I’ve asked a number of big league pitchers over the years to assess the home plate umpires they’ve encountered. By far, the most interesting response came from Reds Hall of Famer, the late Jim O’Toole.
Keep in mind that he pitched in an era when there were fewer teams and umpiring crews, and that those crews worked in only one of the major leagues. Teams generally had four, rather than the current five, starting pitchers. This allowed a veteran starter to have a legitimate opinion of veteran plate umpires.
I once asked O’Toole if he had a favorite “man in blue” and he didn’t hesitate to deliver an analysis that went well beyond an accurate and consistent strike zone. “Jocko Conlan always took real good care of me once he found out that our dads had both been cops in Chicago.”
Conlan umpired from 1941-65 including the 1961 Reds/Yankees World Series. It appears he worked about 1000 Reds games with a quarter of those behind the plate. O’Toole pitched for the Reds from 1958-66. The last game I saw the legendary Conlan work was a 1988 old timers game in Cincinnati. On a very hot and humid Sunday afternoon on a steamy Astroturf surface, he umpired first base at age 88.
Another O’Toole story I enjoyed involved a 1960 spring training game the Reds played in Havana where their top farm team enjoyed a successful run until the political climate worsened. “I figured it was our last trip to Cuba when there were soldiers with machine guns in our dugout. All I wanted to do was get out of there,” which is exactly what the farm club did at mid-season when the Havana Sugar Kings became the Jersey City Jerseys, ending American Minor League Baseball on the island nation.
That franchise moved a year later to Jacksonville, then to Virginia where the Norfolk Tides still reside today. From 1971-73 as the Tidewater Tides, their games were called on radio by Marty Brennaman before he spent 46 seasons in the Cincinnati radio booth.
Reds spring training
While I’m not in Goodyear AZ with the Reds I am in touch with several folks who are including retired Fairfield High School (Ohio) baseball coach Gary Yeatts who works for the Reds at spring training. He and I talked much baseball during my visits from 2010-18.
It’s been ten years since the team moved both spring training and player development from Sarasota FL into what was viewed as modern and spacious facilities some 1800 miles from Cincinnati. Now comes the Reds full embrace of baseball analytics and the staff to develop and maintain them. “So many people are crammed into offices and you can barely get through the hallways with all of the high-tech equipment,” Yeatts reports.
He also says that the team’s higher expectations have spiked ticket sales after a decade of disappointment in the desert.
Versailles grad Craig Stammen is entering his fourth season in the San Diego bullpen and made his exhibition debut on Monday with a 1-2-3 inning against Kansas City that required only nine pitches. “To start spring training I’m tentatively scheduled to pitch every fourth day,” he told me after the game.
That would mean he’d work on Friday and not in Saturday’s televised feature against the Reds.
Next week: Remembering the Troy Bruins.
Photo courtesy Ryan Loy
Sports Extra appears each Friday. Dave Ross has been a contributor to the Sidney Daily News since 1975.