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Ken Burkhart: The One-Call Legacy and Instant Replay

As Schechter outlines in part 6 of his series, pitcher turned umpire Ken Burkhart is best known for a play at the plate in Game 1 of the 1970 World Series that sparked lively discussions of the role of instant replay in Major League Baseball.

By Gabriel Schechter , March 2, 2017
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Kenneth W. Burkhart
Courtesy of John “J-Cat” Griffith on www.findagrave.com.

Although it is manifestly unfair, it is the fate of many players to be remembered only for one ill-timed mental error or physical gaffe. Merely mentioning their names—Fred Merkle and Bill Buckner, for instance—will cause most fans to recall only the disaster and not the players’ long, successful careers. Umpires can suffer the same fate, as Don Denkinger will tell you. One of the side benefits of the instant replay era we recently entered is that at least the umpires can be spared the eternal ignominy of changing the outcome of a World Series.

One of the most controversial calls in baseball history was made in the 1970 World Series by Ken Burkhart, a former pitcher nearing the end of a 17-year career as a Major League umpire. It was also arguably the worst play in Series history, as all three principals involved screwed it up. It sparked lively discussions of the impact of instant replay, putting today’s procedures in a sharper perspective.

Kenneth William Burkhart was born in 1916 in Knoxville, Tennessee, and died there 88 years later. Coming of age during the Depression, he went to work and did not begin his professional baseball career until he was 21, but devoted the next 36 years to the sport he loved. In 1938 he attended one of the many tryout camps held by the St. Louis Cardinals to help stock their vast farm system. The 6-foot 1-inch, 190-pound right-hander was signed, and he immediately vanished into that labyrinth of minor league affiliates from which dozens of talented prospects never emerged.

In his second season in the minors, Burkhart posted a fine 17–6 record at Springfield, Illinois, in the Western Association, and, in 1940, he had his finest season, going 20–6 with a 2.63 ERA for Asheville, North Carolina, in the Piedmont League. His climb up the Cardinals ladder came to a halt in Columbus, Ohio, in 1942 when he broke his left leg. Even though the Cardinals lost eight starting pitchers to World War II military service by 1944, Burkhart’s progress was slowed enough that it took a 15–9 record at Columbus that year to earn him a serious shot at the Majors.

Impressive during spring training in 1945, Burkhart made the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster as a 28-year-old rookie. His fastball wasn’t overpowering, but he was regarded as a smart pitcher whose deceptive motion reminded observers of a shot-putter, and he developed an effective knuckleball. Though he won his Major League debut in relief, he didn’t get his first start until May 30, having won his first four decisions.

Burkhart joined the Cardinals’ starting rotation full-time in mid-June, and in August he reeled off three straight shutouts, allowing a total of 13 hits as he raised his record to 14–7. The high point was a two-hitter at Philadelphia in which he didn’t allow a base runner after the fifth inning. For the season, he went 18–8—third in the National League in wins—with a 2.90 ERA and a dozen complete games.

It appeared that Burkhart had a bright future as a pitcher, but two things prevented that from happening. First, all those superior pitchers returned after the war ended, crowding a staff strong enough to seize the 1946 championship. Second, elbow tenderness limited Burkhart to 13 starts and 100 innings that season. The arm woes persisted, and his pitching went downhill from there. Surgery didn’t help, nor did a trade to the Reds in 1948, where he never won a game, and his lone highlight was hitting his only Major League home run off Ralph Branca.

In his second season in the majors, pitcher Ken Burkhart helped the 1946 St. Louis Cardinals to their fourth National League pennant in five years.
Courtesy of The Trading Card Database

Burkhart kept trying but his arm never came around, and in 1951 he called it quits. A 101-game winner in the minors, he settled for a 27–20 record in 148 appearances in the Majors. As he turned 35, he chose umpiring as a way to remain in baseball. Once again he worked his way up from the lowest rung of the ladder, taking five seasons to return to the limelight.

From 1957 to 1973, Burkhart carved out a solid umpiring resume in the National League. Though he was tough on the arbiters as a player, he was more tolerant after donning the mask. “Any time a player is battling for what he thinks he’s entitled to get, I’ll listen,” declared Burkhart. “But when a player has blown one or missed one and just wants to prolong an argument, I try to stop it.” Among the future Hall of Fame players who crossed that line and earned ejections by Burkhart were Richie Ashburn (twice), Roberto Clemente, Duke Snider, Bob Gibson, and Joe Torre.

In 1959, Burkhart enjoyed the first of four All-Star Game assignments, also working the games in 1962, 1967, and 1973. When he made his first World Series appearance in 1962, Burkhart alternated with AL umpire Hank Soar in covering the outfield foul-line posts. He called one game behind the plate in the 1964 Series, the exciting Game 3 at Yankee Stadium. Jim Bouton and Curt Simmons dueled to a 1–1 tie through eight innings, and when Barney Schultz relieved for the Cardinals to start the bottom of the ninth, Mickey Mantle greeted him with the game-winning home run.

That brings us to October 10, 1970, at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, when Burkhart had the honor of being the crew chief and the Game 1 umpire behind the plate. In the bottom of the sixth inning of a 3–3 tie, the Orioles’ Jim Palmer had one out and runners on first and third. Pinch-hitter Ty Cline hit a high chopper almost directly over the plate. Catcher Elrod Hendricks moved a couple of feet in front of and to the right of the plate and waited for the ball to come down. Burkhart moved a few feet up the third-base line and planted himself just in foul territory, facing Hendricks and first base, waiting to make a fair or foul call.

Burkhart didn’t think any runner would try to score from third on a ball hit just a few feet from the plate—that is, he assumed so, a cardinal sin for an umpire. He paid the price for it in several ways, because Bernie Carbo made a mad dash home. Hendricks caught the ball and Burkhart made his fair signal just as Carbo arrived on the scene. Burkhart was directly in Carbo’s path, forcing him to veer to the right to slide; if a fielder had done that, it would have been an easy obstruction call.

As Carbo dived behind Burkhart, the helpless umpire was now in Hendricks’s way as well. Hendricks sailed past Burkhart’s right side, reaching to tag Carbo with his glove—also behind Burkhart—while his right shoulder sent Burkhart sprawling onto his keister. As Burkhart fell, stunned both by the collision with Hendricks and by Carbo’s presence, he made an out call on a play he had never seen. At no point did he consult with his fellow umpires, who volunteered no help. The Reds protested vainly, failed to score the go-ahead run, and lost, 4–3.

This image captures the Carbo-Hendricks play that led to umpire Ken Burkhart's controversial call in the sixth inning of Game 1 of the 1970 World Series.
Source: YouTube

In describing the sequence above, I had the luxury of watching it about 20 times on youtube.com (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hv6kyYFuEv8). NBC showed a couple of replays, but it took until the next day for announcer Curt Gowdy, leading off the Game 2 telecast, to analyze slow-motion footage that revealed the now-famous absurdity: Hendricks tagged Carbo with an empty glove while the ball sat in his right hand (nullifying the tag), but Carbo (thanks to Burkhart’s obstruction) slid to the right of home plate and didn’t touch it.

Riverfront Stadium, which had opened just a few months earlier, did not equip its press box with television monitors, so reporters didn’t see the replays that viewers at home did. After the game, they scrambled to the umpires’ dressing room, where a policeman told them nobody would be admitted: “Not now, not in 15 minutes, not ever. Commissioner’s [Bowie Kuhn’s] orders.” New York reporter Dick Young snarled to his comrades, “Those [bleep-bleep] umpires. They come lookin’ for you when they’re on strike, but now they won’t talk to you,” forgetting to blame it on Kuhn.

Six reporters were eventually allowed to speak to Burkhart, who told them, “Hendricks absolutely tagged him. Carbo jumped up and Anderson came out and screamed he didn’t tag him. Sparky said he’d like to see the pictures and I said, ‘so would I.’” In fact, it was years before Burkhart did view the replay. At the time, he stood by his call and didn’t seem concerned by the fuss, though Kuhn ordered police protection for him during his Game 2 respite down the right-field line.

The evening after the fiasco, Burkhart stood on a sidewalk telling some Cincinnati friends what had happened: “You be Carbo, and this fire hydrant will be home plate. . . .” That blithe viewpoint lasted only until the hate mail started pouring in. “Nasty letters are part of the job,” he told Cincinnati reporter Tom Callahan five years later. “But they were bad.”

Instant replays on television first appeared in 1963, so in 1970 the focus was more on how it was changing viewers’ perceptions. One reporter who was more analytical and prescient was Newsday’s Stan Isaacs. Here are a few of his comments:

•      Instant replay is changing the face of baseball. What happens is beginning to be less important than how it looks on the rerun.

•      The instant replay puts tremendous pressure on the umpires, but it can be a boon to the game in the long run if baseball is not bedeviled by it.

•      Perhaps, by 1984, baseball will almost come to terms with the TV eye. One umpire might work off TV, watching the instant replay, then issuing a verdict. He could be colorful, perhaps sitting at the TV set with two flags—“Safe” and “Out” flags or “Yes” and “No” flags.

Isaacs missed that prediction by three decades, but it has come to pass. How would this play have unfolded under today’s rules? First, the Reds would have challenged Burkhart’s “out” call and won. Next, the Orioles would have challenged the implicit “safe” call, and the further review would have revealed that Carbo did not touch the plate during his slide. What then? Wasn’t that helpful? Or is that actually how it would have gone?

Orioles Manager Earl Weaver explained how the play unfolded in 1970. “Even if Hendricks missed him, he had time to get up and tag him later. But the ump said ‘out,’ so why tag him again?” Sparky Anderson acknowledged that “if the umpire hadn’t been there, Carbo would have been out by a mile.” Having studied the replay, I’d say that Carbo probably would have been out by a couple of feet—unless Hendricks tagged him with an empty glove.

The bigger point is that because of today’s instant replay rules, players are learning to play the game differently. A catcher today would tag Carbo again just in case the original call was overturned. And a runner called out would make sure he touched the plate before a second tag, in case his manager’s challenge was upheld. As it happened in 1970, Hendricks never tagged Carbo. But after joining Anderson in the heated protest to Burkhart, Carbo finally turned and headed back to the dugout—and he happened to touch home plate en route, as Gowdy pointed out the next day. Today, Carbo would have scored that tiebreaking run, and the whole Series outcome might have been different.

Let’s give the last word to Burkhart, who summed up the horrible play to a reporter the summer before his death in 2004. “I’ll tell you what Casey Stengel told me after looking at a lot of pictures. Casey said, ‘Carbo missed the plate, Hendricks missed the tag and you missed the call.’ You know what? After all these years, I think ol’ Casey might have been right about that one.”

Despite making one of the most disputed calls in World Series history, over a 17-year National League umpiring career Ken Burkhart was widely regarded as one of the best in the league.
Source: MEARS Online Auctions 

 

 

 

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