Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: They Called Me God (2014)

By Doug Harvey and Peter Golenbock

Sporting events have had all sorts of officials over the years, but there's only been one to my knowledge with the nickname of "God."

Longtime baseball umpire Doug Harvey had it; the title would occasionally come up in the broadcasts of games that he worked. Harvey was known for his knowledge of the rules and his command while on the playing field. There was no question who was in charge when Harvey was involved in a game.

Harvey was good enough, and lasted long enough, to become one of a handful of umpires to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It's always good to hear from such immortals in book form, and Harvey checks in here with "They Called Me God."

Books from officials and umpires are a little odd. Their goal on the job is to stay anonymous and make the game go smoothly. Still, their books usually concentrate on the players and managers that are part of their workday, and on the times when events got out of hand in unexpected ways.

Harvey goes through the details of his life in a straight-forward and brisk manner. He bounced around a bit with his family as a child, and eventually found a home in sports. Harvey was good enough to earn a college athletic scholarship, but opted to drop out and go to work when he married for financial reasons. But the love of the games never left, and Harvey decided to try umpiring in the late 1950s. His rise through the ranks was astonishingly quick, as he reached the majors in only a few years. By the way, Harvey also did work in officiating basketball games, reaching the American Basketball Association in short order.

From there, the book follows the usual patterns. There are comments about stars and unknowns, great managers and one-and-done types, and fellow umpires. If nothing else, Harvey pulls no punches. For example, he still seems angry at Bob Gibson for his constant complaining during games played more than 40 years ago. However, some others in the game - from umpire crew chiefs to administrators - take more of a pounding here. The language along the way can be, um, colorful.

The book has a couple of good-sized problems that prove difficult to overcome. This is a rather short effort, particularly for the suggested price of $27. My Kindle tells me it takes about two hours to read, and it feels like it. The chapters are broken up into short segments. Even if the stories are grouped together by content, it's still a bit choppy. There aren't many opinions about umpires' labor troubles over the years and on how the game has changed since he left it, either. That would have been helpful.

Then there's the obvious delay in writing this. Harvey retired more than 20 years ago after a career than spanned more than 30 years. For those who remember the 1960s and 1970s, stories about games from that era become something of an exercise in nostalgia. That's fine, but there's aren't many of us out there who remember the Reds' Fred Hutchinson as a manager. It would have been far better to get this done almost 20 years ago, when the names were fresher.

Harvey mentions at the start of the book that he's battled some serious illnesses lately. Maybe he wanted to get his memories down on paper while he could. But for whatever reason, the delay limits the audience drastically.

Based on Harvey's tone here, you can tell why he was such a good umpire. He still carries a great deal of self-confidence, perhaps dancing around the point of arrogance, with each statement. That certainly will turn some people off.

Add it all up - the brevity, the dated material, and the lack of humility - and "They Called Me God" becomes a difficult book to like. Harvey's on-field work remains his best legacy in his profession.

Two stars

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