By Greg Gulas
After logging more than a million air miles and nearly half as much between cars and trains on the ground, Poland’s John Hirschbeck is calling it quits after a stellar 34 year career as a Major League Baseball umpire.
He worked his last regular season game this past Sunday, calling balls and strikes when Detroit dropped a 1-0 decision to the Atlanta Braves in a game that eliminated the Tigers from the Wild Card chase.
It was also the very last game ever played at Turner Field.
“That was our only 1-0 game my crew and I worked all season,” Hirschbeck said. “With playoffs looming, all umpires have to be at their very best with so much on the line. Everyone, from players to umpires to the managers and coaches want to be at their very best.”
And at his very best was Hirschbeck from the time he was the No. 4 man on his crew those first 17 seasons, to serving as a crew chief the past 17 campaigns.
He’s drawn four World Series assignments, worked nine Division Series, five League Championships, three All-Star games and one Wild Card game.
He won’t officially retire until after the playoffs. He was scheduled to work his 10th Division Series beginning last Friday, that coming in Chicago where the Chicago Cubs met scheduled to take on the San Francisco Giants.
A product of Al Somers’ Umpire School, Hirschbeck’s career was almost derailed before it ever got started.
The thought of becoming an umpire at the game’s highest level started while he was in college at Central Connecticut State University, where he earned his BS in physical education in 1976.
He actually started out hoping to become a dentist, but it took just three days of classes during his initial semester on the Blue Devils’ campus to figure out that dental school was going to be a lot more involved than he originally had anticipated.
“I asked myself after those first three days, ‘What am I doing taking those types of classes?’” he added. “It was really hard and time-consuming and I knew immediately that I needed to explore some other profession in life. I remember my father telling me that since I loved sports so much, then I should possibly consider switching majors, and that is exactly what I did.”
During his senior year and at Somers’ school, he finished second in his class of 147 — just behind fellow MLB umpire Jerry Davis — with both hopefuls the only two earning spring training assignments.
He worked the Baltimore Orioles camp, which was then followed by an appointment to the Florida State League — a Class A league still in operation today.
As he began his minor-league career, Hirschbeck recalls that his first season was as much a growing experience as it was a learning experience.
“That first year I proceeded to run 28 guys, which George McDonald, the league president at the time didn’t appreciate,” Hirschbeck said. “I was taught early in my career that you don’t take anything from anyone, and I didn’t. Barney Deary was the head of minor-league umpires back then and he overruled McDonald. The next year I got better and ran just 24 players or managers and by the time I got to Class AA in the Eastern League, that number had dropped to just seven.”
A native of Bridgeport, Conn., Hirschbeck worked seven years in the minors before his call-up and from 1983 to 1999, was a part of the American League’s umpiring staff.
On Feb. 28, 2000, he was elected the first president of the newly formed World Umpires Association which merged both the National League and American League staffs.
With that familiar No. 17 adorning his right sleeve, Hirschbeck has either been the crew chief or served on crews that have been a part of eight no-hitters and several other milestone games or events.
He worked first base at Yankee Stadium when David Wells pitched his perfect game against the Minnesota Twins (May 17, 1998). He also drew the plate assignment on Oct. 6, 2010 when Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay no-hit the Cincinnati Reds in the NLDS to become the first player ever to throw a no-hitter (he had already thrown a perfect game on May 29 against the Florida Marlins) in the same regular season and postseason, and just the second player overall to toss a postseason “no-no.” The other was Don Larsen in the 1956 World Series.
“Roy Halladay’s performance was just so very special,” he noted. “You’re always up for a postseason game, but I never realized until the fifth inning what was about to unfold. The mental challenge kicks in, the intensity of the stadium is kicked up a notch, and we as umpires just need to turn the volume down.”
In addition to working Turner Field’s last game, he also worked the first game at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park (2001) and was part of the crew that opened the Chicago’s new Comiskey Park (now U.S. Cellular Field) in 1991.
Hirschbeck also worked the plate when New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera recorded his record-setting 602nd career save against the Minnesota Twins in 2011 and was the plate umpire with the late Wally Bell — an Austintown native — working first base when Barry Bonds launched his historic 756th career home run.
“The game has been so very good to me and to just be able to say that you were a part of some of its many historic moments is truly humbling,” Hirschbeck said. “The memories and friendships that were made and the people that I had an opportunity to meet over my 41 years in baseball are truly remarkable. Those friends became not only my friends, but friends to my wife, Denise, and also our children. I thank God every day for allowing me to be a part of baseball’s family. We can yell and scream at one another, but in the end we’re all family.”
He met his wife, the former Denise Mann of Poland when he was working in Puerto Rico after his Class AAA season was completed (1980).
She was there for six months having just completed training and serving as a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines.
“We were at a gathering and fellow umpire, Mark Johnson, saw Denise walk in and he nudged me, telling me, ‘That’s you, buddy. That’s the gal that you will marry,’ and he was absolutely right,” he said.
The wife of an umpire can be very lonely and Hirschbeck is the first to admit that Denise has played both mother and father to their four children — John, Michael, Erin and Megan.
“Denise has been the absolute very best and I love her deeply, even more today than when we first met,” Hirschbeck said. “She has had to play taxi driver, scheduled school events and through it all, has been with me every step along the way. In addition to loving her, she remains my very best friend in life.”
The game has afforded Hirschbeck many highs, but there have also been deep lows with family heartbreak and health issues forcing him to take a step back.
Sons John and Michael passed away after battling ALD (Adrenoleukodystrophy) while he has battled a form of testicular cancer that forced him to the sidelines in both 2008 and 2012, and a back problem that resulted in a reduced schedule in 2011.
“Both John and Michael loved baseball and when Michael was battling ALD in 1992, we were basically living in Minnesota while he underwent bone marrow transplant treatment at the University of Minnesota. You talk about the baseball family, it was never more apparent and on display than at that time,” Hirschbeck said. “Dr. Bobby Brown was the president of the American League back then and he told Denise and me not to worry about a thing because my job would be waiting for me whenever I was ready to return.
“It was at the All-Star gathering in Houston in 2004 when we next saw him and when he noticed Denise, he came up to her, hugged her and the tears just started to flow down both of their cheeks.”
Their son Michael passed away in 2014, 21 years after John died and right when he was about to serve as batboy for the Indians during their series with the San Diego Padres.
“It has been said that no parent should ever have to bury a child. I cannot imagine the depth of John Hirschbeck’s anguish and pain,” Indians television broadcaster Matt Underwood said. “He was supposed to umpire the Indians-Padres series in Cleveland two years ago and Michael was coming with him to be a batboy for the Tribe. The game got rained out and they went back home. The next day Michael died and I was heartbroken for John and his family. I remember thinking, ‘How will this man be able to go on?’ He’s been a tremendous umpire and a first-class individual.”
Indians manager Terry Francona called Hirschbeck one of the game’s best umpires.
“I have so much respect for John as a person and professional, he truly is one of the game’s great people. I can’t think about John without thinking about Michael, their family and all they’ve been through,” Francona said. “You meet a lot of special people in our game and John certainly ranks near the top of the list. Not only was he a great umpire, but how conscientious he was and how he ran a baseball game stick out to me. He will certainly be missed.”
An on-field incident in 1996 involving the Baltimore Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar during a game with the Toronto Blue Jays is an example of turning a baseball negative into something with a positive ending.
Alomar and Hirschbeck argued over a called third strike, ending when Alomar spit in Hirschbeck’s face.
In the end, Alomar’s fine included a donation to ALD research and since that time he has assisted with items for Hirschbeck’s “Magic of Michael Foundation,” named after his son and whose mission is to inspire, empower and provide hope to families in northeastern Ohio enduring the ‘curve balls’ of life.
“As far as I was concerned, it was over right after it happened,” Hirschbeck said.
Daughter Erin serves as president of the foundation while his other daughter, Megan, played basketball and softball for Poland High School, serving as catcher on the team’s state runner-up team her senior year.
“I missed a lot of my children’s activities as they were growing up, but the one time I was able to get away was the day of that championship game her senior season,” Hirschbeck said. “I was in Detroit and on my crew was Wally. The championship was played on Saturday afternoon and our game was a night game, so we hopped in a car and drove to the game. Denise knew that I was coming and when Megan saw us there, she had a smile from ear to ear. Plus, we made it back to Detroit in plenty of time for our game that night”
Pittsburgh Pirates president Frank Coonelly is just one in a long line of team executives whose respect Hirschbeck has garnered.
“From my perspective, John was one of the game’s most outstanding umpires. He had a distinguished career and a remarkable feel for the game, always making sure that it was played fairly and umpired correctly,” Coonelly said. “I served as general counsel for the Commissioner’s Office and John was union president, but what struck me most about him was that he was a fair, courageous fighter for his members.
“He had their best interest at heart, even though that was not his background. I became friendly with John and his family and I shared a great many memorable moments, especially with Michael during spring training in Bradenton [Fla.]. No one knew more about umpiring and the rules than Michael. A fan sitting around us once asked a rules question, which prompted Michael to turn around and explain the rule to them. I miss Michael dearly and baseball will miss John when he works his last game this post-season.”
Hirschbeck will do anything but ride off into the sunset after his last game.
There’s still a chance that he might be selected to work a fifth World Series, but when it all ends he’ll join Denise, Erin and Megan as they finish the house they are having built. Their plans are to move in upon completion at the end of the month.
He’ll also do a lot of fishing, golfing and hunting, where his three dogs, Dixie, Macie and Ellie, all three German shorthaired pointers assist.
“I enjoy bow hunting and once with a rifle on a trip to Montana, was able to shoot an elk and mule deer, which are mounted and will go in my new barn,” Hirschbeck said. “My plan is to live at The Lake Club and hopefully become a decent golfer.”
Francona offered one last piece of advice for Hirschbeck when his umpiring career comes to an end and he dives head first into his various avocations.
“Tell John to stay out of the rough,” Francona said with a laugh.