Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Blue Blood?

By: C.G. Morelli

Ask ten pro ball players how they made it to the big leagues and I’d bet nine of them would tell you, in some way, how they were blessed with a gift at birth. It’s one of those cliché statements every athlete suddenly becomes equipped with at the exact moment they turn pro.

That’s not to say there’s no truth in the statement. It just happens to bring to mind images of a dynastic monarchy; one with a powerful royalty and the idea of divine right. Sometimes I’m waiting for God himself to reach down from the heavens and anoint one of these guys with the power to rule over some medieval empire we weren’t aware still existed.

To me, if there really were such a thing as baseball royalty - if the ability to preside over a ball game was somehow passed down through divine right - then the man we’d all have to revere would be Albert Barlick.

True, the name might not ring a bell. But his contributions to the game, especially from just outside the foul lines, make up for that.

See, Al Barlick was born to be an umpire. He started in 1935 as nothing more than a glorified judge at pickup games on the sandlots of Springfield, Illinois. Barlick was just 20 years old and hadn’t played a stitch of baseball since he was a toddler. He never had the killer instinct or the athletic ability to compete with his peers, but his passion for the intricacies of the nation’s pastime was as thick as the game’s rule book itself.

Thus, Barlick turned himself into his own walking, talking rule book. He studied the game from every angle. He called more sandlot games than he’d care to admit, and he watched other umpires, including the great Bill Klem, call games until his eyeballs bled.

From the sandlots, Barlick worked his way up through the hayseed towns of the Northeast Arkansas League, the Piedmont League, the Eastern League, and the International League. The pay was barely enough to keep his head above water, but the feeling he got when he punched someone out on a called third strike, or when he’d flap his arms out beside him to indicate a diving runner was safe at the plate, were more than adequate stipends to get him through.

In 1940, Barlick finally got his big break as a National League umpire. Ironically, it was only in a fill-in capacity for his unwitting mentor, Bill Klem, who’d been forced from the field for medical reasons. But once the fans got a taste of Barlick’s extraordinarily flamboyant strike calls and out gestures, the NL signed him on permanently.   

From that moment on, Barlick had an uncanny knack for calling games that contained some of Major League Baseball’s most memorable moments.

In 1946 he was working home plate when Enos Slaughter made his “mad dash” for home to win the series for the St. Louis Cardinals. In ’47 he was along the first base line as Jackie Robinson stepped out onto the lush grass of Ebbett’s Field for the first time. In the ’54 Fall Classic he signaled the out after Willie Mays trekked deep into centerfield to make “the catch” on Vic Wertz’s 460 foot line drive. In ’49 he presided over the shortest inside-the-park homer in history when he ruled that Cubs’ outfielder Andy Pafko had trapped a short pop up. Pafko argued vehemently with Barlick as the batter strolled around the bases unnoticed. In the 1970 All Star game, he called Pete Rose safe at the plate after he flattened catcher Ray Fosse.

Speaking of All Star games, Barlick found himself at the Mid Summer Classic more often than not. He continues to hold the all time record for working the most All Star games with seven. He also found himself on the World Series crew seven times in his 30 year career.

Even at times when he was honored as the king of the umpiring world, like in 1961 when he was voted Best National League Umpire, he spurned the honor because the voting didn’t include his fellow men. Not until 1970 did Barlick accept any sort of notoriety for his service to the game when he was once again voted Best NL Umpire. This time, MLB allowed the umps to vote.

This is what impresses me most about Barlick; the understanding, respectful, and civilized demeanor he shared with his fellow umpires. The pride he took in his profession and in the people who shared that profession transcended the game itself. He was refined. He was polished. He set himself apart from the other blues out there.

Clearly, he was blue blood.  

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