Bill Klem

Bill Klem

Bill Klem

  • Full name William Joseph Klem
  • Born February 22, 1874, Rochester, New York
  • Died September 16, 1951, Miami, Florida
  • Buried at Graceland Memorial Park, Coral Gables, Florida (Section H, Block 23, Lot 10, Grave 4)
  • Born as: William Joseph Klimm
  • Umpired First Game: April 14, 1905; Umpired Final Game: September 13, 1941
  • Height: 5' 5.5" Weight: 157
  • Selected to the Hall of Fame in 1953
  • Ejections: 1905 (26), 1906 (15), 1907 (21), 1908 (8), 1909 (12), 1910 (22), 1911 (21), 1912 (15), 1913 (12), 1914 (9), 1915 (5), 1916 (4), 1917 (10), 1918 (1), 1919 (3), 1920 (14), 1921 (4), 1922 (4), 1923 (5), 1924 (2), 1925 (2), 1926 (4), 1927 (2), 1928 (3), 1929 (1), 1930 (3), 1931 (2), 1933 (1), 1934 (3), 1935 (8), 1936 (1), 1937 (2), 1938 (3), 1939 (1), 1940 (2). Total: 251
  • SABR Biography<
  • Sporting News Umpire Card

During his long career in the National League, Bill Klem was the most respected umpire in baseball.  The toughness, integrity and skill with which he performed his duties on the field secured for all umpires an honored position in the game.

William Joseph Klimm was born on February 22, 1874 in Rochester, New York.  He  later legally changed his last name to Klem.  Initially aspiring to become a professional baseball player, Klem was playing for the Hamilton team of the Canadian League in 1896 when a bad arm led the team to release him.  In the next few years, he played semi-pro ball in New York and Pennsylvania, and he also had a brief stint with Augusta in the Maine League.  He worked construction jobs to support himself.

While playing semi-pro ball in Berwick, Pennsylvania in 1901 for $5 a game, Klem first tried umpiring games for the same $5 wage.  The next year he read a newspaper article about Frank “Silk” O'Loughlin, a hometown friend who had become an umpire in the National League.  O'Loughlin advised Klem to consider a career in umpiring.

In 1902, Klem started out in the class D Connecticut League.  He made $7.50 for each game he called, and $10.50 for a doubleheader.  Umpires in this early era were held in low esteem by fans and players, and the Connecticut League was a rough one.  Klem later remembered that “if the home team lost you got an awful amount of abuse with your money.”

Klem moved up to the class B New York State League in 1903.  It was another harshly combative circuit, made more difficult for umpires in that they worked every game alone.  Over the course of the season, Klem began to earn his reputation as a tough, resolute umpire, and, also, as an honest one.  He incurred the wrath of club owners and fans alike by enforcing a new league policy of fining players on the spot for berating umpires with foul language.  Of the league's umpires hired at the start of the 1903 season, Klem was the only one still on the job at the end of the year.

In 1904, Klem went on to the American Association, a class A league with the highest minor-league classification at the time.  That season, Klem started drawing a line in the dirt with his shoe and warning angry players and managers: “Do not cross the Rio Grande.”  Those who did earned immediate ejection.

That same year, National League umpire Hank O'Day introduced Klem to Harry Pulliam, the senior circuit's President.  Pulliam hired Klem to umpire a post-season exhibition game between Cleveland and Pittsburgh – a gesture that inspired in Klem a lifelong loyalty to the National League.

Through the influence of his old friend Frank O'Loughlin, Klem was offered an umpiring job in the American League for the 1905 season at a salary of $2,100.  Klem held out, hoping to work in the National League, and he was soon rewarded when Pulliam hired him at the same salary.

Klem's first major-league game took place on April 14, 1905.  From his experiences working in the rough-and-tumble minor leagues, he knew the importance of asserting his authority on the field.  He demanded that hitters call him “Mr. Klem”, and he addressed them as “Mr.” in turn.  When players charged at him, he used his method of drawing a line in the dirt to maintain order.

Even as a young umpire, Klem held his ground against the game's fiercest competitors.  Early in his National League career, when New York Giants manager John McGraw threatened to get him fired over a call on the field, Klem replied, “Mr. Manager, if it's possible for you to take my job away from me, I don't want it.”

Other occasions required him to exercise broader powers.  On April 11, 1907, Klem umpired Opening Day in New York. The Giants led the Philadelphia Phillies 3-0 in the eighth inning when fans at the Polo Grounds, who had been hurling snowballs at the Philadelphia players and their supporters, began jumping from the stands and running in the outfield.  Since it was the home team's responsibility to restrain the crowd and the Giants had not complied with a league requirement to have police on duty at the park, Klem declared the game forfeited to Philadelphia.

Though he stood only 5 feet five and one-half inches and weighed 157 pounds, Klem didn't hesitate to use the umpire's ultimate means of controlling players.  On October 1, 1914, he reacted to excessive taunts from the New York Giants in the sixth inning by ejecting the entire bench from the game.  A group of 24 players was forced to march en masse to the clubhouse.

One time, though, Klem went too far.  In a game at Cincinnati on June 24, 1911, he called St. Louis' player-manager Roger Bresnahan out on strikes to end the game.  When Bresnahan refused to stop arguing the call, Klem punched him, drawing a fine of $50 from National League President Thomas Lynch.

Despite his strictness with players, Klem was not arrogant or overbearing.  He understood that confrontations were often better avoided, declaring, “An angry player can't argue with the back of an umpire who is walking away.”

Along with his toughness and fair-minded nature, Klem's honesty helped to gain respect for umpires.  In 1908, he and fellow umpire Johnny Johnstone reported to the National League that a person connected to the New York Giants had attempted to bribe them to ensure a Giants' victory in the team's one-game playoff that year with the Chicago Cubs for the National League pennant.  In a sworn statement, Klem disclosed that he had been offered $2,500, and later $3,000.  The National Commission, which oversaw professional baseball at the time, investigated the case, but no one was ever brought to trial.

Klem played a key role in introducing a number of innovations that improved the quality of professional umpiring.  He was one of the first to discard the outside chest protector for one worn under his shirt, enabling him to move in closer behind the catcher.  Another contribution he made was his technique of viewing pitches from a vantage point between the catcher and the hitter, which afforded him a better look at the strike zone.

Major league games didn't always have two-umpire crews until 1911, and Klem was among the umpires who began the practice of leaving their position behind the plate to get “on top” of a play for the best possible view.  He typically ran from home to third base to call a play, then raced back towards the plate with the runner if a misplay at third necessitated a subsequent call at the plate.

Klem also helped to develop the use of arm signals for balls and strikes, calls of “out” or “safe”, and fair or foul.  “That guy in a twenty-five cent bleacher seat is as much entitled to know a call as the guy in the boxes,” he explained.  “He can see my arm signal even if he can't hear my voice.”

Klem had a number of nicknames among players during his career – “The Old Arbitrator” was his favorite.  Widely acknowledged as the greatest umpire in the game's history, and the best judge of balls and strikes, he was chosen to work in a record 18 World Series.  His first Fall Classic was the 1908 matchup between the Cubs and Tigers, and his final one, in 1940, matched the Tigers and the Reds.  No other umpire has seen duty in more than 10 World Series.

Klem umpired in the first All-Star game in 1933, and he also served in the 1938 Midsummer Classic.  He worked behind the plate in five no-hitters, the last of which was thrown by Paul Dean against Brooklyn on September 21, 1934.  This stood as the National League record until it was tied by Harry Wendelstedt.

Age finally took its toll on Klem.  In 1940, the 66-year-old umpire was hit by a ground ball in the infield, forcing him to realize that his reflexes had slowed considerably.  He later recounted that after making a call in a game that same year, “I walked away from the beefing ballplayers, saying to myself, 'I'm almost certain Herman tagged him.'  Then it came to me and I almost wept.  For the first time in my career, I only 'thought' a man was tagged.”

Klem retired after the 1940 season, and he was subsequently named Chief of the National League umpiring staff, a job he held for the rest of his life.  In 1941, he umpired  a few games as the National League experimented with four-man umpiring crews.  He umped his final game on September 13, 1941.

Klem retired as the oldest umpire in baseball history, at 67, and with the most consecutive years in the major leagues.  Though Bruce Froemming later surpassed both marks, Klem's record of 5,368 major-league games is still unequaled.

In a rare honor for an umpire, “Bill Klem Night” was held on September 2, 1949 at the Polo Grounds.  Klem died from a heart ailment two years later, on September 16, 1951, in Miami.  He was 77 years old and was survived by his widow, Marie.

On July 27, 1953, Klem was inducted into the Hall of Fame, following his election by the Veterans Committee.  Klem and Tommy Connolly, who was also elected that year, became the first two umpires enshrined at Cooperstown.  Other inductees in 1953 were Dizzy Dean, Al Simmons, Chief Bender, Bobby Wallace, executive Ed Barrow, and 19th-century manager Harry Wright.

Bill Klem served in professional baseball for 50 years, as an umpire and as an administrator.  Of his love for the sport, he once said, “Baseball is more than a game to me - it's a religion.”


By Dave Holloway


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