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Harry Wendelstedt dies at 73; baseball umpire also ran school

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Harry Wendelstedt, a retired 33-year Major League Baseball umpire who also nurtured a new generation of the game's arbiters for more than 30 years, died Friday at a hospital in Daytona Beach, Fla. He was 73 and had brain cancer.

Wendelstedt, who officiated more than 4,500 games, worked five World Series — two as crew chief — as well as seven National League Championship Series and four All-Star Games.

Former Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda is among those leading the campaign for Wendelstedt's election into baseball's Hall of Fame.

Paul Runge, like Wendelstedt a former veteran umpire crew chief, said that in addition to being "one of the premier umpires in the game," Wendelstedt left a more powerful legacy by devoting his efforts to teaching the craft at his Ormond Beach, Fla.-based Wendelstedt Umpire School.

The school boasts 14 active major league umpires on its current list of advisors.

Among the students who passed through Wendelstedt's school was Runge's son, Brian, a major league umpire.

"Harry spent his whole life helping and creating umpires," the elder Runge said. "It's amazing when you think about the number of people Harry's school influenced — guys working college, high school, Little League, sand lot games."

Wendelstedt was born July 27, 1938, in Baltimore, started umpiring minor league games in 1962 and reached the major league level in 1966.

His biggest mark in Los Angeles came as Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale preserved what became a then-record-breaking string of 58 2/3 scoreless innings.

On the night of May 31, 1968, Drysdale was in danger of finishing one inning short of a fifth consecutive shutout when the rival San Francisco Giants loaded the bases in the ninth with no outs and sent catcher Dick Dietz to the plate.

Drysdale threw an inside pitch that hit Dietz on the left elbow, which should have caused a run to score and stopped the big right-hander's pursuit of Hall of Famer Walter Johnson's record 56-plus innings of shutout ball.

Wendelstedt, however, called the pitch ball three and wouldn't let Dietz take first base, the third-year ump ruling that the batter made no attempt to evade the pitch.

Times columnist Jim Murray wrote, "The Giants, to a man, behaved as if Wendelstedt had just dropped a match into a baby carriage."

Giants Manager Herman Franks was so upset at Wendelstedt's decision to enforce the rule that he told The Times: "It was the worst call I've ever seen. If Drysdale breaks the record now, he and Wendelstedt should share it. Hell, put Wendelstedt's name on the trophy first."

Drysdale's record was ultimately broken by Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser in 1988 — when Wendelstedt was still umpiring.

That year, in the National League Championship Series, crew chief Wendelstedt confiscated the glove of Dodgers reliever Jay Howell after plate umpire Joe West found it had pine tar on it.

Said West on Friday: "Harry first put on the glove and said, 'It's not too bad,' which caused [Dodger] catcher Rick Dempsey to agree, 'Yeah, it's not too bad,' with Lasorda running around a nervous wreck, knowing his closer was going to get kicked out."

"I said, 'Harry, you have that school in Florida … ,' and the next thing I knew he was kicking Howell out of the game. He took the glove right to Commissioner Bart Giamatti, handed it to him in the front row, like, 'Here it is, boss.' "

It was fitting that Wendelstedt was involved in Drysdale's record, since the umpire was well known for having a pitching-friendly wide strike zone.

Wendelstedt, who retired in 1998, tied a record by calling balls and strikes for five no-hitters.

He displayed signature moves, flailing his right arm upward on swinging strikeouts and delivering a so-called "chain saw" move in calling a third strike.

"We were all a little bit more individuals back then," Paul Runge said. "Everyone had a style, was more charismatic."

"The way Harry handled situations and his consistency is what stood out," Runge said. "From the first to the ninth inning, every day, it's hard to be so consistent. It was a job, but he loved going out there."

Wendelstedt is survived by his son, Hunter, an MLB umpire since 1999, and his daughter, Amy.

lance.pugmire@latimes.com
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