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Charlie Berry: Six Careers in One

Charlie Berry was an anomaly for players turned umpires. As Schechter explains in part 5 of his series, Berry was a catcher, rather than a pitcher. Comfortable behind the plate, Berry worked a number of All-Star and World Series games in his distinguished umpiring career.

By Gabriel Schechter , February 23, 2017
Charlie Berry spent four years as a catcher with the Boston Red Sox before being traded to the Chicago White Sox early in the 1932 season. He made is Major League umpiring debut in 1942.

Why don’t more catchers become umpires? The majority seem to be former pitchers, who are used to controlling the tempo and flavor of the game. But catchers are the field generals, calling defensive signals and selecting pitches. There’s a bond between catchers and umpires behind the plate, sharing the same wide-angle view of the field action and the same vulnerability to stray pitches and foul tips. Maybe a catcher, having survived all those years of physical abuse, doesn’t want to get paid less money to move two feet farther back from the plate into a more thankless role.

Charlie Berry was the big exception to this rule, a seasoned catcher who had an even more significant career as an umpire. He was the exception to a lot of rules, a man who had significant stints as a player, coach, and official—in both major sports of his time. This remarkable man crowded six careers into a period of several decades, distinguishing himself in each one.

Born in New Jersey in 1902, Charles Francis Berry was the son of Charles Joseph Berry, an infielder for 43 games in the Union Association in 1884. Young Charlie made his first mark as a football player at Lafayette College. An end, kick returner, and placekicker, he played on Lafayette’s undefeated team as a freshman and in his senior year, in 1924, was named to Walter Camp’s final All-American team. He also starred on the baseball team and was the president of his senior class.

He turned pro with the Pottsville Maroons of the fledgling NFL. An all-league end, he scored 25 points in a game against the Green Bay Packers and kicked the winning field goal in a postseason exhibition game against an All-Star team that featured Notre Dame’s famed “Four Horsemen.” Though he gave up the pro game after two seasons to focus on baseball, he remained on the gridiron scene as the Grove City College (western PA) coach, compiling a fine 27–7–8 record from 1927 to 1931.

For the last four of those seasons, Berry was also a Major Leaguer. A four-year catcher at Lafayette, he was signed by Connie Mack, but his path to a job there was blocked by Mickey Cochrane. After batting .214 in 10 games for the 1925 Athletics, Berry asked Mack to be traded, and Mack complied. In his second year in the minors, he hit .330 for Dallas in the Texas League in 1927 and was sold that winter to the Boston Red Sox.

From 1928 to 1931, he was Boston’s regular catcher, gaining a reputation as a hard-nosed receiver who blocked the plate like a football player. One famous photo from 1931, still displayed at Fenway Park, shows Babe Ruth flying through the air after colliding with the 6-foot, 185-pound Berry. Ruth was out for two weeks; Berry kept playing. His most productive season was 1931, with a .283 average and career highs of 101 hits, six home runs, and 49 runs batted in.

Early in 1932, Berry was dealt to the Chicago White Sox, and in 1934 he returned to the Athletics. That year, he got his two worst breaks in baseball. The first came in September when he broke his leg in a freak accident, ending his season. He recovered in time to be recruited for the famous tour of Japan in which Babe Ruth made a big hit and Moe Berg did his spying. However, en route across the United States, he underwent an emergency appendectomy in North Dakota that prevented him from continuing on to the Orient.

Berry finished his playing career with the Athletics, posting a .267 average with 539 hits in 709 games as a Major Leaguer. From 1936 to 1940, he served Mack as a pitching coach, later claiming that it was during this period that he began to study umpires closely with the idea of becoming one. Midway through 1940, Mack dispatched him to manage the farm club in Wilmington, Delaware, where he lifted the squad from seventh place to second.

He might have had a career as a manager, but by that time he had experienced a trio of realizations that changed his future course. One was the unavoidable fact that managers are hired to be fired, so there was no guaranteed success on that front. The other came after hearing Bill Klem declare that “umpiring is not a profession to me; it’s a religion.” Berry thought, “If Bill Klem feels that way about it, I’m going to be an umpire.” Another factor, as he told a Philadelphia reporter in 1943, was that “in 13 years of catching, I never won an argument with an umpire. Somebody has said, ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.’ Well, that’s what I decided to do.”

Courtesy of: The Trading Card Database

Berry gave himself two years to rise through the minor league ranks, and he beat the deadline, making his Major League umpiring debut on September 19, 1942. The next day, in his first assignment behind the plate, he called a 1–0 gem at his old stomping grounds, Comiskey Park, with Eddie Smith stifling the visiting Yankees. In his first full season, 1943, he partnered with Cal Hubbard, another two-sport standout, and former pitcher Eddie Rommel.

Berry spent the next 20 years as an American League umpire, and in polls in 1960 and 1961 was named the top umpire in the league. In the latter year, at age 58, he worked a staggering 168 games, including 24 doubleheaders. He was especially respected for his knowledge of the rule book, and that was no accident. “Every morning,” he told reporter Harold Rosenthal, “right after I get up, I open the rule book. Wherever it opens to, I start reading there and read a few pages.” Why so much studying? Berry explained, “Umpires must be ready for the one-in-a-thousand situation. That’s why they must know every word of a rule.”

It didn’t take long for Berry to establish himself as a premier arbiter. He got his first All-Star Game assignment in 1944 and reprised that gig in the next three election years, along with 1959. After working his first World Series in 1946, he fell into the same quadrennial pattern, making October appearances in 1950, 1954, 1958, and 1962. The most crucial Series game he viewed from behind the plate was Game 6 in 1958, when the Yankees defeated Warren Spahn in extra innings to avoid losing their second straight Series to the Braves.

Berry felt that his most dramatic umpiring call came when he was stationed at third base in his Series debut in Game 1 in 1946. In the bottom of the eighth inning at Sportsman’s Park, the score stood at 1–1, with Whitey Kurowski at first base and two out. When Dom DiMaggio lost Joe Garagiola’s fly ball in the run, Kurowski kept running. As Berry detailed it, “Kurowski was obstructed by Mike Higgins at third base, and I waved Kurowski home. . . . Garagiola kept coming and was tagged out. The Red Sox didn’t see the obstruction at third and since Kurowski hadn’t scored before Garagiola was out at third, the Red Sox charged Lee Ballanfant at home plate, yelling that the run didn’t count. I had to break it up and tell them the run counted, due to the obstruction.” The Cardinals took the lead, though the Red Sox came back to win the game in 10 innings.

When Berry retired in 1962, he had worked 3,078 regular season games plus 29 games in five World Series. He spent the rest of that decade serving as an observer and evaluator of up-and-coming umpires. In 1970, when umpires staged a one-day strike at the beginning of the League Championship Series, he had a one-game flashback, manning third base as the Orioles defeated the Twins, 10–6, in Minnesota.

Umpire Berry is shown on here as Johnny Mize is congratulated by teammate Joe DiMaggio after hitting a home run against the Detroit Tigers in August of 1950.

Yet as lengthy and distinguished as Berry’s umpiring career was, it was exceeded by his parallel tenure as a head linesman in the NFL, the most substantial of his six athletic careers, lasting nearly three decades. He was the head linesman in a dozen NFL title games, including every year from 1941 to 1950 except 1947. Add nine College All-Star Games to that resume, and it’s clear that he was highly esteemed as a rules-obsessed, dedicated official in both sports. His proudest two-sport day occurred on August 17, 1951, when he worked a doubleheader at Comiskey Park in the afternoon and made his way across town to Soldier Field in time to call that evening’s College All-Star Game.

But the biggest call of his life came on December 28, 1958. For the third time, he called ’em as he saw ’em at the World Series and the NFL title game in the same year (along with 1946 and 1950). As the head linesman in the so-called “greatest football game ever played,” he was literally on the spot when Frank Gifford carried the ball on third down with the Giants leading, 17–14, late in the fourth quarter. As Colts end Gino Marchetti stalled Gifford’s progress, “Big Daddy” Lipscomb slammed them both to the ground, breaking Marchetti’s ankle.

At the same time, Gifford stretched his arms out and, as Berry put it, “pushed the ball forward, as all halfbacks do. I spotted where the play had ended. The Colts were screaming at me that Gifford had pushed it a couple of feet up and I yelled back, ‘Don’t worry, I got the spot.’” Sure enough, after Marchetti was carted off the field on a stretcher, Berry “picked up the chain for the measurement and it was short by approximately two feet.” The Giants punted, Johnny Unitas marched the Colts down the field for the tying field goal, and the Colts won in overtime.

It was a perfect example of Charlie Berry philosophy: “One qualification for a good sports official is that he does not call plays too quickly. Instead of anticipating the play, let it happen, follow it intently to its completion and THEN make the call quickly. I think that’s a rule which can be followed in all ways of life.”

Nobody who stepped on the athletic field conducted himself according to that rule more than Charlie Berry, and nobody got more out of it either.

While serving as an American League umpire, Berry also worked as a referee for the National Football League for more than two decades.
Courtesy of: Anthony Piperata,
www.RememberingCharlieBerry.com