When he retired in 1992 after 31 years in the National League, Doug Harvey was one of the few umpires in the majors who had never attended an umpiring school. His techniques, however, were part of the curriculum wherever the craft was taught. So revered was Harvey that players and managers called him God.
"I set out to be the best umpire of my time," says the 68-year-old Harvey, who lives with his wife, Joy, in the Sierra Nevada foothills northeast of Bakersfield, Calif. "But I don't know what it takes to be great."
If he doesn't know what it takes, Harvey knew from whom to take it. His mentors included his father, Hal, who umpired high school and junior college games in the 1940s, as well as the three umps who taught him the ropes: Al Barlick, Jocko Conlan and Shag Crawford. Barlick, who was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the rule book, told the young ump, "If you're going to preach the game, you'd better know the bible." Conlan "showed me how much fun umpiring could be," Harvey says. Crawford "taught me that 100 percent isn't enough. He broke his back on every play."
A composite of Barlick, Conlan and Crawford would be unerring on the rules, stern yet playful and compassionate. Add a dash of Cal Ripken Jr.—Harvey worked more than 4,000 consecutive games from 1962 to '88—and you've got a heavenly combination. (Once, when the Philadelphia Phillies' Lenny Dykstra came to the plate and Harvey said hello, Dykstra replied, "Hi, God.")
You've also got a loner. Harvey's obsession with officiating—he spent off-seasons working as a basketball referee—left little time for drinking with the guys. He swears he wasn't lonely, though. As a youth he spent long days on a farm tractor in the Imperial Valley and learned to love solitude. "Sitting on a tractor made me a better umpire," he says. "It gave me patience."
That virtue would come in handy. "I was a great base umpire, but I was the most mediocre plate umpire to ever come into the major leagues," he says. Determined to improve his plate skills, he broke the job down to the fundamentals now taught at umpiring academies. Harvey pioneered the practice of waiting a full second after a pitch before making his call. "That way," he says, "you can replay the pitch in your mind." Most umps now employ that slight delay, leading Harvey to suggest as his epitaph, He never held a grudge, and he introduced timing to the major leagues.
These days Harvey's voice is an octave lower than it used to be. He has spent a year fighting throat cancer and is winning the battle so far. The ump emeritus thinks the state of the old craft is "better than ever. There's more schooling now." He rails at broadcasters who "talk like they're all rules geniuses." Harvey disliked seeing ump Ted Hendry get hammered for last week's non-call on Indians base runner Travis Fryman in the ALCS. "It looked to me like his foot hit the bag at about the same time the ball hit him. If the runner and the ball reach the bag at the same time, there's no interference," says Harvey. He hated hearing fellow umpires second-guessing Hendry. Members of the blue fraternity "owe the vocation" more than that, he believes.
"Umpiring was more important than my religion and just as important as my family," he says, echoing legendary ump Bill Klein. Asked if he miscalled many pitches—"kicked 'em," in umpires' parlance—he says that no ump ever had a perfect game.
"The old-time umpires said, 'Twelve a side,' " Harvey notes with amusement, referring to the belief that a couple dozen missed calls would even out in the course of a game. "If I ever kicked that many, I would have quit."