Kill the Ump?  No – Just Fire Him!

By Shlomo  Maital   


   “Kill the ump!   The ump is blind!  ….”     You hear these shouts often at baseball games.  As in football (soccer), decisions of umpires and referees are often blatantly wrong, revealed by slow-motion TV replays, yet UEFA refuses to succumb to technology (which, for instance, has hugely improved line calls in tennis), and so does baseball, mostly. 

    Solution?  A greatly underused principle of innovation:  Subtraction.  Bad umpires?  Get rid of umpires altogether.

    A graduate student at the southern U.S. university The Citadel suggested, two years ago, to his marketing professor Mike Veeck (grandson of legendary Bill Veeck, who owned the moribund St. Louis Browns), to get rid of umpires. Let fans call balls and strikes, with placards (“ball!”,  “strike”).  Let fans all “safe” or “out”.  Bill Veeck once had fans manage his team, while his manager sat in street clothes in a rocking chair atop the dugout.  The Browns, who were awful, won that day, 5-3!). 

    Mike Veeck owns the Gary Southshore Railcats baseball team, which plays in an independent league.  He tried his students’ idea and eliminated umpires altogether.  He had the catchers call balls and strikes.  He had Little League players form a jury, along the 1st and 3rd base lines, to call close plays as “safe” and “out”. 

   A small problem arose.  The Little Leaguers got bored and left after the sixth inning.   But overall, the experiment was a success.  And it happened in a week when Major League Baseball umpires made two huge mistakes. 

    Subtraction is a powerful tool for innovation.  Instead of adding stuff – get rid of stuff, especially stuff you think is absolutely essential.   Practice subtraction by removing an essential element from a familiar product (e.g. remove the wheels from cars), and then see what can be done with the result. 

     Umpireless baseball?  It works.  My version is professor-less college.  Get rid of the business school profs. Let the students teach each other. They’ll do it far better, and far more interesting.   Is anyone out there willing to try it?

  By the way, the late Bill Veeck (whose autobiography:  “Veeck, as in ‘Wreck’, is wonderfully entertaining) once had a dwarf, Eddie Gaedel, in his team’s lineup, and had him bat.  Gaedel was 3’ 7”  tall.  He walked on four consecutive pitches. The result was a rule change – you cannot play dwarfs in major league baseball anymore. 

Source:   “Safe or out?  Better let the crowd call it”.  Global New York Times, Sat-Sunday May 18-19, p. 13.