George Will

WASHINGTON -- In Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," a time-traveling American brought baseball to 6th-century England, where arguments with umpires were robust: "The umpire's first decision was usually his last. ... When it was noticed that no umpire ever survived a game, umpiring got to be unpopular." But it remains a necessary, extraordinarily demanding and insufficiently appreciated craft.

Now, however, comes "As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires" by Bruce Weber of The New York Times. Forests are felled to produce baseball books, about 600 a year, most of them not worth the paper they should never have been printed on. Weber's, however, is a terrific introduction to, among much else, the rule book's Talmudic subtleties, such as:

A great fielding play can cost the fielder's team the game. With less than two out, if a player makes a catch and falls into the stands, every runner moves up a base. So with a runner on third in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game, if a fielder makes a catch but his momentum flips him over the railing into the seats, his team loses.

Also: There is a play on which the umpire must give a manager a choice of two different outcomes on a batted ball. With one out and runners on first and third, the batter swings, his bat ticks the catcher's glove but drives a fly ball that is caught by an outfielder. The runner on third tags and scores, the runner on first stays there. But because the catcher interfered with the batter's swing, the umpire awards the batter first base, moving the runner there to second. Because that nullifies the sacrifice fly, the runner who scored is returned to third. But why should the batting team lose a run because the other team's catcher committed an infraction? So the manager of the team at bat is given a choice -- bases loaded, one out, no run in, or man on first, two out, one run in.

Umpires -- the only people who are on the field during the entire game and the only ones indifferent to the outcome -- were depicted in pre-Civil War drawings wearing top hats and carrying walking sticks. An account of the (supposedly) first game between organized teams -- June 19, 1846, in Hoboken, N.J. -- mentioned the umpire fining a player six cents for swearing.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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