Sunday, April 6, 2014

They Called Me God by Doug Harvey - Book Review

They Called Me God: The Best Umpire Who Ever Lived by Doug Harvey with Peter Golenbock (Gallery Books: Simon & Schuster, 2014, 288 pages, $27.00) is a very episodic collection of sometimes quite interesting tales of baseball which would frequently benefit from the help of quality co- (read ghost) writing superior to that provided by Peter Golenbock, although, if Harvey is to be taken at his word, he's not a man to be argued with or to negotiate on an even playing field. Harvey, who was active as a major league umpire from 1962 – 1992, has been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and been voted the second best umpire, behind Bill Klem, of all time. The book is filled with Harvey's assessment of ball players, managers, and fellow umpires based largely on their deportment on and off the field as well as the degree to which they easily bent themselves to his enormous will and sense of himself. Players and managers who learned not to argue or to do so according to Harvey's set of rules come off looking pretty good, while those who gave him a great deal of difficulty are hammered. Similarly, umpires who bent to his or agreed with his standards for umpiring come across as being good officials, although none but a couple of his mentors ever measure up to him. Harvey's egotism and his sense of his own correctness dominate the book. He frequently asserts his fairness and his willingness not to carry grudges, while his stories emphasize the cost to players, managers, and the game of his propensity to get even. I'm unsure whether these marked contrasts represent his lack of self-awareness or the depth of his hypocrisy.

Doug Harvey Not Arguing

Doug Harvey grew up in the poverty of the Imperial Valley of California during the great depression. His father worked hard to maintain a hard-scrabble existence. Young Doug often went with him as he umpired amateur and minor league games, while excelling in athletics himself. He was sometimes asked to serve as an umpire, earning small amounts of money doing so. He attended college on an athletic scholarship, but was unable to finish due to an injury and early, doomed marriage. He always worked hard, and, with increasing frequency umpired baseball and refereed basketball, at the college and minor league level, eventually rising to higher levels as his first marriage dissolved. Eventually, he rose to the major leagues after several years umpiring in Mexico and Puerto Rico as well as the AAA California League league. He became a major league umpire in 1962, jumping over several senior hopefuls as one of the last umpires not to attend umpire school.

Doug Harvey at the Plate

Harvey was known for his prodigious knowledge of the rule book, which he read religiously every day. During his career he often had disputes with managers who tried to act as ball park lawyers challenging his calls. His practice in these arguments was to quote the rule book, proving them wrong. Sometimes, they even apologized. Harvey claims that he always behaved with integrity and upheld the rules. He also says that he maintained a highly consistent strike zone, while at the same time saying the stance an umpire chooses can materially affect the placement of the zone. One strategy he says he used effectively was refusing to argue, crossing his arms and listening to the manager or player argue before making his point. Once made, if the man would continue to argue or call him names, he threw him out of the game. However, when he felt abused by a player or manager but couldn't retaliate immediately, he would bide his time and then make a call or decision to even the score. This hardly looks like not carrying a grudge. At times, when he believed it wouldn't effect the game, he even widened or narrowed his holy strike zone. Harvey writes of his integrity but purposefully makes bad calls to teach players who refuse to bend to his will a lesson. Once Harvey threw Walter Alston, perhaps the gentlest of all managers, out of a game, “...just to show the brass I wasn't a pushover.”

Doug Harvey at Hall of Fame Induction
They Called Me God: The Best UmpireWho Ever Lived by Doug Harvey with Peter Golenbock (Gallery Books: Simon & Schuster, 2014, 288 pages, $27.00) lacks a structure to give it strong narrative drive. Often it seems to be merely a collection of very loosely strung together anecdotes. The co-writer (Peter Golenbock) has difficulty capturing Harvey's voice while maintaining continuity and forging a real story, sometimes seeming to just throw Harvey a topic like “say something about pitchers” before letting him ramble. In one section he writes about players he found to be quite cooperative – Ted Williams, Henry (Harvey calls him Hank) Aaron, and Willie Mays. His assessment of Joe DiMaggio as always a gentleman is so much at odds with Richard Ben Cramer's marvelous DiMaggio biography as to lead a reader to doubt his ability at reading players. However, his pictures of Willy Mays and Ted Williams ring absolutely true. Meanwhile, it is repetitive in its assessment of Pete Rose. Finally, this book must be rated PG-13 or even R for its use of foul language. It is NOT recommended for young readers, no matter how interested they might be in umpiring. I received the book as an electronic galley from the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle.