He Calls ‘Em Like He Sees ‘Em : Hard Work Pays Off for Charlie Williams, Long Beach-Bred Big-League Umpire
He’ll be walking out of a dark National League stadium into crowds intent on ogling baseball players, and someone will shout, “Charlie Williams, the umpire! Hey, Charlie, can I get your autograph?” And this will thrill him because it is the last thing an umpire expects, and he will think, half in jest, that somehow he’s going to have to come to grips with this new celebrity status.
This is not a nightly occurrence but recognition is finally starting to trickle in for Williams seven years after he became the fourth black to umpire in the major leagues. He was selected to work the All-Star Game this summer.
“I can’t say I’ve got a following ,” said Williams, who grew up in Long Beach. He knows that most umpires, often hidden by masks, tend to remain anonymous when they shed their dark blue suits and go out on the street.
And Williams isn’t nearly as visible as Eric Gregg, the only other black umpire currently in the majors, mainly because Gregg is a huge man given to flashiness on the field while Williams is devoid of girth and prefers to work without flamboyance.
Blends in Better
“He blends in a little more than Eric does,” umpire John McSherry, a crew mate of Williams, said Tuesday from Pittsburgh.
Williams, 41, likes to think that he is becoming better known because of the talent and hard work which took him further than he ever dreamed.
“He’s conscientious,” said McSherry, who went to umpire school with Williams. “He keeps trying to improve and works hard at it. He’s already a good umpire.”
While striving to make the majors in the mid-1970s, Williams was deemed a natural at umpire school, although he never thought of himself as one. He’d work long, hot hours calling balls and strikes. “A dirt gobbler,” he called himself. He gobbled knowledge too and in ’78 he was called to the National League, where he arrived, at 34, wide-eyed and dazed.
“When I first came in I had no idea where I was,” said Williams, who now lives in Chicago, during a recent return to Long Beach. “I just knew I was doing something I had seen on TV and never dreamed I’d be doing. I look at myself then as an uncut diamond.”
Williams didn’t grow up hollering, “You’re out,” to imaginary base runners in his backyard. Like the other boys in his neighborhood he played ball and idolized Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays.
“The umpiring profession was not one (that) young black athletes aspired to,” he said. “We didn’t know of any black officials. There weren’t any. Emmett Ashford (the majors’ first black umpire) wasn’t even heard of until he came on the scene in the American League (in 1966).”
After graduating from Poly High School in ’62, Williams attended Long Beach City College and studied business at Cal State Long Beach.
“Being an umpire was never an objective of mine,” he said.
Williams got into officiating solely to help finance his education. He was assigned high school freshmen and JV football, softball and baseball games in the Long Beach area, and when he realized he was working from his heart, he knew he had found his profession.
Used to Watch Umpires
“I used to hitchhike to Dodger Stadium to watch major league umpires and how they worked --Augie Donatelli, Chris Pelakoudas, Al Barlick and Shag Crawford,” Williams said. “I’d pick up little idiosyncrasies from each and incorporate them into my repertoire.”
In 1974, he enrolled in the Bill Kinnamon Umpiring School in Mission Hills. “I was working the graveyard shift (as a machine operator) at Procter & Gamble,” he said. “I got off at 7:30 in the morning, drove to Mission Hills, changed my clothes on the freeway and stumbled through the door at 8:30.”
He was No. 1 in his class.
“Charlie had a calm approach to everything,” Kinnamon, a former major league umpire, recalled from his home in St. Petersburg, Fla. “He had a good rapport with people and he was an excellent listener. If you said, ‘Look Charlie, you made a mistake,’ the next time he’d have it down.”
Four years later, after experience in the Texas, Florida Instructional and Pacific Coast leagues, Williams was signed by the National League on the recommendation of Al Barlick, one of the men he had emulated.
He came to the National League shortly after Gregg. Until then, the National’s only black umpire had been the late Art Williams (no relation to Charlie), who was fired in 1977 after five seasons.
His first season in the “bigs” was sweet and sour.
“I was in awe,” Williams said. “Here I was in Cincinnati umpiring the Dodgers and the Reds. Percentage points separated the teams from first place. I mean this is the Big Red Machine, this is what I had seen on TV. Johnny Bench! Don Sutton! It was unbelievable for me.”
Or a time in Pittsburgh . . .
“Willie Stargell, the ambassador of baseball, and there I was standing next to him at first base, I can’t believe this.”
Williams found that he had to work hard to set aside old heroes and realize that he now had authority over them.
That authority was bitterly questioned by Bill Madlock, a black player now with the Dodgers, during a racial incident in Williams’ fourth big-league game. Madlock, then with San Francisco, became angered by Williams’ calls of balls and strikes and suggested he would be better off driving a bus.
An argument ensued. “He called me a black this and a black that and said, ‘We ran him (Art Williams) out of the league, he was no good, and we’ll run you out.’ ” Williams said.
Threw Madlock Out
The temper that had been dormant erupted. Williams threw Madlock out of the game.
“I have a very quick temper and I’ve had to work on it,” Williams said. “It’s not a good thing to have. If I lose control of a situation out there, then everything is defeated.”
In his first 4 1/2 years, Williams said he ejected an average of six players a year, not uncommon for a rookie “because you’re being tested and tried all the time.”
But as the years pass and an umpire becomes more established and demonstrates to players that he is not going to call just anything off the top of his head, the ejections decrease, he said.
“Now I can let someone have their say and not feel I have to have the last say,” Williams said.
This year he has ejected only one player.
“I’ve reached the pinnacle of my profession,” Williams said. “I’m a perfectionist. I want to be right. I feel like I cannot make a mistake.”
Buoyed by his new recognition, he has hired a business agent. He wants to start an umpiring school in California. He would like to make commercials.
He makes a handsome salary, goes first class, but has a hard time comprehending that he has reached the top.
It hits him most at Wrigley Field in Chicago, the only vintage ballpark in the National League, when, between innings, he stands in short right field and looks around.
“I think, ‘I used to watch games from here on TV, watching Ron Santo and Ernie Banks, and now here I am. This is unbelievable.’ It’s an old park and you’ve got nostalgia, an old scoreboard and that ivy on the walls. The organist starts it up. It’s a tremendous feeling. Many days I stand out there and look at those people out there with shirts off, sunning, enjoying a game, eating popcorn. Yeah, it’s a good feeling.”
But the best one is knowing that the uncut diamond he once was has been shaped and polished.