Through An Official's Eye
Donald Jensen was struck in the head by a thrown bat while umpiring a little league game in Terre Haute, Indiana. He continued to work the game, but later that evening was placed in the hospital by a doctor. While being kept overnight for observation, Jensen wrote the following letter:
Dear Parent of a Little Leaguer:
I'm an umpire. I don't do it for a living, but only on Saturdays and Sundays for fun. I've played the game, coached it and watched it. But somehow, nothing takes the place of umpiring. Maybe it's because I feel that deep down I'm providing a fair chance for all the kids to play the game without disagreements and arguments.
With all the fun I've had, there is still something that bothers me about my job. Some of you folks don't understand why I'm here. Some of you feel I'm there to exert authority over your son. For that reason, you often yell at me when I make a mistake, or encourage your son to say things that hurt my feelings. How many of you really understand that I try to be perfect? I try not to make a mistake. I don't want your son to feel he got a bad deal from an umpire. Yet not matter how hard I try, I can't be perfect. I counted the number of calls I made in a six-inning game today. The total number of decisions, whether on balls and strikes or safe and outs, was 146. I tried my best to get them all right, but I'm sure I missed some. When I figured out my percentage on paper, I could have missed eight calls today and still gotten about 95 percent of the calls right. In most occupations that percentage would be considered excellent. If I were in school, that grade would receive an A for sure.
But your demands are higher than that. Let me tell you more about my game today. There was one real close call that ended the game. A runner for the home team was trying to steal the plate on a passed ball. The catcher chased the ball down and threw to the pitcher covering the plate. The pitcher made the tag and I called the runner out. As I was getting my equipment to leave, I overheard one of the parents comment, "It's too bad the kids have to lose games because of rotten umpires. That was one of the lousiest calls I've ever seen." Later, at the concession stand, a couple of kids were telling their friends, "Boy, the umpires were lousy today. They lost the game for us." I felt just terrible when I got home. Here was a group of kids who had made a lot of mistakes which had cost them a number of runs.
The purpose of Little League is to teach baseball skills to young men. Obviously', a team which does not play well in a given game, yet is given the opportunity to blame that loss on an umpire for one call or two, is being given the chance to take all responsibility for the loss from their shoulders. A parent or adult leader who permits the younger player to blame his failures on an umpire, regardless of the quality of that umpire, is doing the worst kind of injustice to that youngster. Rather than learning responsibility, such an attitude is fostering an improper outlook toward the ideals of the game itself. This irresponsibility is bound to carry over to future years.
As I sit here writing this letter, I am no longer as upset as I was this afternoon, I wanted to quit umpiring, but fortunately, my wife reminded me of another situation that occurred last week. I was umpiring behind the plate for a pitcher who pantomimed his displeasure at any call on a borderline pitch that was not in his team's favor. One could sense that he wanted the crowd to realize that he was a fine, talented player who was doing his best to get along, but that I was a black-hearted villain who was working against him. The kid continued acting like this for two innings, while at the same time yelling at his own players, who dared to make a mistake. For two innings the manager watched this. When the kid returned to the dugout to bat in the top of the third, the manager called him aside. In a voice loud enough that I was able to overhear, the lecture went like this: "Listen son, it is time you mike a decision. You can be an umpire, an actor, or a pitcher. But you can only be one at a time when you are playing for me. Right now it is your job to pitch. And, you are basically doing a lousy job. Leave the acting to actors, the umpiring to the umpires, or you won't do any pitching here. Now what is it going to be?"
Needless to say, the kid chose the pitching route and went on to win the game. When the game was over the kid followed me to my car. Fighting his hardest to keep back the tears he apologized for his actions and thanked me for umpiring his game. He said he had learned a lesson that he would never forget.
I can't help but wonder how many more fine young men are missing their chance to develop into outstanding ball players because their parents encourage them to spend time umpping.
The following morning Donald Jensen died of a brain concussion.
From the Washington Journal of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, spring 1975.