Strike,” says a student, lazily cocking his right fist.
“It’s S-T-E-E-R-I-K-E!” yells Al Somers, 71, punching the air. “MORE VOICE! SCREAM IT! BE EMPHATIC!”
Mr. Chips he’s not, admittedly, but Somers has been teaching for 38 years. His students are baseball’s men in blue; his institution is the Al Somers Umpire School in Daytona Beach, Fla. He has trained nearly 7,000 umpires; 27 of the major leagues’ current staff of 52 studied under him.
The winter course lasts six weeks, costs $554 and the pedagogy is intense. Even dinners are spent debating such arcana as the ruling if a batted ball conks a bird in flight. “If it’s a male bird, take two bases; if it’s a female, all you can get,” says Somers, winking. (Actually, there is no rule covering this specific case; the umpire would have to decide.)
Somers’ curriculum includes field training (“We create rhubarbs just to see how our students will react,” he says), calisthenics and lectures on what to do when fans shriek imprecations. “You ignore them,” he counsels. “You’re not supposed to have rabbit ears.” His final exam is 246 questions long.
The school’s acting director, National League ump Harry Wendelstedt, says they may place 20 of this year’s 105 students in the minors. “If we eventually get one major league umpire out of a class, we’re lucky,” he adds.
“You cannot teach someone judgment, just technique,” says Somers, who insists that players make lousy umpires: “They’re used to applause, not boos.” He’s not enthusiastic about women umpires either, although the school’s first female student, Pam Postema, graduated 17th in last year’s class and works the Gulf Coast League. Somers grumbles: “She was going to sue me. That’s why I let her in. Women will never make it in the majors. They lack the physical stamina. Why, a single game can mean 500 to 600 deep knee bends. And no man will stay home while his wife is on the road umpiring.”
A miner’s son from Shenandoah, Pa., Somers quit school after the fifth grade and dug coal for 14 years before pitching in the old NY-Penn League. After hurting his arm, he umpired in the minors for 19 years. A bachelor who lives in a meticulously neat cottage on the Halifax River, Al plays pool, deep-sea fishes and cooks gourmet feasts for his cronies.
He never tires of talking about umpiring. “The key to success is a good eye, an even temper and being boss of your game.” he says. “You should also know where the nearest exit is. And remember to tell the scorekeeper where you want the body sent.”