Umpire Kerwin Danley lost track of the count in the fifth inning Wednesday night, prompting a delay with the Chicago White Sox leading the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. And that was the only window Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully needed to tell a story about umpire Tony Venzon, a baseball personality most of Scully's audience probably never heard of.
All major league umps carry an plastic indicator, usually in their left hand, that tracks balls and strikes by the turning of little dials. Evidently, Danley made a mistake with his indicator during a sequence where Adam Dunn of the White Sox walked to first base after ball three by Josh Beckett. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly came out to question what was happening, plus TV and scoreboards showed a different count, so Danley went over to consult with replay officials.
While we waited for officials to sort out the count, Scully recalled how frustrated he got the first time he saw Venzon, who was an NL umpire from 1957-1971, work behind the plate. Umpires are asked to hold indicators in their left hand because, as Scully said, the right hand usually is for signaling a strike. An umpire lifting his left hand would do so not to signal "strike," but instead to check the indicator to make sure he was updating the count properly.
But Venzon was not like other umpires. And Scully isn't like other broadcasters.
"Tony Venzon would keep the indicator in his right hand; and every time he would raise to look, I would think it's a strike. And I was really embarrassed — I wasn't trying to give the plate umpire a bad time at all — but every time he brought that right hand up, I thought it was a strike.
"So after the game, I thought I'd best to go down to meet that umpire and apologize."
Scully saw Venzon and told him how difficult it was on the broadcast to keep track of balls and strikes because he raised his right hand whenever he'd check his indicator. Venzon's response stunned Scully:
" 'Well, young man, let me tell you. I wish I could use my left hand.' And then he showed me his left hand. No thumb. He had lost a thumb in a commercial accident."
Scully finished the story with this kicker:
"Tony Venzon... Very nice man, but no thumb on his left hand."
Venzon is not in the Hall of Fame, but his career was marked by many special moments. He worked three All-Star games and three World Series. He was behind the plate for Ernie Banks' 500th career home run. He worked four no-hitters behind the plate, in addition to no-hitters on consecutive days (though he was behind the plate for neither) when Jim Maloney of the Reds and Don Wilson of the Astros turned the trick in 1969. According to a 2013 feature in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he's the only umpire to ever eject Hank Aaron from a game.
Coolest of all, he was the plate umpire in the "Telstar Game," in July 1962, when 90 seconds of a game between the Cubs and Phillies was beamed around the world via a new satellite. WGN broadcaster Jack Brickhouse was worried that nothing would be happening during those 90 seconds, and he expressed his concerns to Venzon. Ron Kantowski of the Review-Journal writes:
Venzon told Brickhouse not to worry. He’d take care of it.
Tony Taylor swung at the first pitch and flew out to George Altman in right. Johnny Callison swung at the first pitch and singled to right. It was the longest single in baseball history. People saw it in Stockholm and Rome and Budapest.
The newspaper account said Jack Brickhouse told Tony Venzon how lucky they had been. Lucky, hell, the umpire said.
He had told the Phillies about Telstar and that they had better come up swinging, because he was going to call every one of Cal Koonce’s pitches a strike if they didn’t.
Venzon died in September 1971 after complications from heart surgery. Just 56 years old, he hadn't umpired since April of that year because of health problems.
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