Ken Kaiser, MLB umpire, dies at 72

Sean Lahman and Justin Murphy   Democrat and Chronicle   Aug. 9, 2017

Ken Kaiser, the Rochester native and colorful former Major League Baseball umpire who worked two World Series and an All-Star Game before being frozen out of the game following a mass resignation, died Tuesday at 72.

He had been in poor health recently, his longtime friend and lawyer, Tony Leonardo, said, and had coped with diabetes for decades.

Mr. Kaiser was an American League umpire for 23 years, from 1977 to 1999. He worked the 1987 and 1997 World Series, the 1991 All-Star Game and several playoff series.

A huge baseball fan while growing up on the corner of Arnett Boulevard and Genesee Street in the city's 19th Ward, Mr. Kaiser never dreamed of becoming a man in blue. It was only after Ed O'Hara, an ex-boxer, stopped by the Kaiser family's television repair store and said he was going to umpiring school in Florida, that Kaiser decided to give it a try.

"It was being held in Daytona Beach, so I figured this would be a great way to go there cheap,'' Mr. Kaiser said in a 1998 interview. "I thought I was going there for a vacation. The vacation has lasted a long time.''

He began his career in the Florida State League in 1965 and faced his share of adventures on his way to the Major Leagues. In his second year, he and his partner were chased across the South Carolina state line by irate fans with a barrel of hot tar after blowing a pair of calls and punching out the third baseman and manager, to boot.

Mr. Kaiser supplemented his income in 1973 and 1974 by moonlighting as a professional wrester, calling himself "The Hatchet." He kept his face covered to avoid being recognized, but gave it up after a performance in Philadelphia when his mask snapped and Eric Gregg, a fellow umpire, spotted him from the crowd.

"I always said, he's a hard guy to embarrass," Leonardo said.

Mr. Kaiser finally realized his big-league dream in 1977 and spent more than two decades at the pinnacle of his profession. He was selected to work the World Series in 1987 and 1997, and was the second base umpire in the 1991 All-Star Game in Toronto.

A Sporting News poll in 1986 named him the league's "most colorful umpire." That adjective was not always meant as a compliment — anonymous player polls in 1998 and 1999, his last two years in baseball, pegged him as one of the worst umpires in the American League.

"If I was so horse(bleep), I wouldn't be in the major leagues for 23 years, would I?" Mr. Kaiser responded at the time. ""Who did they poll? A hundred guys who can't hit or pitch."

 

He faced particular criticism for his portly physique; Ron Luciano, a fellow umpire, described him like a barrel on which two arms had been stuck on backwards," and White Sox announcer Jimmy Piersall called him "a gutless, lazy whale."

While in the minor leagues, he once split his pants on the field and had to umpire the rest of the game with his underwear showing. The anonymous 1999 poll had him as the least fit umpire in the American League.

"I'll personally challenge any of those guys who ranked me last," he said. "I'll show them what condition I'm in."

Mr. Kaiser's career came to an abrupt halt in 1999, when he was among dozens of umpires to resign in protest during labor negotiations. Most were hired back after a contract was signed, but Kaiser was one of 13 who were not.

"My whole life is gone," he said at the time.

Bob Matthews, who knew Mr. Kaiser well from his long career as a Democrat and Chronicle sportswriter, said he thought the umpire bet wrong in resigning in the first place.

"He really missed baseball; it was the love of his life and his passion, and they took it away from him," he said. "But it was his own fault that he quit, and when push came to shove, he got shoved."

In the mid-1980s, he began hosting "The Ken Kaiser Celebrity Dinner," an annual fundraiser that annually drew baseball's biggest stars to Rochester.

"They were, without a doubt, the best baseball dinners in the country," Matthews said.

He recalled standing in a small room once with Kaiser and a few of the guests for that year's dinner: Nolan Ryan, Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly, Roger Clemens and Kirby Puckett, among others.

"I've never been in a room with so much money," Matthews said. "I didn't ask for autographs, but I was tempted."

Mr. Kaiser wrote a memoir in 2003 called “Planet of the Umps,” recounting anecdotes from his years in baseball.  Many of them are not fit for a family newspaper.

"He was very proud of his career, and he had a right to be," Leonardo said. "There aren't many (MLB umpires) and he was one of them."

After leaving baseball, Mr. Kaiser spent much of his time bowling, shooting pool and betting on horses at Finger Lakes Race Track.

Mr. Kaiser is survived by two adult children and his longtime girlfriend. Funeral plans have not been finalized.

SLAHMAN@Gannett.com

JMURPHY7@Gannett.com

Five Ken Kaiser one-liners

On Earl Weaver, the diminutive but fiery Baltimore Orioles manager: I'll never forget the time he came out there to argue, and he turned his hat around. I turned my hat around, too, and he said he wanted to punch me. I said, 'Go ahead you midget, you'll hit my knee.'

On life after baseball: Do I miss it? Absolutely. … Occasionally I’ll get to yell at one of my two kids, but it’s not the same thing. My kids have gone off on their own, so I can’t even eject them from the house.

On umpiring Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan in the minor leagues: Wild doesn’t even begin to describe him. When he pitched, people in the stands ducked. You could hear the fans screaming, ‘Women and children first!'

On the hazards of the job: I never minded people screaming insults at me — that just made me feel like I was home — but I did mind them throwing rocks, batteries, fruit and glass bottles. One of the greatest things that ever happened in the long history of umpiring was the invention of the plastic bottle.

On the time he challenged Hall of Famer Eddie Murray to a fight in the parking lot: I said, 'Eddie, you can even bring your bat with you, because the way you’re swinging this year, you couldn’t hit me with it anyway.'