George Jean Nathan (1882–1958)
From Baseball: A Literary Anthology
For American baseball fans, heckling the umpire is a perk of admission, a noble tradition that parents and children indulge in equally. Whether or not the call in question is correct is beside the point; when a call goes against the home team, the crowd shares one reflex: skewer the ump. Even a century ago, the rule of mob prevailed; the only noticeable change has been the number of referees available as targets.
Published in Harper’s Weekly in 1910, “Baiting the Umpire” slyly punts its pokes at the Greek chorus in the bleachers while it simultaneously celebrates the play on the field. Its author, George Jean Nathan, would later become especially renowned for his wit and insight on American theater—and what is baseball if not theater? As the 2010 season opens, most reports will celebrate the players (and their salaries), but we offer this Story of the Week in homage to the unsung, brave warriors of America’s beloved pastime.
Baseball is the national side-show. The baiting of umpires is the real big-tent entertainment. In Spain, by way of passing the time, they bait innocent bulls on holidays. In America, by way of the same thing, they bait inoffensive men in blue suits every day in the week during the warm season, and twice on Saturdays. What the Latins call “fêtes” the Americans call “double-headers.” Also, what the Latins call “matadores” the Americans call “bleachers.” Some years ago, the Spanish sport-loving public was satisfied with one bull in the ring, just as the American public was satisfied with one umpire. But, as taste became more hysterical and bloodthirsty, the Spaniards demanded at least two bulls for killing purposes, and the Americans, following suit, demanded two umpires. That is the real reason the Solons of baseball added the extra referee to the game. They told the second umpire he was supposed to “watch the bases.” It was a snare. He was put there simply to gratify the public’s augmented longing for “sport.”
In comparing the national sports of Spain and the United States, it may be readily seen that the bull has a marked advantage over the umpire. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!