Ordinarily you would think an ex-major league baseball umpire was dull, even a little grumpy. Well, at least one of them isn't. His name is Bill Valentine who talked to a standing-room-only crowd recently at maybe what was the most entertaining Arkansas Study ever held at the Butler Center at the Little Rock library.
Valentine was an American League umpire for 18 years -- a career he started at age 14 umpiring Boys Club baseball in North Little Rock for 50 cents a game. For the last 28 years, he's been the general manager of the Arkansas Travelers. Valentine talks history as well as he does baseball. .
The Travelers played their first game in 1901 on what was called Kavanaugh Field, which was where Little Rock Central High School's football field is now. In 1932, the team moved to Fair Park and built Travelers Field, which still stands. Men like John Baird and Ray Winder saved baseball for Little Rock by, among other things, selling 15,000, $5 shares of Traveler stock with no dividends. To honor Winder's 52 years of service, the stadium was renamed Ray Winder Field in 1966. It's owned by the team, which is most unusual since most cities build and own their stadiums.
Valentine was born near the ball field 71 years ago and likes to describe the neighborhood. The State Fair was first held where War Memorial Stadium is now. Nearby was a carnival that made its winter home there. When the State Fair moved, its site was quickly occupied by a race track, and across the street from it was Cinderella Gardens, a dance hall with a big crystal ball.
Years ago, big-league teams would play exhibition games in minor league towns to raise money for spring training. As a result, Little Rock fans occasionally got to see Hall of Fame players like Bob Feller, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Roger Hornsby, Travis Jackson, etc.
Valentine introduced his audience to the characters who came regularly to the ballpark. One was Willie Bunch who was born at the State Hospital, Winder Field's neighbor. Willie thought he was the sheriff of the stadium, and he came every day to empty wastebaskets and collect $1 that he used to buy snuff.
For nearly 20 years, a man named Captain Dynamite used to blow himself into the air with four sticks of dynamite between the games of doubleheaders. He said three sticks would kill him but four sticks didn't hurt.
Hookslide Bradshaw came to nearly every night game to demonstrate a hook slide into a popcorn box between the box seats and the bleachers.
Beulah Burton was Valentine's favorite. She sat on the front row and yelled at the umpires and the manager of the visiting team. She especially liked to pick on Steamboat Johnson, a Southern League umpire. One night Steamboat got sick of her criticisms and yelled back: "If you were my wife, I would poison you," he shouted. And Beulah replied, "If you were my husband, I'd take it."
After finishing umpire school, Valentine became an umpire in the Ohio-Indiana League. At 18, he was the nation's youngest umpire. The worst experience of his life was at his first professional game in Springfield, Ill. Assigned to be the first-base umpire, he ran on the field wearing his new umpire uniform and tripped over the base. When he got up he had a lime stripe from the cuff of his pants to his shoulder.
When he went to the American League, he became a friend of Emmett Ashford, the first black umpire in the major leagues. One day they worked a game in Yankee Stadium in New York. A new rule held that if an umpire called "ball" when a batter moved as if to hit a good pitch but didn't, the other team had the right to ask the opinion of another umpire as to whether it was a ball or a strike. Valentine was behind the plate and Ashford was the third-base umpire when a Baltimore batter moved slightly at a pitched ball but did not swing. At least that's what Valentine thought, and he called it a ball. The Yankees got mad, saying he had swung at the ball, and the 50,000 New York fans thought likewise and made a lot of noise.
Yankee Manager Ralph Houk ran to the plate and demanded that Valentine ask the third-base umpire for help in deciding if the batter had swung. "I don't need any help," Valentine said, but the noise and pressure was on, so he stepped out in front of the plate and asked Ashford's opinion. Suddenly, the noise subsided. Ashford walked toward the plate, hands on his hip, and said, "Mr. Valentine, the batter did not swing, and Mr. Houk, you now have it in black and white."
Valentine told how he initiated Marty Springstead, who is now supervisor of umpires in the major leagues. Springstead was to call his first major league game, and Valentine persuaded Frank Howard, a big, tall player on the Washington Senators, to give young Springstead a hard time. Then Valentine told Springstead that he could count on friendly players like Howard to help him get the feel of major league ball.
Howard walked to the plate in the second inning and told Springstead, "Welcome to the American League, Mr. Springstead," and Springstead beamed and thanked him. The first pitch whizzed across the plate, and Springstead called, "Strike one." Howard threw his helmet on the ground, stomped his feet and glared at Springstead. Then came the second pitch that was just like the first one. "Twoooooo," said Springstead, and Howard stuck his face in Springstead's face and said, "Two WHAT?" There was a slight pause, and Umpire Springstead said, "Toooooo Lowwwwww."
By the way, the Travelers play their first game in Ray Winder Field April 18.
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