"On some days I'd walk through the hospital for four or five hours," he says. "I'm sure that helped. I was never in much pain; I suppose it was more of a severe discomfort. Every once in a while I thought about it, death. You're never completely free of those kinds of thoughts. But when this happened, after I left the hospital I'd take my mind off it by adjusting the timing on my car, or pulling out a spark plug and putting it back in, or going down to Joe Julian's Fish and Tackle store in Atlantic Highlands, getting a lure, a rod and a boat and then doing what I love to do—fish."
Kunkel's therapy included 28 radiation treatments from October through Christmas Eve. He lost 12 pounds but kept his hair. Through it all "the single strongest factor in my life was my wife," he says. Maxine, a biology teacher at Middletown North High, drove the 100-mile round trip to the NYU Medical Center each evening during his convalescence. "We were frightened, but we had confidence in the doctors," she says.
"Since this happened, I've become a weekend doctor," says Kunkel. "Twenty-five years ago, this disease had a 100 percent termination rate. Now, it's 27 percent. I talk to other patients every week. The message I want to deliver is hope."
By the time exhibition games began this spring, Kunkel was ready to go back to work. "At first," he says, "the players didn't know if they should look at me, say hello, or what. But when that bell rang on Opening Day, everybody was a professional. Nobody's babying me now."
Although Kunkel is a former major league pitcher—he was 6-6 with Kansas City and New York from 1961 through '63—it was his wife who urged him to become an umpire. "It had never even crossed my mind," he says. "But my playing days were over, I could see that. Eddie Robinson was assistant general manager with Houston then, and he offered me a minor league managing job. But in the waiting period, three big league managers were fired. That wasn't enough security for me." Then my wife asked me, why not umpire? I laughed at her at first."
It took only three years of work in the Florida State and Southern leagues before Kunkel was back in the majors, in 1968. In the 14 years since, he has built a solid reputation. "Hard worker, hard in every phase of it," says Vic Voltaggio. "Devoted, not just to the job but to the game," says John Shulock.
Baseball men don't gush over Kunkel's command of the strike zone, but no one disparages it, either. In the American League, the best at calling balls and strikes are Steve Palermo and Ken Kaiser, followed by Marty Springstead and Bill Haller, according to players who prefer to remain anonymous and to Elrod Hendricks, the Orioles' bullpen coach and former catcher.
"I respect Kunkel because it's obvious he cares about what he does," says Hendricks. "The best umpires in this league are Palermo and Kaiser. But they can overly dominate. Kunkel you don't see."
The rain-delayed game was postponed, but the next night was sweet and clear and the scorecard read: "HP Kunkel, 1B Cooney, 2B Voltaggio, 3B Shulock." Frank Tanana of the Rangers threw a neat four-hitter. Time of game, 2:02, including a fifth-inning pitching change by Manager Earl Weaver, the only time he and Kunkel so much as made eye contact.
"Tanana moved that fastball in and out, then dropped the curve over any time he wanted," said a lamenting Weaver. "Reminded me of Cuellar."