When Butch Fisher passed away Wednesday in St. Paul after a battle with cancer at age 69, he left behind a legacy of 37 sterling years working in baseball as an umpire and a supervisor. Among his prize pupils were two local kids who worked their way to the major leagues — Tim Tschida and Jeff Nelson.The young umpire was having trouble focusing on pitches on this hot night in some town in the original South Coast League. There had already been a few discussions about balls and strikes and things seemed to be getting a bit tense.
Here came another pitch. The ump yelled, "Ball." The pitcher glared in again. The catcher got out of his stance, stepped out and fired the ball back to the mound as hard as he could. "Throw a [bleeping] strike," he growled at the pitcher. As he went behind the plate again, the catcher added this codicil that only the young ump could hear. "That’s the last time I am saving your butt tonight," he said. "You need to get better in a hurry."
Butch Fisher, the umpire in question here, got a lot better. When he passed away Wednesday in St. Paul after a battle with cancer at age 69, he left behind a legacy of 37 sterling years working in baseball as an umpire and a supervisor. Among his prize pupils were two local kids who worked their way to the major leagues — Tim Tschida and Jeff Nelson.
A Minnesota native, Butch attended Indiana State on a gymnastics scholarship. But he loved baseball, too. After going to Al Somers’ Umpire School, he was hired to work in the minors.
"It was tough work," he once recalled. "You went from town to town a thousand miles from home. You only had one friend — your partner. You learned quickly that, while you have to get along with players, you cannot be their friend. Most nights, the games went off without a problem. But that isn’t what you get paid for. You’re there to be the calmest guy in the world when everything is going on around you. Respect is all an umpire can ever ask for — and it is the only thing he has to have."
The lonely life on the road, plus the lure of his future wife Linda, brought Butch home to St. Paul after only a couple of seasons. He worked all the big games around town, from high school to Division I. He earned particular enmity at the University of Minnesota because he called them as he saw them. Tschida, who was working Gopher games when he was roughly the same age as some of the players, followed his lead. After ejecting head coach John Anderson one day, he, too, became persona non grata at Siebert Field. (At the time, the home team assigned the umpires, even for Big Ten games.) "Welcome to the club," Fisher said wryly.
Indeed, he spent many hours with Tschida and Nelson, two boy wonders who worked their way up the complicated minor-league system into the majors. Nothing made him prouder than to see them working at the big-league level.
An umpire’s legs only go so far. When the time came from Fisher to hang up his indicator, he became a supervisor, working first with the independent Northern League and then the independent American Association. In the Northern League’s first years, local umpires — some of whom had no experience with pro athletes — were calling many of the games. Fisher got to know every part of Highway 61 as he drove to Thunder Bay to help the eager local umps get better at their craft. Eventually, he helped convince the league owners they needed traveling umps with experience. As the caliber of play got better, so did the umpires. "Anybody can call ball and safe," he told one youngster. "You get paid to call strike and out."
While understanding some of his charges had limited skills, Fisher still felt it was his duty to defend them to the hilt. He became a regular in managers’ offices, explaining plays. But if his guys made a mistake, he made sure they knew it. But it would be done privately so the ump wouldn’t be embarrassed.
There was a memorable night in St. Paul when Saints’ manager Marty Scott and Fargo manager Doug Simunic saw their evenings end early. Scott and Simunic were bemoaning their fates under the stands at Midway Stadium when they got the idea to come out in sumo suits between innings. When the umpires spotted them, they went ballistic in waving them off the field. The next morning, league president Miles Wolff called and asked if this event really happened the way the umps said it did. When informed it was so (and there was a picture in the local paper and TV tape to prove it), Wolff sighed and fined both managers $500.
Fisher wasn’t at the game but quickly checked in as well the next morning. When told the result of the case, he expressed satisfaction because he felt his guys had been made fools of and deserved better treatment. Then he made a special request. "Can I get an extra copy of the tape for myself?" he said. "I need something to make me laugh during the winter."
(Dave Wright is a senior editor at August Publications in Minneapolis.)