An Umpire’s Warning: Don’t Cross that Line!

Bill Klem made famous "Don't cross that line!" one day in Milwaukee

The game of baseball would be sheer pandemonium, quickly become unrecognizable and ultimately collapse, if not for the use of lines. Lines are as fundamental as the laces on the ball and the leather and wood which every player would be rendered harmless without.

For starters, the game cannot not even begin without the line-up. You’ll need foul lines, base lines, lines for the batter’s box. Batters hit line drives, and they run up the first base line and down the third base line and when running between bases they establish their own baseline. Fans wait in ticket lines and beer lines, and unfortunately, there has always been the betting line. A hitter’s average falling under .200 would become numerically meaningless if not for everyone’s favorite, the Mendoza Line. Fans stand in line for, players lay it on the line, toe the line and of course today they can most definitely line one’s pockets.

While all of these lines are inherent to the game, the one line which players, managers, umpires and broadcasters find themselves talking about, is an invisible one, one which requires an automatic ejection – that is only if you cross it.

Most think of this line as arbitrary, subjective, even unwritten, and in many respects it is in the modern game. But as history would have it, the first use of this line is a real one. Just as real as any line in a stadium today.

It was said to have originated from one of the oldest and most revered of umpires, self-nicknamed the “Old Arbitrator,” Bill Klem. Sportswriter, James Kahn got to the bottom of the story when he interviewed not only Klem, but managers and players and eventually wrote about it. Kahn writes:

Klem had been warned about a player on the Milwaukee team named Hemphill, a brother of the old St. Louis and Yankee outfielder, Charley Hemphill. “look out for him,” Bill was told. “He charges you on every decision.”

Working as a single umpire, Klem had moved to a position behind the pitcher because a visiting player was on first. Presently the runner stole second, Klem calling him safe. As he did so he could see a Milwaukee player come roaring in from the outfield. It was Hemphill, the “charger” Klem had been warned about. Klem moved on toward the plate, now with a man on second to resume his position behind the catcher. On his way he stopped casually in the pitcher’s box (there were no mounds back then, just a lined box where the pitcher would deliver from) and drew a line in the dirt with his spikes. Then he continued plateward, momentarily expecting to find Hemphill on his back.

Instead, and very much to his surprise, when Klem reached the plate and turned around he saw Hemphill standing behind the line he had drawn in the box, pawing the dirt and bellowing like a bull, but still not crossing it. Klem immediately recognized he had hit on something and forever after used the gesture to check an over-exuberant player by announcing, “Don’t cross the line!” In later years, with his flair for the dramatic, he would bellow, “Don’t cross the Rio Grande!” To cross the line meant automatic ejection. Few did, though Frankie Frisch used to come to it, maliciously wipe away with his foot the line Klem had scratched, and then inch on up toward the Old Arbitrator. He’d get tossed out nonetheless.

So the next time you are watching a game, and a player or manager is ejected it is likely because he crossed a line. A line that Bill Klem made famous one afternoon in Milwaukee.


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2 Responses to “An Umpire’s Warning: Don’t Cross that Line!”

  1. UmpsCareBlog Says:

    Great story! I appreciate you taking the time to add it.

  2. Michael Green Says:

    Great story! A couple of things I’d like to add, if I could. One is the old story of a player who tried to go AROUND the line and Klem said it stretched to infinity. The other is that Frisch actually thought the world of Klem, although they often fought. Supposedly, when Frisch went out to 2B, he’d always say hello to Klem. If the response was, “Hello, Frank,” well, fine. Sometimes Klem would say something insulting and then the two of them would bait each other throughout the game. But Klem respected Frisch, among other reasons, because one time a team tried to get the great Lee Ballanfant fired, and Frisch came to the meeting at the NL office and defended Ballanfant.

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