Does History Always Repeat?

Bill Kunkel

Bill Kunkel was the last to both play and umpire in the Major Leagues

Rains delays can be long and at times, amazingly tedious. With multimillion dollar television deals and large stadium gate proceeds at stake, rainouts without a lengthy delay are a rarity in the game of baseball.  Waiting for the always imminent “window” in the clouds becomes a test in occupying time. This current hold is approaching 3 hours and after reading every magazine in the dressing room I reach for the last publication I have not read twice – The 2010 Umpire Media Guide.

Every year MLB publishes this guide. You won’t find it at Barnes and Noble and don’t bother to look for it on Amazon. As you can imagine its contents are not in high demand. In fact, it is free if you are with the media, or are willing to part with $1 and bid on it at ebay. The 2010 issue, however, is a whopping 110 pages. There are photos (breathe a sigh of relief ladies, an “Umpire Calendar” is currently not in the works).  An assortment of facts (average number of squats by an umpire in a season is 9,118), some historical data and individual profiles on all the active umpires is just a portion of what is contained in the guide.

I flip through the first pages and peruse a few of the profiles on some of my colleagues and take particular notice to their hobbies. One is into haberdashery. I am not even going to bother looking that one up. Another likes to travel in the off season. Really, traveling? I guess 7 months on the road is not quite enough.  Oh well, to each his own. Most are short and sweet and I doubt Hollywood will come knocking for any of us.  After all, most can’t claim to even have known a guy named “Box Car Willie,” let alone actually have sung with him. With that kind of clout, you might be afforded an entire page in the guide (see page 56).

I get toward the end and read through some of the historical timeline and data. It is said that history will repeat itself, but a couple of facts in this section make me wonder how steadfast that axiom might be.  The first, I can attest to based on personal experience – there has only been one American to umpire in the Japanese Major Leagues – yes, yours truly. The second, lists a group who both played and then later umpired in the Major Leagues.

There have been 31 Major League Umpires who also played in the Major Leagues. You can omit roughly 30 of them if you consider when they worked the games were an hour and twenty minutes long and the uniforms included top hats. It was a common occurrence for a former player to become an umpire in the early part of the 1900s’. The one umpire that remains is the last to do so and stands out in the modern era. Bill Kunkel, an American League Umpire for 15 seasons also played in the Major Leagues. He pitched for the Kansas City Athletics and New York Yankees (1961-63). His most active year was 1961, when he appeared in 58 games for the A’s.  After retiring, Kunkel attended umpire school, worked his way up through the minor leagues, then joined the American League staff full time in 1969.

Given the present path of an umpire making it to one of the 68 full time positions, it seems unlikely that another will achieve that of Kunkel. With an average of 10-12 years in the minor leagues and less than 2% of those attending umpire school progressing to the Major Leagues, the clock would be against someone duplicating this achievement and becoming only the 2nd in the modern era to do so.

In 1997, I became the first American to umpire in the Japanese Major Leagues. Suffice it to say that this experiment did not go completely as planned. Whether the cultural differences were too difficult to overcome, or maybe I just did not have enough “wa” – my presence in the Central League did not endure beyond the All-Star break. The local media would not-so-affectionately refer to me as “the cowboy.”  Presumably that name was due to my being from the West – I never actually carried a six-shooter.

Will history repeat itself? Is there another Major League player who will make the journey back as an umpire? Maybe Randy Wolf will trade in the spikes and million dollar paychecks. After all, I heard umpiring runs in his family. Is there another out there poised to be the next American in the Japanese Major Leagues?  Will Joe West ride into the far east?  If they thought I was a cowboy, say hello to the outlaw Josey Wales.

I suppose history repeating itself is not always impending, and that might not be a bad thing.

Mike Di Muro has been a Major League Umpire since 1999.  He is the author of the official blog of UMPS CARE Charities.  Please leave any questions or comments below.

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Welcome to the official blog of UMPS CARE Charities. Its purpose is to share personal insights on umpiring and the community outreach activities in an effort to generate inspiration and interest in the many programs of this Major League Umpire charity.

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4 Responses to “Does History Always Repeat?”

  1. Mike Di Muro Says:

    Steve, thanks so much for your response! I am very fortunate to be living my dream and happy that you have enjoyed the perspective.

  2. Steve Russell Says:

    Mike, I enjoy reading your blog. I remember when you were in Japan and one of the networks did a story on you, relating the difficulties that you were experiencing as you went through the season. I am glad that you are now in the Major Leagues where you belong. Thank you for your insights. -Steve

  3. Dee Says:

    Awesome blog! Laughed out loud…Haberdashery…who knew!

  4. Michael Green Says:

    Great post! I remember seeing an obituary not long ago for Ken Burkhart, who umpired in the NL, 1957-73, and had pitched before becoming an umpire. Burkhart himself, I think, said he might be the last living major league player-turned-umpire.

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