Out at the Plate: Al Clark
"And if the batters didn’t swing the bat, guess what? They usually sat their asses back down on the bench."
There’s a general saying around baseball that the best umpires are the ones you don’t notice.
Retired Major League Baseball umpire Al Clark couldn’t disagree more and one conversation with the gregarious arbiter would give any doubters all the convincing they’d need.
Clark, a veteran of 26 Major League seasons, joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.
Clark fondly recalls a time when the big personality umpires reigned. What would you expect from someone who debuted in the Big Leagues at 27-years old on Ron Luciano’s staff?
Umpires with personality were a part of the charm of the game when Clark debuted in 1976. There’s a reason you could search Luciano, Dutch Rennert and Frank Pulli on YouTube and find videos with tens of thousands of views decades after they umpired their last Major League game.
Maybe nobody went to games with the specific purpose of watching umpires, but they weren’t complaining when Luciano used his finger guns to shoot down runners who were out at first. It put a smile on the faces of fans and still does decades later. Isn’t that what baseball is all about?
Considered one of the best umpires in the American League during his tenure, Al Clark developed his own niche over an incredible career and often found himself playing a role in Major League history.
You may have heard of some of the games Clark umpired.
When Bucky Dent homered in the 1978 one-game playoff against the Red Sox, Clark was the second base umpire.
When Cal Ripken passed Lou Gehrig for consecutive games played, Clark was there.
Nolan Ryan’s 300th win? Clark was the home plate umpire.
When the earth shook before Game 3 of the 1989 World Series, Clark bolted out of the umpires’ locker room to the safety of the diamond in his underwear and shower shoes.
It was the second World Series he was assigned to, also working the 1983 Fall Classic.
Umpires have a perspective of the game that is so unique, yet fans do not often get to hear their tales.
As usual, BallNine has you covered, so join us as we go Spitballin’ with Al Clark.
Thanks for joining us this week, Mr. Clark. I’m excited to talk to you about the great games you’ve umpired and also umpiring in general. It’s a perspective we don’t get as much as we should. Let’s start out when you were a youngster though. How did you first get involved with baseball as a kid?
My dad was a sportswriter so I grew up around amateur fields in the Trenton, New Jersey area. He’d be covering high school and college stuff, so when I was six, seven and eight years old, I was at the ballpark with my dad. And once the baseball fan bug bites, you’ve got that disease for life and it’s a pretty damn good disease to have.
That’s for sure. How did you transition from a player to an umpire?
I played baseball as a kid and then at Ewing [NJ] High School. I was a weak-armed catcher. When I realized it was a whole hell of a lot easier to call a curve ball rather than hit a curve ball, I became an umpire.
Before we get into your umpiring career, I wanted to ask about a couple of the topics we have been discussing lately at BallNine. First, what do you think of the changes in scouting?
What happened to the good old-fashioned scout who actually put eyes on the guy? You have these eggheads in the front office now and they rely too much on their computers. You know, I have said for decades that I can’t understand why clubs didn’t hire retired Major League umpires to go out and scout. I guess it never happened because it’s so far out of the mainstream.
I’m two feet from a guy and I can tell when a pinch hitter is intimidated or not. I can see it in his eyes, body language and demeanor at home plate. I can look in the eyes of a relief pitcher and tell you if he’s up to the challenge. I can tell you when he’s toeing the rubber whether he looks like Goose Gossage out there. If he’s gonna say, “I’m challenging your ass, hit it if you can.” Or is the guy a little thumbsucker who is afraid to throw a strike.
Home plate umpire Al Clark calls out Boston Red Sox Jose Offerman (30) at home after New York Yankees Joe Girardi (25) applies tag at Fenway Park. Game 4. Boston, MA 10/17/1999 (Photo by Ronald C. Modra /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
“How about Alan Trammel and Lou Whitaker? Guys like that are incredible. It’s like watching a ballet when they turned a double play. It’s really impressive and if you don’t notice that, even as an umpire, well what the [hell] are you doing out there?”
That’s a great point. You guys had a perspective nobody else does. We also have been talking about the dismantling of the minor leagues. What are your thoughts there?
I don’t understand it. The minor leagues are the lifeblood of Major League Baseball. The players that go through those low minor league cities are followed the rest of their careers by the fans who started watching them in places like Waterloo, Iowa or so many cities like that. Not only does this affect the players, but umpires, managers, coaches, scouts and even future executives.
I guess everything is predicated on money, but it seems like they’re cutting off their nose to spite their face. Especially coming off the pandemic and the oddest year in baseball in quite some time. In hindsight, I think baseball is going to rue the day that they got rid of all these teams.
We agree completely and recently ran an article featuring the Tri-City ValleyCats being shut down and it just breaks your heart to read the personal stories.
You take those smaller towns and cities, and people look forward to going to the ballpark. It brings these towns to life. Even though it was a long time ago, I remember umpiring in those towns, and it was always so much fun to go to the ballpark. Everybody’s so close to the action and it’s personal. The hot dogs are cheap and the beer is cold. It’s affordable for families and I just think baseball is going to be missing something, I really do.
You spent four years in the minors before making the jump to the Majors. We hear a lot about how difficult the minor leagues are for players. It has to be just as difficult or even harder for umpires.
I say it’s two to three times more difficult for minor league umpires. The players travel on a bus and they’re given everything the teams can afford to give them. Umpires, on the other hand travel in a car from city to city with a partner. We were responsible to buy our equipment and we stayed at hotels that, well, let’s just say they were less than desirable. In the Majors, we stayed at the Hyatt or Four Seasons, but in the minors, I couldn’t even spell Hyatt.
Home plate umpire Al Clark has a little chat with Reggie Jackson of the California Angels.
What was like for you to get the call that you were moving up to the Majors?
I was informed I was going to the American League after Spring Training in 1976. There were four of us vying for two spots. The Supervisor of Umpires took myself and Greg Kosc to dinner at a restaurant called The Buccaneer in Siesta Key outside Sarasota. He informed us that we were going.
Of course, we were on cloud nine and it was the culmination of a tremendous amount of hard work and sacrifice. I always say if people knew what they were getting into as a minor league umpire before they got into it, they wouldn’t do it. The odds of matriculating to the Big Leagues as an umpire are so set against you, even more so than players.
That’s a great point. So, what was it like to walk out on a Major League field as an umpire for the first time?
That day I signed my first Major League contract was a huge day and one of the biggest thrills of my life. It still is to this day. I opened the season in Arlington, Texas and my first crew was myself, Bill Haller, Larry McCoy and Ron Luciano. And by the way, to this day I still think Bill Haller is a Hall of Fame umpire.
Opening Day my first year the Rangers were playing the Twins. I had third base. I walked to home plate with these very established umpires and it was pretty heady stuff. I was walking on the ground, but there was a whole lot of air between my spikes and the ground.
Wow, that’s some crew! You were young when you made it to the Majors. What was it like as a 27-year old to be on a crew with those guys, especially someone with as big a personality as Luciano?
He was a big personality, as you say. He only spent ten years in the Majors. For a young umpire, it was good to watch Ron to learn what not to do on the field. There’s only one Ronnie and he was a good umpire, but as a young umpire, I couldn’t do the things he did. It takes four or five years for a young umpire to be accepted.
Just because you put on the Big League uniform, doesn’t mean you’re a Big League umpire. You have to be accepted. And the way to be accepted is you have to earn respect. You can’t walk out there and command it, you have to earn it first. If you earn it that way, chances are you are gonna have a pretty good career.
Manager Billy Martin of the Oakland Athletics argues with umpire Al Clark. (Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images) 1980
What type of umpire were you?
I was considered a pretty decent umpire and, on the plate, I was considered a pitcher’s umpire. If a pitcher was consistent on the corner or just off the corner, or if he was consistent around the plate, I would call more strikes. The borderline pitches wouldn’t be balls. With that reputation, hitters knew that they had to swing the bat when Clark was behind the plate.
You know what that did? That put the ball in play more often. It had fielders on their toes and a whole lot of people have to be ready for action. And if the batters didn’t swing the bat, guess what? They usually sat their asses back down on the bench.
You worked in the American League when there were some combustible personalities in the dugout. Guys like Billy Martin, Earl Weaver and so many others. How do you handle guys like that as an umpire?
Well, it’s my job to handle them. You know they’re going to test you. That’s one of the things that made Bill Haller and some of the other guys great Big League umpires. They counseled me and we talked. We talked on airplanes, we talked in restaurants, we talked over coffee about how to handle different personalities.
We talked about how to not let them get under your skin. There’s that game within a game. All those things, throw them into a pot and when you pour the whole thing out, you’re either a pretty damn good umpire and you can handle those situations or you need to go in a different direction. That covers barking from the dugout to major brawls and all aspects of the game.
Do you have any specific fights or ejections that stand out to you?
Not really. Ejections and fights on the field are just like balls and strikes or fairs and fouls. They’re just part of the game. There isn’t a player out there that doesn’t know what he can and can’t say and what lines he can cross.
Any umpire worth his salt doesn’t take that attitude. I don’t tell you how to hit and field and I’ll be damned if you’re gonna tell me how to umpire. You can talk to me, but if you go too far, I’m gonna show you who the umpire is. By virtue of the uniform I wear, I will win the argument. It’s not like when you go home and talk to your wife.
Catcher Rick Cerone #10 of the New York Yankees runs to third base to help teammates Dave Winfield #31 and Graig Nettles #9 and umpires Al Clark and Mike Reilly after a fan jumped onto the field to attack umpire Al Clark after he called Winfield out during Game 3 of the 1981 American League Division Series on October 9, 1981 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)
That’s a great way to put it! I want to get into some of the specifics of your career. Your first World Series was 1983 and there was something unique about it. You worked the game as an umpire and your dad covered the game as a sportswriter. What did that mean to you?
It was a lot of fun and there was a lot of pride involved too. Here was my dad, who was a Big League writer covering the Phillies. I worked behind the plate in the third game of the Series, which was the first game in Philadelphia. It was the first time in World Series history that two Cy Young Award winners started against each other, Steve Carlton and Mike Flanagan.
There was something controversial early in the game. The announcers were Earl Weaver and Howard Cosell. The controversy happened on the field and I was involved in it. So, Cosell says, “Well, we know one thing for sure. Clark’s father is a newspaper guy and if there’s a scoop to be had, he’s the one who’s gonna get it.”
What an incredible memory to have. I have a couple of questions from my own curiosity about umpiring. First, we always hear how hard it is to hit or catch a good knuckleball, what’s it like umpiring for a good knuckleball pitcher like Phil Niekro?
The easiest explanation is that home plate doesn’t move and I don’t have to hit or catch it. So, just like any other pitch it’s about timing. You wait for it to come to you; you can’t anticipate where it’s going. The only thing you have to worry about it making sure the catcher is in front of you to protect you from getting hit.
The name of my column is “Spitballin,’” so I have to ask about Gaylord Perry. Just in general, as an umpire, how do you handle a pitcher who you might suspect is doing something to the ball?
When a pitch does something different than it’s been doing all day, you know something may have occurred. With Perry, I still see him at card shows and we laugh about it. But you know, all the gyrations he did, he had you believing he was throwing a spitball or shine ball on every pitch, which is exactly what he wanted. He hardly ever threw it until he had to.
The psychology of a batter believing he was gonna throw it was good enough. But from my perspective, I didn’t look for trouble. I react to it. If something happened, I would handle it. But I wasn’t going to look to cause trouble.
Dave Winfield #31 of the New York Yankees argues with home plate umpire Al Clark #24 after he was called out at home as coach Joe Altobelli and Willie Randolph #30 look on during an MLB game against the Baltimore Orioles on June 19, 1982 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)
You worked some downright historic games throughout your career. For this next segment, I’ll just throw the game out there and you can reflect on it. First, let’s start with the Bucky Dent game in 1978.
I was only a third-year umpire and the Supervisor of Umpires for the American League was Dick Butler. He went out on a huge limb by assigning myself and Steve Palermo to that game. It was just his second year. It was the first one-game playoff since 1948 and to be on that stage at that point in my career gave me a tremendous lift. It gave me a tremendous amount of confidence to forge forward and become the umpire I became. Everybody in the baseball world sees who is out there and that certainly helped me earn respect.
How about Nolan Ryan’s 300th win?
Totally and thoroughly enjoyable to be a part of. First of all, Nolan is such a first-class person. I mean hugely first-class. To be a part of that was happenstance. We were in the old County Stadium in Milwaukee, one of the greatest baseball stadiums ever. The old ballparks were great, they just smelled of baseball, you know?
I had the plate and Nolan was going after it for the third time, if I remember correctly. Being a part of it and knowing that I did a good job behind the plate, not for Nolan, but for the situation is a pretty good feeling.
Absolutely. What about the final day of the 1984 season at Yankee Stadium? You had home plate and Don Mattingly was battling Dave Winfield for the batting title.
Being behind the plate for that in the 162nd game, you talk about being under pressure. The pressure to be right is there all the time, but that day was something else. I didn’t want to be the reason for someone losing or winning the batting title based on a controversial call, and I wasn’t.
The guys did their thing and Mattingly came out on top. Actually, both of them came up to me after the game and thanked me for being as spot on as I was. It was a very big deal at the time.
Oakland A's mgr. Tony LaRussa #10 during argument w. NY Yankees mgr. Buck Showalter.; Ump Al Clark standing between LaRussa and Showalter. (Photo by Anthony Neste/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
Let’s go on to the 1989 World Series and the Game 3 earthquake.
Off the cuff, I say it was a pretty shaky experience! It happened at 5:04 PM, October 17, 1989. We were in the umpires’ dressing room preparing for the game. Commissioner Fay Vincent had just been in the dressing room. Dutch Rennert was there, Eric Gregg, Richie Garcia too. We were taking about the game and getting ready. We were mentally prepared and all of a sudden, it sounded like a locomotive coming.
We looked at each other and just ran out onto the field. Our dressing room was down the right field line. I was wearing longjohns and shower shoes. Wouldn’t you know, a damn Sports Illustrated photographer was there and snapped a picture. The next week the whole country saw a photo of me in my underwear.
We got out of the locker room quick enough to see the wave go through the stadium. I saw with my own eyes the top deck of Candlestick Park thrust forward and then spring back.
Wow, we could go on all day, but I have one more game for you. The game Cal Ripken passed Lou Gehrig.
Being in Baltimore that week, not just that day, but for that week. The Orioles beat the Angels three times that week. The year before Bud Selig had cancelled the World Series. Baseball needed something or someone to bring it back. Talk about the right man, right place, right situation. Cal Ripken was the absolute right person. He did everything right that year. That’s one of the records that I don’t think will ever be broken. Not in today’s game with today’s attitude and today’s money.
To be a part of baseball history, it’s pretty cool and pretty heady. I am glad to have been there. I say that with all humbleness. The things that I have been a part of in my career, it might sound kind of candy-assed or Pollyanna, but I feel blessed.
It must be great for someone who loves baseball like you do to have a front row seat to so many great games and also all those great players.
It was my job to work the games, not watch them and that’s what I did. Very seldom did I find myself watching the game. Now that’s not to say that I didn’t find myself amazed at the things these guys were doing. The hand-eye coordination they have is amazing.
Take a guy like Jim Edmonds. How could you not be impressed at the plays he used to make? How about Alan Trammel and Lou Whitaker? Guys like that are incredible. It’s like watching a ballet when they turned a double play. It’s really impressive and if you don’t notice that, even as an umpire, well what the [hell] are you doing out there?
Absolutely. You were a part of history in so many situations and we’re happy to tell those stories. One final question for you. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave our readers with?
I’m totally blessed to see the things that I have been witness to in my career. I’ve seen four no-hitters, two at Yankee Stadium, two All-Star Games, Game 5 of a five-game playoffs and I was behind the plate. So many big events and postseason games.
Can you think of a better way for a good, red-blooded American kid to live his adult life by putting on a Major League Baseball uniform to go to work? My office was Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park and Comiskey Park and Tiger Stadium. That’s a pretty damn good way to live your life.
The other thing is, quite simply, baseball is the best game in the world. I have said this a thousand times, the fibers of the game of baseball are so strong that even the people in the game can’t [mess] it up.
Al Clark’s book, Called out But Safe: A Baseball Umpire’s Journey, is available at all major online bookstores and through Amazon.