Born on Washington's Birthday in 1876 in Rochester, New York, William J. Klimm became one of the greatest umpires to ever take the field. The son of Dutch immigrants, he followed his uncle's footsteps and changed his name to Klem and went on to fame on the diamond in a profession that was hardly respectable when he entered it. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953, Klem is credited with bringing dignity and respect to umpiring during a career that spanned 37 years.
As with many of his contemporaries, Klem first tried to be a professional ball player. In 1896 he tried out for catcher for the Hamilton team of the Canadian League, but a bum arm ended that hope. For the next few years Klem played semi-pro ball in New York and Pennsylvania and supported himself by taking construction jobs.
His life took a turn in 1902 in Berwick, Pennsylvania. Klem had already tried his hand at umpiring in 1901 in a game between the New York Cuban Giants and a semi-pro team from Berwick. He was paid $5 for his efforts. While in Berwick Klem read a newspaper account about Frank "Silk" O'Loughlin, a hometown friend, and how he was faring as a National League umpire. It was O'Loughlin who influenced Klem to consider umpiring as a career. It was O'Loughlin's connections that allowed him to advance to major league baseball after three years in the minors, where he learned important lessons each step up the ladder.
Klem's professional umpiring career began in 1902 in the Class D Connecticut League. The pay was $7.50 for a single game and $10.50 for a doubleheader. Klem recalled it was a tough league and, "if the home team lost you got an awful amount of abuse with your money." The money must have offset the abuse because took on the challenge of umpiring in the New York State League in 1903.
The League had a tough reputation, having hired over 100 umpires during its first six years of existence. It was in this Class B League where Klem began to develop his reputation for toughness on the field along with determination and a sense of fair play. Klem found himself in hot water with team owners and fans on a number of occasions because of his enforcement of a new league policy of fining players on the spot for using abusive language toward umpires. Klem often defied owners who tried to keep him from officiating; this defiance was illustrated years later when Giant Manager John McGraw told Klem he would have his job. Klem's reply was if McGraw could have his job, then he did not want it.
The 1903 season was not easy for Klem; he was the only New York State League umpire hired at the beginning of the year to last the entire season. His tenacity and courage were tested on an almost daily basis in a league, which refused to hire more than one umpire for a game.
Klem moved his services to the American Association in 1904, and immediately applied what he had learned and developed what umpire historian Larry Gerlach called the tough cop approach to umpiring. It was in the AA that Klem first drew a line in the dirt and told irate players and managers, "do not cross the Rio Grande." Those that did were immediately ejected.
Automatic ejection was also Klem's response to the nickname "Catfish." The term was first used in the American Association as a commentary on Klem's piscine appearing mouth. Klem hated the nickname and the mere use of the word within his earshot bought the offending party an early exit from the ballpark.
During his year in the American Association Klem started getting attention from the big leagues. Hank O'Day introduced Klem to National League President Henry Pulliam. Reportedly Pulliam told Klem that he was watching him. Pulliam hired Klem to umpire a post-season exhibition game between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. It was this gesture that made Klem a loyal National Leaguer.
In 1905 Klem was offered $2,100 to umpire in the American League through the efforts of O'Loughlin. While Klem wanted to umpire in the majors, he resisted the urging of other American League umpires and held out. Klem was waiting for word from Pulliam, the man who gave him his major league assignment. His patience and loyalty paid off. Pulliam offered Klem a job and matched the American League offer. Klem remained a loyal National Leaguer for his entire career, referring to the Junior Circuit as "the hucksters of the big leagues."
His decision to join the National League seems curious in that American League president Ban Johnson had the reputation of strongly supporting his umpires and trying to eliminate rowdy behavior. But both Johnson and Klem were strong, autocratic personalities who probably would have clashed both on and off the field. In short, Klem's approach to the game made him a better fit in the National League.
Klem's first major league game was in Cincinnati as the Reds played the Pirates. Klem's last full year was 1940, but he worked a few games in 1941 as the National League experimented with four man crews. Age was beginning to get to him. In 1940 he was hit by a ground ball in the infield and realized that he was slowing down at the age of 66. He umpired a handful of games in 1941 in his role of Chief of the National League umpire staff. Klem knew he was done when in a St. Louis-Brooklyn game when he missed a tag on a stolen base. Klem said that was the first time he only thought, not knew, that a man was out.
He remained head of National League umpires until his death in 1951. During his career he umpired in 18 World Series, taking part in 108 post-season games. Klem called five no-hitters from behind the plate. He is credited with developing the inside chest protector, but Klem said that idea came from others. He did claim credit for teaching umpires to work the "slot," which he claimed gave umpires a better look at the strike zone by looking between the catcher and batter. He is also among those given credit for developing a system of signals for safe, out, strike, fair or foul ball. Klem himself only took credit for developing a fair-foul signal during his 1904 stint in the American Association.
Many histories say Klem was so good at calling balls and strikes that he was plate umpire for the first 16 years of his career. This is not true. Throughout his career, Klem took his regular turn on the bases, when he was with a partner. The major leagues did not hire enough umpires to guarantee two man crews until the 1911 season. During those first six years, Klem worked his share of solo games and would also work the plate when paired with a rookie umpire early in the season until the beginner gained experience. Both of these factors may have contributed to this myth, which appears in most articles written about Klem. Klem himself did not make this claim.
This one flaw in the historical record should not detract from a career that will probably be unmatched in baseball history. Anyone who umpires baseball at any level owes a debt to Bill Klem for his work in making umpiring an honorable profession.
NOTE: A version of this biography first appeared in Tom Simon, ed., Deadball Stars of the National League (Washington, D. C.: Brassey's, Inc., 2004).
The biography was prepared using materials from the author's More than Merkle, information drawn from the Hall of Fame documents and other information that came to the author.