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Kill Save the (Now Extinct) Umpire/Player
2005-01-14 19:50
by Mike Carminati

Man is an organism with a wonderful and extraordinary past. He is distinguished from the other animals by virtue of the fact that he has elaborated what I have termed extensions of his organism. By developing his extensions, man has been able to improve or specialize various functions. The computer is an extension of part of the brain, the telephone extends the voice, the wheel extends the legs and feet. Language extends experience in time and space while writing extends language. Man has elaborated his extensions to such a degree that we are apt to forget that his humaneness is rooted in his animal nature.

—Edward T. Hall

You specialize in something until one day you find it is specializing in you.

—Arthur Miller , The Price

Times once were in this country that you could do anything and everything in your chosen line of business. Executives did come from the mailroom. Statesmen were philosophers, innovators, and massive perves (if Franklin is any indication), murderers (Burr), and connoisseurs of the moccachica (Jefferson). Ex-Presidents actually did lead productive lives continuing to serve their country (William Howard Taft became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Andrew Johnson was a senator after being president, and Herbert Hoover lent is name to shanties that sprang up around the country, in which people lived in horrible conditions—thanks Herbie).

In baseball too, famous players returned to the minors to play out their careers in relative anonymity and Poughkepsie. Many early ones like A.G. Spalding, Connie Mack, and Charles Comiskey became moguls because of their involvement in the sport. But quicker than you can say "situational lefty", the specialists took over.

Now we are witnessing the last of a dying breed, which, er, died a couple of weeks ago. The last man to be a major-league player and umpire, Ken Burkhart, died December 29 at the ripe age of 89. Burkhart was a Cardinal farmhand, and his minor-league stops are a trip down memory lane for anyone who has looked at the Cardinals nonpareil organization between the wars (New Iberia anyone?).

He finally made it to the majors right at the end of World War II and registered an 18-8 rookie record. However, injuries and returning vets cut short his career. According to Baseball Library, his mechanics devolved to "an unusual shot-put delivery".

After his playing career was done, Burkhart became an umpire. Even though he was a reportedly excellent ump, who worked three World Series, six All-Star games (in four seasons), one NLCS, and back-to-back no-hitters on consecutive days in September 1968 (Gaylord Perry 9/17/68 and Ray Washburn 9/18/68) he will forever be remembered for a controversial miscall.

In the opening game of the 1970 World Series with the score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the sixth, the Reds had men at first and third (Bernie Carbo) and one out (Lee May on one of Brooks Robinson's diving plays). Pinch-hitter Ty Cline tapped a ball in front of home. Catcher Elrod Hendricks lunged forward, snared the ball, and dove back in time to tag Carbo, who was sprinting home, with his glove. The only problem was that replays showed that the ball was in Hendricks' throwing hand, not his glove. During the play Burkhart had gotten out of position and entangled with Hendricks. The Orioles went ahead to stay in the next half inning on a Robinson solo shot and won the Series, 4-1.

The play assured that Hendricks would be the O's bullpen coach for life, Carbo again would end up on the wrong end of a Series, in 1975 against his old team (the Reds), and that there would never again be another former player umpiring in the majors. Or maybe I'm overselling it.

Also, he once awarded a three-ball walk after he counted a balk as a ball (April 24, 1960—Cubs vs Giants). I guess he wasn't a very assiduous speller.

Adios, Ken Burkhart. We shan't see your like again.

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