This article was written by Ralph Berger
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts
As You Like It, II, 7, 139-142
Shakespeare’s lines certainly fit Albert “Dolly” Stark. Dolly was an umpire, a dress designer, a radio announcer of ballgames, a college basketball and baseball coach, and finally a man who desperately sought a job in baseball at the age of 70. A handsome man and elegant dresser, he had many entrances and exits in his life, playing his parts upon the stage of baseball with flair.
Triumph and tragedy put an indelible stamp upon the brow of Dolly Stark. Stark wanted to be a major league ballplayer and had a shot with the New York Giants and the Washington Senators but did not make it. Turning to umpiring, he was a success but not without misgivings. And in his private life sadness engulfed him.
According to Peter and Joachim Horvitz, Jacob Pike (the brother of Lipman Pike) was the first Jewish umpire when he officiated in 1875 in the National Association. Stark was the first Jewish umpire of modern baseball.
Stark was born in New York City on November 4, 1897, to a poor Jewish family on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His father died when he was a youngster, and his mother became blind. Albert Stark at a tender age was on the streets with a pushcart trying to earn a living for his destitute family. A policeman found little Albert one cold morning, fast asleep on the street. The boy was taken to a home for the homeless. After a time in the home he came out and resumed trying to earn money for his family. Stark realized that he needed some sort of education and attended school whenever he could. Turning to baseball, Stark was a 115-pound second baseman. Somewhere along the way, according to Larry Gerlach, someone hung the nickname “Dolly” on him, apparently in reference to Monroe “Dolly” Stark, a Brooklyn Superba from 1910 to 1912. Albert’s early destitution and hunger kept his health precarious.
Al Schacht, the Clown Prince of Baseball, and Stark became friends. Al and Dolly played for the Bethlehem Steel Company in the oddly named Steel League. Stark made his way to Newark and then got a tryout with the Washington Senators, but his small size and weak hitting kept him from making it in the majors. On his way back to the minors a friend asked Stark to umpire a college game in Vermont. Dolly did and turned in such an outstanding job that he was asked to continue umpiring collegiate games. Stark felt that he was able to do the job as a professional and in 1927 was umpiring in the Eastern League. After a mere three weeks he impressed everyone so much that he was quickly promoted to the National League. There, Bill Klem took Stark under his wing and helped him to become an accomplished umpire.
Dolly Stark brought mobility to umpiring. Not remaining stationary, he was an active and articulate umpire and became a favorite of the players. Stark brought a certain elan and sophistication to umpiring. He would run with the baserunners and behind the plate would make adjustments in his position to call the pitches more accurately. Stark kept himself in good condition so that he could move quickly around the diamond. One observer said Stark “had a pompous strut and when he dusted off home plate he did it with a flourish.” Showmanship, theatrics, and innovation aside, Stark was popular and respected for his work. National League players in a pool sponsored by The Sporting News voted Stark the most popular umpire in 1934. In 1935, the fans gave him an automobile at Dolly Stark Day at the Polo Grounds.
However, umpiring even to one as popular as Dolly had its share of tricky moments. At a game at the Polo Grounds he called two strikes on Mel Ott. The crowd, seeing that Ott turned and said something to Stark on each pitch, started to jeer Stark. Ott said to Stark on the first pitch, “Dolly, I’d give ten bucks to have that one back,” and on the next pitch, “How can I take two beautiful pitches like that in a row?”
Even Bill Klem, who boasted of never having missed a call, was forced to admit he had made a mistake in a game between the Giants and Pirates and was corrected by Dolly. Klem called a bunt fair and the player was safe at first. However, young Dolly Stark ruled it foul, and Klem abided by Stark’s decision. It is said that Bill Bresnahan fell off the bench in amazement over this miracle.
Stark took umpiring seriously, so much so that halfway during 1928, his first year in the majors, he resigned, thinking he was a failure. Klem talked him out of it and helped him in dealing with the harsh criticism of the ballplayers. In 1929, during a game involving the Boston Braves, Stark threw out the entire Braves bench to keep a lid on a rising disturbance. After that incident he tendered his resignation to John Heydler, President of the National League. Heydler did not accept his resignation and insisted Stark take a short vacation. But Dolly resigned again after the 1929 season, citing “the torments of umpiring.”
As Hamlet could not make up his mind about his role in Denmark, Stark could not make up his mind about umpiring. Though he was a gifted, serious umpire, the loneliness and day-to-day tension of the job waged a cruel war upon his psyche. Stark returned for the 1931 season and seemed to have conquered his doubts.
Again, Stark decided not to umpire in 1936. This time it was not nerves or lack of confidence; it was about money. He told Ford Frick, president of the National League, that the pay for the arduous task of umpiring was not adequate. Dolly spent the year as a broadcaster for the Athletics and Phillies.
From 1923 through 1933, Stark kept busy during the off-seasons by coaching basketball at Dartmouth College. He kept in shape by working out with the Dartmouth baseball team during the spring.
Unfortunately, Stark’s life away from baseball was one tragedy after another. Though he was successful as a designer of women’s clothing and had a line known as the “Dolly Stark Dress,” he spent large sums of money to support his mother, blind since 1920, who needed constant medical attention. His sister was always in poor health and committed suicide. His marriage to Betsy Lee in December 1952 ended in divorce four years later. And in his final years Stark was in dire need of financial help. There was no pension money at that time in baseball, and his Social Security check was insufficient.
Dolly had come back to umpiring in 1937, and worked until the end of the 1942 season, when a trick knee he had developed put him out of the umpiring business. He left baseball at the age of 44. Not wanting to continue as an umpire, he hoped to manage somewhere in professional baseball. That desire never came to fruition. Now at the age of 70 Stark needed some help. He looked for work in baseball as a scout or working with young players, but no one wanted him. He wrote to Johnny Murphy of the Mets and also talked to Joe DiMaggio, but nothing came of these inquiries. Stark said, “I guess it’s expecting a lot, the idea that people would want to hire a guy my age. But I can’t believe there isn’t a spot somewhere for a man who knows the game and knows players. Scouting maybe, working with young kids, who knows? The Dodgers used to have a scout named Larry Sutton and he worked until he was over 70.” Dolly was instrumental, however, in getting Saul Rogovin a tryout with the New York Giants in 1944.
Dolly Stark died at the age of 71 on August 24, 1968, in New York City of a heart attack. No survivors were mentioned.
An umpire once said, “Our greatest reward is silence.” Dolly Stark was a great umpire, but he did not go unnoticed on the ballfield. His princely carriage and articulate manner and running with the base runners brought him to the attention of everyone at a game he umpired in. He may be considered the forerunner of the modern style of umpiring. Stark was an actor with flair upon the stage of life and baseball.
And so he played his part
And the world turned its back
Ignoring the anguish of
His final act.
Gerlach, Larry. “Stark, Albert ‘Dolly.’” David L. Porter, ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Baseball. Rev. ed. Westport, Connecticut, and London: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Horvitz, Peter S., and Horvitz Joachim. The Big Book of Jewish Baseball. New York: SPI Books, 2001.
Jews in Sports Online. http://jewsinsports.org
National Baseball Hall of Fame, Files. Cooperstown, New York
New York Times Obituary August 26, 1968.
Ribalow, Harold, and Meir Ribalow. Jewish Baseball Stars. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1984.
Zimmerman, Paul. New York Post, May 11, 1968