Back from a close call

Bill Kunkel is umpiring again after an off-season battle with the Big C
June 20, 1982

As rain fell on the turf of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium one recent evening, the umpiring firm of Kunkel, Cooney, Voltaggio & Shulock sat half-dressed, trading badinage and movie reviews, waiting patiently at 7:50 for the 7:30 game to start.

"It's out of my hands," said Bill Kunkel, 45, the firm's senior partner and crew chief. "Whether the game begins is up to the home team. It's only after the game starts that I take control."

Except for times like these, the ump is the authority, and as such, he's the object of everything from sycophancy to kicked dirt. "Even the Lord would be in trouble out there sometimes," said Kunkel in discussing the impossibility of keeping everyone happy while calling outs. "On certain decisions, heat is going to come from somewhere. You have to be of even temper and, most important, be consistent." He laughed. "Consistency. That's the big C."

It may be that, but it isn't as big as another "C" Kunkel has had to deal with. "I began to see blood in my stool during the middle of last season," he said. "He was complaining of pain in his midsection," said Terry Cooney. "We kept after him to go in and see about it."

Kunkel was examined by a doctor during a series in Minnesota last September. He was told that he had a rectal tumor. There was a 95% chance the tumor was malignant and a 25% chance it had already spread to other systems. Kunkel's season was over, and he feared he might never have another one.

"I just said, 'Thanks Doc,' and walked out," said Kunkel. "I was thinking I had two weeks to live. The one individual you turn to in that situation is the Lord. Before I left Minnesota, I had a long, quiet conversation with Him. After that, I felt the cancer would only be a temporary thing."

Even so, Kunkel prepared his family for the worst. First, he let his wife, Maxine, in on the bad news. "Then I got my kids together," he says, "and I told them that I loved them, had watched them grow up as best I could, and had played in one World Series and umpired in two. I told them I thought I had lived a tremendous life, and if the Lord took me right then, it would be like I had lived 150 years."

Kunkel's family is special. Son Kevin, 18, is a righthanded pitcher who would surely have gone in an early round of the June 7 free-agent draft had he not decided to attend Stanford this fall. Son Jeff, 20, is a shortstop at New Jersey's Rider College who is now competing in the Alaska summer league for college players. Daughter Lisa, 17, is the star pitcher and shortstop for her softball team at Middletown (N.J.) South High School.

Kunkel had given up his other career, as a basketball official, to spend more time with them. He had refereed ACC and ECAC games, among others, for more than 20 years. "I quit basketball in 1978, but I'm still gone 200 days a year with baseball," Kunkel says.

Last Sept. 22, a week after Kunkel talked to his family, he underwent the first stage of two-part surgery in which Dr. Thomas Gouge of the New York University Medical Center removed nearly all of Kunkel's colon. During his recovery Kunkel roamed around the hospital, regaling staff and visitors with 28 years' worth of umpire stories, and sorted through "thousands and thousands" of get-well wishes. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn wrote; California Governor Jerry Brown sent a card. And Yankee owner George Steinbrenner offered to pick up any medical expenses Kunkel's insurance didn't cover.

"On some days I'd walk through the hospital for four or five hours," he says. "I'm sure that helped. I was never in much pain; I suppose it was more of a severe discomfort. Every once in a while I thought about it, death. You're never completely free of those kinds of thoughts. But when this happened, after I left the hospital I'd take my mind off it by adjusting the timing on my car, or pulling out a spark plug and putting it back in, or going down to Joe Julian's Fish and Tackle store in Atlantic Highlands, getting a lure, a rod and a boat and then doing what I love to do—fish."

Kunkel's therapy included 28 radiation treatments from October through Christmas Eve. He lost 12 pounds but kept his hair. Through it all "the single strongest factor in my life was my wife," he says. Maxine, a biology teacher at Middletown North High, drove the 100-mile round trip to the NYU Medical Center each evening during his convalescence. "We were frightened, but we had confidence in the doctors," she says.

"Since this happened, I've become a weekend doctor," says Kunkel. "Twenty-five years ago, this disease had a 100 percent termination rate. Now, it's 27 percent. I talk to other patients every week. The message I want to deliver is hope."

By the time exhibition games began this spring, Kunkel was ready to go back to work. "At first," he says, "the players didn't know if they should look at me, say hello, or what. But when that bell rang on Opening Day, everybody was a professional. Nobody's babying me now."

Although Kunkel is a former major league pitcher—he was 6-6 with Kansas City and New York from 1961 through '63—it was his wife who urged him to become an umpire. "It had never even crossed my mind," he says. "But my playing days were over, I could see that. Eddie Robinson was assistant general manager with Houston then, and he offered me a minor league managing job. But in the waiting period, three big league managers were fired. That wasn't enough security for me." Then my wife asked me, why not umpire? I laughed at her at first."

It took only three years of work in the Florida State and Southern leagues before Kunkel was back in the majors, in 1968. In the 14 years since, he has built a solid reputation. "Hard worker, hard in every phase of it," says Vic Voltaggio. "Devoted, not just to the job but to the game," says John Shulock.

Baseball men don't gush over Kunkel's command of the strike zone, but no one disparages it, either. In the American League, the best at calling balls and strikes are Steve Palermo and Ken Kaiser, followed by Marty Springstead and Bill Haller, according to players who prefer to remain anonymous and to Elrod Hendricks, the Orioles' bullpen coach and former catcher.

"I respect Kunkel because it's obvious he cares about what he does," says Hendricks. "The best umpires in this league are Palermo and Kaiser. But they can overly dominate. Kunkel you don't see."

The rain-delayed game was postponed, but the next night was sweet and clear and the scorecard read: "HP Kunkel, 1B Cooney, 2B Voltaggio, 3B Shulock." Frank Tanana of the Rangers threw a neat four-hitter. Time of game, 2:02, including a fifth-inning pitching change by Manager Earl Weaver, the only time he and Kunkel so much as made eye contact.

"Tanana moved that fastball in and out, then dropped the curve over any time he wanted," said a lamenting Weaver. "Reminded me of Cuellar."

Hendricks had one question. "Did you see Kunkel out there?"

"Barely," someone answered.

Hendricks nodded and smiled.

"Ah, I don't mind saying it," Weaver said. "They've got a lonely job."

In the umpire's quarters, Kunkel sat half-dressed while his three close friends dissected Rocky III. "Oh, I don't know," he said. "It's a tough life, umpiring. But it's a life."

Bill Kunkel, book umpire, is never likely to second-guess that call.