March 2, 2010

Tracer: Ron Luciano and Tommy John

On a trivia website, former MLB umpire Ron Luciano tells this story:
I was working the plate in the seventh inning of a close game. Tommy John was pitching for the White Sox and Don Buford was the Oriole batter. As John began winding up, the ball squirted out of his hand and dribbled a few feet behind the pitcher's mound. Tommy continued his follow-through because he didn't want to risk straining his arm by stopping abruptly. Naturally I couldn't resist the opportunity. I threw up my right arm. "Strike one." The fans went crazy. Buford stepped out of the batter's box and glared at me. "What the hell are you doing?" "It caught the inside corner." I said. Ed Herrmann, the White Sox catcher, agreed with me. "It was a good pitch, Don." Weaver was on me in an instant, screaming about my making a mockery of the game. I told him it was just a joke, he said I was just a joke, and I changed the call.
Luciano recalls the same incident in the August 19, 1974 issue of Sports Illustrated:
Tommy John was pitching for the White Sox against the Orioles and accidentally dropped the ball behind him during his motion. He completed his delivery, and as a joke I called "steee-rike" on the batter. The batter, Don Buford, was aghast. He looked at me as though I was crazy. And out on the mound John was falling all over himself with laughter. I changed the call to "no pitch," of course, but John couldn't stop laughing. He walked the next three batters, gave up a double and was taken out of the game. He laughed all the way to the showers.
I thought I would try to find this game.

John pitched for the White Sox from 1965-1971, Buford played for the Orioles from 1968-1972, and Herrmann was with the White Sox in 1967 and from 1969-1974. So we are looking for a game in 1969, 1970, or 1971.

It appears from the story that a giggling John walked Buford after the joke call by Luciano. Thanks to Baseball-Reference, we can see all 19 plate appearances Buford had against John in his career. He walked only once -- with one out in the fifth inning on July 24, 1969.

However, John retired the next two batters to end the inning, Hermann did not catch, and Luciano was not part of the umpiring crew. (It is worth noting that Buford doubled off John in the 7th inning. That was followed by a bunt, single, balk, and home run -- ending John's day. The inning is right and John gets pulled mid-inning, but nothing else matches, including Luciano actually being in the ballpark.)

So maybe Buford did not walk. Luciano did not specifically say that he did. Let's look at every game John pitched against the Orioles in 1969-1971 (even though the "fans going crazy" aside makes it sound like the game was in Baltimore):

June 14: John lasts only one batter into the 3rd inning -- and he did not walk anyone. Luciano did not umpire this game.

July 24: Mentioned above.

April 30: John walks five men in seven innings, but does not leave mid-inning. He is pinch-hit for by Herrmann, meaning Herrmann was not John's battery-mate. And Luciano was not an umpire.

May 9: John pitches six innings and loses. Buford did not play and Luciano did not umpire.

May 31: John pitches a complete-game 1-0 shutout. Also, no Buford and no Luciano.

June 13: John pitches another complete game, losing 2-1. Herrmann does not play and Luciano is not part of the crew.

August 13: John pitches only three innings, but is not relieved mid-inning. There is no Buford, no Herrmann, and no Luciano.

And that is it. Seven games -- and the one constant is that Luciano was not umpiring.

I checked John's entire seven-year career with the White Sox for games against the Orioles in which he walked at least three batters. There were eight games -- and, again, Luciano was not a member of the umpiring crew in any of them.

Buford played against John in six games in his career. There are the four above, plus July 5, 1964 and July 16, 1968. And Luciano was not part of the umpiring crew in those games either.

It's a great story -- with plenty of specific details. But it did not happen.


johngoldfine said...

That's beautiful historical detective work, just beautiful deploying of logic, stats, facts, reference material, and knowledge. What a treat to read.

I remember you writing on wmtc how important 'The Glory of Their Times' was to you, and it's a wonderful book, but I couldn't help thinking as I read your debunking expose here that Luciano's story would have fit into that same storytelling mode.

And so much for the power of frail and fallible memory, eh, l-girl?

allan said...

Well, thanks, but nowadays, it takes no real effort to check things like this out. Rob Neyer, who coined the term "tracer" when he did stuff like this for Bill James's old Abstracts, actually had to go to a library and comb through microfilm.

Amy said...

Hmm, maybe it happened but not quite the way Luciano remembers it? Maybe the only part he has right is that it was Tommy John pitching, but perhaps a different batter or a different catcher or both? How could he totally make up a story like that and have no one call him on it?

Fascinating detective work. You have the patience of a saint. Or a spy.

MacLeodCartoons said...

God, I wonder how many of my old war stories would stand up to this kind of scrutiny. Ten pints, you say? In a blizzard you say? On an Easter Sunday? With twins? Hmm, let me check the record.
Great work, Redsock!

Zenslinger said...

I love these stories. I'd bet John getting shelled (actually innings later) was the next memory that stuck out about the game, but his recollection elides the intervening innings.

laura k said...

Fascinating detective work. You have the patience of a saint. Or a spy.

Or he loves researching and would much rather do that than write. :)

allan said...

Or he loves researching and would much rather do that than write. :)

Or organizing his office, or going to the gym, or doing chores around the house, or .....

Jere said...

1. You think this may have been a spring training game? The odds of any pitcher in a real game allowing himself to laugh to the point of costing his team and his ERA is remote. As we know, even the wackiest of pitching characters are all business on the mound.

2. I have found only a few instances of Luciano umping home plate that could have been what he described, but, like you say, they involved completely different players.

3. The answer could be in his book, The Umpire Strikes Back (no preview available on Google Books). In an old news article about it, they mention the John incident, but follow it right up with a line like "but the best stories are the ones about his long-running feud with Earl Weaver." Implying the John thing wasn't a Weaver story. Maybe he mixed up an argument with the manager in the John story with one of his countless Weaver run-ins? Who knows...