George Herman McClusky and his grandson, Joe, loved baseball. George tried out for every navy softball or baseball team on every ship or station but could only make the lineup as a right fielder on pickup games when only eight others showed up.
His grandson had a better shot. Mike, his dad managed the Reds, a Little League team. Joe was a fair to middling player who pitched and played other positions as well.
The three of them even made it to a World Series game in person. A few days after the World Series, Joe was playing in his own game in an off season practice league. Unlike at A T & T park in San Francisco the crowd the gathering at Sweetwater Little League field was shy of a sellout and would have been if capacity had been a couple dozen.
The big leaguers played nearly flawless ball. The Little League Reds and Pirates weren’t quite as perfect. The six umpires at the World Series game were highly paid professionals. The sole umpire at the Little League game was an amateur. The professional’s job was made easy by major league players. Big leaguers never run the wrong direction on the bases, nor do they stop playing to stare at airplanes flying over.
George Herman was the sole umpire at the little league game where watching airplanes was just as important was watching the ball, and a kid might head back to first from second if he left his hat behind, or if he just felt like it.
George Herman’s son, Mike, had cajoled him into officiating in a post-season practice league game. What’s more, he had to do his umpiring forty-six feet from the plate. Someone forgot to bring the face mask so he made his calls standing on the pitcher’s mound. Still the old man would give it his best. He had too much respect for the tradition of baseball to do anything else.
He had a couple things going for him. First was the unofficial rule was that nobody argued with the umpire. That rule was obeyed stringently by the coaches, and sometimes by the kids themselves. Also George Herman remembered an umpire from his own youth, George Magerkurth. Magerkurth was bigger than most players and tried with some success to cow them into silence with his size and wild histrionics.
George Herman, himself about the old umpire’s size, added his own histrionics for a good reason. It would take a brave kid to challenge a guy that big, especially if the big guy was making all that noise while jumping around like a cartoon character.
It was game time, and the pitcher warmed up, and warmed up, and warmed up. Finally the ersatz Magerkurth asked the kid if he was ready. The kid stared back and didn’t answer.
“Hey, kid. You loose?”
The youngster stared some more, then threw to the catcher again.
“Look, we don’t have all day. You about ready?” Again, another stare, then he chucked it to the catcher again.
This was getting silly. The ump shouted to his son sitting on the bench.“ Hey, Mike Your pitcher about ready? He won’t talk to me.”
“Oh, he doesn’t speak English. He just moved here from Japan. Take the ball from him and don’t give it back or he’ll keep playing catch all day. He loves to play catch.”
The Reds, Joe’s team, had won practically every game in the short season, and they didn’t want to get beat by the Pirates who hadn’t won a single one. A victory by the Pirates would make the season a success, at least for the day. Tomorrow would take care of itself.
Finally they got underway and the game bumped along, inning by inning.
Both managers had promised each player he could pitch to a batter or so. One kid couldn’t get past the warm-up stage. His best pitch missed home plate by a couple feet. The harder he tried, the worse he got. Then, the young fellow remembered he had a serious stomach ache and said he’d feel better if he was in right field.
Not long after that the ump had one of those challenges a guy loves when things are going right. The batter lofted a high one down the right field line. As befits a good ump, George Herman hustled over to get a good look at it. It didn’t help. The chalk mark must have been laid down by one of the kids while he was watching an airplane. The line skewed towards center field, then petered out. The ball landed in no-man’s land. It was either fail, foul, or too close to call.
According to tradition, the umpire is only supposed to make a verbal call if the ball is foul, but with kids if he doesn’t say something they will all stop and wait. In his best Magerkurth voice he made the call. “FAIR BALL!” The right fielder who couldn’t find home plate a little earlier grabbed the thing and made the best throw of the game, right to the second baseman. The infielder tagged the batter, and held on.
“YER OUT,” bellowed the ump. Then he whirled to see the other runner almost, but not quite, at home plate. He ran towards home and shouted “THIS RUN DOESN’T COUNT!” Twas a critical call because that run would have made it 14 to 4, Pirates.
That call also earned George Herman his only sign of approval the entire game. Mike gave his dad a little smile and almost nodded his head. The umpire remained stoic. Umpires don’t smile. They do stick their tongues out now and then though. An inning or so later he called a close--but correct he was pretty sure--third strike on his grandson. Joe gave his grandfather a scowl and looked like he was going to break rule number one. George Herman gave the kid the tongue. Joe returned the salute, but followed it with a smile. Hey, they were going for a bike ride after the game.
Even easy calls aren’t easy in Little League practice games. A batter socked one high over the fence. It was, as they say nowadays, a no-doubter. The ball cleared the fence by ten feet, hit a tree, and bounced back onto the field. George Herman had a call nobody could blow. He gave the traditional signal by pointing skyward and making a circle with his finger.
As usual, he should have shouted. In the absence of any verbal direction, the left fielder invoked his own rule. He’d play any ball that got into his territory, no matter how it got there. The kid grabbed it and fired a strike to the shortstop who had wandered out to the cutoff position merely to watch the home run.
The shortstop, not quite sure what to do, whirled and pegged the ball right to the catcher who chased the runner back towards third. The kid on third, who would have been heading for home himself except that he had stopped to watch an airplane, headed back towards second.
Confusion set in. Kids ran the bases counterclockwise then clockwise. The ball was thrown willy-nilly. George Herman thought one of the runners passed another, but he figured
nobody else knew for sure. To settle things once and for all he got hold of the ball, put it in his pocket, lined up the runners and marched them across home plate.
Then he found the kid who had hit his first ever homer and gave him the ball, or one about like it anyhow.
Finally the game came down to the final at bat. Thanks in part to the homer the Reds had fought back and were within one big swing of yet another win, thus relegating the Pirates to a winless season. The overdogs were down one run with two ducks on the pond, two outs, and two strikes on their batter.
The umpire didn’t want a tough call at this point, but easy calls are for the Major Leagues. The Little League pitcher could have passed for a miniature version of 1940’s Rip Sewell. The one-time Pirate pitcher threw what he called an eephus pitch. It was a lob that went high in the air and came down, almost vertically, across the strike zone. Unfortunately Sewell’s most notable eephus pitch was one served to Ted Williams in an all-star game. Williams knocked it out of sight.
George Herman cast a quick glace toward the sky, ignored a passing plane, and pleaded with the baseball gods to help the pitcher put one right down the middle. Likely that’s what the pitcher tried to do, but it had all the zip of a eephus ball tacking into the wind. The dying quail tailed away to catch the corner, or pretty close anyhow. He heard somebody shout, “STEEERIKE THREE, YER OUT!”
It was him. The game was over.
The Pirates poured out of the dugout to celebrate their only victory. The Reds made do with that “TWO FOUR SIX EIGHT, WHO DO WE APPRECIATE” thing.
The parents hugged their kids and told them they were proud of them.
The managers congratulated each other.
The umpire walked to his car all alone. Nobody said a word to him.