Mike Briscese was a minor league umpire who had his chance in the major leagues in 1979, filling in as a replacement in the American League during a labor dispute involving the regular umpires.
Briscese was born in Staten Island, New York, on August 19, 1915. His father was a barber, and he had two older brothers, Dominick and Mauro, and two sisters, Mary Louise and Ann, one older and young younger. The family moved to New Jersey when he was young, and Briscese grew up in Keyport, New Jersey. "My parents were both born in Italy," Briscese said in a 1989 interview. "All of the kids were born in New York, except one sister who was born in New Jersey. We spoke Italian growing up; that's how we picked it up."
Keyport was about 35 miles from New York City, where Briscese had his choice of baseball teams to root for. He picked the Yankees. "I would hitchhike into New York with only a dollar-and-a-half on me. That was enough to get a ticket and sit in the bleachers. I was glad to see the Yankees play."
Briscese played baseball and basketball when he was in high school, and then joined a baseball team in Rumson, New Jersey. "It paid a little bit. We used to get $3 for a ballgame. That was big money then. I'd play ball in the evenings. During the day, I had a job in Keyport working in a dynamite factory for 50 cents an hour."
Briscese was nearly 23 when he entered professional baseball. He spent parts or all of three seasons in the Coastal Plain League, Appalachian League, and Florida East Coast League, all Class D leagues. His best numbers were with his first team, Tarboro in the Coastal Plain League in 1938, when he had a .277 batting average with three home runs and 27 runs batted in.
After the United States entered World War II, Briscese went into the service. "I knew I was going to be drafted. At that time you could choose what branch of service you wanted to go in, so I chose the Navy.
"I was a gunner on a tanker. We were carrying high-test gasoline to North Africa for the airplanes. I got into Casablanca, and Bezertie, and Tunis going back and forth carrying gasoline. There were German planes overhead. We got in some action for about a week. There was another ship being unloaded so we had to wait in the harbor. We were like a sitting duck in the water. The Germans dropped bombs all around us. We were lucky they didn't hit us. What saved us was the smoke screens. The destroyers carried some sort of material-I don't know what it was-but they formed a smoke screen in the harbor so the planes couldn't see us, and that's what saved our lives."
After the war ended in 1945, Briscese said he "took it easy for about a year. We had about $20 a week coming to us from the government, and I found odd jobs wherever I could.
"It was pretty hard to find a job at that time. I worked for an arsenal before I went into the service. We were supposed to get our jobs back after the war, but I never got mine back because the war was over and they weren't going to make any more ammunition.
"I got a job in a meat market. I was going to be a butcher, but that didn't work out very good. I finally got a job in a titanium plant close to home. I worked there and played ball in the summer time. They laid us off and I worked for the American Can in New Jersey, making beer cans in the factory. I also ran an American Legion club in Keyport. I worked wherever I could, and played ball on the side for three or four dollars a game."
The Sporting News at that time ran regular advertisements for an umpiring school run by Bill McGowan, an umpire who is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Briscese saw the ad in 1947 and decided to give it a try. "I signed up for it under the GI bill. It was a six-week course and we had some good instructors down there: Bill McKinley, Ed Hurley, Art Passarella."
Briscese found himself back in Class D baseball, this time as an umpire. His first assignment was in the Eastern Shore League in Maryland and Delaware, where he made $250 a month. Briscese eventually found his name within the ad for McGowan's school as he became an instructor. "Bill McGowan liked me, I got on good with the guys and the students and everybody, and I was an instructor for about three years.
Briscese worked two years in the Big State League in Texas and, in 1950, spent the first month of the season in the Sally League when he was called up by the American Association, a Class AAA minor league that had an option on him. "I was working a game in Columbus, Georgia when the president of the league, Earl Blue, said, 'Hey, you're going up to the American Association. I've already made a reservation for you on the airplane.'
I'd never flown in my life, but the next day I was on a plane to Minneapolis. It was hot down in Columbus, but when I got to Minneapolis, it was not only cold, there was snow on the ground, and this was in May. We were supposed to work a series over in St. Paul, but it was so cold all we could do was sit around for a few days."
Briscese lived at the Andrews Hotel in Minneapolis during the time he worked in the Association. He also met his wife, a secretary for a food company, in Minneapolis.
"After four years in the American Association, I was told I was a little too quick on the draw as far as throwing ejections. I was only going by what I had learned at school. McGowan told me, 'Run your game. Don't let the ballplayers run you.' That's what I tried to do, but it didn't work out that way in the Association, and I was transferred to the International League for 1954.
"When I was in the Association, Al Lopez was the manager at Indianapolis, which was a Cleveland farm club. I'm out of baseball now, so it doesn't make any difference, but Lopez was a skunk. He knew I was a rookie umpire in 1950. My first trip into Indianapolis I was working behind the plate one night and the catcher got on me. Then Lopez started in, too, so I threw him and the catcher out.
"The second night he got on me again. You could hear him cussing all the way across the field, so I charged over to the dugout and let him out of there. When it was time to make the report out to Mr. Dudley, the league president, I stated that Lopez was cussing. Lopez wrote back to Dudley and said, 'I wasn't cussing. Ask my wife.' And his wife then adds a little to the letter and says, 'No, I couldn't hear any cussing.' Dudley finally fined him $50, which was about average at that time, but, overall, Dudley was pretty weak at backing up the umpires.
"When you're a rookie, they want to see how much you're going to take. They'll all try to take a little advantage of you, but Al Lopez was about the worst man I've seen. I worked with Dusty Boggess in spring training once, and he told me about Lopez. I told Dusty I'd had trouble with Lopez and he said, 'Yeah, well, it's nothing new. He's the same way in the big leagues.'
"I don't know what Lopez had against me. During the day, if you ran into him away from the field, he'd be nice as pie, but he changed like the snap of the finger on the field."
On at least two occasions while he was in the American Association, according to The Sporting News, Briscese actually overturned an ejection. The first time it earned him the nickname "Reverend" from Milwaukee manager Charlie Grimm. It occurred in 1951 when Briscese ejected Toledo outfielder George Lerchen. Lerchen had tossed his bat after striking out, the bat hitting Briscese on the leg. Grimm says he heard Briscese tell Lerchen, "If you will swear to God that you didn't mean to hit me with the bat, I'll let you play."
The following year, on August 16, Briscese called Milwaukee's Gene Mauch out on strikes and then ejected him when Mauch kicked his bat against Briscese's shins. The Sporting News reported, "However, on appeal from [Milwaukee manager] Bucky Walters, Briscese reinstated Mauch, apparently deciding the incident was accidental."
One man he did not reverse an ejection on was Clay Bryant, manager of the St. Paul Saints. The August 19, 1953 The Sporting News, reported, "Umpire Mike Briscese had to summon a policeman to escort Bryant from the park at Charleston, August 8, after the Saint pilot was banished for disputing a decision at first base. The ejection was Bryant's third of the season-all by Briscese, who also kicked Clay out twice last year."
About seven weeks prior to this, police were summoned in Kansas City, this time to help the umpires off the field. Briscese had ruled a Kansas City Blues runner had not crossed the plate before the third out of an inning was made. The Sporting News reported, "A dispute ensued, and beer cans and other missiles were thrown from the stands. After the game, the umpires were given a police escort."
Briscese's experiences after leaving the American Association remained stormy, according to his own description of events, from the 1989 interview: "I spent the one year in the International League and I found out that I wasn't going anywhere. Frank Shaughnessy, the league president, asked if I wanted to go to the Texas League. I said, 'Why? Am I not doing a good job here?' He said, 'You are, but you have rabbit ears.'
"I told him, 'Well, Mr. Shaughnessy, I'm only trying to run my game. If these guys cuss at me, I'm going to throw them out of the game.'
"But, he sent me to the Texas League and said, 'Maybe you can work yourself up. If you do well down there, we'll call you up again.' But I knew that was a fallacy. He didn't have an option on me or anything. Yet, I wanted to stay in the game, so I went down to the Texas League for three years and I met another bobo of a league president, Dick Butler, who's now the supervisor of umpires in the American League.
"He was another president who wouldn't back you up. I had an incident in Austin, Texas one night with Connie Ryan, the manager, and I threw him out. I wrote to Butler and told him how Ryan was jumping up and down like a monkey. Another night I had trouble with Leo Thomas. He was a skunk. He used to get on everybody.
"The other umpires wouldn't throw these guys out. They want you to take so much, and I couldn't do that. I didn't umpire that way. Thomas wasn't hitting this night, and I called him out on a pitch that was good. He started to give it to me, trying to put the monkey on my back. I threw him out and he pushed me-gave me the chest.
"Butler fined him $50, but the next year when I went back to the league, Thomas tells me, 'Your own league president didn't back you up. He gave me my $50 back.'" (Note: According the The Sporting News, Thomas was fined $100, not the $50 that Briscese remembers, and was also suspended for 10 days and played on probation for the rest of the 1956 season. Whether the $100 was ever returned to Thomas or not, of course, is not documented.)
During these years, Briscese also umpired in the winter, in both the Puerto Rican League and the Venezuelan Association.
The Sporting News had several additional reports of problems Briscese had as an umpire. In an International League game in Havana, Cuba in 1954, Briscese chewed out Toronto Maple Leafs manager Luke Sewell after his team had remained in the clubhouse too long between games of a doubleheader. Sewell then took his spot in the coaching box, holding a fielder's glove. After one batter, Briscese ejected Sewell for holding a glove. The Sporting News account does not indicate whether or not Briscese first warned Sewell, but it says, "Sewell argued lengthily. The policemen then moved onto the field, and the Toronto pilot departed, but not before announcing he would play the game under protest."
Briscese was one of three United States umpired fired from the Venezuelan Association in January of 1957. The Sporting News reported, "The trio consisted of Mike Briscese, a member of the Texas League staff and Bill Lynch and Bob Gabella of the Southern Association. A disputed call by Briscese which cost Caracas a game at Valencia, January 2, touched off the episode involving the arbiters. An open conflict between league officials and the men in blue followed, the result was dismissal of the trio. Their chores have been taken over by native umpires."
It was around this time that Briscese left umpiring. "Things weren't going too good at home," he explained. "My wife thought I wasn't happy here, so we moved to New Jersey, but she wasn't happy there so we finally moved back to Minneapolis. We were staying with her mother and father. They had a lot of room, but I only had a few bucks. We couldn't move out of there until I found a decent job, so I took the exam to be a mailman and went to work for the post office for awhile. But, things still weren't going too good at home, and one day I stormed out of the house and she filed divorce papers. I tried to get back together with her, but she wouldn't consider it.
"After we split up, like a darn fool, I quit the post office. I had a lot of time in, but I was so disgusted I didn't know what to do. So I just quit and stayed in a room downtown. I tried to save my marriage, but she wouldn't consider it."
Briscese worked for three years as a night detective at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Minneapolis and also got back into umpiring. "What happened, actually, was that in 1960 I got a call from George Brophy of the [Minneapolis] Millers, asking if I could work the game at Metropolitan Stadium. One of the umpires had missed his plane in Chicago. I didn't have any equipment, but, Don Wheeler, who was the Millers' bullpen catcher, umpired on the side, and he loaned me his stuff.
"Dick Siebert, the coach of the Minnesota Gophers, was at the game and afterwards asked me if I would like to work some college games. I said I'd be glad to."
Briscese joined the Northwest Umpires Association and umpired high school, college, and other amateur baseball for approximately another 10 years, working about 70 to 80 games a year, except for a time when he hurt his back while working as a laborer for a cement company. "I couldn't umpire for awhile, and umpiring was my main income at the time. I found any other job I could get, any kind of trade or anything. I wished I had gone to college years ago, but we never had the money. Things were tough."
Briscese went to Minnesota Twins games at Metropolitan Stadium. George Brophy, by this time the vice president-farm director for the Twins, advised Briscese to bring his equipment to the games because there was a possibility the regular umpires would go on strike. A one-day walkout by the umpires happened on August 25, but the Twins, having just completed a homestand, were in Toronto, so Briscese wasn't needed.
However, a labor dispute with the umpires happened the following spring when most of the regular umpires refused to sign their individual contracts. Briscese was going to Florida to visit his sister not far from Orlando, where the Twins trained. Brophy heard about his trip and told him to bring his equipment again. With the regular umpires gone, Briscese worked some spring training games. The umpire dispute lasted into the regular season, and each team was advised to line up at least three local umpires, who would be teamed with an current or former umpire from one of the Class AAA minor leagues.
As a result of this, Briscese had the opportunity to umpire in the major leagues. He was initially teamed with two other local umpires, Bill Ivory and George Sweeney, with the crew led by Mike Fitzpatrick, a former American Association umpire who was part of the National Association Umpire Development staff.
Briscese's first game was April 17. "It was warm that day and they had a good crowd, around 37,000. I had never worked before a crowd that big before. Reporters were all around, taking pictures and interviewing us. They asked me how it felt. I told them it felt great. It's so different working the big leagues."
Briscese had an active day at first base. In the top of the first inning, Dave Goltz picked California's Don Baylor off first base. In the last of the fifth, Nolan Ryan picked Minnesota's Willie Norwood off first. "[Minnesota manager Gene] Mauch came out of the dugout and said, 'Mike, I'm not here to argue.' He was good about it. 'I'm not here to argue,' he says, 'but Ryan is balking.' I said I couldn't see the balk from here. If he had to argue with anybody, he could have gone to the third-base umpire, because Ryan's a right-hander, and he could see the balk better than I could. He didn't say too much and just walked away.
"The next day, I had the plate. There was a play at home with Wilfong coming in from third and the catcher blocking the plate. Wilfong went tumbling over and didn't touch the plate, and the catcher knew it. He went over and tagged Wilfong. If he'd have touched the plate, there would have been dirt on it, but there wasn't. Mauch came out again and asked how come I called it that way. I said, 'Well, he didn't touch the plate. He went right over the catcher. He laid there and didn't even try to get back to touch it.' That was it. Mauch didn't say too much and he went away.
"I had Mauch when he was a player. He was a shortstop with the Milwaukee Brewers in the Association. He was a fiery guy, but I don't remember that he gave our crew any trouble." (In this interview, Briscese apparently did not remember ejecting Mauch in 1952.)
Briscese worked all five games of the Twins' first homestand. After eight games on the road, Minnesota returned home and used several other local umpires as they opened a 12-game homestand. Briscese was back for the final three games, serving on a crew headed by Derryl Cousins, an umpire from the Pacific Coast League.
Cousins remained an umpire in the major leagues when the labor dispute ended, although he was shunned by the regular umpres. "The regular umpires didn't like a guy taking their jobs," said Briscese. "They were calling the substitute umpires scabs. So what if a guy does that? They had to have umpires. It was a chance for these guys to get into the big leagues. They didn't call me scab because I had just come from here. They knew I umpired. I wasn't like Cousins because he was in the minor leagues, and they called him up and he's been there ever since."
Of umpiring, Briscese said, "It's a lonely life. You can't associate with the players. We'd try not to stay at the same hotel that they did. It wasn't a good idea. Maybe you had trouble with a player the night before and then you'd run into him at the hotel."
"I worked with several umpires who made it to the majors. Stan Landes was one. [Bill} Jackowski. Jim Odom. Bill Valentine. Larry Napp. Sam Carrigan. I'd see some of my partners go up to the majors and I'd say to myself, 'Am I going to make it or not?' Sometimes I'd wonder what I was doing in this game.
"I spent about 11 years in the minors. I just liked it. I liked the game so much. I liked umpiring so much."
Briscese spoke highly of Landes and mentioned "some other umpires who stand out. Bill Jackowski was a good umpire. Bouncing Billy, we used to call him. Good umpire. Good judgment. He worked hard and stayed in the majors ten or 15 years.
"As far as managers go, Johnny Keane was my idol. He was a good manager, and I got along with him. If you made a mistake, he'd give you a mild argument and walk away. He was a good booster of mine, along with Rollie Hemsley, who was with Columbus.
"And George Selkirk with Kansas City. He was a good guy to get along with. He didn't bother you too much. But I threw him out one night, and he didn't say a word."
Briscese noted changes in umpiring over the years, in particular the salaries. "I worked for anywhere from $250 to $600 a month. The majors at the time were paying only $15,000 a year. Now they're doing real good, at least in the majors.
"I just want to be remembered that I was fair. I never favored any team. I was fair with all the players. As far as the managers go, some of them you couldn't be fair with. They'd take advantage just because you were an umpire."
Briscese's professional playing record, according to the Old Time Data, Inc. Professional Baseball Player Database:
1938, Tarboro, Coastal Plain League (D), .277 BA, 3 HR, 27 RBI
1939, Pennington Gap-Johnson City, Appalachian League (D), .246-2-24
1939, Kinston, Coastal Plain League (D), .280-0-0
1941, Fort Pierce, Florida East Coast League (D), .261-0-1
The primary source was a series of conversations between the author and subject. Other sources included:
"Cholly Hangs 'Reverend' Tag on Umpire Briscese, The Sporting News, July 4, 1951, p. 28
The Sporting News, August 27, 1952, p. 28 (Ejection of Mauch)
The Sporting News, July 1, 1953, p. 32 (Police escort in Kansas City)
The Sporting News, August 19, 1953, p. 30 (Ejections of Bryant)
"Police Help Enforce Ump's Ouster of Pilot in Havana" by Pedro Galiana, The Sporting News, July 21, 1954, p. 32
"Austin's Thomas Fined $100, Set Down 10 Days by Butler," The Sporting News, May 2, 1956, p. 33,
"Three U. S. Umps Fired in Rhubarb" by M. J. Gorman, Jr., The Sporting News, January 16, 1957
"Michael Briscese, longtime baseball umpire" by Robert Franklin, Star Tribune, Newspaper of the Twin Cities, Monday, June 23, 1997, p. B4
"Umps Walkout, Yanks' Trouble Dominated" by Clifford Kachline, The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide for 1980, pp. 299-305.