Unrecognized Heroes: No-Hit Umpires

This article was written by Larry Gerlach

This article was published in 1980 Baseball Research Journal

The drama of All-Star, championship series, and World Series contests notwithstanding, the no-hitter remains the most intensely exciting game in baseball for spectators and participants alike. The pressure felt by a pitcher striving to realize a rare achievement that will ensure him both fame and immortality in the record books is widely appreciated. And the burden upon the catcher who devises the strategy for the masterpiece is also recognized. (See Stan Grosshandler’s “Unsung Heroes: No-Hit Catchers” in the 1979 issue of Baseball Research Journal.) But what about the other member of the strategic trio — the man in blue who by calling “balls” and “strikes” vitally affects both the pitcher’s performance and the catcher’s strategy?

As with most memorable feats in baseball history, the umpires who worked the plate in memorable no-hit games are forgotten figures. Not many students of the National Pastime recall that in 1956 Babe Pinelli worked Don Larsen’s perfect game, the only one ever in the World Series. Fewer still know that Harry Geisel called Bob Feller’s blanketing of the White Sox on April 16, 1940, the lone opening-day no-hitter in baseball history. While trivia specialists remember that on May 2, 1917, Cincinnati’s Fred Toney and Chicago’s Jim “Hippo” Vaughn combined to pitch a dual no-hitter for nine innings (the Reds won 1-0 in the 10th), virtually none remember former pitcher Albert Orth as the umpire in that unique contest. And probably only Harry Wendelstedt and Bill Jackowski know that they worked the first consecutive-game no-hitters in history on September 17-18, 1968, although many people know that Gaylord Perry and Ray Washburn pitched the tandem.

If it is unfortunate that umpires are not accorded some type of recognition after their role in a special achievement like a no-hit game. Babe Pinelli wound up his career of 22 years as the umpire-in-chief in what is perhaps the single most extraordinary game in baseball history — Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. After that historic game Pinelli wept from emotion, but not a single person other than his fellow umpires — not a sportswriter, the president of the National League, or the commissioner of baseball came into the dressing room to congratulate him. Tom Gorman, a member of the crew that day, summed up the situation accurately: “it was a disgrace.”

Umpires who work no-hit games deserve recognition for two reasons. The first is that the arbiters themselves regard such a game as a career milestone. Ed Sudol, who had three no-hitters during two decades in the National League, put it succinctly: “The highlight for any umpire working behind the plate is a no-run, no-hit game.” Ask any umpire to recall the most memorable events of his career, and the no-hit game will rank with the World Series as the high points.

The second reason umpires deserve recognition is the special role they play in the unfolding of a no-hit game. In addition to the usual physical strain on the back and legs from crouching constantly and the mental exhaustion from rendering some 250 split-second decisions in two to three hours, the plate umpire in a no-hit game shoulders an enormous emotional burden because he literally controls the pitching strategy. If the umpire is erratic in calling pitches, the pitcher and the catcher cannot achieve consistency; moreover,  by making a decision that runs the ball-strike count to 3-1 instead of 2-2, the umpire has fundamentally affected the pitching strategy. Although those conditions are present in every game, the fact remains that the finer the pitching performance the more precision is demanded of the aribter. The pressure stems from the simple desire to avoid making a mistake that would affect the outcome of a historic pitching performance.

The pressure rises perceptibly, of course, when a “perfect” game — 27 batters up, 27 batters out — is at stake. Ed Sudol, who called Jim Bunning’s perfect game against the Mets on June 21, 1964, later spoke of his feelings:

“I knew all along that he had a perfect game going because that mammoth scoreboard was staring right at me. That’s what made me so extra tense; I wanted to be perfect, too. I didn’t want to be responsible for a blunder that would ruin a perfect game. What if on a full count, three and two, the batter doesn’t swing on a pitch that could go either way. The adrenalin was really flowing . . . I was so exhausted after the game that I left the dressing room an hour after my partners had gone. I was drenched with perspiration and exhausted by all the mental notes from that pressure-packed game.”

Eight umpires in addition to Sudol have called perfect games: Tommy Connolly (Joss 1908), John Dwyer (Young 1904), Dick Nallin (Robertston 1922), Larry Napp (Hunter 1968), Brick Owen (Shore 1917), Pinelli (Larsen 1956), and Ed Vargo (Koufax 1965).

When in 1959 Harvey Haddix lost his perfect game in the 13th inning, umpire Vincent Smith also lost a chance to make history; neither the pitcher nor the arbiter ever recorded a genuine no-hit game. Fate was kinder to George Pipgras and Eddie Rommel, for as umpires each recorded the no-hitter that had eluded them as pitchers; Bill Dinneen is the only man who both pitched (1905) and umpired no-hit games in the major leagues.

The odds against pitching or calling a no-hitter are great, but the chances of having a double in a single season are exceedingly remote. Five pitchers have thrown two no-hitters in a single season: Johnny Vander Meer (1938), Allie Reynolds (1951), Virgil Trucks (1952), Jim Maloney (1965), and Nolan Ryan (1973). In none of these cases did one umpire call both games. The distinction of having called two no-hitters in a single season belongs to Tommy Connolly (1908), Bill Deegan (1977), Bill Dinneen (1923), Bill Jackowski (1968), Dick Nallin (1917), Larry Napp (1970), Harry Schwarts (1962), Mel Steiner (1965), Tony Venzon (1960), and Silk O’Loughlin, who did it twice (1905, 1917).

Dick Nallin recorded the first double no-hitter by an umpire. He was behind the bat in St. Louis on May 5, 1907, when Ernie Koob of the Browns no-hit the White Sox 1-0 and again the next day when Bob Groom blanked Chicago 3-0 in the second game of a doubleheader. More than a half century passed before Tony Venzon both duplicated and surpassed the feat in Cincinnati in 1969. Where Nallin had no-hitters in successive appearances behind the plate, Venzon had them in consecutive games. Venzon was umpire-in-chief on April 30 when Jim Maloney of the Reds struck out 13 Astros en route to a 10-0 no-hitter and again the next day, May 1, when Don Wilson of Houston got revenge by fanning 13 Reds in a 4-0 gem.

Calling a no-hit game is a rare honor for an umpire. Since 1901 only 90 of the nearly 350 men who have umpired in the major leagues had had the distinction of working no-hitters. For most of them it was a once-in-a-lifetime achievement; only 38 arbiters have worked more than one no-hitter, and only 20 of them have worked more than two. Hall of Famer Billy Evans had only one no-hitter; Bill McGowan, perhaps the best ball-and-strike man in American League history, saw 25 years pass between his two no-hitters (1926-1951).

Longevity is not an important factor in accounting for the number of no-hitters worked by umpires. it is not surprising, perhaps, that Bill Kiem had 5 in 36 years or that Bill Dinneen worked 6 in 29 seasons. But how is it that Hank O’Day had only 2 in 35 years, Al Barlick 1 in 26 years, and Hank Soar never had a no-hit game in 24 years? Conversely, how is it that Babe Pinelli had 4 no-hitters in 22 years, Tony Venzon 4 in 15 years, and Silk O’Loughlin a record 7 no-hit games in only 17 years?

Opportunity is an important consideration. Prior to the establishment in 1933 of three-man crews for all regular season games, an umpire worked 50 percent of the games behind the plate. Predictably, the three umpires with the most no-hitters to their credit worked before 1933. Since the adoption of the four-man crew in 1952, the opportunity for an umpire to have a no-hitter is about the same as for a starting pitcher — once every four games. Viewed from the perspective of opportunity, Tony Venzon had 4 no-hitters in 15 seasons for the best ratio of no-hit games per seasons worked (3.8), followed by Stan Steiner with 3 no-hitters in 12 years (4.0). But the fact that both Venzon and Steiner had 2 no-hitters in a single season significantly increases their ratios; the best ratio of no-hitters per season for an umpire who did not have a “double” belongs to Ed Vargo with 3 no-hit games in 17 years (5.7). Vargo, moreover, is the only umpire to call a no-hitter in three consecutive seasons.

Apart from greater or fewer opportunities to work no-hitters at various times in history, the central question remains: what makes one arbiter in a given era record proportionally more no-hitters than another? Is it luck or fate? Is it a matter of being a “pitcher’s umpire” i.e., having a relatively expanded “strike” zone? Is it the ability to handle pressure and maintain consistency in calling pitches in the late stages of the game thereby allowing the pitcher to remain “in the groove”?

Whatever the reason for accumulating no-hit games — surely a combination of factors are at work — twenty umpires have called three or more no-hitters since 1901. The following table, arranged by number of games, is a list of the Top Twenty.


Umpire League Years Hitters Year (Pitcher)
O’Loughlin, Frank H. AL 17 7 1905 (Henley); 1905 (Smith);
        1908 (Young); 1911 (Wood);
        1912 (Hamilton); 1917 (Cicotte);
        1917 (Mogridge)
Dinneen, William H. AL 29 6 1910 (Bender); 1912 (Mullin);
        1914 (Scott); 1918 (Leonard);
        1923 (Jones); 1923 (Ehmke)
Klem, William J. NL 36 5 1907 (Maddox); 1912 (Tesreau);
        1915 (Lavender); 1916 (Hughes);
        1934 (P. Dean)
Donatelli, August J. NL 24 4 1956 (Erskine); 1961 (Spahn);
        1964 (Johnson); 1969 (Moose)
Honochick, George J. AL 25 4 1952 (Trucks); 1962 (Kralick);
        1966 (Siebert); 1968 (Phoebus)
Napp, Larry AL 24 4 1967 (Chance); 1968 (Hunter)*;
        1970 (Wright); 1970 (Blue)
Pinelli Ralph A. NL 22 4 1946 (Head); 1948 (Barney);
        1954 (Wilson); 1956 (Larsen)*
Venzon, Anthony NL 15 4 1960 (Cardwell); 1969 (Maloney);
        1969 (Wilson); 1970 (Ellis)
Connolly, Thomas H. AL 33 4 1905 (Dinneen); 1908 (Rhoades);
        1908 (Joss)*; 1916 (Bush)
Emslie, Robert D. NL 35 3 1903 (Fraser); 1904 (Wicker);
        1907 (Pfeffer)
Hubbard, Robert C. AL 16 3 1937 (Dietrich); 1948 (Lemon);
        1951 (Reynolds)
Jackowski, William NL 17 3 1960 (Burdette); 1968 (Culver);
        1968 (Washburn)
Johnstone, James E, NL 10 3 1906 (McIntire); 1908 (Rucker);
        1909 (Ames)
Nallin, Richard F. AL 18 3 1917 (Koob); 1917 (Groom);
        1922 (Robertston)*
Sheridan, John F. AL 14 3 1901 (Moore); 1904 (Tannehill);
        1907 (`Walsh)
Steiner, Melvin J. NL 12 3 1962 (Koufax); 1965 (Maloney);
        1965 (Maloney)
Stevens, John W. AL 24 3 1957 (Keegan); 1967 (Barber);
        1967 (Horlen)
Stewart, William J. NL 22 3 1938 (Vander Meer); 1940
        (Carleton); 1944 (Tobin)
Sudol, Edward NL 20 3 1963 (Marichal); 1964
        (Bunning)*; 1970 (Singer)
Vargo, Edward P. NL 17 3 1963 (Nottebart); 1964 (Koufax);
        1965 (Koufax)*

*Perfect game