"Baseball" and "legend" are two words that should be prohibited from appearing together for the rest of eternity. But only after this article. Because Bruce Froemming probably deserves the appellation.
His legendary status derives not from bombs off a bat, flash with a mitt, or a proclivity to mow batters down like fescue. It comes from his ability – if I may take license with Pete Rose's famous "see the ball, hit the ball" axiom – to "see the ball, call the ball." Mr. Froemming is an umpire.
He has been calling games for more consecutive years – 37 – than any umpire in Major League history. At 68, Froemming still takes the field daily, although this is his last year. Over nearly four decades of donning an umpire's cap, he has called more than 5,000 games in the big leagues. It's a record that may not be repeated.
"Longevity!" explains former Dodger manager (and probably safe to say, legend) Tommy Lasorda on what's behind Froemming's stature. "And because he's good at it."
A legendary umpire is usually a contradiction in terms. At their best, umpires are supposed to be invisible, rising up to make a call – correctly – and then disappearing again. The only time they seem to get noticed is when they get it wrong. At that point, it becomes all their fault – "it" referring to anything from a team's loss to the collapse of Western civilization.
They also have the unenviable task of controlling the game. That means the players, coaches, and fans. Four umpires are assigned to every matchup, which makes it four against, say, 50,000. That helps explain why umpires are escorted to and from every game by police. It may also give insight into why umpires tend to take the my-way-or-shower approach to dispute resolution. "We're competitive, too," says Froemming. "We're a bunch of Type A personalities."
Froemming has cultivated a reputation for being tough but fair. When he first started out, some faulted him for being too autocratic. Today he seems willing to talk – briefly – as long as it doesn't get personal. He's also noted for his dramatic announcement of strikes – a thespian in a chest protector – and a welcome consistency in how he sees them. "In all the years I've seen him, his strike zone hasn't changed," says Clint Hurdle, manager of the Colorado Rockies.
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Froemming is short, stocky, built like a russet potato. He has a steady gaze, ruddy face, and a surprisingly diminutive mouth. He is affable in person, grandfatherly even, at least until something triggers his "business look." This is a stoney gaze that conveys a demand for absolute compliance. It would intimidate a longshoreman.
The look came up twice in our interview – first when I asked him what goes through his mind when a player gets in his face. "Let me stop you right there," he interjected. "No one ever gets in my face. That'll never happen." Spoken like Tony Soprano.
The second time came at the mention of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Froemming becomes eligible for induction six months after retirement and he seems like a Cooperstown certainty. "I don't talk about that," he says, with finality.
Born and raised in Milwaukee. Froemming was the oldest of three kids. He didn't have the money to go to college, so, after high school, he responded to an ad for the Al Somers Umpire School. At 18, he was the youngest student to don a mask. Only one out of three graduates was hired. He was one of them.
Froemming was quickly shipped off to the minor leagues, where the work wasn't always romantic: It was a lot of hotels with 25 thread-count sheets and little pay ($3,200 in 1970). He had to work in the off-season, which, at one point, included picking up bodies for a funeral home. He got $7.50 a corpse.
Froemming is nothing if not decisive, and in 1959, he married, yes, his high school sweetheart, as soon as he got his first umpiring contract. Their relationship has survived 48 years despite his itinerancy – traveling from April through September and beyond. One of his big breaks came in 1966, when Hall of Fame umpire Jocko Conlan noticed him calling a game and recommended Froemming for the big leagues. Before he could make it, however, he was nearly run out of baseball – not for blowing a call, but, in his eyes, for getting it right.
A runner for the St. Louis Cardinals' AA team missed the bag when rounding third, according to Froemming. He called him out. The Cardinals team lost. Many of their top brass were in attendance. Froemming was tartly reminded that day of the Newtonian law of baseball that all umpires labor under: Every decisive action brings an unequal and opposite reaction. "They said to me, 'We're going to get you,' " Froemming recalls. "I was looking over my shoulder for years."
In 1971, he finally made it to the big leagues after being noticed by two prominent people – Ted Williams, then manager of the Washington Senators, and veteran umpire Al Barlick. Williams told Barlick to put Froemming in the American League. Barlick, a National League umpire, wanted him closer. It was one of the few times Froemming was fought over, not with. But by the end of spring training, he finally had the job in the sport he had revered since he was 8.
It turned out to be an inauspicious start: The first big-league game he officiated was called in the sixth inning because of a blizzard. A few months later, he faced hotter conditions. The Philadelphia Phillies had a comeback rally going when Froemming called catcher Tim McCarver out for sliding into second base too aggressively. It negated two runs. The entire Phillies team burst from the dugout behind "a very excitable manager" (umpire speak for hothead).
"I had all I could handle with 25 guys on the field," says Froemming. It went on for 14 minutes. He eventually restored order. Future arguments have always seemed to be considerably shorter.
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Over the years, Froemming has witnessed his share of historic moments, including 11 no-hitters. He has called many playoff and World Series games and suffered his share of nicks. "He took back-to-back skin shots," says San Diego Padres pitcher Trevor Hoffman, referring to foul tips that pinged off Froemming's arms in this year's All Star game. "And he didn't blink an eye."
Froemming's considerable presence in the game hasn't gone without controversy. He once was fined for asking All Star catcher Mike Piazza for an autograph – a violation of umpire neutrality – telling him that when Johnny Bench refused the same request, he struck out three times that day. Then there was the derogatory term he hurled at an umpire administrator that earned him a 10-day suspension.
Mostly, though, it's been a satisfying journey for baseball's man of law and order. "The easy part about the job is the job," he says. "The hard part is the travel, being away from family."
Now that he's down to his last few games, Froemming is being treated like a dignitary. People want to say farewell. They want his autograph. During our interview, a manager and a former player interrupt to reminisce and pay respects. It's like sitting with Don Corleone. Or a bonafide baseball legend.
OK, now we can safely retire the phrase.