- Dean of Umpires: Bill McGowan
Author Bob Luke grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, a Washington, DC, suburb where renowned American League umpire Bill McGowan was a neighbor. [End Page 142] In the summer of 1954, in what would be the last year of McGowan's life, the ailing arbiter occasionally invited Luke and his older brother to watch Washington Senators games on television. Thus the seed was planted for Bob Luke to one day write a book about one of the most colorful umpires in baseball history.
The story of McGowan is an enthralling one. Born in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1896, he was the son of a beer and whiskey storeowner who had emigrated from Ireland. Young McGowan grew up to be a lifelong teetotaler and a mediocre ballplayer. After trying his hand as a boxer and manager of prizefighters, McGowan embarked on his career as an umpire. He served a ten-year Minor League apprenticeship that was blemished by expulsion from the International League for engaging in a fistfight with a player. Yet in 1925, McGowan was added to the American League roster of umpires. A man of hot temper and great confidence, his first ejection was none other than Babe Ruth in a spring training game. Blessed to break in under the tutelage of two great arbiters, Billy Evans and Tom Connolly, by 1928 Bill McGowan was umpiring in a World Series. He would go on to become an iron man, working in 2,532 consecutive games (only 100 short of Cal Ripken's mark for a player). In 1938 he founded an umpire school that, after his death in 1954, was passed on to his chief instructor Al Somers (today, it is run by retired National League umpire Harry Wendelstedt).
One of the valuable aspects of this slim volume is the reprinting of the full textbook used by McGowan's umpiring school in 1949. It comes complete with the imprimatur "approved by the Veterans Administration under G. I. Bill of Rights." In 1947 McGowan's school was so popular, Luke notes, that it graduated 251 future umps—95 percent of whom were veterans of World War II—and about one hundred of its graduates got jobs in some level in baseball. American League ump Bill McKinley was the first graduate of the school in 1946, followed not long after by future National League arbiter Augie Donatelli, who had survived a term as a POW in a German camp.
Aspiring umpires will enjoy McGowan's discussion of the nuts and bolts of positioning, gesturing, and overall game management. There is also a section on rules interpretations that, together with Billy Evans' classic Knotty Problems of Baseball, should be on any arbiter's bookshelf.
McGowan's philosophy was simple: "Keep control of the players or they'll control you." He earned the respect of many of the game's great stars like Ted Williams, who said the ump's home plate calls were correct nearly 100 percent of the time. During a rare slump, Williams even received quiet advice from McGowan. "You're trying to break the ball," he said. "Just hit it." Until a Major League rule was passed in 1952 forbidding umpires from recommending players [End Page 143] to teams, McGowan freely mentioned the names of prospects, and his tips led to the signing of such future American League stars as infielder Jimmy Dykes and outfielder Leon "Goose" Goslin.
There are many fascinating pieces of information in Dean of Umpires, but a coherent narrative flow is missing. Like a pitcher hesitant to throw the ball over the plate, Luke doesn't trust his stuff enough and utilizes too many quotes from his sources. All in all the restoring of Bill McGowan, belatedly inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992, is a worthy enterprise. He shone like a star in an age when Major League Baseball was played mainly in the daytime in two deeply-entrenched, eight-team leagues, when the World Series was "The Biggest Show on Earth," and no act on the baseball field...