RIP to former Major League umpire and crew chief Derryl Cousins. He died at his home in Bermuda Dunes, Calif., on October 19 from bone cancer. He was 74 years old. Cousins, who played some minor-league ball at the start of his professional baseball career, was an umpire from 1979 until his retirement in 2012.
Derryl Cousins was born in Fresno, Calif., on August 18, 1946. According to the Daily Breeze, the paper named him the all-area Co-Baseball Player of the Year in 1964, while he was attending El Segundo High School. He played both baseball and football there before attending El Camino College. His brother Craig played at El Segundo as well and was an assistant coach for nearly 40 years under area legend Coach John Stevenson.
Derryl signed with the Detroit Tigers organization in 1967 as a catcher. The 20-year-old was assigned to the Statesville (N.C.) Tigers of the Western Carolinas League. He batted .243 in 88 games, with 25 RBIs, and he did have a knack for picking up some timely hits. He gave the Tigers a 3-2 win over Gastonia on August 7, 1967, by hitting his second double of the game in the bottom of the 11th inning.
Cousins’ 1968 season was a frustrating one, and not because he played poorly. He started the year with the High Point-Thomasville Hi-Toms and then was optioned to the Rocky Mount Leafs, who were in desperate need for a catcher. He played regularly for about two weeks and had his average up over .300. His throwing arm was improved, and he had cut down on the number of passed balls he committed. Then, highly touted prospect Gene Lamont came back from serving with the reserves, and Carl Solarek returned from an injured finger that had sidelined him. Cousins found himself as the third-string catcher, with few opportunities to hit.
“This was to be the big year for me development-wise,” he told the Rocky Mount Telegram. “I feel I could have kept my average around .280 if I had a chance to play and could have made much progress.”
Cousins was out of baseball in 1969 and returned to play briefly for the Reno Silver Sox, a Class-A Cleveland franchise. He hit .225 in 15 games, including his only professional home run. Craig Cousins told the Associated Press that his brother worked some odd jobs but didn’t find anything he liked, so he saved some money and went to umpiring school in Florida.
Starting in the Midwest League in 1973, Cousins worked his way through the low minors. He and his partner, future AL ump Vic Voltaggio, were considered the best among Midwest League umpires in 1973, and they repeated the honor with the Carolina League in 1974. Cousins made his way to the Pacific Coast League in 1976 and worked there for three seasons.
Along the way, the umpire ran into all the pitfalls that come from umpires — angry managers, argumentative batters, beanball-throwing pitchers. He even was hospitalized in New Mexico when a pitch bounced off the plate and struck him on the right temple. In the offseason, Cousins umpired in winter ball for extra money and even worked in the oil fields in El Segundo.
As he toiled away in the PCL, he never regretted his decision to get into umpiring, but he knew it was an uphill battle to get to the major leagues. “There is only one out of every 200 who attend umpiring school who get a job. There are only 150 jobs in all of minor-league ball,” he said. “And in the majors there will only be eight jobs open in the next eight years as the umpires reach retirement age.”
Cousins got a chance to umpire in the majors ahead of schedule, but it didn’t come in the way that he or anyone else anticipated. At the start of the 1979 season, 50 of the 52 American and National League umpires started the season on strike. Major League Baseball was forced to find minor-league and amateur umpires to fill out the ranks. Cousins was one of the minor-leaguers signed to be a crew chief for the amateur umps.
Cousins was forced to make a difficult decision, with considerable uncertainty around it. The replacement umps were told that their contracts would not cost another umpire his job, but there was more to it than security for himself or other umps. “What kind of backing are we going to get?” he questioned. “Are they [MLB] just going to use us for a year, or are they going to protect us?… I won’t throw my career away just to help out for a year, or maybe a few weeks. I’m not going to take a chance on going up and being hated, or coming back [to the PCL] and being hated.”
Cousins worked his first MLB game on April 6, 1979, at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. He was the home plate umpire in a 5-3 Twins win over the Athletics. That game proceeded without incident, but about a month later — May 8 — he had to maintain control in a brawl-filled game between the Twins and Blue Jays in Minnesota. There were three separate fights that broke out over the course of the game, and by the time it was done, Cousins had made the first five ejections of his career — Ron Jackson of the Twins for charging the mound; Jays coach Don Leppert for arguing; Jays pitcher Balor Moore for throwing at the Twins’ John Castino; Castino for charging the mound; and Otto Velez of Toronto for fighting.
The strike was eventually settled, and Cousins went to work with the returning umpires, but there was no love lost. Don Denkinger, Cousins’ crew chief, explained it like this: “I will not ride with them. I will not eat with them. I will not have idle conversation with them. As crew chief, it is my job to help him [Cousins] do his job, but that’s all I’ll do.”
In early June, the umpire crew arrived at Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis, and their names were written on tape over their assigned lockers: DENKINGER, BREMIGAN, GARCIA, and SCAB — for Cousins, obviously. Cousins was the first umpire at the stadium — he didn’t ride with the other three — so he said it was more likely a union worker in the ballpark. But he admitted that the nonstop cold shoulder from his colleagues did take the thrill out of being in the majors.
“But otherwise my attitude is that I’m here and that’s all there is to it. I have no regrets. I don’t second-guess myself,” he added.
Cousins had run-ins with all the prominent umpire-haters of the era. He had arguments with Earl Weaver and Billy Martin and ejected Bobby Cox a few times. One of them led to Cox receiving a five-game suspension for bumping him. Cousins got into a brief war of words with George Steinbrenner when the Yankees owner called his umpiring “a disgrace.” He had more than 10 ejections each year from 1985 through 1987. Cousins also began to be chosen for plum postseason assignments, starting in 1985 with the American League Championship Series between the Royals and Blue Jays. Cousins worked a total of five Division Series, seven League Championship Series, three World Series and three All-Star Games.
Umpires generally don’t make the news unless they eject somebody or make a bad call. Cousins made headlines by umpiring a Yankees game in April 1996 in short sleeves. Why the fuss? It was snowing, and all the ballplayers were as bundled up as they could get. “It was cold out there for the first inning or so. But once I started moving up and down on every pitch, it wasn’t so bad,” the native Californian said after the game. “[Kansas City manager] Bob Boone said, ‘I always knew you were crazy. This just proves it.'”
The ill will that was caused by the ’79 strike largely dissipated, but it never entirely went away. Cousins and veteran ump John Shulock, another minor-league ump who was brought to the majors, were never allowed to join the umpires’ union. It was years before some of the veteran umpires would even speak with them.
Cousins spent a total of 34 seasons umpiring in the majors, and he eventually took on the role of crew chief. By the time he retired from umpiring in February of 2013, he had worked 4,496 regular-season games, 74 post-season games and 3 All-Star Games. He was the home plate umpire for Tom Seaver‘s 300th win (August 4, 1985) and Barry Bonds 755th home run (August 4, 2007). He was the first base umpire for Dallas Braden’s perfect game against Tampa Bay (May 9, 2010). He was also at third base when Kirk Gibson hit one of the most famous home runs in World Series history in 1988 (October 15, 1988).
Cousins was inducted into the Sports Halls of Fame for both El Segundo High School and El Camino College.
For more information: Daily Breeze