BILL KLEM, 77 DIES;
DEAN OF UMPIRES
'Old Arbitrator,' Who Served National League 35 Years, Worked 17 World Series
Special to The New York Times.
CORAL GABLES, Fla., Sept. 16 — William J. Klem, dean of major league baseball umpires, died here early today in Doctors Hospital of a heart ailment, with which he became afflicted two years ago when his eyesight also began to fail. His age was 77. The "Old Arbitrator" resided at 1353 Venetian Way, San Marco Island, Miami Beach.
His widow, Marie, is the only immediate survivor.
A "Likely Young Man"
Bill Klem's connection with baseball in the role of umpire extended over four decades. For more than thirty-five years he was associated with the National League. After a season of training in the American Association, he was introduced as a "likely young man" in 1904 to the late Harry Pulliam; the president of the National League, by Hank O'Day, a veteran umpire even at that time.
At first he was viewed with some distrust by the head of the circuit that needed strong, fist-shaking authority to curb rowdy players. Accordingly, Mr. Pulliam sent him to umpire some college games before he would consent to placing him on the National League roster.
Mr. Klem umpired his first game in 1905. Pittsburgh playing Cincinnati. Fred Clarke, the Pirates' manager, who could incite to riot if he cared to, and Honus Wagner were with Pittsburgh and Ned Hanlon was the manager of the Reds. It snowed. Perhaps that was why the young umpire "got by."
Always "On Top" of Play
He was one of the first umpires to sense the necessity of leaving his position — at the plate or on the bases — to get "on top" of a play in order to make a fair decision. He would race from the plate to third base to call a play and then rush back with the runner if a bad throw or a muffed ball afforded a chance for an extra base. With three and four umpires in the game today this is not so necessary.
Mr. Klem was strict with players — not autocratic, arrogant, or domineering, as charged from time to time, but quick to resent any questioning of his decisions or his authority on the field. He had to be, as a young man, for the veterans O'Day and Emslie ruled firmly yet were subjected to little abuse. With the newcomer it was different.
So he kept the batters at bay by demanding that they call him "Mr." Klem. And he called them "Mr." in return. Team leaders were "Manager" to him — not McGraw or Robinson or Chance or Clarke. When players charged at him with spikes flying he would quickly draw a line with his foot on the turf and forbid the objector to cross the mark. If the batter did he went out of the game.
In Seventeen World Series
He served in seventeen world series. He recounted that he received $400 for his work in the 1908 series between the Chicago Cubs and the Detroit Tigers and then began to agitate for more pay for the arbiters, commensurate with the amount the players received for a week's work. He said with some satisfaction in 1938 that he had seen the amount raised for judges of play to $2,500.
Mr. Klem told countless stories of experiences in world series games, the most unusual, he used to say, being the time he allowed a series contest to be decided by a man who didn't touch the home plate. That was in the fifth game of the world series in 1911 (the Athletics finally won) when Larry Doyle of New York came in from third base on a fly which Fred Merkle hit to Danny Murphy, right fielder of the Athletics. Doyle beat the throw to the plate, but in sliding across failed to touch the rubber. And Lapp, the Philadelphia catcher, didn't touch him with the ball.
"I couldn't do anything," said Mr. Klem. "It is not up to the umpire, under the rules, to point out a player's failure to touch a base. The team on defense must spot that lapse. That's why I allowed the tally."
Mr. Klem was born of German parents in Rochester, N.Y. on Washington's birthday, 1874. In a magazine article last March he said his real name had been Klimm, but he changed it to Klem after his first year as an umpire. Later he changed it legally.
In the spring of 1896, Mr. Klem caught for the Hamilton team in the Canadian League, but his arm went bad and he was released. Later he played on semi-professional teams, worked on construction jobs and spent a short period with the Augusta team in the Maine League.
It was while playing semi-pro ball in Berwick, Pa., on Saturdays for $5 a game and working as a construction foreman, that he shifted from player to umpire at the same wage, $5 a game.
Honored by Writers
The high spot in his career came during 1939 when he received the plaque of the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association for "meritorious service to baseball over a long period of years." It marked the first time an umpire ever had been honored and the 1,000 guests gave him a great reception.
The dean of umpires lived for years in Yonkers, but since 1925 had made his winter home in Florida.
Mr. Klem's span of active duty on National League fields officially ended after the 1940 season, but even in his new capacity as chief of staff of the circuit's umpires he occasionally donned his old togs to call balls and strikes and to rule on the base paths.
Then 67, he tackled his new task of directing and helping the league's array of younger game officials with enthusiasm.
He figured in an unusual tribute for an umpire on the night of Sept. 2, 1949, at the Polo Grounds. The occasion was "Bill Klem Night," and the "Old Arbitrator" was showered with gifts.