Umpires Don’t Make Calls! They Make History!

The concept of a call in baseball proves that umpires are the real history makers.

Isolated, like much of the world, without baseball games to occupy the few working rocks in my head, I am rethinking bits about baseball.

For some odd reason that perhaps only a psychologist with a strong will and a bent toward self-harm would be able to discover, the exact concept of a call intrigues me. When I would ask people, I soon learned the concept of a call in baseball is not as simple as it seems. That is a problem. If we don’t have a good understanding of a call, how can we understand things like:

  • The role of the people making or reviewing calls.
  • The role of rules and changing them.
  • Breaking rules and cheatings.
  • If technology can help us “fix things.”


The Concept of a Call in Baseball


So, of course, to help understand an iconic American game, we have to go to the origin. Well, specifically America’s origin.

Bring on J.L. Austin, British Philosopher of Language!

A quick note. I spent quite a few years researching this until I found out about another philosopher, J.S. Russell of Langara University in Vancouver. He has published several articles about baseball philosophy. In the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, Vol. 24, Issue 1 he published “The Concept of a Call in Baseball.” If you want a peek behind the curtain of the general concepts I am presenting here, I highly recommend you add him to your reading list. He helped tie the concepts together for me.

Yep. A Brit and a Candian helped me to better understand baseball.

J.L. Austin developed the idea of a performance utterance. While the term sounds like an odd stat about milk production, it turns out to be an odd description of language.

When I make the statement, “The actor Paul Gleason, while at Florida State, played football with Burt Reynolds,” it has a truth value. Here, truth value is an idea for a statement on a fact, which can be either true or false. You always want to ask a philosopher what they mean by truth value. You’ll be amazed by the variety of answers. For the discussion here, the truth value is a statement on a fact that can be true or false.

Continuing, I say, “And I promise to someday write an article that includes the movie Johnny B. Good, Jack Keauroc, and baseball.” This does something different. My statement has no truth value, it can’t be true or false. I have made a statement that is a fact. I made a promise and that is the fact. Jack. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

Austin called a statement that is a fact, like my promise, a performance utterance. A fact created by language. Relating this to baseball, when former umpire Ron Luciano shot a player with his finger gun and animatedly calls a player “outoutout”, he created a fact, not a statement on a fact. He also did so with a style that was underappreciated by his bosses. The call is a performance utterance. It only exists because the umpire calls it.

So, umpires are never wrong! They create a statement of facts with a call. They write the history of baseball with every performance utterance. As HOF umpire Bill Klem once replied to a query on a ball vs strike call, “Sonny, it ain’t nothin’ ’til I call it.” When an umpire says a player is out, they are out. It is an odd quirk of language.

One problem.

We know umpires make calls that are not true. It is part of baseball. Austin understood this problem with performance utterances. Lucky for us, he had a solution. What an umpire does is not just a performance utterance. There are descriptive functions combined with the statement.

An umpire is an eyewitness to the act for which they are performing the performance utterance. They are the eyewitness to the act (the descriptive part) and the judge (the call). This is problematic.

Eyewitness testimony can be wrong. Acts can be interpreted wrong. The call could take a fork in the path between the brain and the mouth, leaving something else to slip out. The descriptive function can be wrong. Wait. What? The call is history AND can be wrong. In the parlance of our times: Fake News! Performance Utterances that include descriptive functions, like a call in baseball, will include facts that are true and false facts. This is the true nature of a call in baseball.

Lou Durocher describes this concept with a nice quote: “I’ve never questioned the integrity of an umpire. Their eyesight, yes.” An umpire’s ability to produce accurate news is dependant on his ability to see things. Durocher never questioned the umpire as the judge, but the umpire as the witness. The concept of a call in baseball can be stated as a performance utterance stated by an eyewitness.

On  June 2, 2010, at Comerica Park, Armando Galarraga just had to retire Jason Donald as the 27th out for a perfect game. Perfection. Oops! Umpire Jim Joyce called Jason Donald safe! To this day, Jason Donald still has a hit and Galarraga has a one-hit shutout. Joyce himself later admitted and apologized for the call. But the call still stands and the MLB never changed it. How could then? It was history.

Jim Joyce, however, has a rather large U on his chest, despite his highly regarded career. Jason Donald was out. Joyce himself even said so after the game. But, the call stood. As it had to. Appellate Courts hadn’t hit baseball yet, no way to change history. Even though the witness, and judge, admitted to being wrong, there was no process to change history.

The play stands today because Jim Joyce’s performance utterances create any call he makes, including one he would like to have back.

Albeit now, we do have instant replay so we can improve on the eyewitness accounts and bring in a new judge. Major League Baseball created an appellate court. The concept of the call remains in Instant Replay. Evidence is reviewed by a judge who makes a call. With instant replay, a call is not removed from history it is overturned. This ties in very well with our concept of a call. We move to improve on history, but we don’t rewrite it.

Let’s ponder another incident from that same year that raises a question or two.

On September 15, 2010, Yankees are visiting Tampa Bay, Derek Jeter claims he was hit by a pitch when it hit the bat. The umpire was not in a good position to witness the event and Jeter’s Oscar-worthy performance—he lost out to Colin Firth—was just enough of a lie to convince the umpire to give him a free pass.

If you check his Hall of Fame stats, you’ll still see that HBP. It is my uneducated guess that one should look toward Tampa Bay to see which writer left him off the ballot. The eyewitness clearly could not see what happened. He used other evidence and relied on other people to make the call. Here again, the call did not correctly represent the action. The call stands to this day and even if some sort of instant replay was available the call would have been overturned not erased from history.


Beyond the Call: For Later


With the help of philosophers from the Commonwealth, the concept of a call is clear. Examining two known calls that were false history and the concept of the call explains what went wrong and ways to improve things. The concept of a call in baseball is the fundamental feat that creates the narration of the baseball. So important, that instant replay kept the main core but provides better eyewitness information.

The concept of a call is a fundamental core building block on learning how to think about thinking about baseball. It leads to more questions, about the role of umpires, the rules and players, cheating, and the proper way to bring technical improvement into the game.

So, the next time a man in blue makes a #$%@ call against your team remember this:

  • He has a mother and people that love him.
  • Baseball has an appellate court now.
  • Some calls will be wrong, even if you have a machine making the calls. It is the nature of the concept of a call in baseball. Instant replay won’t be perfect and neither will a machine.
  • If you remove the human and have a machine make the call, to whom do we appeal?

In further articles, using the concept of a call, I’ll examine baseball a bit more. My goal is to build towards a groundwork to examine two major questions from the off-season:

  • Did the Astros/Red Sox cheat and how? We’ll have to figure out what cheating is first though!
  • The “A pitcher faces three batters” rule, does it fundamentally change the scope of baseball rules and could an umpire ignore it?

If you make it this far, thanks for reading and remember to wash them hands. Stay safe folks!

Mat Kovach

Despite being an Indians fan in the late 70's I grew to love baseball. I started throwing spitballs when I was 10 and have been fascinated with competitive shenanigans in baseball ever since.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Account / Login