A few months ago, I wrote about a baseball game in 1974 where the Pirates’ Dock Ellis tried to hit every player he faced. And, mercifully, he was removed from the game after five batters. It is a fascinating story, though certainly not a proud moment for the game’s integrity.
I did some digging and found that the home plate umpire that night was a man named Jerry Dale. I wrote that I wanted to track him down. I wondered, why didn’t he eject Ellis? What does he remember from the game? What is he doing with his life in 2014?
Well, the internet is a beautiful thing. I tracked him down. Yes, Jerry Dale is still alive, he remembers the game quite well, and he graciously agreed to answer some questions.
Jerry has led a unique life. And, I must say, when I set out on this journey to find the man behind the plate that night, I did not expect to travel down this rabbit hole. Jerry has led one of the more unique lives of anyone I have ever had the pleasure of talking with. After his umpiring career ended, he became an adjunct professor of business and social science at Maryville College. And then he became an African safari tour guide. And he still gives tours! Jerry currently resides in Hermanus, South Africa, and one can visit his website here.
It is an honor to welcome Jerry Dale to the blog.
So I guess the way this all started was that I heard a story about a baseball game in 1974 where Dock Ellis started a game against the Cincinnati Reds, and from the first pitch he tried to hit every player. And then I did some digging and I came across your name because you were the home plate umpire that night. What do you remember about that game?
When I got your note, the memories came back. I remember the game quite well. The game was in Pittsburgh. Dock was an independent-minded young man, and when he hit Pete Rose to start the game, Rose picked up the ball and tossed it back to him. That’s how Pete was, you know. I didn’t think anything about it. And then he threw at Joe Morgan. And I just thought, wow, he can’t even get close to the plate.
It was when he threw at Perez, the fourth guy up, that I knew something was going on. I walked out to the mound and gave Dock the ball and I hollered at him, Hey Dock, you OK? And he said, Yeah! And I’m thinking, damn, I’ve never seen anyone this wild before. And then after the next batter, Murtagh (the manager) took him out of the game.
I had no idea about Dock’s intentions. I came back to do some umpiring in the Winter League in 1990, and Dock was a player-coach for one of the teams, but I never even talked about the game with him. I always got along with him, even though he had a mind of his own.
I couldn’t imagine something like that happening today. Ellis would have been ejected immediately.
Yeah, they would probably eject him after the third guy. It would have been easier, even then, if you had known of a previous encounter earlier in the season. But I had no idea. Normally, if there is some friction among the clubs, you know about it ahead of time, or even the office might tip you off about it before they play. But in this case, nothing. It was just out of the blue.
Jerry, you umpired in almost 2,000 major league games over 16 years in the National League, including a World Series, two All Star games, and three NLCS’s. What are some games and moments that stand out?
The 1977 World Series, Game 6 when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs off three different pitchers. I was the left field umpire that night. You never expect something like that, and I don’t think it will ever be equaled. He hit a home run off three different pitchers on the first pitch, and they were entirely different types of pitchers, and he hit the longest home run off a knuckleballer, Charlie Hough.
I was behind the plate in Game 4 when Guidry beat the Dodgers 4-2. When I grew up as a teenager, I would throw a tennis ball off the steps at home, and I would pretend I was either the Dodgers or the Yankees. And I’d think about DiMaggio and Henrich and Charlie Keller and Rizzuto and Coleman and Stirnweiss. And Snyder and Campanella on the Dodgers. So when I walked out to home plate to do the game, I was very emotional. I had tears in my eyes because this is what it’s all about. I started out when I was ten, eleven years old throwing a ball pretending to be the Dodgers and Yankees, and here I am. There was nothing like that.
Another game that was strange was when Ted Turner managed. The Braves were on a 10-game losing streak, and they had fired Dave Bristol. In our locker room we had to walk down the same hall to go through the visiting dugout, and I saw Ted in uniform before we went out for the national anthem, and I couldn’t believe it. And when he came out to home plate with the lineup card, I thought: holy smokes.
The Braves lost the game, and they wouldn’t let Ted manage after that. But I saved the lineup cards and the newspapers because I thought, hey, this is something special, it will never happen again. And then they brought Bristol back.
It seems like a lot of umpires today are very aggressive and have a quick trigger when it comes to ejections. I’ve always thought that umpires should stay out of the way and not bring attention upon themselves. It seems like you were more mild-mannered and calmer than a lot of your peers.
I was a minor league player for five years, so I was used to being on the ball field. You can incite an argument very easily by what you say and how you respond. Fortunately during my career in the National League, we had very good managers. The only guy that could be a pain in the butt was Bobby Cox. He got worse as time went on. I only threw him out once, when we were in Atlanta. We also had Leo Durocher and Tommy Lasorda and Chuck Tanner, and I never had to eject those guys.
The National League seemed to me to be more professional. We didn’t know much about the American League because you wouldn’t play them in the regular season. We always felt our league was better and we had better umpires. And I knew most of the managers because I played in triple A ball and the Pacific Coast League.
Do you still follow the game?
No. I was born and raised with baseball. From the time I could walk, baseball was all I could think about. But it always has to end. I had other things in life I needed to do.
I used to notice that guys would retire, and sometimes you would get to a city where an umpire used to live or was nearby, and they would come to the locker room and they’d tell war stories. I used to think, Jesus, it’s over. You have to get a life. I thought, you know, when I finish, I don’t want to be sitting around in visiting locker rooms telling war stories.
I have only been to two games since I retired, one in Cleveland and one in Chicago. I haven’t kept in contact with any of the other umpires, except one, Gary Darling. I met Gary before he got to the league in spring training, and I know he’s still around. Joe West is still around, Bob Davidson is still around, there’s a few guys still around from when I was there, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to say hello to them. I don’t want that. It’s a totally different life now.
After you left baseball in 1985, you became an adjunct professor of business and social science at Maryville College. And then you became an African safari tour guide. I’m fascinated by this type of life course. How did this happen?
I had been going to Africa for a number of years before I started giving safari tours. But I was flying over so much that I was like, hey, this really wears you out. So I just upped and moved here in 2002. The biggest thing is that I’m close to where I’m working. To go to Nairobi is a six hour flight, I can drive up to Botswana in eight hours, and I’ve cut my cost of living in half.
I am very comfortable here. I have no desire to leave.
What does one do on an African safari?
We generally go for two weeks. We’ll go to different camps, depending on the country. In my last safari, we did two days in Victoria Falls, six days in Botswana at three different camps, and then we went to Tanzania, through Nairobi, into Kenya and the Serengeti for four days. We were able to catch the last migration that was headed into Kenya, because the migration starts in July, and it won’t come back until October or November. From there, we went to the Ngorongoro Crater, and then the group left on a flight back to the US.
What we try to do is give the people an option of what country they want to visit, and then we’ll stay three days at different camps in different locations. A lot of people want to see the migration in Kenya, or the giant elephant herds in Amboseli near Mt. Kilomanjaro, or the Okavango Delta in Botswana. On Tuesday I am heading to Zambia, which is one of the top places for wild life. You’ll see leopards every day.
We’ll do four hours in the bush in the morning, from 5 o’clock to 9. Then we’ll go again in the afternoon from 4 o’clock to 8. You gotta enjoy the bush. Most people do. I have seldom had anyone not enjoy the safari.
Five rapid fire questions:
Favorite type of music: Country. I was brought up on country music. I also studied classical music because I played the piano and the flute.
Three favorite baseball players of all time: Pete Rose, Steve Garvey, Tommy John
Four greatest umpires of your lifetime: Doug Harvey, Augie Donatelli, Chris Pelekoudas, Tom Gorman. The old-time guys were much more dedicated and strict. Tom came up to me when I started and said, Hey kid, you’re in the big leagues now, you wear a coat and tie every day. That stuck with me for my entire umpiring career.
Favorite baseball stadium that you umpired at: Wrigley Field
Most painful moment as an umpire: One of my fingers is still not straight from a foul ball.
And, finally, why should one make Hermanus, South Africa his/her next vacation destination?
This is the number one land-based whale watching location in the world. The whales started coming a month ago. And they always say if there’s no whales in the harbor, which is only down the street from me, then they haven’t arrived yet. They’ll be here until late November, and then they go back to the South Pole. You can drive along the shoreline and see whales all the time.
It’s a small town – you can walk from one end to the other in about ten minutes. But we have all the major shops and a small mall and three big supermarkets, so you have everything you need. The airport in Cape Town is an hour away. We also have some super wine in this area.
Thanks so much, Jerry. It was an absolute pleasure to speak with you.
Of course. You know, when I lived in Tennessee, I would get notes from people wanting autographs every week. I’d always sign them and send a little note back. But when I moved over here, it’s like, you don’t hear from anyone. And I saw your note and I just thought, how the hell did you find me? I guess that’s what Google is for.