Augie Donatelli

During 24 years in the National League, August John Donatelli was one of major-league baseball’s most respected umpires. He worked four All-Star games (1953, 1959, 1962, 1969), five World Series (1955, 1957, 1961, 1967, 1973), and two League Championship Series (1969, 1972).  Moreover, he was the home-plate umpire for four no-hitters: Warren Spahn (1961), Carl Erskine (1956), Ken Johnson (1964), and Bob Moose (1969).  In 1955, his fifth year in the majors, Donatelli was voted “the best National League umpire on the bases” by baseball writers. In February 1973 he received the Al Somers award as the Outstanding Major League Umpire of 1972; that the first two Somers awards, voted on by umpires, went to Al Barlick and Nestor Chylak, universally regarded as the premier arbiters in the National and American Leagues respectively, indicates Donatelli’s recognized stature within the umpiring profession.

In some ways Augie Donatelli was a typical umpire of the post-World War II era. He was a second-generation, working-class American who successfully used sport as a vehicle for socioeconomic mobility, part of a group of Italian-Americans – Babe Pinelli, Art Passarella, Joe Paparella, Frank Dascoli, Augie Guglielmo, Joe Linsalata, and Alex Salerno – whose presence was conspicuous for the first time in ranks of umpires in the 1940s and 1950s. He was an ex-player who turned to officiating as a way of continuing his involvement with the game. And he was among the numerous war-hardened veterans who dominated college and professional sport after 1945. 

In other ways, Donatelli was atypical. The peculiar circumstances of his family life and experiences as a prisoner of war forged a distinctive personality – forceful, determined, and tough-minded with a strong sense of fairness and camaraderie. As a rapid ascent through the minor leagues suggested, he was a “born” umpire, possessing that unusual combination of skill, judgment, and demeanor that marks the truly exemplary umpire.  Most important, as the “founder” of the Major League Umpires Association, Augie Donatelli is one of the few men in blue to make historically important contributions to the umpiring profession as well as major-league baseball. 

The following “oral autobiography” is a composite excerpt of an extended personal interview with Donatelli. It originally was to be included in the book The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires (1980), but was withheld because of his consternation that a contemporary National League arbiter would be included in the book. The interview is offered at this time for two reasons: l) Donatelli’s “story” should be a matter of record because of his demonstrable importance in baseball and umpiring history, and 2) it is an unusually comprehensive personal exegesis from an intensely private man who, like most umpires, had not sought the “limelight” and thus had not had his views widely recorded.

Although the material has been reorganized to present a coherent “life story” and the repetitious and incomplete statements characteristic of oral communication have been eliminated, I have tried scrupulously to preserve Donatelli’s language and modes of expression in order to convey accurately a sense of the man as well as his remembrances. Excluded are his comments about memorable players, managers, and games, as they conform in all essentials to what has been said ad nauseam on those subjects. We have ample testimony, for example, that Jackie Robinson was “a terrific basestealer and a great hitter.” What is emphasized here is unique information pertaining to Donatelli’s personal life, his umpiring career, his thoughts on the art of umpiring, and his role in organizing the umpires union.

Augie Donatelli:

I spent most of my life in coal mining towns of Cambria County in western Pennsylvania. I was born in the small town of Heilwood on August 22, l914. When I was about two months old, my family moved over to Bakerton, where I grew up, went to high school, and joined the service during World War II. After I got married, my wife, Mary Lou, and I moved to Ebensburg, the county seat, where we raised our four children, two girls and two boys. I lived in Ebensburg even after I got to the majors, and for 16 years worked during the offseason as a good-will representative for National Distilleries (even though I never drank whiskey). We moved to Florida a few years before I retired in 1973.

My parents were from Italy. They immigrated over here around l900, and my father, Tony, went to work in the coal mines. There were eight children in our family; I was number five. The oldest and youngest were girls; the rest boys. All the boys worked in the mines. It was dangerous and hard work, but what else were you going to do? I started even before graduating from high school. Times were tough then because of the Depression. Jobs were scarce, so I was glad to have the work. I did everything – worked outside as a coal dumper and inside as a loader and a spragger.1

Sports was our main recreation. Two of my brothers were pretty good boxers, one was a Golden Gloves champ and the other had about 50 professional fights. I played football and basketball and ran track in high school. There was no baseball team, but we played pickup games and after graduation I played in an industrial league while working in the mines. I was a decent, scrappy shortstop, so decided to give pro baseball a try. My father was very encouraging as a way of getting out of the mines. Tom Monaghan, the famous scout, signed me with the St. Louis Browns. I started out in the local Penn State League [Class D Pennsylvania Association], but it folded financially. Then I played in the Kitty League [Class D Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee], and was sent back to the Penn State League with Beaver Falls. I only played l4 games [batting .266] when the league folded again in l938, so I went back to the mines.

I was loading coal when World War II broke out. Being single, I figured I was near to being drafted, so I enlisted in the Air Force. Like a lot of young guys, I felt it was something I had to do, not to escape the mines but because you just felt it was up to you to get into it. My basic training was at Lowry Field near Denver, Colorado. When they found out I was a ballplayer, they offered me the rank of staff sergeant if I would play for the base team. So I played ball while going to armor and gunnery school. I went into combat in October 1943 and flew l8 missions as a tail gunner on a B-l7 before getting shot down. I’ll never forget it. We were shot down before the [June 6, 1944, D-Day] invasion, on the first daylight bomber raid on Berlin [March 6, 1944]. It was a rough mission – fighters diving at us, 20-millimeter shells exploding all around. We flew into the clouds to hide. What action! That day 68 bombers were shot down. We got hit, so the crew bailed out. I got captured and taken to Frankfurt. I spent about 15 months in prison camps. We changed camps three times; the Germans kept moving us around so the Russians couldn’t liberate us.

Early in the winter we marched from Frankfurt to the first camp, Heydekrug, about 40 miles south of Memel, Lithuania. It was no picnic. Sixty men to a barracks, 10 men to a table. No food, no clothes, cold in the winter, and wait, wait, wait. Being a noncom[missioned officer], I didn’t have to work. You just sat around and waited for the next meal – if you got it. We were supposed to get a slice of bread a day; sometimes we would, sometimes we wouldn’t. There was no coffee, just something black like coffee made of boiled weeds of some kind. Occasionally we would get some soup with wheat and whatever vegetables the Germans could find. Turnips mostly; lots of diced turnips.  Potatoes occasionally. Horsemeat if they had it. We’d fill a bucket with water, toss in the vegetables, cook it for a while, and had a water bucket of soup. It was pretty bad, but, what the hell, you ate it to keep from starving. The Germans couldn’t give us much because they didn’t have anything themselves. After about six months, we started getting Red Cross parcels once a week. There was supposed to be one parcel per man, but there was never enough so we shared – one package for four men. We got cigarettes, but that’s when I quit smoking. I’d trade my cigarettes for food. Cliff Barker, who was later an All-American basketball player at the University of Kentucky, was in our group. He smoked, and would trade me bread for my cigarettes. He still owes me about half a loaf.

Believe it or not, I started umpiring in the prison camp at Heydekrug. When I bailed out, I broke a bone in my ankle and couldn’t do anything for a time. The guys played softball for recreation. There were lots of English POWs in the camp; some of them had been there for three years. They had a few softballs and bats, but almost no other equipment.  Each of the barracks had a team, so there were games going on all the time. I would sit on the sidelines and watch the games – good gosh, what unbelievable rhubarbs they had over rules and judgment calls. They couldn’t find any good umpires. Some of the guys found out that I had played ball and asked me if I had ever umpired. I had never umpired before and it didn’t strike me that I should umpire. But I wanted to see that the games were run right and by the rules, so I started umpiring and was put on the rules committee. When you are behind the plate, they find out if you could really umpire. I must have done okay, because pretty soon the whole compound was coming after me. There was no way I could get out of it, so I umpired one game after another.

Toward late summer my leg started healing, and I wanted to get out there and play. The guys in my barracks wanted to win the championship, so they decided we needed a manager. I took over as manager, held tryouts, and let the best guys play. There was some dissension over that, but I told them that’s what we had to do to win. Barker pitched and played first base, and we won the championship. About two days after we won the championship, the Russians started a major offensive [September 1944] and the Germans started marching us again. Those who couldn’t walk, the sick and wounded, were loaded into boxcars.

They took us to Stettin, a port on the North Sea, and crammed us into the hold of a ship for two days. There must have been 2,500 of us in there – hot as hell, no water, no toilet. You had to go on deck to take a leak, but no way you could have a bowel movement. When they took us off the ship, they chained two guys together at the wrists, and ran us about three miles to a place called Griefenhagen. As we went through this little town, the guards were hitting us with bayonets, the people were chasing us, the dogs were barking and chasing us – what a mess that was. After a few months, they started walking us again, this time to Neubrandenburg, north of Berlin.

On the march to Neubrandenburg, another prisoner and I escaped. It was his idea. He said it would be easy to sneak away, and it was. On the march we were herded into barns every night. The guards couldn’t take a count of prisoners because we were all split up, and guys were always going in and out of the barns because there was so much dysentery. It got dark real early, so about 6:30 one night we knocked on the barn door, went outside acting like we were going to the latrine, and took off into the woods. We were so afraid of being caught, we kept running almost all night. The next morning we were tired and cold, so we dug about 6-8 feet into a frozen haystack and tried to sleep. We slept for a while, but it was so cold in there that we had to crawl out and start walking again. We headed east, hoping to run into the Russians. They had started an offensive all right, but had been stopped by the Germans.

We survived for about l0 days before being recaptured. Most of the farms in the area were worked by Polish or Russian labor and my partner, who was Polish, could speak both languages. We would approach people working on the outskirts of the farm and find out if they were being guarded or not. At one farm, two of the Polish laborers were ex-soldiers, so they let us sleep in the barn and fed us. One day we went down to where the people were working in the field, we ran into the overseer. No one told us that he would be there; it was an unpleasant surprise. He immediately recognized us as air corpsmen because of our clothes, so he pulled a gun, and took us to his home. He put us into the cellar, which was made into a jail, and called the Germans. Three or four hours later two guards picked us up and started hiking us toward Neubrandenburg.

Neubrandenburg was a huge camp with maybe 15,000 prisoners of all the nationalities in the war. The war was coming to an end, and the Germans were rounding up prisoners from all over. Only privates, not officers, were supposed to work, but my penalty for escaping was to work for a week cutting timber for fortifications, digging trenches and burial pits, and stuff like that. The burial pits were for the Russians, who didn’t get a military burial like the Allies under the Geneva Convention; they were just dumped into the pit. After about three months, the Russians liberated us [April 1945].

When I got back home, I thought about umpiring. I was 29 years old and knew the chance of making it as a player was gone. I didn’t want to go back to the mines, so I thought maybe if I was lucky I could make it to the Big Time as an umpire. I talked with Elmer Daily, the president of the Penn State League about it, and he recommended that I go to the Bill McGowan Umpire School in Cocoa Beach, Florida. My family encouraged me. You had to do something to get out of the mines, so away I went.

I went down to McGowan’s that winter on the GI Bill.  It was the only umpire school at that time, and there were maybe l00 guys at the school – big guys and small guys, young guys and old guys.2 Most of them were umpires and four or five already had professional contracts. During the day we umpired games to learn proper mechanics and apply the rules.  At night we had “skull” classes where McGowan would give us some pointers and tell us about umpiring in the majors. You worshipped a guy like that who was in the majors.

I never thought I would get a job, but I got a lucky break. After about four weeks, during one of the camp games, I handled the call on a steal at second base. Al Somers, a professional umpire who was the only instructor at the school, happened to see the play and immediately went to McGowan and said, “I think the little Italian kid is a prospect. Keep your eye on him.” (I found this out later.) 

The next day McGowan came out to watch to students, and it was my turn on the field again. That night during class McGowan called Al over and said, “Hey, what’s that guy’s name?”  Al didn’t know my name, so he points and says, “That’s him back there.” We were all looking around because we didn’t know who in the hell he’s pointing to. So McGowan says: “I have something I have to tell you. We have a fellow in here that is going to be in the major leagues in four years.” We were all wondering, “Who in the hell is this?”  McGowan kept on with his little speech: “I watched him out there and he’s doing a hell of a job. He is the most outstanding student we have.” And then he points at me. I thought, “Jesus, he doesn’t mean me.” I looked around behind me. He said, “No, no. You. You!” I couldn’t believe it: “Me?” “That’s right, you. You’ve got it kid. We feel that you will be in the majors in four years.” I couldn’t sleep that night. Here I was, just out of the service, at loose ends, going to umpire school on the GI Bill just hoping to get a job, and the man says I can be a major leaguer someday. It was one of my biggest thrills in baseball, I’ll tell you!

So I came out of the school pretty highly rated. My first contract, 1946, was with the Pioneer League [Class C] for $150 a month and no expenses. A fellow from Pittsburgh, Pete Donett, and myself were teamed up as partners. We didn’t have a car, so we rode the buses on those long trips through Idaho and Utah – Boise, Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Twin Falls, Ogden, Salt Lake City. It was pretty rough in the low minors – all kinds of rhubarbs, guys coming down to the edge of the screen and yelling and challenging you to fight them, police escorts to get you out of the ballpark, things like that. When I got back home, the family didn’t know what kind of a year I had. I told them, “When you’re umpiring, you’re lucky if you last a season. They fire you.”

In January I went back to the school. I couldn’t believe it, but McGowan made me an instructor. The minor leagues were booming after the war, and lots of veterans on the GI Bill started showing up at the school. McGowan had to form two classes of about five weeks each; there must have been 300 men in both classes. After a few years it started to slack off. The boys thought it would be easy to get to the majors, but a lot of them got fired and a lot of them quit because it was hard work and no money in the minors.

In 1947, my second year, I was promoted to the Sally League [the South Atlantic League, Class A], with a raise to $300 a month plus $6 or $7 a day for expenses. In midseason the National League bought my contract for $2,000 and farmed me [August 15, 1947] to the International League [Triple A]. Now I’m getting $600 a month – $350 salary and $250 expenses. There was better organization and more police protection in (Triple A), and the rhubarbs weren’t as bad as in the low minors. But you didn’t have any smooth sailing, that’s for sure. It is very difficult in the minors because there are only two umpires. On the other hand, there is no better place than the minors to be scouted because there are only two umpires. Class will quickly show, no question about it.

In my case, I was told that Branch Rickey was at a game one night when I was behind the plate and that he recommended somebody come down to see me. Bingo!  Bill Klem got a hold of me. He saw me work a game and afterward called me into his office. “Look,” he said, “you use the inside protector.”3 I had been using the outside protector, but said, “All right. I can do that.” And I did. I was in the International League for two years. I was supposed to go up the second year, but Ford Frick [president of the National League] called me into his office and told me they were bringing up Lon Warneke, the great pitcher, instead of me. But, he said, I would get the starting major-league salary of $5,000. When I hit the majors in 1950 – four years, just like McGowan said – I got a salary of $5,500 plus $15 a day expenses and free transportation. That was big money then.

I broke in at the Polo Grounds with the Giants and the [Boston] Braves. Leo Durocher and Billy Southworth. My first game behind the plate was in Brooklyn: Giants and the Dodgers. It was a hell of a thrill being in the major leagues. I was hoping and praying that I’d get everything right, give all the ability that I could put together. My first crew was Al Barlick and Lee Ballanfant. There were three-man crews in the major leagues at the time, but in a few years they went to four umpires. It was difficult to cover plays even with three men. Hellsfire, if you couldn’t move, man, you had problems. I worked with Barlick off and on for six, seven years, then worked with Jocko Conlan, and then I became a crew chief myself in 1962.

I was the first guy to come into the National League from an umpire school, and the older guys took me a little lightly at first, but there was no animosity at all.4 When they found out that you are a decent guy and that you intended to run the game, they worked with you. They had to. After all, there are three of you out there, and if one of you is in trouble, the three of you are in trouble. Barlick and Ballanfant were real good in helping me break in. Ballanfant was the best for breaking in young fellows because he was such a nice guy – you had to like him and feel welcome on the crew. They gave me pointers, discussed the rules, and helped with mechanics a little bit. I’d also learn just by watching them. Sometimes I followed their advice and examples, sometimes I’d decide to do it another way. Actually, being at the school was an advantage. You were ahead of the other fellows because you were alert on all the rules. Most umpires would read the rule book once or twice and then put it away. But when you are at the school for six weeks, you learned the rules and then applied them on the field so that they would stay with you.  Umpiring is not a matter of quoting a rule, but applying it on the field.

The best umpires I worked with were Al Barlick, Larry Goetz, and Jocko Conlan. They had what it takes to be a good umpire. First, they had the respect of the ballplayers, which is very important. They could make calls and get away with it, when another guy would get hell for the same thing. They were feared, in a way; players knew they were running the game and would toss them if they got too nasty. The more ability you had and the meaner you were, the more respect you got on the field. Also, they had very good judgment – about l-2-3 in that respect. (I never understood how ballplayers, fans, or anyone else could question my judgment. All they had to do is look at my wife, Mary Lou, and they’d know I didn’t make mistakes.) Other umpires might have judgment just as good, but didn’t run the game or – I don’t like to admit it – worked the political end of it. You must have respect and run the game; if you don’t, when the time comes the ballplayers will cut you to pieces.

The worst situation I was ever in happened a few years after I got to the majors. I almost got into a fight with Leo Durocher, who was managing the [New York] Giants. It was the first game of a Sunday doubleheader at the Polo Grounds [August l7, l952].  Max Surkont was pitching for the [Boston] Braves. The whole game Durocher was screaming at Al Barlick, who was behind the plate, that Surkont was marking up the ball, spitting in his glove, and stuff like that. (At that time there weren’t too many spitballs being thrown; the rules weren’t relaxed as much as they have been recently.) Barlick ignored him, and Surkont kept getting them out and Durocher kept beefing. Then, in the top of the ninth, with the Braves leading [7-3], Durocher started raising hell. While waiting for his relief pitcher [Hal Gregg] to come in from the bullpen, he knelt right down on the mound, covered the ball with dirt, and started roughing it up. You can’t let a man show up an umpire like that, so I ran right in from second base and asked to see the ball. But he tossed it to the pitcher instead. I said something, he said something, and I chased him. He went berserk, probably because he didn’t expect it. He hadn’t been into an argument with an umpire, yet I chased him. He got so mad that a couple of players and coaches grabbed him to keep him from charging me. I was waiting for him. I wasn’t going to run from him; you can’t be run out of the ballpark. Besides, he wasn’t that strong a guy, a man who couldn’t be beat with fists. I knew a little bit about fighting; maybe he did too. While he was trying to get loose from the players, he was yelling some beautiful names at me. So I yelled some back at him and said, “Let him go. Let the man go.” Fortunately, they didn’t let him go; he actually had to be dragged off the field. That’s the closest I ever came to protecting myself. In my report I told the league president [Warren Giles] what I said to Durocher and what he said to me. Leo got fined [$100] and suspended [five days].

Umpiring is more than applying the rules and handling situations: You must be alert mechanically be in the right position. That’s important: You’ve got to be in the right position to call a tough play. If you’re not in the right position and you guess at it, that is not good and you’ll really catch hell.

There is also a timing element involved here. You’ve got to wait that split-second and then make the call. A split-second. You can’t call it too quick or too slow. You’ll be wrong or look bad if your timing is bad, especially behind the plate where there are so many decisions to make. When I was working, Chris Pelekoudas was one of the best umpires – in the top ten, maybe one of the top five. Some of the boys don’t want to hear that, but it’s so just the same. But he waited too long. He waited so long that sometimes the broadcaster would say a pitch was a “strike” and then he would signal “ball.” It was so noticeable, even the other umpires didn’t like his timing. Still, he seemed to be getting the calls right.

The mechanics in making a call are also important. You have to be decisive, and I always made a simple but very decisive motion. But no gestures, no dancing or jumping around. Toward the end of my career, some of the boys started “showboating.” To me, showboating is out because you start taking your eyes off the ball and thinking more about how you make a particular call than the play itself. For example, Ed Sudol had the mannerisms of an acrobat; there’s no room for it, no time for it. It’s absolutely wrong. I don’t know why he did it. Now take Ron Luciano over in the other [American] league. It appeared that he was showboating, but he was as serious as he could be. He applied a few more gestures on a call, but he was not really showboating. He was that way, so that’s the way he umpired. It was natural; he never took his eye off the play or went into a dance or something like that.

Of course, experience is the big thing. When an umpire gets to the big leagues, he is sure he knows all there is about baseball. But an umpire should improve each year. First, you learn the importance of timing on your calls. Second, you get better at running the game. Third, you can handle the difficult situations more smoothly. Fourth, constant repetition as a pitch-caller or a play-caller automatically improves a man if he keeps hustling. Fifth, you’re supposed to know all the rules – and keep them in your head – but after so many years you really acquire knowledge of the laws of the game. Sixth, with greater experience comes greater execution of the rules.

When I broke into the majors racial integration was still under way. The Dodgers had the most Negroes, with Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Dan Bankhead, but there were other colored boys coming in. There weren’t any real problems with Negroes coming into the majors. Of course, in spring training down South there was still the Negro section of the bleachers and separate restrooms, things like that. What I remember most is how the Negroes would flock to the games to watch the Dodgers. There would be more Negroes than whites. Wherever Jackie Robinson was, boy, how they would draw them. They used to get l0,000 people, easy, in Miami with Robinson.

The biggest thing that happened during my career was the Major League Umpires Association, and I am proud that I helped get it organized. I started out in the majors making a pretty good salary – at least it seemed like it to me, a young guy from the coal mines. But then the cost of things kept getting higher and higher, and we weren’t making a salary you could brag about. Also, some of the boys weren’t getting raises. It wasn’t right: You’ve got to give a major leaguer a raise to keep with the economy. Then of course there wasn’t much of a pension – $l00 for every year in the majors [with l5 years’ minimum service]. Maybe that seemed like a lot of money back when it was started in the 1930s, but didn’t seem like much now. And we didn’t get medical insurance or benefits like that.

Anyway, I started talking to Jocko Conlan about it. I knew that he would be retiring pretty soon. I’d call him aside and tell him that he wasn’t going to have anything after he retired except his home. Jocko was always bragging because he was the highest paid umpire in the league, but I knew he didn’t have much money in the bank because he was a high liver. I told him I was also thinking about myself and the other umpires, too. Several times I said: “Look, Jock. We can do something. You and me, we can do something about this.” I had an ace in the hole – Al Barlick, another boy from the coal mines. Barlick, like Jocko, was well respected. They were the top umpires in the league, so they were the guys I had to go to right away. I knew I couldn’t go to everybody. Some of the boys were afraid of losing their jobs if they spoke up for something, and some of them were, well, liked by the league more than some of the others.

All of a sudden, during the l963 season, Jocko says, “All right. What do you want me to do?” So I told him. He said, “What the hell are you talking about? You can’t do that!” I said, “The hell we can’t. We can do it. We can form an association.” Jocko was interested, but worried. “Half of these guys won’t go along with it,” he said. I told him: “That’s right. We don’t need half of them. All we need is half a dozen.” Then I went to Barlick, who said, “Anything you do is all right with me.” Bingo!

We started with telephone calls to every umpire in the league. Jocko, who was from Chicago, was supposed to get this judge to be our representative, but he retired or something and we couldn’t get him. So Jocko got what he thought was the next best thing, his attorney, John Reynolds. We got the boys together in Chicago on an offday and discussed an association. Barlick, Jocko, Tom Gorman, Shag Crawford, and I were elected to the board of directors. We had two or three meetings in all, and of the 24 umpires in the league, maybe 8 or l0 would go against us in the meetings. I remember every one of them.

The last meeting was in May 1964, another layover day in Chicago. Reynolds did all the legal paperwork for us, and all of a sudden we have to get the guys to sign the papers forming the association. When it got down to the last day, when we wanted to meet with the owners and get them to recognize us as an association, the other guys had gone on to their games and there was only four of us left, Al Barlick’s crew – Barlick, Stan Landes, Mel Steiner, and myself. Reynolds met with us at our hotel at 10:00 in the morning. We were supposed to be at the ballpark at 11:30 for a game. “I’ll tell you, fellows,” he said, “they will fire you if you don’t go along with the president of the league [Warren Giles] because the other fellows are done with it.” I thought about it, and decided that I had gone this far and was going to go the rest of the way. So, I said: “John, I’m speaking for myself. I’m going the rest of the way. If we don’t have an association, I’m going to go right to the first reporters I see and tell them what happened. That’s the only way, because if I get fired, they will want to know why I got fired and I’m going to tell them.” 

I was hoping one or two of the other guys would speak up and do the same thing. Barlick spoke up first: “Augie, I’m with you.” The other two guys came along too. So we told Reynolds, “Go ahead and tell Giles we are standing for our rights. We are going to hold the fort. If the rest don’t do it, the heck with it. Let Giles do whatever he wants.” Then we went on to the ballpark and worked the game. Maybe our last one, who knows? What do you think happened? I don’t know whether the owners called Giles, or Giles was approached by somebody else, or if Giles came to a decision on his own. Anyway, he told our attorney that he would meet with us umpires the following week. The following week we met with him and started not asking for things but demanding things that were right for us. We wanted a better pension, higher salaries, regular raises, fringe benefits, and more expense money. They finally agreed to all those things. That’s how we started the association [National League Umpires Association].5

Of course the owners and the league president, Warren Giles, didn’t like it. And Giles certainly was not happy with me for getting the thing going. I had some discussions with him that he didn’t like. He had just given us a raise in pension before the association came together, but I had to tell him the truth, that he wasn’t helping us enough. Maybe he felt he was, but he sure wasn’t generous enough. But let’s face it: Giles had a job to do. He had to protect the league and his job. He was against our organizing and so was his assistant, Fred Fleig. We got a lot of bad publicity in the press. The league wouldn’t talk to us about it; hell, at first Giles wouldn’t even meet with us. But eventually they came around.

I don’t know why Giles didn’t just fire me. He could have. Maybe he respected me in a way. And I never missed a day’s work – that helped a heck of a lot. But I was demoted from crew chief and assigned to Barlick’s crew for the 1964 season. In fact, Giles put the four of us together because he thought we were instigators. I guess he thought he was punishing us, but actually it was the best thing he could have done for us because it kept us together all the time. Maybe he would have been better off putting each one of us on a different crew. 

The American League umpires didn’t form an association at the time, so they fell far behind us in salaries, pensions, and fringe benefits. We wanted them to join the association so major-league umpires would all be the same with regard to salaries and benefits. We promised that we would back them if they wanted to join us, but they were afraid of getting fired.6 Their league president, Joe Cronin, had them all tied up. They couldn’t voice their opinion on anything. Finally, two of them, Al Salerno and Bill Valentine, tried to organize the American League umpires and got fired [September 16, 1968] for it.7 

That got the American League boys organized and they joined our association. But then Salerno and Valentine asked us to back them in suing the league. That was their downfall. We did back them, but not enough of us. We had a meeting, and about a quarter or a third of the umpires walked out when Salerno and Valentine started demanding that we should back them. I agreed with them. I got up and made a speech saying the same thing. “Yes,” I said, “they made a grave mistake. Sure they did. But we promised to back them and we have got to back these boys. We ought to have a vote on it.” We had a vote and there only maybe nine or ten of us left – only six or seven in the National League and two or three in the American League stood up for backing them.

Cronin later agreed to hire them back, but he wanted them to go down to the minors for a couple of months to get sharpened up or whatever, and even said they would get their major-league salaries and benefits. But they wouldn’t do it. I know how they felt. After all, it was embarrassing to be fired. Still, umpiring isn’t too bad. I was a coal miner, and I always thought about the mines when things got tough.

Two years later I was involved in the first umpires strike. It was for the same thing – more money. The association was trying to negotiate a raise for the playoffs and the World Series, but the league presidents [Charles “Chub” Feeney and Joe Cronin] wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on that. So we went on strike [October 3, 1970] for the first game of the championship playoffs. I was in Pittsburgh, and instead of working the game I was pounding the cement walks with picket signs.

I wasn’t worried about losing my job that time, but I was worried about the public. After all, the fans pay all of us, even the league presidents and the commissioner. I didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the people who went to the park that day to see the game. We got blamed because four minor-league umpires were out there in our place. None of us umpires liked that; none of us wanted to be on strike. The strike only lasted one day. I was on the board of directors of the association, and the next morning we met with Feeney. A few days later, we got our raises. (The minor leaguers thought they would go to the majors because they worked out of turn. One of them [Hank Morgenweck] was brought up, but he didn’t last.)8

I had a great career. Twenty-four years. I am proud of the fact that I missed only one game in 24 years. I had lots of thrills, especially All-Star Games and the World Series. You can’t describe the feeling of excitement that pervades a World Series game. Sure, I felt the butterflies and the pressure and the responsibility.  I worked with lots of great ballplayers – Stan Musial, Steve Garvey, Gil Hodges, Willie Mays; pitchers like Warren Spahn, Robin Roberts, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson. I have so many special memories: I was behind the plate [October 8,1961] when Whitey Ford set the record for scoreless innings [32] in the World Series,9 when Don Drysdale got the record [June 8, 1968] for the most consecutive shutout innings [58] in a season, when Stan Musial hit five homers in a doubleheader [May 2, 1954], and when he got his 3,000th base hit, and when Nate Colbert hit five homers and had the most RBIs [13] in a doubleheader [August 1, 1972]. I’ll never forget Elroy Face winning about 20 games and losing only three or four [18-1] as a relief pitcher [1959]; even though the Pirates had a lot of power and could come from behind, that was really unusual.

After I umpired my last game, I thought, well, I’m glad to be going home. I had a good career with lots of wonderful memories. But I missed my friends, the profession itself, and baseball – my number-one game. I also missed the competitiveness. And it was hard to lose the money – hey, I was dragging down a pretty good salary when I left. I still think about it every now and then. I hope I’m remembered as a just, fair, honest umpire who called them as they were and as he saw them. And the Association was damn important to me. It went through, and it certainly is helping the boys who are in there now. It helped us a lot too, but it is too bad that we couldn’t have been of the age where we could have enjoyed it more. I wanted to include the old fellows already on pension, but the boys wouldn’t go for it. Today the Umpires Association is very powerful. Now the boys get just about whatever they ask for. But then we were risking our jobs just to get it organized. Things are so much better now – pension, working conditions, everything. And the boys are getting the salary. Even though they have to pay a lot of income tax, they are getting the salary. That’s the important thing, isn’t it?

Augie Donatelli died peacefully in his sleep on May 24, 1990, at St. Petersburg, Florida. He was cremated and is buried at Bay Pines (Florida) National Cemetery.


This biography is included in “The SABR Book on Umpires and Umpiring” (SABR, 2017), edited by Larry Gerlach and Bill Nowlin.



Author’s note

“Augie Donatelli: Umpire and Union Organizer” appeared in the long defunct Baseball History: An Annual of Original Baseball Research (1989), 1-11.  



1 A “spragger” controlled the speed of coal cars in mines by inserting or removing a metal rod called a “sprag” between the spokes of its wheels. Along steep sections of track the speed of the cars was slowed by inserting sprags to “lock” the wheel so that it slid instead of rolled along the track; the subsequent removal of sprags had the effect of speeding up the cars.

2 National League umpire George Barr established the first umpire school, in Arkansas in 1935; American League umpire McGowan opened the second school in 1939 in Mississippi. Barr’s school closed during World War II, while McGowan moved his operation to Florida.

3 Upon retiring in 1941 from long service as a National League umpire, Klem, “The Old Arbitrator,” served to his death in 1951 as the chief of umpires (i.e., supervisor and head scout) for the senior circuit. He made his preference for wearing a lightweight chest protector inside the jacket when umpiring behind home plate virtually mandatory for National League umpires, while his counterpart in the American League, Tommy Connolly, made the use of the large, inflated “balloon” protector held in front of the chest synonymous with junior circuit umpires. The distinction between the two leagues persisted until the 1970s, when the inside protector earned universal adoption.

4 William F. “Bill” McKinley, who attended both the Barr and McGowan schools, was the first graduate of an umpire school in the majors, being called up to the American League in August 1946.

5 When Ford Frick was named commissioner of baseball in 1951, Giles, then president of the Cincinnati Reds, replaced him as president of the National League. In his first year in office he increased the pension for umpires from $100 to $150 per year, and in May1964 raised it to $200; the initial agreement with the Umpires Association increased it to $300.

6 American League umpires were hesitant to unionize in part because President Will Harridge had summarily fired umpire Ernest D. Stewart in 1945 for alleged unionizing activities. See Larry R. Gerlach, The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 123-26.

7 Ostensibly fired for alleged “incompetence,” both were veteran American League umpires – Salerno since 1961 and Valentine since 1962.

8 Although the strike affected both the Baltimore-Minnesota and the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh championship playoff games, umpires picketed only the National League park. Negotiations resulted in new pay scales for both league playoffs (from$2,500 to $4,000) and the World Series (from $,6500 to $8,000).  One of the Triple-A arbiters who worked the Reds-Pirates game, Henry C. Morgenweck, later umpired in the American League, 1972-75.

9 Ford, who left the game in the sixth inning with a sore foot, extended the record on October 4, 1962, to 33 innings; he had broken Babe Ruth’s mark of 29⅔ scoreless innings set in 1918.

Full Name

August Joseph Donatelli


August 22, 1914 at Heilwood, PA (US)


May 24, 1990 at St. Petersburg, FL (US)


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