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Why Human Baseball Umpires Are An American Tradition Worth Preserving


Whenever I went to the grocery store with my mother as a young child, she always tried to go to the same cashier, even if it meant waiting a few more minutes in line. Her name was Freita, and she was a joy. An older woman, she was warm, affable, and demonstrably proficient at her job. Come Christmas time, I remember my mother multiple times giving her a tip as an expression of thanks and praise for a job well done. Freita was on my mind when I read Nathanael Blake’s recent piece at The Federalist promoting robot umpires in Major League Baseball.

What does a female cashier from more than twenty years ago — presumably long retired — have to do with robot umpires? More than you might think. Cashiers, like umpires in baseball, signify a subtle but important role in our lives. They, like other professions of decreasing value in our digital age, serve a socialization function in our public square. More than that, they also affirm certain traditional ideals difficult to easily explicate: community, American culture, and group identity. Through their absence or marginalization — like newspaper delivery boys or the milkman before — we seem only able to recognize and mourn the loss once it is too late.

Baseball’s Purpose Isn’t Just Excellence

To return to the cashier, grocery stores have undergone a significant shift within the last two decades. In the past, it was impossible to get in and out without some human interaction. Now, with automated, computerized cashiers, one can choose and purchase groceries without speaking a word or making eye contact with a single soul. Many of us appreciate the convenience of technological innovation. Yet it also represents yet another example of an increasingly depersonalized, atomized, anonymous society of lonely Americans more focused on their smartphones than on each other. I miss Freita.

Of course, the primary end of the grocery store is not socialization, but the acquisition of consumer goods. Yet in losing the face-to-face repartee with human cashiers, we find that these establishments are much more than purveyors of products. Removing cashiers communicates to customers that the grocery store is not a place to meet and talk. We don’t hope to see our neighbors and coworkers at the store and strike up conversations, because this would only obstruct the efficiency of getting the chore done. We don’t bother chit-chatting with cashiers for the same reason. They just want their long, tedious shift to be over, just as we want to get through the line. Technological advancement often obscures the secondary and tertiary meaning of things.

We observe the same thing with baseball. As Blake observes, the primary telos of baseball is its role in inculcating and presenting human athletic excellence. He argues, “the excellence of baseball is found in its test of human athlete against human athlete, within the confines of the rules, equipment, and field. The human element of the game is found in the contest between the pitcher and the batter, not between the players and the umpire’s ability to call the strike zone accurately and consistently.”

This is in a sense true — I doubt many people go to a baseball game to watch umpires call balls and strikes, or to eat overpriced hot dogs and drink $12 beers, or to stand up in the seventh inning to sing “take me out to the ball game.” They go to watch the game.

Yet baseball is more than playing (or observing) the athletic experience. Nobody goes to baseball games to consume exorbitantly-expensive food … but we would rightly censure a baseball park that had no pretzels or peanuts. We would feel the loss of a game that had no customary “first pitch.” If there was no custom in the latter innings where everyone stood up to sing a 110-year-old song, we would cry foul. It’s the same with the presence of human umpires.

Baseball, more than any other American sport, is deeply entrenched in our collective history, memory, and identity. It was played during our Civil War more than 150 years ago, and was front-and-center in the racial politics of the mid-twentieth century. The ascendancy of radio and then television was in large part aided by their broadcasting baseball into our homes, offices, and bars.

Many of our peculiar American turns of phrase originate in baseball: “hit it out of the park,” “safe at home,” “three strikes, you’re out,” and “it came out of left field.” Even the numbers of baseball mean something special to Americans: 27 is the number of outs required to pitch a complete game, and 3,000 is the number of hits required to secure a place in the Hall of Fame.

Umpires Do More Than Call Balls And Strikes

The umpire is its own American idiom. He, Blake notes, performs yet another phrase from our national lexicon: “calling balls and strikes.” Yet the umpire does so much more. He, as a human person intimately invested in the nuances of the game and its unique liturgy, provides balance, professionalism, and stability. When pitchers punish batters who crowd the plate, umpires understand what they are doing, something an impersonal computer would be hard pressed to interpret. Umpires intervene when players violate the written — and often unwritten — rules of the game, and we are grateful that they do so.

Umpires and their roles are also inexorably tied to the historical identity of the game. What would the 1888 poem “Casey at the Bat” be without the umpire, whose calls elicit jeers of “fraud” and threats of murder from the crowd? Moreover, it is Casey’s “Christian charity” and sympathy for the umpire that “stilled the rising tumult” of the stadium. Umps also bring personality and texture to the game. Many, with customary flair, provocatively grunt to failed batters “three strikes, yer outta there!” Some umpires in turn have less patience for the theatrics of batters.

Blake is probably right that robots are probably more capable of accurately evaluating balls and strikes. Players and fans know that the umpires’ claim to “call ‘em as I sees ‘em” means exactly that, and that some umps are more generous on the outside corner than others. Yet umpire’s failures are not demonstrative of some deep prejudice against a certain group of players. They make mistakes that affect everyone. Indeed, the worst documented prejudice is a leniency towards all-star players — not exactly a crime worthy of impassioned protest.

Though umpires’ failures are one of the more frustrating elements of baseball, it’s also one of the more human. When umpires fail — as long as they do so without intention or egregious regularity — they remind us that sometimes life isn’t fair. Orioles fans still curse Jeffrey Maier, the then-12-year-old boy who in Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series (ALCS), clearly reached over the fence separating the stands and the field of play and snatched the ball with a glove of his own. The right field umpire immediately (and erroneously) ruled the play a homerun, and the Yankees went on to the win the series. Ask any Orioles fan about what happened in 1996, and watch their expression turn sour.

As baseball fans, in our commiserating over “that f–king call,” we experience a certain solidarity in our shared misery. Think of the generations of Red Sox and Cubs fans who suffered through year after year of defeat without a title, suffering under the curse, respectively, of the Bambino and the Billy Goat. Indeed, everybody at some point has to deal with being passed over for promotion, or being spurned by a love interest, or enduring the same old person getting all the accolades. Sometimes those experiences truly are unjust, but many other times, “dem’s da breaks,” and there’s nothing to do but keep your chin up and get back in there for another at-bat. Baseball speaks to that unfortunate, post-Fall reality of life.

Robot Umpires Would Be More Technocracy

Baseball in recent years has become increasingly dependent on data analytics — consider the 2002 Oakland Athletics and the subsequent movie “Moneyball.” In some respects, this has reinvigorated the game and made it more competitive, but it also has reduced its mystery and aura in favor of mathematical probabilities.

Is there some mathematical or physics-based reason Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games, or that Ted Williams possessed one of the greatest swings of all time? Probably. But who cares? The anecdote of Williams taking his bat everywhere, including his hotel room, where he once accidentally smashed a dresser, is far more inspiring than some mathematical equation. I was inspired by Bob Gibson and Hank Aaron’s miraculous mastery of the game, not Billy Beane’s mathematical ingenuity.

Moreover, the call for robot umpires is reflective of the hyper-rationalism of Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon, the latter asserting that nature must be hounded and made a slave to science, nature’s secrets tortured out of her. Yet baseball is one of the last great vestiges of a dignified conservatism and traditionalism that respects and honors nature. It is amazingly similar to how it was played 100 years ago — the season of play, the bats, the balls, the field, the uniforms, the rules, and far more.

When a child is introduced to baseball, he or she is not encouraged to overcome and manipulate it, but to learn and appreciate it. That’s why the steroid controversy, with its callous abuse of tradition, was such a punch to the gut for the game and its fans.

Baseball must not be enslaved to the same mechanistic, progressivist paradigm worshipped by our technocratic elite, eager to apply supposedly amoral principles to “improve” the game by removing imperfect humans. Nor can we allow baseball to be reduced to maximizing potential in some utilitarian calculus, as if the goal is to enable Clayton Kershaw to achieve the maximum number of strikeouts, or Bryce Harper the maximum number of homeruns. The goal, rather, is to play the game as it has always been played, in humility and child-like wonder at its inherent beauty.

What Is Baseball Without Umpires?

As a teenager in 1960s Huntsville, Alabama, my father umpired little league baseball games. Before one game, one of the coaches approached him and offered my dad some chewing tobacco. Though a smoker, my father had never tried chaw before, and didn’t exactly know what to do with it. He naively stuck the dip in his mouth and he began the game.

A few innings in, a runner made a brazen attempt for home, and there was a close play at the plate. My father leaned in, watched the slide, and declared, with expected gusto and arms extended, “safe!” Except that word wasn’t the only thing that came flying out. Suffering from increasing nausea induced by swallowing too much tobacco juice, he spat out not only the tobacco, but his lunch. The coaches had a good laugh, and my dad learned an important lesson.

Those kinds of stories remind us that baseball is not reducible to the athletic excellence of individual players. It is rather representative of a unique, conservative American traditionalism, with its layers of meaning, purpose, and memory, melding athletic excellence, history, myth, and often incomprehensible, expletive-inducing plain dumb luck.

There are the players, yes, but many other indelible traditions that give it texture and character: pre-game batting practice, signals, stealing bases, infield fly rules, and more than a century of statistics and records. To remove umpires is to lose far more than some errant refs. We would lose a part of baseball’s identity. Dispense with umpires, and we dispense with something that makes baseball uniquely and profoundly American. I beg Major League Baseball, show some Christian charity, and let those men in blue keep calling those dun spheres.