Baseball's Umpiring Problem Was Already Solved By A Robot In 1939
Major League Baseball's farcical ump show needs to be fixed somehow. The answer may come from the 1930s.
"There's no guesswork in calling balls and strikes with this apparatus."
In the summer of 1939, Popular Science peered into the fantastical future of athletics with a story headlined "New Inventions in the Field of Sports." In between the "merry-go-round training machine" for rowers, and a proposal for polo on horses in water — a "thrilling new aquatic sport" — there was a futurist gem: the Electrical Umpire.
A quarter-page illustration detailed the intricate system of light beams comprising the guts of the (entirely fictional) machine. "Electric eyes" several feet to the left and right of each batter would determine whether the ball passed through the strike zone, defined as the area from the upper chest down to the knees. A projector strung along a clothesline 10 feet overhead would shoot light straight down at a mirror under home plate and recognize if the ball passed over the plate, if it had broken the vertical beam of light. When a pitch satisfied those two criteria — in the strike zone and over the plate — an indicator light signaled a strike.
The trippy part of the illustration is the home plate umpire, the very character rendered irrelevant by the contraption, standing in the background, watching idly as his duties are automated by a colorful display of mirrors, lights, and geometry.
Most of the time when you see one of these old-time guesses at the future, it's for a laugh. We don't use hovercraft skateboards or commute to work on jetpacks. (Yet.) But the electric umpire, in the form of PITCHf/x tracking, exists, more or less using the same principles that Popular Science suggested. Baseball HAS its flying car — but refuses to use it.
Which brings us to Angel Hernandez, a human umpire. He's not good at his job. Fans have known this for years. The players have known this for years. MLB and its managers have certainly known this for years. The global baseball-watching community learned this fact during this past spring. With a bit of generous calculation, there could literally be a billion cumulative people on the planet that, by now, recognize the enduring ineptitude of Angel Hernandez's umpiring ability.
And yet, here we are. Angel Hernandez is still employed, and this week he blew an easy home run call with confounding and infuriating incompetence. Not only did his crew get the call wrong initially, they looked at replay and decided to uphold their own blatantly-wrong call. Now, you could try and defend Hernandez by pinning the whole debacle on baseball's tiny replay TVs. You could speculate he's purposefully lying as some sort of egregious passive-aggressive protest against next season's expansion of instant replay. It was possible to rationalize this particular incident.
And then...a completely different set of umpires went and did more bad umpiring last night, with no technology to blame, botching a basic rule and letting the Astros replace a relief pitcher before he'd thrown a pitch. It happens nearly every night on a sliding scale of awfulness. Baseball has an umpire problem, and it's literally never going to go away because baseball does not ever want to get rid of umpires. Without umps, they claim, there is not baseball.
The 1939 robot ump won't be appearing at ballparks any time soon, despite its plausibility. But there are ways to use technology to improve the game of baseball that wouldn't be as jarring as a machine calling balls and strikes. The NHL has already provided a model for how a central supervisory nerve center can improve speedy and consistent application of rules, which would've solved the Astros relief pitcher problem. And re: Hernandez's home run debacle, it would be simple to line the outfield wall with motion sensors to triangulate and relay the ball's position, above or below the yellow the line that indicates whether a hit is a home run or not, within a second. This is not science fiction. This only requires will.
The hard part of knowing what robot umps would look like and how to build them was pretty much solved for us 74 years old by a pulp magazine feature. Now all we need to figure out is how to reprogram the men who run baseball.