The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Doug Harvey, Major League Baseball umpire known as ‘God’ on the diamond, dies at 87

Umpire Doug Harvey in 1980.
Umpire Doug Harvey in 1980. (Brian Horton/AP)
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Doug Harvey, a Major League Baseball umpire for 31 years whose calls of balls or strikes, fair or foul, safe or out were delivered with such gusto and authority that he was known as "God" to thousands of ballplayers, died Jan. 13 in Visalia, Calif. He was 87.

Major League Baseball announced the death but did not disclose the cause. According to media accounts, he had battled throat cancer in the 1990s and later had several strokes.

Mr. Harvey worked 4,673 ballgames from 1962 to 1992, MLB said, including five World Series, nine National League Championship Series and six All-Star Games. For 18 years, he was an umpiring crew chief.

Hundreds of thousands of times he made on-the-spot calls on whether a runner had reached base a millisecond before a throw from a fielder, or whether a pitched ball traveling 90 mph had grazed the veneer of a loosely defined strike zone or missed altogether.

The outcome of baseball championships rested on such rulings. Players and fans held strong and differing opinions on what the umpire saw, and they were not shy about telling him when they saw it differently.

To Mr. Harvey, arguments with the umpires were a part of the game, but there were limits and there could be no doubt about who was boss.

"I would listen for 20 seconds," he once told the New York Times. "I would count to 20 to myself. And I would listen to everything you had to say."

But if a line was crossed, if a complaining player or manager became abusive or too graphic in suggesting what the umpire should do to himself, he was out of the game.

"I've heard it said that umpires are a necessary evil," Mr. Harvey said in his acceptance speech on his 2010 induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. "Well, we are necessary, but we are not evil. . . . The entire integrity of the game is the umpires."

There are varying accounts on how Mr. Harvey came to be known as "God." In an article for the Society for American Baseball Research, Alan Cohen wrote: "One story has it that San Diego catcher Terry Kennedy had seen Harvey checking out a rain-soaked field during a rain delay and made a comment about 'God's' walking on water. Another story has Whitey Herzog (manager of the Kansas City Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals) exclaiming during an argument, 'Who do you think you are — God?' "

Sportswriter Jerome Holtzman wrote in 1986 that players and managers refer to Mr. Harvey as God because "he has yet to make a wrong call."

With a head of hair that turned silver and then white, and a custom of referring to all ballplayers as "son," Mr. Harvey looked and talked the part.

Was he ever uncomfortable being called "God?"

"What's to be uncomfortable with?" he quipped to the Times.

Harold Douglas Harvey was born in South Gate, Calif., near Los Angeles, on March 13, 1930. His father was a truck driver and ice hauler — and also a part-time baseball umpire.

"I remember that while watching Don Larsen throw his perfect game on TV [in the 1956 World Series], I told the guys with me that I was going into professional umpiring, and that someday they would be watching me on TV," Mr. Harvey said in his Hall of Fame speech. "They laughed me out of the room. Eleven years later they were watching me on TV, working my World Series plate job."

He attended San Diego State University on a partial athletic scholarship but dropped out before graduating. He was a minor league umpire in the Class C California League, the California League and the Pacific Coast League before being called up to the National League in 1962.

His first marriage, to Joan Manning, ended in divorce. In 1960, he married Joy Ann Glascock, who was working at a Bakersfield, Calif., ballpark where he was umpiring. She survives, as do their two sons. A son from his first marriage predeceased him.

Early in his career, Mr. Harvey learned never to be too quick to make a call. As told in a Society for American Baseball Research story, he was plate umpire in a St. Louis Cardinals-Los Angeles Dodgers game in 1962. Future Hall of Fame player Stan Musial was up to bat and had two strikes. The next pitch was headed straight for the plate, and Mr. Harvey prematurely called out "strike three!" But the pitch then broke out of the strike zone.

Musial calmly walked away, declaring over his shoulder, "Young fella, I don't know what league you came from, but home plate is 17 inches wide, same as it is here. If you want to stay up here, wait until the ball crosses the plate before you call it."

It was a lesson the rookie umpire took to heart.

Another time, he was calling a 1982 game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs when the Philadelphia pitcher, Ed Farmer, began losing his control, walking two batters and throwing two balls to a third. Phillies Manager Pat Corrales took Farmer out of the game. On his way to the dugout, Farmer had some choice expletives for the way Mr. Harvey had been calling balls and strikes.

So Mr. Harvey ejected him from the game.

"How do you throw a guy out of a game when he's already out of the game?" the Society of American Baseball Research quoted Corrales as asking.

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