A major-league umpire for 35 seasons, Joseph Norbert Brinkman was born on April 9, 1944, in Little Falls, Minnesota. His parents, Henry and Rose Brinkman, lived in nearby Holdingford and ran a dairy farm with about 80 to 90 head of cattle. Brinkman was the seventh of nine children, having seven sisters and one brother. The family was raised Roman Catholic.
Brinkman graduated in 1962 from Holdingford High School, where he starred in football, basketball, and both baseball and track in the spring. He went on to spend a year at St. Cloud State University, where he played football and basketball. On October 20, 1962, Brinkman kicked the winning field goal from 24 yards out in St. Cloud’s victory against Bemidji State University as time ran out on the clock. Brinkman was inserted as a last-minute substitution for the regular kicker, who was injured. Despite the holder dropping the ball and hurriedly getting the snap down late, Brinkman was able to get enough momentum on the ball to just get it through the uprights for a 15-14 win.
After leaving St. Cloud State, Brinkman traveled west to live with his father’s brother Ted and work for the Roseburg Lumber Company in Roseburg, Oregon. After spending three years in Oregon, Brinkman enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Germany from 1965 to 1967. His assignment was playing sports—football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. In baseball, Brinkman saw action at first base, the outfield, and as a pitcher. Brinkman first dabbled in umpiring while in the Army, but, more importantly, he was introduced to Barney Deary, who was in Germany running a clinic for umpires in the military. As part of the training, Deary used Brinkman and his Army baseball teammates to help simulate plays for which the clinic umpires would practice making calls. He told Brinkman that if he was ever interested in becoming an umpire himself, he should give him a call in Florida.
Brinkman was discharged from the Army in 1967. Thoughts of warmer weather during an extremely cold day in Holdingford the following winter prompted Brinkman to make that call. Deary told him that it was 75 degrees where he was in Daytona Beach, and that, even though the school had already begun, Brinkman should hurry down and get started. Thus, Brinkman became a student in the Al Somers Umpire School and, from there, went directly to spring training. He umpired games for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor-league camp in Daytona Beach and earned a position as an umpire in the Class A Midwest League for the 1968 season.
The next winter Brinkman attended the new Umpire Development Program in St. Petersburg, Florida, a program designed by to help train future umpires. Following the program, Brinkman worked in the Class AA Southern League for two seasons and then the Class AAA American Association for the next two. Brinkman also worked in the Dominican Republic Leagues in the winters of 1971-72 and 1972-73. In addition, he umpired in the Caribbean World Series in both years—in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in 1972 and in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1973.
On September 6, 1972, Brinkman got the call to go to the majors. He worked his first game in Cleveland, where the Indians hosted Milwaukee, Brinkman’s assignment being second base. Brinkman spent the next 27 seasons working as an American League umpire, the next seven after that as a major-league umpire after the American and National league squads were combined in 2000. Brinkman’s last game was on July 2, 2006. He retired officially on December 31, 2006. Brinkman cited “a little bit of health . . . and age” as the reasons for his retirement. Age 62 at the time of his retirement, Brinkman experienced the heart condition atrial fibrillation. Brinkman had been dealing with the condition with medication for over a decade prior to retirement. He was quoted as saying upon retirement, “The doctors were changing the meds and it had me being tired a lot. It’s a condition, not a disease, so I think we have it under control.”
Brinkman lived in St. Petersburg from 1969 to 1984. During the winters of 1970 to 1972 he dropped in from time to time to visit the Umpire Development School, which had been purchased by former umpire Bill Kinnamon and transformed into the Bill Kinnamon Umpire School in 1971. In 1973 Brinkman officially joined the staff at the school as an instructor. Brinkman bought the school from Kinnamon in 1982 and renamed it the Joe Brinkman Umpire School. In 1985 both Brinkman and his school moved to Cocoa, Florida. Brinkman continued as owner and an instructor until 1998, when he sold the school to fellow umpire Jim Evans.
Brinkman co-authored The Umpire’s Handbook in 1985 and used it as a basic text for his umpire school. Brinkman presents his philosophy of the umpiring profession in the preface of the book, which was also available to the general public. He told of calling a game-ending balk in the 11th inning of a game between the two division-leading American League teams. He uses this example, of making a reflex call in a critical-game situation according to the baseball rulebook as it is written, to highlight his overall philosophy of the profession and the purpose of the book: “Umpiring is not like being a politician; you can’t tell everyone what they want to hear. You make a call the way you see it, and you can’t make mistakes.”
In 1983 Brinkman was assigned to be an American League crew chief. During this season, his crew umpired the game for which he is most well known, the infamous “pine-tar game” July 24 at Yankee Stadium. George Brett had hit a two-run, two-out home run off New York’s Goose Gossage in the top of the ninth to give Kansas City a 5-4 lead. Yankees manager Billy Martin suspected that the pine tar on Brett’s bat extended too far up the barrel and was waiting for a ripe situation to challenge the excessive pine tar and its subsequent implications. Now he had it and had his catcher alert plate-umpire Tim McClelland to the pine tar. After conferring with the crew (and using the 17-inch width of home plate as a measuring device), McClelland determined that the excess pine tar on Brett’s bat made his base hit an illegally batted ball and ruled him out per Rule 6.06 as it stood in 1983, nullifying the home run and ending the game.
The call prompted a rare display of emotion from Brett, who had to be restrained around the shoulders and neck by Brinkman, among others. The Royals also tried to “steal” the evidence, Brett’s bat, and Brinkman had to go up the Royals’ runway in order to retrieve it. Kansas City lodged a protest, which was upheld four days later by American League President Lee MacPhail. Brett’s home run was allowed with the game to be resumed from the point of protest.
Brinkman says the ruling has been generally misunderstood. According to the rule, Brett’s home run was an “illegally batted ball;” a similar situation would arise if a batter placed his foot—accidentally or intentionally—outside the batter’s box. MacPhail said he overturned the umpires’ decision “in the spirit of the rules,” a rule he understood to be originally written so the balls themselves would not be dirtied up during games, not for fear of giving the batter a “distance” advantage. A review of the rules from 1983 shows that Brinkman’s crew made the correct call. The controversy caused a major rule-book edit over the winter to address and clarify the issue of pine tar and bats.
Brinkman’s professional career spanned 35 seasons and included numerous appearances in the All-Star Game and the post-season. This list includes:
- All-Star Games: 1977, 1991, 1996
- Division Series: 1981, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2004, and 2005
- American League Championship Series: 1976, 1987, 1997
- World Series: 1978, 1986, 1995
- Postseason crew chief: 1987 and 1997 American League Championship Series, and 2004 and 2005 National League Division Series.
As of early 2008, Brinkman ranks high on the all-time lists: ninth in seasons as an American League umpire (28), third in seasons as a major-league umpire (roughly 34 ½ given his retirement in July 2006), and fifth in total games umpired (4,505).
Brinkman’s long and dedicated career was not without controversy. In the first chapter of The Umpire’s Handbook, Brinkman wrote, “The umpire is doing his best job when he goes unnoticed. This is, however, not always possible.”
For a number of seasons Brinkman experimented with standing back from the catcher rather than close behind his back. This was controversial although Brinkman felt it improved his ability to see the strike zone. “It was like looking around a tree—it is just easier when standing back from the tree a bit rather than being right up next to it and trying to look around it.” Brinkman eventually moved back to the more traditional position, in large part to avoid the controversy that had developed with the experiment. Brinkman used the controversial position behind the plate for three seasons, including the 1995 World Series.
Controversy also included player and manager ejections, most notably the early ejections of Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove and pitcher Dwight Gooden in the second game of the American League Championship Series on September 30, 1998. Brinkman lays out his position on dealing with conflict on the diamond in the section on arguments in his book:
“What should you allow the arguer to say? Our approach in the big leagues is to allow them to say we made a horsebleep call but not to say we personally are horsebleep. If the arguer gets personal, tell him he risks ejection. If he continues in a personal vein after one or two warnings, throw him out of the game.”
As Brinkman said, “It all boils down to how much you have decided you will tolerate. I was not one who tolerated personal attacks.”
Brinkman was not one of the umpires who tendered their resignations during the labor dispute when the American and National league squads were being combined by Major League Baseball (MLB). After MLB had done away with both American and National league presidencies, he believed, it would inevitably combine the umpiring squads. Accordingly, he did not follow union leader Richie Phillips’s mass-resignation plan. Brinkman was instrumental, as a senior umpire, in decertifying the old union and certifying the new. He also worked to get umpires who had resigned rehired or granted severance pay and health benefits.
During his career, in November of 1979, Brinkman met Karen Ellis-Brown of Orlando, Florida. The two were married March 20, 1981. Brinkman also has a daughter, Honey Jo, who was born September 5, 1970.
Despite any health problems he may now experience, Brinkman leads an extremely active post-baseball life.
He and Karen moved to a 160-acre ranch in Chiefland, Florida, in 2004. They first owned a couple of cows and a horse. Although he swore when he left Minnesota in 1968 that he would “never return to farming,” Brinkman now finds himself with 60 head of beef cattle and four horses, leasing an additional 100 acres in addition to his own land.
At the time of the interview with Brinkman for this article in January 2008, he had just built a horse barn and stated he was working, on average, 10-hour days over the previous four months.
A version of this biography appeared in the book Minnesotans in Baseball, edited by Stew Thornley (Nodin, 2009).
Telephone interview with Joe Brinkman, Thursday, January 31, 2008 with follow-up telephone interview Sunday, February 10, 2008, and e-mail correspondence Thursday, February 14, 2008.
“Evans Buys Brinkman’s Umpire’s School,” The Referee, July, 1998, p.15.
“Davidson Hired Full-Time to Replace Brinkman,” The Referee, March, 2007, p. 11.
“Brinkman Ruined the Game,” by Jay Greenberg, New York Post, Thursday, October 1, 1998, p. 76.
“Brett’s Bat is Martinized; Homer Doesn’t Count,” by Mike McKenzie, The Sporting News, August 1, 1983, p. 22.
“Tar Wars: ‘Rules Must be Clarified’ MacPhail Says,” by Ralph Ray, The Sporting News, August 8, 1983, p. 2.
“Tar Wars: Reactions, The Yankees . . .,” by Moss Klein, The Sporting News, August 8, 1983, p. 3.
“Tar Wars: Reactions, The Royals . . .,” by Mike McKenzie, The Sporting News, August 8, 1983, p. 3.
“Tar Wars: Reactions, The Umpires . . .,” by Mike McKenzie, The Sporting News, August 8, 1983, p. 3.
“Our Opinion, Rulebook Under Fire,” The Sporting News, August 8, 1983, p. 6.
“MacPhail Made the Right Decision,” by Peter Gammons, The Sporting News, August 8, 1983, p. 19.
“Brinkman: Gotta Toss Out Phillips” by Jim Wallace Matthews, New York Post, September 3, 1999, p. 105.
The Umpire’s Handbook, Second Edition by Joe Brinkman and Charlie Euchner, The Alpine Press, Inc., 1987.
“A Statistical Look at the Men in Blue,” by David Vincent, Baseball Research Journal, Number 36, 2007, p. 13-18.
Official Baseball Rules, 1983 Edition, The Sporting News, 1983, p.9, 18, 43.
Official Baseball Rules, 1984 Edition, The Sporting News, 1984, p.9.
“Writer Probably Couldn’t Sell Script of Huskies’ Victory: Brinkman Successful in Kicking 1st Field Goal of Career in Last 2 Seconds” by Joe Long, St. Cloud Times, Monday, October 22, 1962, p. 16.