so quickly in the following inning.
Even Manager Birdie Tebbetts of the Redlegs admitted that Goetz's actions were justified under baseball law, though Birdie did protest that he thought Larry had been a little hasty. At any rate, you can be reasonably sure that the next time young Frank Robinson gets involved in a dispute with Goetz—or any other umpire—he'll know who is in ultimate control of the game and when it is wise to cut the rhubarb.
Here is a new baseball feature. Each week HIGHLIGHT will bring you to the middle of the diamond for a quick, probing look at the week's most significant baseball news, whether it be a sudden return to form by a team hitherto hampered by slumping stars, a trend toward stolen bases or the emergence of an important new pitcher.
Last week, for instance, the pennant races suddenly took clear shape. The New York Yankees stretched their lead at one point to 6½ games, and you could feel despair settle over the rest of the American League. How could anyone possibly catch the awesome Yankees?
And yet New York was playing at almost precisely the same rate they were last year at this time, and later on they slumped quite badly for a spell. The Boston Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles had improved considerably over last year, and the rest of these lesser lights of the league (those who finished fourth through eighth in 1955) were playing at about the same gait. Only the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians had sloughed off, but that, all by itself, was the reason for the Yankees' big lead. The key was the White Sox: they lost their first five games to the Yankees, but beat the Indians six of the first seven, including that big Memorial Day double-header.
In the National League, where the race is an exciting scramble, the teams finally began to assume personality, like a child that has been home from the lying-in hospital for a couple of months and has finally learned how to smile. Hitherto, the personalities of the parents (last year's teams) were ascribed to 1956's infants. Now, though, we know that the Pittsburgh Pirates are more than just precocious children with a knowledge of big words. They are high school kids, with all the enthusiasm and muscles of high school. Very likely they will quiet down but they bear watching, for high school kids are almost men. The Milwaukee Braves are mature, capable and poised. The Cincinnati Redlegs are big and muscle-bound, without much direction. The St. Louis Cardinals are slightly schizophrenic: half reputation and real ability (they produced the season's first triple play last week) and half memories and shaky pitching.
As for the World Champion Brooklyn Dodgers, they are old and tired and just a little desperate.
The word "rhubarb," meaning in baseball a fight or argument, is of recent origin. In 1938 a Brooklyn Dodger fan shot and killed a New York Giant fan in a barroom argument over baseball. A bartender described the incident to Baseball Writer Tom Meany as a "rhubarb," though no one is quite sure why. Meany repeated the word to Baseball Raconteur Garry Schumacher, and Broadcaster Red Barber picked it up after hearing both Meany and Schumacher use it. Barber later utilized the word frequently on his radio broadcasts of Brooklyn Dodger baseball games. He had an immense listening audience and the word soon passed into the language.