At the Australian Open in 2008, tennis player Andy Roddick famously unleashed a tirade against court umpire Emmanuel Joseph, telling the crowd at one point: “Stay in school kids or you’ll end up being an umpire!” During the MLB playoffs this week, there were similarly slanderous remarks against the umpires uttered either directly to them, or muttered under the breath of many players. This got me wondering about the history of umpires in sports and the levels of deference they were paid.
Every sport needs a neutral party to officiate. This moderator (ideally) has no allegiance except to the rules of the game. In Homer’s Odyssey (8.258), umpires are referred to as an αἰσυμνήτης, though an umpire was generally called a διαιτητής in archaic Greece. Within certain panathenaic festivals, such as the Olympic games (started in 776 BCE), there were by the 6th c. BCE specially appointed umpires called Ἑλλανοδίκαι (‘judges of the Greeks’). Pausanias tells us that there was originally just one of these, but that the number increased greatly into the fifth century BCE. Around 471/0, three of them supervised the equestrian events, three oversaw the pentathlon, and 3 judged the rest of the events (Paus. 5.9.5). These umpires insured fairness, but it is clear that the position improved one’s status as well. The Olympic umpires lived in a special stoa at Elis where they were trained for 10 months, and received an elevated seat and the right to wear purple at the games. They were also allowed to inflict fines for certain offenses and dole out corporal punishments for fouls: flogging with sticks.
It is rare that we get to hear the voices of umpires. Even today, the crowd relies largely on hand gestures rather than sound. In this sense, we can see that umpires have been rather depersonalized. I mean, can you name your favorite umpire? We are not supposed to know their names. In many ways, we are supposed to see them as objective beings rather humans. The invention of the microphone has perhaps changed this to some extent in the NFL, but for baseball and most other sports, the sound of the umpire is limited largely to punctuated grunts and reactionary gesticulations. The mask of the baseball umpire today separates him even further from the people by obfuscating his or her facial features. This was not so in antiquity. Mosaics and ceramics show well-dressed umpires standing prominently. One mosaic from Cyprus (pictured below) labels an umpire, Dareios, as he stands couched between two gladiators. There is also a Roman imperial era lead tablet from the Isthmian games that transmits a written decision of an umpire named Marius Tyrannos disqualifying an athlete.
The term “umpire” is a modern one. It comes from the Old English noumpere, itself from the Old French nonper–essentially meaning “not on par” or “not equal.” In other words, umpires were not on par with the other players, they were above them. These individuals were the moderators and the voice of the ludic law. It is they who had the power to rule decisively and finally, often with a very real stick in hand (as many mosaics reveal).
In Roman gladiatorial arenas, the referees appear to have been highly visible figures. They worked in pairs, the first was the summa rudis and the assistant the secunda rudis (Junkelmann 2000: 67). Back in 2011, a gravestone for an imperial Roman gladiator named Diodorus (inscribed in Greek) was found. It kicked up some arena sand among ancient historians because it called out an ancient referee directly:
“After breaking my opponent Demetrius I did not kill him immediately, Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me.” (trans. Michael Carter)
Even in death, he remained pretty pissed at that ump. Problems with umpires were certainly not a modern phenomenon, and tensions could often escalate, it seems. However, these were persons not to be touched or physically abused. There was a high level of deference for gladiatorial referees, who often stood in a white tunic with purple stripes.
What has interested me most is to see the lack of protective gear given to these individuals–if we can trust the artistic renditions. For a comparative example for instituting protective gear, I called on John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball. As he said, “the mask was introduced for catchers in 1876 and it was not long before umpires saw the wisdom of wearing them. Fans made fun of both catchers and umpires at first for their lack of manliness, but really they were saddened by the reduced violence and bloodshed, which had come to be a comic sidelight, for spectators, at least. Blackened eyes and loosened teeth were regarded, in the 1860s, as badges of courage.” Romans also had a certain affinity for showing off battle scars. The early Christian writer Tertullian took gladiators to task for their pride in them (To the Martyrs, 5); however, we have little evidence for the same attitudes regarding referees. In many ways, we still need referees and umpires to remain superhuman (rather than subhumans) that exist above the fray. They should be sacrosanct, inviolable individuals, even if the new age of video review means their calls are more regularly overturned.
I too screamed at the screen when Chase Utley took out the legs of Ruben Tejada in Game 2 of the NLDS, but the most that you can really do is cuss and throw your hat down (cf. Mariners Manager Lloyd McClendon). Both the relative anonymity of their dress and the obfuscating gear (at least in baseball) that some umpires wear can perhaps make them seem like they really aren’t people at all; however we have entrusted them with the laws of the game. Just be glad they are ruling on foul or fair balls and the like, rather than deciding fatal gladiatorial matches.
Even these Roman gladiatorial umpires eventually had their last day. After 404 CE, gladiatorial matches were abolished in the empire, after an ascetic monk allegedly came between two gladiators and pleaded for there to be no more killing in the name of Christ. The spectators rose up and stoned the monk to death, compelling the emperor Honorius to stop gladiatorial spectacles entirely.
Many thanks to John Thorn for his comments. Visit his exceptional blog, Our Game, and read up on the history of baseball in America.