Book Review: Called Out But Safe

As you know if you’ve read this blog very long, I’m very lucky to be on the mailing list for the University of Nebraska Press, probably the biggest baseball book outlet out there.  There are so many books that I have piled up now, books that I’ve read that I need to review but so many more that I need to get to reading.

One of the ones that I read recently was Called Out But Safe, an autobiography by the former major league umpire Al Clark.  Clark, for many years an American League ump (and, given the AL on his lid, the only one to wear his name on his cap), goes from his early days as a kid and a player to his time in the big leagues and his ignominious end to umpiring as well as spending time in prison once his days on the diamond were done.

Clark’s story is a fairly interesting one.  He’s one of the few that tossed out Cal Ripken Jr. from a game (and, also, one of the few that has less than kind things to say about Ripken, saying he has “superstar syndrome”) and he was there for a number of important things in baseball, such as the earthquake that rocked the 1989 World Series.

While Clark never had much problem with Tony La Russa, he doesn’t have as many fond feelings about Dave Duncan.  As he put it, “if the pitcher let the ball go and the catcher caught it, it should be a strike” according to Duncan.

Actually, that’s one of the drawbacks to this book.  even though it’s written with Dan Schlossberg, it could use a little better editing or a little more creativity.  That phrase about “catcher caught it” was used three or four times in the book, each time like it was a unique and chortle-worthy remark.  It was a pretty good line the first time I read it, but by the fourth or fifth, it’d lost its luster.  There were a couple of other similar turns of the phrase that got beaten around the yard a bit as well.

Clark’s also one that went along with Richie Phillips’s mass resignation ploy back in the ’90s.  However, given the option to renounce that, he quickly did so and stayed in the game.  His actual end came when he used his business credit card for some personal tickets during an off day.  It does sound like a situation that could have been resolved in a different way, especially since Clark indicates that it was only a temporary thing, that he was going to and did reimburse, but his personality most likely left little slack for him to grab onto.

That’s the thing about this book.  Clark doesn’t come across as the nicest or most considerate of guys.  I don’t know if there’s anything that I could lay my finger on or a specific instance to point to, but reading the book it made me feel like while Clark could tell a good story, he wasn’t necessarily someone I’d just want to hang around.

As noted, Clark went to prison for fraud, basically for authenticating stuff that wasn’t real.  Here’s the relevant paragraph:

My problems started when I signed some letters authenticating balls supposedly used in Nolan Ryan‘s three-hundredth win, a game in which I was the home plate umpire.  I may have given him [Richard Graessle, a memorabilia dealer] four or five baseballs but probably signed fifteen letters.  I just didn’t think it was that big a deal.  It wasn’t illegal to do that but it was morally wrong.

“I just didn’t think it was that big a deal.”  For an umpire, even a former one, integrity should matter.  Clark might not have received money for this (he says he didn’t) but it’s hard to work up much sympathy for an arbiter who doesn’t have enough integrity to not sign more letters than there are baseballs.  When you make a living enforcing the rules, you ought to be able to respect them.

Does that mean this isn’t a good read?  Not at all.  Given that Clark umpired through much of my formative years in baseball, reading about the players and situations that I could remember was quite intriguing.  I’d definitely recommend reading this if you are a baseball fan.  Just realize that you may enjoy the stories more than the storyteller.


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