You’ve probably never heard of Bill Klem or Doug Harvey, but chances are you might wish they were alive today. Why? Because Klem and Harvey are considered the #1 and #2 greatest umpires of all time.
In fact, Bill Klem was so superb at calling balls and strikes that he umpired exclusively behind home plate for 16 seasons. Few umpires today are revered like that. Many are disliked and disrespected. There are plenty of players, managers and fans who are not happy with the state of umpiring these days.
Has the game changed, or have the umpires? It wasn’t always like this.
Hall of Fame Umpires
So, now might be a good time to look at two of the best umpires of all time, according to historians and those who follow the game closely, then and now, such as the Society for American Baseball Research. It may be hard to believe, but there are only 10 umpires in the Hall of Fame.
Here are the names of the umpires in the Baseball Hall of Fame, along with the year they were enshrined: Bill Klem (1953), Tom Connolly (1953), Billy Evans (1973), Jocko Conlon (1974), Cal Hubbard (1976), Al Barlick (1989), Bill McGowan (1992), Nestor Chylak (1999), Doug Harvey (2010) and Hank O’Day (2013).
Here’s a quick look Bill Klem and Doug Harvey, two of the best ever.
Bill Klem: “The Old Arbiter”
National League Umpire, 1905–1941
Some historians say Klem is credited with introducing hand and arm signals to the game (and Klem liked to say it himself). It was likely intended for the fans, but perhaps also for the players in the field. He came up with the signals for balls and strikes, as well as fair or foul batted balls. He said, “That guy in a twenty-five-cent bleacher seat is as much entitled to know a call as the guy in the boxes. He can see my arm signal even if he can’t hear my voice.”
Klem was the first ump to wear a chest protector, and he worked during a time when just one ump handled a game by himself. He umpired in the National League from 1905 to 1941 and was one of the League’s most respected. He said, “Your job is to umpire for the ball and not the player.”
Evidently, if a player or manager was protesting a call, Klem would make a line in the dirt with his shoe. If someone “crossed the line” while arguing, Klem would eject him from the game.
Klem held many records, including umpiring in 18 World Series (103 games, the all-time record). He finished his career having umpired 5,375 regular-season MLB games (all in the National League), 103 postseason games (all World Series) and two MLB All-Star Games.
He is now second on the list of most regular-season games called. (His record was broken just this year!) He loved baseball, and after retiring as an active ump, he was chief of the League’s umpire staff…right up until he passed away in 1951. Bill Klem was one of the first two umpires elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953.
His umpire number was “1,” and it’s retired by Major League Baseball. Sort of. Umpire Bruce Dreckman currently wears number 1, even though Klem’s number is “retired.”
Doug Harvey: “God”
National League Umpire: 1962–1992
Doug Harvey is one of the most recent umpires inducted into the Hall of Fame and perhaps one of the most respected. In his three decades of umpiring, Harvey never called a no-hitter, but he was behind the plate when Kirk Gibson hit his famous home run against Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series. Harvey was quoted as saying, “The integrity of the game is the umpires. Nobody else.”
With a father who was an umpire, Doug Harvey knew at the age of six that he wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps. It didn’t go too smoothly, but he impressed some baseball scouts and former umpires when they saw him behind the plate, so they put in a good word with their contacts. He finally reached the Majors in 1962 and joined the crew of Al Barlick, Shag Crawford and Ed Vargo—seasoned and well-known umps of their day.
The first player Harvey ejected was Joe Torre, in 1962. Thirty years later, in Harvey’s final season, he tossed Torre out of the game in the ninth inning, in a meaningless game in late September. It had all been prearranged, and Torre was just fine with being Harvey’s first and last ejections. Harvey had a personal goal of umpiring 5,000 games, but health issues forced him to retire in 1992 with 4,673. At the time, that was the third most in MLB history, behind Bill Klem and Tom Connolly, but now he is sixth on the all-time list.
When he retired, he was the most respected umpire in the game. The famous sportswriter, Jerome Holtzman, wrote, “Many players and managers refer to Harvey as ‘God’ because in 22 years in the National League, he has yet to make a wrong call.” Doug Harvey passed away in 2018.
Side note: Doug Harvey and Joe West, another long-time umpire, appeared together in the 1988 comedy The Naked Gun. Speaking of Joe West…
“Cowboy Joe” in the Hall of Fame?
Will Joe West, who retired at the end of the 2021 season, wind up in the Hall of Fame? Should he? West broke Bill Klem’s record for most games umpired in May of 2021 with his 5,376th game. West had come back for the 2021 campaign, he said, to break Klem’s record.
Joe West has also recorded two country music albums, which is why he’s also nicknamed “Country Joe.” The fact is though that he’s had many managers and players singing the blues during his baseball tenure.
He’s been called one of the best and one of the worst by many. He’s brought a lot of attention to himself for all the wrong reasons. While many may have been singing his praises as he retired, there were others glad to see the singing umpire heading for the exit.
If longevity alone gets you into the Hall of Fame as an umpire, West surely will get it. However, if they review his career and ask players and managers what they think of him, it might turn out differently.
Time will tell.
Resources: espn.com/mlb/story/umpire-joe-west;sabr.org/journal/article/men-in-blue; baseball-almanac.com/umpireswhowereplayers; mlb.com/umpires/history/records; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_League_Baseball_umpiring_records; mlb.com/official-information/umpires