SI Vault
Michael Sokolove
September 18, 1989
It was the middle of the night, and John Kibler was flat on his back in the emergency room of a mid-town Manhattan hospital when the thought occurred to him that he might soon be ejected from this world. Pain was shooting through his chest, and he was plugged into a battery of monitors. At the foot of the bed, looking very grim, was his fellow National League umpire, Bruce Froemming.
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September 18, 1989

Calling The Game: The Life And Times Of An Umpire

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He has spent much of the morning walking the downtown streets, shopping for a particular type of long underwear that he had seen at a store in San Diego, near his off-season home. "It has two layers, and it breathes. It's as warm as the normal thermals, but not as heavy," he explains.

The trouble is, those long Johns can't be found in Pittsburgh. Kibler has sorted through bins at two sporting goods stores and a couple of department stores and has come up empty. "Darn it," he says, "I should have bought some when I saw them out in California."

And that's about as close to a complaint as you're ever going to hear from Kibler.

"Everybody has bad moods, so I guess John has them too," says Eric Gregg, 38, who is in his second year on Kibler's crew. "But I've never seen him in one. I can honestly say that. He never has to fight to make himself want to go to the ballpark."

No matter what National League city he is in, Kibler knows where he can perform his daily workout, which includes 20 minutes on an exercise bicycle and 50 or more sit-ups. He gave up red meat and salt more than a decade ago, and at 6'1", 190 pounds, he's about 20 pounds lighter than he was when he broke into the big leagues.

On or off the field, Kibler stands ramrod straight. With his flattop haircut—which is mowed every two weeks by one of a select number of barbers—his piercing blue eyes and his square jaw, Kibler looks like a Norman Rockwell portrait come to life. Umpire. The man just looks like an ump.

Kibler exudes a certain dignity, a quiet authority. His fellow umpires know him well enough to sense when he's beginning to get angry, when a player or manager has pushed him too far. The giveaway is that he'll involuntarily hunch his shoulders up. When his crewmates see this, they'll sometimes flash the "John's angry" sign among themselves, so that around the infield you'll see umpires standing with their shoulders hunched up.

Kibler entered what he refers to as "my profession" almost by accident. He was 27 years old and a state trooper in New York when he walked into the room of a fellow trooper named Al Salerno and noticed a brochure on the table for Al Somers's umpiring school in Daytona Beach, Fla. "Where did you get that?" he asked Salerno, a future American League umpire. Within two years both men had quit their jobs with the state police and enrolled in Somers's school. Kibler, who had played baseball in high school in Fort Plain, N.Y., and also during 3½ years in the Navy, didn't think he was cut out for the state police anyway. "I couldn't shoot straight," he recalls, "so it took me forever to qualify on the pistol range."

Kibler got his first job as a professional umpire in 1958, working in the Class D Georgia-Florida League. It offered hard, lonely travel and low wages—which was the umpire's lot even at the major league level until unionization began to bring higher wages in the past decade.

"Dublin, Waycross, Thomasville, Brunswick, Valdosta and Albany," Kibler recalls, ticking off the towns on the six-team circuit. The environs were decidedly unfriendly to outsiders, and league president W.T. Anderson, a legendary figure in minor league baseball, forbade his umpires to travel at night. Kibler got $250 to $285 a month and a free lunch every Tuesday at a cafe in Tifton, Ga., on Anderson. "Mr. Anderson was one of the finest league presidents in the history of minor league baseball," says Kibler. "The league could not pay us as much as any other regular job would have, so he made sure that we had at least one decent meal a week. All the umpires sat down to lunch together, and we all ordered the biggest steaks the kitchen could bring us."

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