Bill Klem

Generally regarded as the greatest umpire in the game’s history, Klem umpired exclusively behind the plate his first 16 years because of his acknowledged superiority in calling balls and strikes. As a plate umpire, he pioneered the inside chest protector. Until Klem, all plate umpires wore the outside protector, commonly called the “balloon.” Klem said the inside protector gave him a better look at the pitch because he could move in closer behind the catcher. He took a catcher’s protector, added shoulder pads, and wore it under his shirt instead of outside. Since he was the dean of NL umpires, the senior circuit adopted the inside protector years before the AL.

Klem worked a record 18 WS, a total of 104 games, including five straight assignments from 1911 to 1915. His first WS was 1908 (Cubs-Tigers) and his last 1940 (Reds-Tigers). Klem also umpired the first All-Star Game in 1933. In 36 years, he was behind the plate for five no-hitters, the last being Paul Dean‘s over Brooklyn (9/21/34). He even officiated a race around the bases between Hans Lobert and a horse in 1914 at Oxnard, California. He declared the horse the winner by a nose.

Among the many memorable games Klem umpired was Opening Day at the Polo Grounds in 1907. A winter storm left piles of snow around the field. In the eighth inning, with New York leading the Phillies 3-0, spectators began bombarding the visting Phillies, umpires, and each other with snowballs. Klem forfeited’c-(((the game to Philadelphia because it was up to the home team to keep order.

He could be stubborn. He reportedly once started to call a runner out at the plate, then signaled safe when a ball rolled loose. The catcher showed him he still held the ball; the loose ball had apparently fallen from one of Klem’s pockets. He refused to change his call.

He adored the nickname The Old Arbitrator but despised being called Catfish. In Lawrence Ritter‘s The Glory of Their Times, Chief Meyers said, “All you had to do was call him Catfish and out of the game you’d go. Maybe it was because he had rather prominent lips, and when he’d call a ball or a strike he’d let fly a rather fine spray from his mouth. Sort of gave the general impression of a catfish, you know.”

Early in Klem’s career, Giants manager John McGraw threatened to get him fired. Klem replied: “Mr. Manager, if it’s possible for you to take my job away from me, I don’t want it.” His integrity helped secure the reputation of umpires as honest and impartial. He brought dignity to the game, along with competence and pride. Shortly before he died, he described the last game he ever worked. “I walked away from the beefing ballplayer, saying to myself, `I’m almost certain Herman tagged him.’ Then it came to me and I almost wept. For the first time in my career, I only `thought’ a man was tagged.” cd x x Klem retired that afternoon.

He always maintained, “I never called one wrong,” though in later years he would place his hand over his heart and add, “from here.” After his retirement, he served as Chief of NL Umpires until his death. Klem was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953.

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