ICYMI: Baseball Edition - Kill the Umpire (1950)
A few years ago, I got my academic wife to consider focusing her cinematic studies on a new project: baseball movies. Hard to believe but neither of us could find any significant or noteworthy academic work about baseball and its cinematic representations. There is such a rich tapestry for anyone to tackle from baseball’s mythic quality (The Natural) to its celebration of underdogs (The Bad News Bears) to its examination of race (The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars and Motor Kings), gender (A League of Their Own), and youth (Rookie of the Year). Alas, the project petered out but for almost a year I had a chance to discover films that I had never heard of and that are worthy of being added to any baseball film fan’s repertoire.
1950’s Kill The Umpire is old school comedic hijinks, despite the murderous title. The film stars William Bendix (Lifeboat, Detective Story) as Bill “Two Call” Johnson, a former baseball player who cannot hold down a regular job and whose only joy comes from watching live games and yelling the film’s title at the unassuming field adjudicators. After losing another job, he takes the advice of father-in-law Jonah Evans (Ray Collins), a retired umpire, and joins umpire training school. Surprise, surprise he is a natural. He knows all of the rules, rises to the top of his class and gets a prized position umpiring in the Texas League.
His cushy new job is threatened first by gamblers, who attempt to bribe him, and then by a tricky but correct call made in a championship game. Although he makes the right call the only player that can corroborate his view is knocked unconscious. The fans and gamblers riot and Bill becomes the target of a blood thirsty crowd chanting “Kill The Umpire.” It sounds very dark but is actually very charming as we watch Bill’s family rally to his aide, which includes an entertaining car chase to get him to the next game of the championship series. Thankfully, all’s well that ends well and Bill is back behind the plate enjoying his dream job, despite the underlying menace of fans and players alike.
Kill The Umpire can easily be enjoyed by any die hard baseball fan. I think it would also be a find for anyone struggling to find their way in life, not realizing that what they are meant to do is probably right in front of their face. For the first third of the film, it’s easy for Bill to decry the “bad umpiring” until he realizes what happens when he is on the field and behind the mask. Despite the title, meant to be sarcastic, and the nefarious gamblers subplot, the film is light and breezy and a surprising testament to the individuals charged with officiating the games we watch.
Nowadays, MLB seems to have been saved by instant replay with every questionable call available for live video review. But there is something to be said about the old days when umpires were the last guard between balls and strikes and who was safe and who was out……nevermind, I like it better now.