Safe at Home Base – Memories of a Famous Umpire Grandfather
The scene: Fenway Park, Boston, circa 1955. The Red Sox, featuring the incomparable Ted Williams, are playing an afternoon game. A fan, incensed by a call made by the home-plate umpire, begins to berate the man in blue. The verbal abuse includes words totally unfamiliar to a ten-year-old girl sitting a few box seats away.
The girl begins to cry, and when the fan’s offensive language continues, she stands, turns, and hollers to the man: “That’s my grandfather that you’re talking about. Stop it!” The harangue ceases.
Maryellen Diana, nee Stockwell, of Easton has many more memories of the occasions when she accompanied her grandfather, the late Bill Summers, to games he umpired in Fenway Park. The Summers family—Bill, wife Mary Ellen, eight children and many of their 18 grandchildren—resided in Upton, a small community located some 35 miles west of Boston.
“He just loved his grandchildren and I idolized him,” says Maryellen, who with husband Paul have called Easton home for nearly five decades.
William Reed Summers was one of the most respected American League umpires for 27 seasons. His arrival in 1933 coincided with the Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and the Philadelphia Athletics of Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove; his exit season, 1959, featured Yankees named Mantle and Ford, and other notables such as Aparicio, Colavito, Kaline, and Killebrew.
While Summers spent most of his adult life in Upton and was an “absolute Red Sox fan,” Maryellen says “he was very fair. He called it as he saw it. He was very, very loud; you could always hear him.”
Sports Illustrated, in its April 15, 1957 issue, devoted a page to her grandfather, illustrated with contrasting images of the “dear old gentleman minding his grandchildren” (Maryelllen is among the six youngsters depicted) and another of the “bombastic summer dictator” engaged in a heated discussion with Yankee manager Casey Stengel and catcher Yogi Berra.
Summers, the text concluded, “always possessed in abundance: good health, encyclopedic knowledge of the game, complete self-control and an unlimited source of truculent, dogmatic, unyielding self-confidence.”
In addition to 4,120 regular-season games, Summers umpired in eight World Series and seven All-Star games during his major league career. To put those numbers into context, only three umpires appeared in more World Series and just two, Al Barlick and Doug Harvey, have worked as many All-Star games.
Summers’ life began in the fall—November 10, 1895—in Harrison, New Jersey, but he spent most of his youth in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, where his parents had moved. As a teen, he aspired to be a boxer, and fought as a lightweight under the name Marty Winters. “He was pretty good I was told,” Maryellen says.
One spring day while training in a local park, he took a break in the stands to watch a local high school baseball game. When the umpire failed to appear, the coach scanned the crowd for a substitute, and said, “There’s Billy Summers the fighter. At least no one will give him a bad time.” The 18-year-old accepted and when handed three dollars after the contest, said, “When’s your next game?” Thus began an umpiring career that would span 45 years.
Maryellen has compiled an extensive collection of material about her grandfather, including photos, his Topps baseball card, and family facts and figures. She points out that he was the plate umpire in three memorable games: July 17, 1941: Joe DiMaggio’s record 56-game hitting streak came to an end at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. June 10, 1959: Cleveland’s Rocky Colavito walloped four home runs in Baltimore, powering the Indians to an 11-8 victory. September 28, 1955: The Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson stole home in the opening game of the World Series at Yankee Stadium.
The Robinson steal and the resultant demonstrative, lengthy protest by Yogi Berra represented the singular moment of Summers’ career. Photos of the controversial play may be found on line and in numerous books. From one angle, Berra appears to be right. Jackie was out. But from another view, Robinson’s toe seems to touch the plate just prior to Berra’s tag. Her grandfather, Maryellen said, “always insisted Jackie was safe.”
Although the Yankees prevailed that day, 6-5, the Dodgers delighted their legion of fans by going on to win their first—and only—World Series title in Brooklyn, four games to three.