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Where umpires learn to call'em.


"Help Wanted: Young athletes needed to fill a few positions open from April to September. Applicants must, within approximately two hours, make more than 300 instant decisions without error, maintain order among 50 professional athletes who often allow their emotions to dictate their actions and be judged by as many as 60,000 vocal onlookers who think they can do a better job than you. Beginning salary--$300 per week. Training period--six to seven years. Must be willing to travel.'

Sound ridiculous? Not to nearly 200 students at Harry Wendelstedt's School for Umpires in Ormond Beach, Florida. Each student invests $800 for tuition and room rent, plus at least that much for meals, entertainment and other expenses, during a five-week, intensified umpiring course.

Why are these students willing to sacrifice so much of their time and their hardearned money? Most hope to be among the 17 to 30 selected to enter a development program that prepares them for placement with Class A baseball in the minor leagues. For the next six to seven years, the selected graduate will travel from one small town to another in hopes of promotion to the big leagues--an honor enjoyed by only 60 men.

The headmaster at this unique academy is Harry Wendelstedt, who has more than once been named the No. 1 umpire in the National League. The 20-year veteran of the National League has assembled a staff of umpires from the major and the minor leagues. Throughout five weeks of lectures and daily on-the-field training, Wendelstedt, a 62 , 245-pound former marine, runs his school with the discipline of a drill sergeant and the empathy of a psychologist. His methods often result in hero worship by the students and have garnered unqualified loyalty from his instructors. "When Harry speaks during the morning classroom-instruction period, the entire class sits at attention,' says Brian Gorman, a staffer and the son of a former National League umpire, Tom Gorman. John Hirschbeck, an American League umpire and another instructor at the school, says Wendelstedt's influence reaches beyond the skills of umpiring. "He compels each of us to examine the quality of life we're molding for ourselves,' he says. "Both instructor and student receive a good baptism in character building.'

With evangelistic fervor, Wendelstedt continually stresses the three ingredients essential to any good umpire: "It's alertness, anticipation and attitude that make all the difference in the world. Watch the good umpire on the field. He's alert to everything that's happening; he anticipates the play in order to be in the proper place to make the right call; he's got a mature attitude in that he renders an on-the-spot decision without second-guessing himself.'

The most important quality Wendelstedt looks for in a prospective umpire? "Above all,' he says, "a student must be honest with himself. He has to make each call as he sees it, without any thoughts as to whether or not it will be a popular decision. If an umpire knows in his heart he made the right call, he has nothing to fear from the objections by the players, the fans or the manager.'

The glaring weakness of the typical beginning student, Wendelstedt says, is making a call too quickly. "He's got to learn to relax,' he says, "wait until the play is completed, then make the call.' Even then, does the trained umpire still make errors in judgment? "Certainly,' confesses Randy Marsh, the chief instructor at the Wendelstedt school and four-year National League umpire. "Any umpire is bound to make a few mistakes along the way. When that happens, he must make up his mind that he will profit from them.'

Wendelstedt preaches accuracy rather than theatrics on the field. He agrees with the former American League president Ben Johnson, who once noted: "A good umpire is the umpire you don't notice. He'll be there all afternoon, but when the game is over, you don't recall his name.'

No one is promoted or guaranteed a job by attending the school, yet some 70 percent of today's major-league umpires are alumni. The list includes Joe Brinkman, Frank Pulli, Jerry Crawford, Jim Quick, Dick Stello, Larrey Barnett and Marty Springstead.

Students from all over the country choose the school for many reasons --some of which involve more than just baseball. The veteran National League umpire Ed Sudol, who lasted 24 seasons, 20 as a major leaguer, is one example. Sudol began his career during the winter of 1941, when he was a construction worker in Passaic, New Jersey.

"One wintry night I got home, opened up the newspaper and was reading the sports page. It was like a divine inspiration,' he recalls. "I saw a large ad for the umpire school. There was a picture of a beautiful girl in a bathing suit leaning up against a palm tree, and I decided that was for me. I answered the ad and went to the school in Ormond Beach. I met my wife there, started my career there, and that's where I live now.'

Umpires were not always so thoroughly trained in the finer points of the profession. In the 1930s, Jocko Conlan, a so-so outfielder with the Chicago White Sox, became an umpire by accident one afternoon. Emmett Ormsby, one of the regular umpires, was overcome by heat; Conlan --who was out of the line-up with a broken finger--was drafted into service. Still wearing his White Sox uniform, he assumed the role of impartial arbiter and called his own teammate Luke Appling out on a close play at third. The next year, American League president William Harridge named Conlan a big-league umpire.

The Harry Wendelstedt umpire school actually began several years before Wendelstedt was even born. In 1932, the major-league umpire Bill McGowan started offering formal classes for those who wanted to don the chest protector, mask and familiar short-billed blue hat. The school was later directed by Al Somers. Wendelstedt, himself a graduate of the school and formerly the chief instructor under Somers, assumed the leadership in 1975.

Wendelstedt's students have a variety of backgrounds. The 1985 class, for example, included a Baptist minister from New York, a law-school professor from British Columbia, a chemical engineer from Chicago and a gourmet chef from Saint Petersburg.

Professional umpiring was once an occupation "for men only.' Not any more. Several women have graduated from the school. One, Pam Postema, is bucking the original 100-1 odds against a woman umpire in the National or the American leagues. She has moved up the ladder from the Florida State League (Class A) to the Texas League (AA) and finally, in 1983, to the Pacific Coast League (AAA)--one step below the big leagues themselves.

Concluding five weeks of training is the most difficult moment for Wendelstedt and his staff--"judgment day' for those who have dedicated themselves to hard work, endless study of baseball rules and demanding discipline. During this one day, each student meets individually with Wendelstedt and his staff for an evaluation of exams and of performances on the field.

About half the students are told they "just don't have it' for umpiring. Another 30 percent are urged to receive more training. Only 17 to 30 are told they have a definite future in professional baseball; these few are selected for the Umpire Development Program at the Pittsburgh Pirates' training camp in Bradenton, Florida. From there they will be assigned to umpire in Class A minorleague ball.

"This is a difficult time for both the staff and the students,' says Larry Vanover. Larry, a minor-league umpire and one of Wendelstedt's instructors, continues, "Some realize what's going to be told them before the meeting. Others can't bear to be told that they haven't made it. I understand that one or two have even wondered if life was worth it when they found out that they were not selected for assignment. That's scary, brother.'

Good umpires aren't born; they're made. Big-league umpires, especially, must subject themselves to the perils of partisan fans, irate ballplayers, grandstanding managers and slow-motion video replay. Yet, as stadium instant replays bear out, the men in blue are on the money the vast majority of the time.

Players, managers and fans have disagreed and will continue to disagree with certain judgment calls, but they can agree on one thing: The Wendelstedt school in Ormond Beach ensures them that high-caliber umpires will continue to maintain the integrity of the greatest game in the world--baseball.

Photo: Students learn not to make a call until the play is completed. Notice that the catcher has already removed the ball from his glove before the umpire yells: "Strike!'

Photo: Umpire school owner Harry Wendelstedt (left) touches bases with staff member Brian Gorman. An ex-marine, Wendelstedt runs his school by the corps philosophy--only a few good men (and occasionally women) will make the grade.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:McCollister, John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1985
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