The Best Seat in Baseball, but You Have to Stand: The Game as Umpires See It

The Best Seat in Baseball, but You Have to Stand: The Game as Umpires See It

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by Lee Gutkind
     
 

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To provide this unique—if controversial—look at major league baseball as umpires see it, Lee Gutkind spent the 1974 season traveling with the umpiring crew of Doug Harvey (crew chief), Nick Colosi, Harry Wendelstedt, and Art Williams, the first black umpire in the National League. The result is an honest, realistic, insightful study of the private and

Overview

To provide this unique—if controversial—look at major league baseball as umpires see it, Lee Gutkind spent the 1974 season traveling with the umpiring crew of Doug Harvey (crew chief), Nick Colosi, Harry Wendelstedt, and Art Williams, the first black umpire in the National League. The result is an honest, realistic, insightful study of the private and professional world of major league umpires: their prejudices and petty biases, their unbending pride in their performance, their inside perspectives on the game, and their bitter criticism of the abuse often directed at their profession and at their conduct. As relevant today as it was in 1974, this illustrated chronicle shows how little has changed in the lives and duties of umpires in the last quarter century.

Guided by his passionate love for the game as he wrote The Best Seat in Baseball, But You Have to Stand!, Gutkind attempted to present the umpires in a positive but realistic light: "I portrayed them as real people, honorable, hard-working and dedicated, but with warts and flaws like the rest of us. But they didn't want to be compared with real people; they wanted to be umpires—on a plateau above most everyone else." Since the publication of this book in 1975, neither Harvey nor Wendelstedt have communicated with Gutkind, with Wendelstedt even denying that Gutkind traveled with the crew.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Instruction manuals (which is what the umpiring crew assumed Gutkind was writing) need no dramatic arc, but other books do, and it is that arc that makes The Best Seat in Baseball a compelling read twenty-five years after its original publication, leading the reader to contemplate what remains the same and what has changed."—Eric Rolfe Greenberg, author of The Celebrant, from the Foreword

"[Gutkind is] superb in conveying the difficulties of the umpiring profession, as well as both the umpires' keen sense of multifaceted aggrievement and their counter-balancing pride in their profession. [He] lets the subjects tell their own story, and he does a fabulous job of getting their mannerisms, appearances, actions, and speech down on paper in a very convincing way."—Mike Shannon,
editor of Spitball

"An umpire's lot is not a happy one, and this dramatic account of a season spent with a National League team of four shows exactly how unhappy it is. . . . [A]s a whole the book will intrigue any baseball fan."—Publishers Weekly

H-Arete - Daniel R. Bronson

When Lee Gutkind arranged to spend the 1974 baseball season following a team of National League umpires from spring to fall and coast to coast, he may have contemplated writing a book that would do for officials what Jim Bouton's Ball Four did for players. And perhaps he did, at a similar cost; in his 1999 preface. Gutkind writes that two members of that crew, the respected Harry Wendelstedt and the revered Doug Harvey "have never once communicated with me" since the book's 1975 publication. "Wendelstedt even denied that I had traveled with him and his crew" (p. xviii).

Umpires, Gutkind tells us, hate double headers, since they must stand through every inning. Then again, they're not too fond of most players, managers, league officials or fans, not to mention writers. Nevertheless, like reporters, they are supposed to be objective. Like judges, they must rule on what they see. Like policemen, they are asked to keep order. Metaphorically, like military scouts, they are on a continuing reconnaissance of enemy territory, never on friendly ground. They must work as a team if they are to succeed, which may simply mean getting through another game. And yet, they may not even be too fond of each other.

Considering all this, it may be understandable why I kept feeling I was re-reading Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead with a baseball twist. Gutkind describes the tensions within Harvey's crew as they slogged through their season-long campaign. They joke, they tease, they bitch, they scream at one another. The book moves between moments the crew shares before and after games and moments from the private lives of its members—Harvey, Wendelstedt, Nick Colosi and Art Williams. The turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s did not leave baseball untouched, not even the world of the men in blue. Art Williams was the National League's first black umpire and the only African-American official in the Majors in 1974. He was also, Gutkind writes, "the man the National League owners and coaches had last year called the worst umpire in the league," or were there racial overtones in this judgment, as far as [Doug] Harvey could make out. Pure and simple, Williams was not a very good umpire and Harvey and Wendelstedt, the two best in the league, had been teamed specifically to work with Williams and help him improve" (p. 33).

The dilemma is that Williams was rushed to the Majors to satisfy government demands only to be faulted for his lack of experience and confidence. Harvey and Wendelstedt, committed to their jobs, to being as good as they can be, and to being respected for what they do, worry endlessly over Williams' continuing lapses in concentration. His performance reflects on all of them. At one point, depressed over the long season and Williams' lack of progress, Wendelstedt frets, in Gutkind's words, that the "high standards necessary for superior accomplishment in his profession" were to be sacrificed or temporarily set aside for the sake of racial equality" (pp. 151-52). It is with some relief that we read how by season's end Williams improves and earns his colleagues' grudging praise. In fact, everyone is relieved. However, this fitting conclusion does not erase the memory of the pressures brought to bear on the crew. Harvey's obsessive need for perfection, Wendelstedt's enormous appetites and emotions, Williams' peculiar mixture of frustration and quiet dignity all stand out in retrospect. So, too, do the little rituals of dressing, preparing baseballs, gossiping about players and managers, killing time. A pension plan and salary increases have improved the umpire's lot considerably over the last twenty-five years. But this worthwhile reprint of Lee Gutkind's The Best Seat In Baseball, But You Have to Stand! reminds us how slowly some things move, how some things do not change. Umpires go on doing much the same things that they always have done, keeping order, rendering judgment. Then again, Harvey and his crew would probably be delighted to know that these days there are very few double headers.

H-Arete

When Lee Gutkind arranged to spend the 1974 baseball season following a team of National League umpires from spring to fall and coast to coast, he may have contemplated writing a book that would do for officials what Jim Bouton's Ball Four did for players. And perhaps he did, at a similar cost; in his 1999 preface. Gutkind writes that two members of that crew, the respected Harry Wendelstedt and the revered Doug Harvey "have never once communicated with me" since the book's 1975 publication. "Wendelstedt even denied that I had traveled with him and his crew" (p. xviii).
Umpires, Gutkind tells us, hate double headers, since they must stand through every inning. Then again, they're not too fond of most players, managers, league officials or fans, not to mention writers. Nevertheless, like reporters, they are supposed to be objective. Like judges, they must rule on what they see. Like policemen, they are asked to keep order. Metaphorically, like military scouts, they are on a continuing reconnaissance of enemy territory, never on friendly ground. They must work as a team if they are to succeed, which may simply mean getting through another game. And yet, they may not even be too fond of each other.
Considering all this, it may be understandable why I kept feeling I was re-reading Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead with a baseball twist. Gutkind describes the tensions within Harvey's crew as they slogged through their season-long campaign. They joke, they tease, they bitch, they scream at one another. The book moves between moments the crew shares before and after games and moments from the private lives of its members--Harvey, Wendelstedt, Nick Colosi and Art Williams. The turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s did not leave baseball untouched, not even the world of the men in blue. Art Williams was the National League's first black umpire and the only African-American official in the Majors in 1974. He was also, Gutkind writes, "the man the National League owners and coaches had last year called the worst umpire in the league," or were there racial overtones in this judgment, as far as [Doug] Harvey could make out. Pure and simple, Williams was not a very good umpire and Harvey and Wendelstedt, the two best in the league, had been teamed specifically to work with Williams and help him improve" (p. 33).
The dilemma is that Williams was rushed to the Majors to satisfy government demands only to be faulted for his lack of experience and confidence. Harvey and Wendelstedt, committed to their jobs, to being as good as they can be, and to being respected for what they do, worry endlessly over Williams' continuing lapses in concentration. His performance reflects on all of them. At one point, depressed over the long season and Williams' lack of progress, Wendelstedt frets, in Gutkind's words, that the "high standards necessary for superior accomplishment in his profession" were to be sacrificed or temporarily set aside for the sake of racial equality" (pp. 151-52). It is with some relief that we read how by season's end Williams improves and earns his colleagues' grudging praise. In fact, everyone is relieved. However, this fitting conclusion does not erase the memory of the pressures brought to bear on the crew. Harvey's obsessive need for perfection, Wendelstedt's enormous appetites and emotions, Williams' peculiar mixture of frustration and quiet dignity all stand out in retrospect. So, too, do the little rituals of dressing, preparing baseballs, gossiping about players and managers, killing time. A pension plan and salary increases have improved the umpire's lot considerably over the last twenty-five years. But this worthwhile reprint of Lee Gutkind's The Best Seat In Baseball, But You Have to Stand! reminds us how slowly some things move, how some things do not change. Umpires go on doing much the same things that they always have done, keeping order, rendering judgment. Then again, Harvey and his crew would probably be delighted to know that these days there are very few double headers.

— Daniel R. Bronson

Library Journal
Gutkind offers the perspectives of several major league umpires who offer their likes and dislikes of the profession, the players, and the game. This also candidly touches on baseball's color line in general and specifically how Art Williams, the national league's first black ump, was bumped up to the majors before he was ready solely because of race. This "fascinating study" remains "must reading for all fans." (LJ 6/15/75) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780809321957
Publisher:
Southern Illinois University Press
Publication date:
04/28/1999
Series:
Writing Baseball Series
Edition description:
1st Edition
Pages:
240
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

Meet the Author

Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction, has performed as a clown, scrubbed with heart and liver transplant surgeons, wandered the country on a motorcycle, and experienced psychotherapy with a distressed family—all as research for eight books and numerous profiles and essays. He is a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

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The Best Seat in Baseball, but You Have to Stand: The Game as Umpires See It 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
MinTwinsNY More than 1 year ago
Rating:   3 of 5 stars (okay) Review: This book of the chronicles of a National League umpiring crew during the 1974 season was originally published in 1975 and has been re-released in ebook formats now.  Lee Gutkind traveled with the crew that was headed by Doug Harvey, who later was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and gives the reader an inside look at the men who are not remembered during a game unless they make a mistake – the umpires.  It was billed as a tell-all book that would make fans realize exactly what umpires must go through and how they endure life always on the road, since they do not have home games like the players, how they interact with fans and other people in each city and some of the shenanigans they do as well to bide their time.  Some have called this the “Ball Four” of umpires.  There is some NC-17 language in the book, but that is about all that this book has in common with the Jim Bouton classic. Some of the stories are downright entertaining, such as the cab driver in Chicago who will only give rides to and from the ball park to umpires.  His take on what these men are like is funny, touching and even a bit poignant.  If for no other reason, this story alone would be a good reason to pick up this book. However, the same can’t be said of some of the other passages in the book. Gutkind touches on some sensitive issues, such as infidelity (although none of the four umpires in the book are guilty of that in any of the stories) and race issues.  However, some of these and other stories tend to get a bit wordy and start to repeat themselves.  The book could have had some shorter passages or not repeat some topics and still have been able to make the same points.  Overall, this book is okay for baseball fans, and one that those who are interested in learning more about the umpires would really enjoy.  But as an interesting read, it struggled to keep my interest and was only mildly impressed.  An okay read.   I wish to thank NetGalley for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Did I skim? No.   Pace of the book:   It felt to be dragging at times, especially when the talk was about Williams and the reason he was in the major leagues was only for integration.  After a while I got tired of hearing that and to have it described for several pages made for tough reading.   Do I recommend?   If you are a hard core fan of 1970s baseball or are interested in the life of an umpire, then pick this one up.  If not, then I recommend passing.