Obituary: Bill Haller (1935-2022)

RIP to Bill Haller, an American League umpire for 21 seasons and part of a unique moment among baseball siblings. He died on August 20 at the VA Medical Center in Marion, Ill., at the age of 87. Haller was an umpire from 1961-82 and served as a baseball official and scout for several years afterwards.

William Edward Haller was born on February 28, 1935, in Joliet, Ill. Haller said in a 1983 interview that he first began to appreciate umpires as a child when his father, an amateur umpire himself, took him to Comiskey Park to watch the White Sox play. His younger brother, Tom Haller, was born on June 23, 1937, in Lockport. They would both reach the major leagues, but along two very different paths. Both brothers were very athletic, though. Bill Haller, who stood 6’4″, was a multi-sport athlete at Lockport Township High School and played basketball at Joliet Junior College. He was the team’s starting forward until 1955, when he left to serve in the U.S. Army. He was away for two years, spending 16 months in Korea. When he returned, he decided to stay active in baseball by becoming an umpire.

Umpires aren’t supposed to interfere in a game, but Bill Haller makes an exception as he leads 2-year-old Jim Kaat Jr. to first base in a father-son game. Source: St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 18, 1963.

Haller went to a school led by George Barr, a National League ump. Starting in 1958, Haller spent time in the Georgia-Florida League, the New York-Pennsylvania League and the Northwest League before being promoted up to Triple-A. Both Haller brothers spent time in the Pacific Coast League in 1961 — Bill as an umpire and Tom as a catcher for the Tacoma Giants. Tom reached the majors first, debuting as a catcher on April 11, 1961. Bill ended up as a September call-up, of sorts. He umpired his first major-league game on September 14, 1961 — he was the first base ump for the 3-1 Twins win. Haller was optioned to the International League in 1962 but returned to the majors for good in 1963. He was the youngest umpire in the American League and spent the next 20 seasons with the league.

The job of any umpire is to maintain order and make sure the game is played by the rules. Haller adhered to those principles, even when he was bound to get grief from it. During one game in May of 1965, he called an automatic ball on a pitch from Cleveland’s Luis Tiant because he felt that the pitcher’s herky-jerky hesitation delivery was illegal. On the very next pitch, Baltimore’s Boog Powell slammed what proved to be the game-winning home run. That brought out Cleveland manager Birdie Tebbetts, who was a frequent verbal sparring partner of Haller during the umpire’s first few seasons. In 1977, Haller stated that A’s pitcher Vida Blue couldn’t wear his “lucky hat,” because it was faded and battered and no longer in compliance with the game’s uniform code. Haller wasn’t afraid to go “by the book,” even when there was a national audience watching. During the 1968 World Series, he gave Cardinals’ batter Lou Brock an automatic ball four because Detroit pitcher Earl Wilson put his fingers to his mouth, in violation to a new rule cracking down on spitballs.

It would be unfair to call Earl Weaver Haller’s nemesis, because the Baltimore manager was the nemesis of every umpire in the American League. Haller ejected him from five games over the years, with the first coming on August 2, 1969. The official report, and the explanation offered on Retrosheet, is that Haller caught Weaver smoking in the dugout, which had been declared illegal. However, it wasn’t quite that simple. Per The Baltimore Sun: “‘Haller told me to get out of there with the cigarette, that it was costing me $20, and I went like this,’ Weaver said, pointing individual fingers on each hand upward.” (The paper declined to mention which fingers Weaver raised.)

Haller and manager Bill Rigney of the California Angels have an on-field discussion. Source: The Baltimore Sun, August 27, 1967.

As Haller was an American League umpire, he never had any on-field interaction with his brother Tom, who remained in the National League… until 1972. That year, Haller was signed by Detroit to be a backup catcher for Bill Freehan. The two brothers shared the same field during a series on May 23-25, but it wasn’t until July 14, 1972, that Bill Haller called a game with Tom as the Tigers catcher. It was the first time two brothers played in a game as a catcher and umpire, and it has never happened since. Tom went 1-for-4 as Kansas City won 1-0. It proved that when you’re on a ball field, you have a job to do and you worry about brotherhood second,” Tom said.

Weaver, though, had to sully the moment. About a week later, Haller was behind the plate for a Royals 8-5 win over Baltimore. The Orioles were upset at some of the balls and strikes Haller called, and catcher Andy Etchebarren was ejected. After the game, Weaver essentially accused the umpire of favoring Detroit because his brother was on the team. The Tigers, the eventual 1972 AL pennant winners, were battling Baltimore for first place in the standings, and Weaver alleged that missed calls cost the Orioles the game.

“Haller’s brother’s team is now two games ahead of us. No. I am not impugning Haller’s integrity,” Weaver said as he did exactly that. “But I get a funny feeling inside. I won’t say who, but some of my players feel the same way… When brothers are in the same league, especially when one of them catches for a contender, I don’t think the brother umpire should be umpiring games involving the Orioles.”

Haller took the high road. “I have been umpiring 10 years in the American League. I never cared before who won or lost, and I don’t care now. We are hired to be impartial, and that’s what I am,” he said. “I’ve argued with [Weaver], but that’s part of the game. You see a million of them. I’ve umpired in games with Earl since we were both in the Georgia-Florida League… The little guy is a good manager. He is good for the league, and he is good for the game. But he couldn’t be more wrong in what he has said about me.

“And tell Etchebarren that if I missed 12 pitches I’d quit. I haven’t missed a dozen pitches in a game in my life,” Haller added.

American League President Joe Cronin, seeking to avoid any conflict, buckled to Weaver. Haller was removed from his regular crew and umpired on the West Coast for most of the rest of the season. Ironically, one of his staunchest defenders was Detroit’s manager Billy Martin — no fan of umpires himself. “As long as he has been in this league, I don’t think there is any question that Bill Haller would do anything less than his best and is a completely honorable man,” Martin said. “What Weaver did was a slap at Bill Haller. If he had anything to say, he should have said it face to face.”

So when you look at the infamous video of Haller and Weaver screaming at each other during a game in 1980, understand that there is quite a history between the two. Oh, and Weaver tried to sue Haller for invasion of privacy over that video, because he didn’t know that Haller was wearing a microphone for a documentary.

Haller had a total of 71 ejections in his umpiring career, which averages to fewer than four per season. It wasn’t a part of his job that he enjoyed. “The last thing an umpire wants to do is eject a ballplayer,” he said in a Newsday feature. “He does it because he has to.” He also hated having to worry about doctored baseballs, which is unsurprising considering he was having to deal with Gaylord Perry and other practitioners all the time. “I wish they’d legalize the damn thing. I don’t know why they don’t,” he said.

Haller was loyal to the umpire’s union and was part of a one-day strike in 1978. He participated in the 1979 strike as well and was one of the prominent umps who signed a statement prepared by union negotiator Richie Phillips, saying league presidents Lee MacPhail and Chub Feeney “have abused us, intimidated us, threatened us and now they are attempting to defame us.” Haller also supported fellow umpire Terry Cooney after Cooney had a severe run-in with Billy Martin, then with Oakland. The American League changed umpires’ schedules to separate Cooney and Oakland; Haller and about a dozen other AL umpires refused to comply with the changes and was fined for standing up for a colleague.

Haller was named to the All-Star Game umpire crew in his very first season of 1963. He would be awarded that opportunity three more times in his career, including twice as home-plate ump — in 1975 and 1981. He umpired four AL Championship Series (1970, 1973, 1976 and 1980) and four World Series (1968, 1972, 1978 and 1982). His final game was as the first base umpire for Game Seven of the 1982 World Series, when the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Milwaukee Brewers 6-3 to to become world champs.

Haller served as a scout for the White Sox and Yankees following his time as an umpire. Source: The Belleville News-Democrat, June 26, 1990.

Haller had eight more years to work before reaching mandatory retirement age for umpires, but he elected to quit early and take a job as the assistant supervisor for AL umpires. He held the position for three years before he was let go, and he speculated that his criticisms of umpires was part of the issue. “They get to the ballpark late and when the game is on, a lot of them stand around and talk to each other. It’s very unprofessional,” he said. After working as a scout for the White Sox and Yankees, Haller initiated the MLB umpire development program before retiring in 1994. He was an in-demand public speaker at old-timers baseball gatherings around Joliet for years after his retirement.

Haller, even when he was a relatively young umpire at 38, considered himself a throwback, favoring baseball played 50 years earlier. He was partial to the old stadiums like the old Yankees Stadium, Tigers Stadium and Fenway Park. And he understood the importance of officials and why the argument between umpires and players or managers was just part of the game.

“It always will be,” he said. “That’s why you have officials. There are close games and close calls and someone’s going to scream. Let ’em scream. They come running out here like wild men and they tell me, ‘You weren’t even in position to see that play.’ I look at ’em and say, ‘How would you know, you were in the dugout.'”

Haller is survived by his wife, Salley, children Albert and Jenny and six grandchildren.


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