Close calls of a major league umpire

Close calls of a major league umpire

Major league baseball umpire Al Clark talks about his ups and downs

Former umpire Al Clark signs copies of the book where he talks about his career and his legal battles.

Like players, coaches, and managers, Major League Baseball umpires have numbers.

Al Clark’s was 24. He wore it on his uniform shirt for 26 seasons.

But that’s not the number that Mr. Clark keeps above his bathroom mirror, where he can see it every day.

The number that does hang there, 26140-50, was assigned to him by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He wore it for the 120 days he was incarcerated after a baseball memorabilia scheme resulted in a mail fraud conviction in 2004.

Three years before, Mr. Clark had been fired abruptly, when the league learned that he had traded in the first-class airline tickets it had given him for seats in the economy section. He pocketed the difference, and used it for personal travel.

It was a steep decline for a man who once had to make split-second decisions in stadiums packed with fans and who could call such places as Yankee Stadium or Shea Stadium “my office.” He had been a top-tier umpire, who worked two World Series and two All-Star Games; suddenly he was teaching fellow convicts how to umpire a baseball game in a worn-out prison recreation yard.

It’s no wonder that the book he wrote with sports writer Dan Schlossberg is called “Called Out But Safe: a Baseball Umpire’s Journey.”

Mr. Clark, 66, will be in the metropolitan area this weekend to sign the books – which are published by the University of Nebraska Press – and answer questions. See bottom of the article for times, locations and dates.

Mr. Clark now lives in Williamsburg, Va., but he grew up in Trenton, where his family belonged to an Orthodox shul, Ahavas Yisroel Congregation.

His excitement was tangible over the phone as he talked about how he was the shul’s shofar blower during high holidays.

“I enjoyed studying Jewish history and Judaism itself,” he said. “Friends called me the Yiddishe umpire. I never hid my Judaism during my career. I was never embarrassed by it.”

Still, when there were games to be played on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, Mr. Clark went to work.

“My name was not Sandy Koufax or Hank Greenberg,” he said. (Those two Jewish Hall of Famer players famously did sit out Yom Kippur.) “As a young umpire I was too timid to ask for the Jewish holidays off. Once the precedent was set, because I did work during the high holidays early in my career, I had to keep working on the holidays.”

Mr. Clark grew up around professional sports. His father, Herb, the sports editor for the Trenton Times and the Trentonian, covered the New York Yankees.

Mr. Clark starting umpiring in local youth leagues when he was in junior high.

“Look, no one grows up wanting to be an umpire,” he said with a laugh. “I grew up wanting to be a major league baseball player. But there’s this harsh reality that says you’re not good enough.”

Mr. Clark attended Eastern Kentucky University as a health and physical education major. But he did not complete his degree; instead, he graduated from umpire school. He went to work in the low minor New York Penn League before he was promoted to the MidWest League, which had teams in small towns throughout Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

When he did play high school baseball, during his junior and senior year, Mr. Clark was a catcher. He thinks it is the catcher’s vantage point that led him to his career as an umpire.

“As a catcher, I saw the same things that the umpires did,” he said. “I liked the idea of being in control. There is a Type A personality one needs to be an umpire. Once I got my driver’s license at age 16, I started umpiring wherever I could all through high school and college. I umpired amateur leagues and semi-pro leagues all through central New Jersey.”

Mr. Clark got the call to the big leagues in the spring of 1976, after spending time in the minor leagues. His first game as a Major League umpire was in Arlington, Texas; the contest was between the hometown Rangers and the Minnesota Twins.

“Yes, I remember it,” he said. “It was great. I don’t remember my feet ever touching the ground. I worked third base for that game.

“I lived a dream,” he continued.

He also had many major moments. Among them:

“¢ He was scheduled to umpire the 1989 World Series. That game was postponed when an earthquake stopped everything in the San Francisco Bay area.

“¢ He umpired the 1978 playoff tiebreaker game between the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, when Buckey Dent hit his legendary three-run home run to give New York the win.

“¢ He was behind the plate on September 5, 1995 when Baltimore Oriole Hall of Famer Cal Ripken tied Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games.

“¢ He was third base umpire the next evening, when Mr. Ripken broke the record.

“¢ He umpired in the 1983 and 1989 World Series.

“¢ He umpired in the All-Star games of 1984 and 1995.

“¢ He was on the umpiring staff for the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore; Jacobs Field in Cleveland, and the ballpark in Arlington, Texas.

Mr. Clark said that he covered his career low points “honestly and straightforwardly” in his book.

“I went away for 120 days to federal prison camp,” he said; the prison is in Petersburg, Va.

“I do believe in turning something that is negative into a positive. So I asked if I could take about 40 inmates and teach them about officiating. We went out onto the intramural fields at the prison with the hopes that some of those guys would learn something and use what they learned after jail.

“I learned in jail that if you don’t occupy your mind with something substantial, doing something to help others, your time could be troublesome. Depression is a huge enemy of inmates. I wasn’t going to allow that to happen to me, and I wasn’t going to allow it to define who I am.

“I had 26 straight years of success and then I fell down,” he continued, “We are all one decision away from having everything taken away from us.”

Mr. Clark said he remains humbled by his experiences – experiences that he calls a “rags to riches to screw-up to redemption to being okay” story.

“I feel privileged to have been employed by Major League Baseball for 26 years,” he said. “I lived a dream every day. On one stretch of three consecutive days I umpired games at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Fenway Park in Boston, and Camden Yards in Baltimore. If you are a fan of baseball like I am, it doesn’t get any better.”

Yes, there was a totally Jewish moment for Mr. Clark. As the 1998 season wound down, with Rosh Hashanah just days away, Shawn Green, a Jewish player for the Toronto Blue Jays, came to the plate against the Milwaukee Brewers. Jesse Levis, another Jewish player, was catching for the Brewers that day.

“I took off my mask and swept off home plate, and while my mask was off I said ‘good yom tov’ to Shawn and to Jesse. They responded to me and to one another with a ‘good yom tov.’ That happened in a major league baseball game.”

Mr. Clark said he ran into anti-Semitism only once and that was before he went to the majors.

The career of Denny McLain, a 31-game winner with the Detroit Tigers, was coming to its end. Mr. McLain was playing for a minor league team. After a game in Indianapolis, Mr. McLain attacked Mr. Clark. What was this “Jew bastard was doing in our game?” Mr. Clark reports Mr. McLain as saying. “There’s no place for your kind in our game.”

He reported the incident, and Mr. McLain received a league suspension.

He is not a fan of any particular team, Mr. Clark said. Instead, he’s a “fan of the game of baseball.”

“It is a tremendous game. I loved being on the field,” he said.

So here is one more number. Mr. Clark umpired 3,392 baseball games.

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