Larry Gerlach

Henry Chadwick Award: Larry Gerlach

This article was written by Steve Gietschier

This article was published in Spring 2024 Baseball Research Journal

Larry GerlachGrowing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, LARRY GERLACH remembers watching The Pride of the Yankees when he was seven years old or so. Lou Gehrig’s speech got to him—no surprise there—and he became a baseball fan and a Yankees fan simultaneously. Lincoln was home to a team in the Class A Western League, and Larry’s relatives, including his father, a hard-working laborer, took him to a few games in the late 1940s. He remembers watching one game with two players who looked awfully small and young. It turns out they were Philadelphia A’s prospects Bobby Shantz and Nellie Fox. Another solid memory was anticipating and then listening to the 1950 World Series on the radio. He rooted for the Yankees, but the local newspapers heralded the Whiz Kids, particularly Richie Ashburn, the Phillies center fielder from Tilden, Nebraska. “I still remember the Phillies’ starting lineup,” he said, “but not the Yankees,” who swept Philadelphia.

Within a few years, Larry and his pal Kenny Fox were attending every Lincoln Chiefs home game except on Sundays when his family visited his maternal grandparents, where the adults spoke German and Larry followed the games on the radio. The 1956 season ratcheted up Larry’s interest in baseball even further. That was the season when first baseman Dick Stuart hit 66 home runs for the Chiefs and drove around town in a yellow Cadillac convertible with California license plates. Larry and Kenny were at the ballpark all the time. The players let them in through the players’ gate, adjacent to which was the umpires’ dressing room. One night they ran into Max Stone, a local umpire who handled Chiefs’ games regularly. He had ejected a hot-headed young left-handed pitcher the night before for throwing a ball over the grandstand. Stone was friendly. He told stories, answered questions, and signed a ball for Larry, giving him his first autograph. “After that,” Larry remembered, “I began watching umpires, how they positioned themselves, how they made calls, how they handled various situations.”

Larry graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of Nebraska. As a freshman, he received encouragement from an English professor, and then in his sophomore year he took a course in American history that changed his life. “It was,” he said, “history as I had never heard it taught.”

He graduated from Nebraska and received his master’s degree there, too. Rutgers beckoned, and he moved to New Jersey to get his doctorate in history. But not baseball history. Larry’s specialty was the era of the American Revolution, and on the strength of his early work in that field, he received and accepted an offer to teach at the University of Utah. He rose from assistant professor to associate professor to full professor, served as chair of the history department, associate dean of the College of Humanities, and founding director of the Utah Humanities Center. Plus, he put in nearly a decade as Utah’s NCAA Faculty Athletic Representative. When he retired in 2013, the university granted him emeritus status.

Having been promoted to full professor in 1977, and having published 10 books and seven scholarly articles in his chosen field, Larry decided on a change of pace. Ever the historian, he started interviewing “old-time” umpires in person, work that resulted in his seminal book, Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires, published by Viking in 1980. Instead of the usual blurbs, the back of the dust jacket of the first edition is filled with quotations from the subjects themselves, including this gem from John “Beans” Reardon: “If the Pope was an umpire, he’d still have trouble with the Catholics.” In 2021, SABR named the book one of its top 50 books of the past half-century. It remains a classic, demanding shelf space in every baseball library.

Along the research trail, Larry discovered SABR. He joined in 1978, published an article in The Baseball Research Journal in 1979, and attended the St. Louis convention that summer. SABR president Cliff Kachline welcomed Larry, his wife, Gail, and T.J., their son. A second son, Jonathan, would be born later. In 1989, Larry paid his first visit to the Hall of Fame and attended SABR’s Albany convention. Sitting in on several research committee meetings, he was struck by the lack of any concern for umpires. He approached then-president Gene Sunnen, who authorized a new committee on the spot. Larry recruited Dennis Bingham, a Chicago umpire, as his co-chair, and Dennis suggested “Umpires and Rules” as the committee’s formal name.

The Umpires and Rules Committee did most of its substantial work through a monthly newsletter that Larry edited. Like many SABR projects, the committee newsletter became a tool of empowerment. He urged committee members, most of whom had never published anything, to research and write articles on various aspects of the history and practice of umpiring, as well as the rule book in all its complexity. Moreover, with Larry at the helm, committee members began the arduous task of compiling various lists: annual rosters, games worked, ejections.

Larry took several roles in SABR governance, too, serving on the Publications Committee (1990–91) and the Seymour Book Award Committee (1995–96, 2000–06). He was elected to the Executive Board in 1991 and was SABR’s president from 1997 to 1999. For his work on SABR’s behalf, he won the Bob Davids Award, SABR’s highest honor, in 2001.

In 2017, SABR published The SABR Book of Umpires and Umpiring. Larry co-edited the book with Bill Nowlin and contributed the introduction and nine articles. He remains an active scholar. The University of Nebraska Press will soon publish his Lion of the League: Bob Emslie and the Evolution of the Baseball Umpire.

“Umpires’ memoirs are not enough,” Larry says. “We need full biographies of major league and minor league umpires. They are important figures in baseball history, and their stories need to be told.” In addition, Larry would like to see work on college umpires, especially those who have handled the College World Series. “And,” he added, “we need a solid history of the umpires’ strike of 1979.”

Most importantly, Larry would like the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to acquire enough artifacts to mount a permanent exhibit on umpires. “After all,” he is quick to note, “umpires are the third team on the field. There has never been a major league game played without them.” 

STEVE GIETSCHIER is a 2022 Henry Chadwick Award recipient and the author of Baseball: The Turbulent Midcentury Years, which won SABR’s Seymour Medal in 2024.