It was July of 2006, a sultry summer evening in New York, and I was sitting at a table in the Sheraton Hotel bar with former Yankees pitcher Don Larsen and his wife Corinne; Arthur Richman,* an executive with the Yankees and my longtime friend and mentor, and his wife Martha; the utterly charming Charlie Silvera, a back-up catcher with the Bombers during Yogi Berra's reign; my darling nephew Jesse Kertland; and some friends from New Jersey, Lisa and Gino Pesci and their philanthropist son Michael, who started a charity tournament called the Perfect Pitch Home Run Derby when he was eleven years old which the Larsens, Richmans, and I had been supporting since its inception in 2002. We were there at an "after party" to conclude the festivities of Old Timers' Day, an annual rite that brings Yankees stars of yore to the Bronx each summer for a day of revelry and remembrance. Larsen had been greeted with a swell of noisy, emotional adoration from fifty-five thousand fans when Bob Sheppard's distinctively dulcet tones introduced him to the crowd that afternoon in recognition of his singular achievement during the World Series fifty years earlier. He had pitched a perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers of Jackie Robinson, Sal Maglie, and Roy Campanella that fateful October day in 1956, the only perfecto ever hurled during the fall classic, and a half century later there we all were, raising a toast to him and Corinne at a west side hotel, happy to be with each other and looking forward to the future even as we celebrated the distant past. At some point I got up and wandered around for a few minutes, curious to see who else was there, and recognized a silvery-maned figure sitting all by himself in a dark corner nursing what looked like a pretty lonesome drink. I wondered if he was waiting for someone to return or perhaps getting ready to leave, then decided to just take the bull by the horns in my typically pushy way and "introduce" myself while I had the chance.
I say "introduce" in quotation marks because I had actually met him before on several occasions but was sure he wouldn't remember, as our prior encounters had always occurred in group settings during which I did little to make myself memorable to him. So I approached, tentatively, and spoke his name as if it were a question rather than an a positive identification even though I knew perfectly well who he was. "Doug?" I said. He looked up, surprised. It was Doug Harvey, National League umpire emeritus who had worked the old-timers' game that afternoon fourteen years after his formal retirement from a distinguished major league career that spanned four decades. "I'm a Harry Wendelstedt graduate," I offered, letting him know right away that I, a veteran of his former colleague's umpire school in Florida, was his credentialed "sister in blue." He beamed at me, his grin lighting up the dim recesses of the Sheraton bar as he stood and extended his hand. "Well, hello there, young lady," he replied in a raspy drawl. "I don't meet many umpires who look like you!" he joked. I wasn't put off in the least by the clumsy cliché, which I've heard enough times to make it merely tiresome rather than artful; but spoken by him at that moment in that setting, it was completely earnest and disarming.
I reminded Doug that we had first met fifteen years earlier at a National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) conference hosted by Referee Magazine when I was a young umpire with sturdy knees and lofty aspirations and he was a National League arbiter in the waning days of his major league tenure, but still very much on top of his game. He asked where I was umpiring currently, and I was about to launch into a litany of my own personal career milestones when I realized he was still standing, ever the courtly gentleman. "I'm sitting over there with some friends," I told him. "Would you like to join us?" I was mildly amazed and gratified when he picked up his drink with no further prompting and accompanied me to where the Larsens, Richmans, and Pescis were seated. I walked Doug to the head of the table and was about to introduce him to Don and Corinne when something happened that made my jaw drop.
Larsen, all six feet six inches of him, uncoiled from his chair and stood there towering menacingly over the unsuspecting arbiter, glaring down at us before I could say a word. His unexpectedly hostile posture made my eyes go wide and my mouth slack, as I couldn't fathom that he would be upset about my bringing an umpire over to meet him. I'd never heard him say a single uncomplimentary thing about any umpire, ever, even though I'd asked him many times if he felt he'd been given some bad (or lucky) breaks. My heart was beating wildly as I stood there speechless and rooted to the spot, thinking I'd done something really ill-considered, when suddenly Don and Doug fell into each other's arms! They embraced as excitedly as long-lost brothers, their elation contagious and uplifting. "So I guess you two know each other?" I laughed, their unwitting dea ex machina. It turned out they had both grown up around San Diego and known each other since they were teenagers by way of a basketball league for which Doug, natch, refereed and Don played. I was so thrilled to be the instrument of their reunion that I just sat there basking in their mutual delight, my initial inclination to sequester Doug in order to probe him about his umpiring philosophies rapidly evaporating in the vicarious joy of the moment. Although they had seen each other on the field only hours earlier, professional decorum had restrained them from fraternizing in public, so the opportunity to reminisce and recount good times together later on was a mitzvah - for me as well as for them.
A few days ago, word came out of the baseball winter meetings in Indianapolis that Doug Harvey was elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown by the Veterans' Committee and will be inducted (along with a manager named Whitey something-or-other) into that hallowed assemblage next July 2010. He'll be joining only eight other umpires thus enshrined, rendering their octet a nonet at last: an ennead of umpires, enough to finally form their own team! The previous eight are: Tom Connolly, Cal Hubbard, Bill McGowan, Bill Klem, Billy Evans, Jocko Conlan, Nestor Chylak, and Al Barlick. All of them served long and honorably as major league umpires, but none was called "God" or "The Lord" as Doug Harvey was. (Klem was tagged "Catfish," a slightly less awe-inspiring nickname than "God" that he reportedly and quite justifiably hated.) Doug's deification was a sincere homage to his extraordinary talent; even in the twilight of his career, he still had the best mechanics and timing of any umpire I've ever watched except perhaps for the late, great Augie Donatelli. Harvey was so good and so well-respected by his contemporaries that the National League jettisoned the mandatory retirement age when he reached it, allowing him to extend his career another half decade until illness and infirmity finally sidelined him. He developed cancer from chewing smokeless tobacco - whether on or off the field he would often have a trademark chaw in his cheek and a ubiquitous spit cup, which I always thought was disgusting and was the reason I had refrained from approaching him until that night in 2006 - and his vice has taken a terrible toll on his health, but not his spirit. Doug is a living testament to the devastating effects of his nasty habit, but also of the indomitable resilience of humankind. His body and soul have borne him through the ravages of a terrible disease while rendering him stronger, wiser, tougher, and kept him here among us long enough for him to enjoy his induction into the pantheon of his peers.
Here are his stats, courtesy of the Hall of Fame:
Born March 13, 1930, in South Gate, Calif., Harvey did not umpire a game until he was 16 years old. But three years later, Harvey was asked by his father – an alternate umpire in the Class C Sunset League – if he wanted to work a series of games in Mexico. Thirteen years later, Harvey began a 31-year career in the National League when he worked third base in the Reds’ 6-3 win over Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium.
Harvey worked 4,670 games during his 31 years in the big leagues, including nine National League Championship Series, five World Series and six All-Star Games. He served as a crew chief in 18 of his seasons.
In 1974, Harvey was ranked as the best umpire in the National League by the Major League Player’ Association – the only ump to receive an “excellent” rating.
He was the last umpire hired in the big leagues who did not attend umpire school.
UMPIRING LOG: 1958‑1960...............................................California State League
1961............................................................Pacific Coast League
1961................................................... Puerto Rico Winter League
In umpiring lingo, the highest accolade any of us can bestow upon a partner is this short and sweet encomium: "Good job." Doug Harvey didn't do just a good job during his three decades as a major league umpire; he did better than that. Much better. He truly is one of the greats, richly deserving of the honor recently bestowed upon him. Perhaps his election to the Hall of Fame will spur the Veterans' Committee to appoint more of his colleagues to the constellation of arbiters already there, including the aforementioned Harry Wendelstedt.
* Arthur went bye-bye Babylon this past March 24th, three days after his eighty-third birthday. L'chaim and mazeltov, Artie!