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standing the gaff

20 may 2016

"One of the wildest fights I ever had was in Wilkesbarre," says longtime minor-league umpire Harry "Steamboat" Johnson,

where mounted policemen had to get me out of the park. I was beaten up by eight or ten men, and I could not straighten up for several days, but I kept on working and never missed a day. You had to be able to take it in Wilkesbarre. (41)
Johnson's memoir Standing the Gaff, rescued from obscurity by scholar Larry Gerlach in 1994, wasn't popular when it was published in 1935, but has stayed in print for over 20 years now as one of our few first-hand looks into old-time white baseball below the major leagues. Johnson self-published the book and seems to have written it largely by himself; Gerlach infers this from its frequent roughness and disorganization. Yet it's got a way with anecdote, and shows considerable intelligence and pride.

One imagines there's a little exaggeration in Standing the Gaff, of course. It may have been three or four men who beat up Johnson in Wilkes-Barre. One of his favorite tag lines is to note that a certain call or argument or attitude brought on a "pop-bottle shower," though he seems never to have been seriously cut or brained by one of these pop bottles.

Something like 4,000 bottles have been thrown at me in my day, but only about 20 ever hit me. That does not speak well for the accuracy of fans' throwing. (99)
Johnson stands throughout his memoir as a figure of order, controlling men on the field whose energies would otherwise be directed away from the tasks at hand, and controlling men off the field who seem to take his judgments as personal affronts.

Women, too. One "lady"

hit me over the head with her umbrella, one lick after another. I defended myself as best I could and said: "Lady, I don't know who you are, but if you get me someone to introduce us, you can go on hitting me." (87)
Johnson umpired in several leagues in the 1910s, including briefly in the National League in 1914, but his longest and most distinguished service was in the Southern Association (which he calls the Southern League), starting in 1920. He retired in 1946 as senior umpire in all the minor leagues and then supervised Southern Association umpires for several years. Even in 1935 he had a wealth of stories to tell about the history of the game, which he saw from deadball days into the era of night baseball and (though not in his South) integration.

Johnson gives a picture of the umpire as the center of the game. He is particularly proud of getting games on the books in short order, aiming 9-inning games under an hour, and having a friendly rivalry with other umpires to see if they could bring in a game faster. Johnson's record was 57 minutes, but his pal Connie Lewis once ran a 9-inning game between Syracuse and Scranton in just 46 minutes (91-93). Ah, those really were the days.

No memoir of 1920s white baseball would be complete without a Ty Cobb story. Johnson's concerns an exhibition series between Cobb's Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals in Augusta, GA, in 1922. Johnson worked the plate in the first game and a second umpire, Cy Pfirman, the bases. (Two umpires were the exhibition and high-minor-league standard in the day when even the majors used only three, and some minor leagues made do with a single plate umpire who would have to call plays at second base from over a hundred feet away – "which between us was guessing," admits Johnson, 17.)

Pfirman called Cobb out on an attempted steal of second. "Cobb leaped to his feet, scooped up a handful of dirt, and threw it in Cy's face." Pfirman tossed Cobb but Cobb refused to leave, and took his position for the next inning. Johnson told Cobb he'd forfeit the game if Cobb didn't take a seat.

Ty warned me that if I forfeited the game the fans would mob me. I told him I would as soon be killed on a baseball field as anywhere else. (52)
Cobb would not relent, so Johnson awarded the (meaningless) game to St. Louis. The mob scene ensued. Cobb, who had hired Johnson to work the series, had to acquiesce in the forfeit but promptly fired Johnson. The next day, he re-hired him. Cobb's violence may have been exaggerated in legend, but there were clearly few dull moments when he was in a ballgame.

Johnson, "Steamboat." Standing the Gaff. 1935. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. GV 865 .J597