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The Secret Lives of 8 Baseball Umpires

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by Robert Schnakenberg

The job of a major league umpire has surprisingly few written requirements. If you have good reflexes and decent vision, possess a high school diploma or G.E.D., and can maintain a "reasonable body weight"—whatever that means—you can enroll in one of the umpiring schools overseen by the Professional Baseball Umpire Corporation, the governing body responsible for the training, evaluation, and promotion of all professional baseball umpires. The rest is up to you.

While most umpires prefer to remain anonymous arbiters of baseball's rules, their inner lives hidden behind facemasks and cumbersome chest protectors, some aren't cut out for la vida incognito. Over the decades, a few members of the Blue Fraternity have, by choice or circumstance, risen in prominence to become household names—or, at least, fit subjects for the scrutiny of Internet listmakers like Robert Schnakenberg, author of The Underground Baseball Encyclopedia. Here's his skinny on eight umps whose secret lives merit closer examination.

1. Dick Stello

One of the last men in blue to wear a jacket-and-tie to the ballpark every day, Stello survived a Dickensian upbringing to become one of the most popular National League umpires of the 1960s and 70s. He lived in an orphanage until he was 12 years old, then was dispatched to the care of foster parents, a kindly French couple who lived on a farm in rural Massachusetts. A loner who had difficulty making long-term connections with other people, he initially gravitated toward a career in show business, working as a nightclub comic in the 1950s before strapping on the chest protector. Apparently the allure of burlesque entertainment never quite left him. In 1974, Stello married Liliana Wilczkowska, a Polish stripper better known by her stage name "Chesty Morgan" and celebrated worldwide for her 73FF breasts. ("She defies medical science!" boasted one nightclub promoter.)

Stello became Chesty's manager, although he soon grew weary of the attention it brought him. Sportswriters joked that the ump would have no trouble calling chest-high strikes now that he was married to a stripper. Their union ended in divorce in 1979. Stello's life ended just eight years later in a gruesome auto accident in Lakeland, Florida.

Did He Write a Book?
Sadly, no, although he is featured prominently in The Best Seat in Baseball, But You Have to Stand!: The Game as Umpires See It by Lee Gutkind

2. Ken Kaiser

Renowned for his inertia, Kaiser was one of the new breed of morbidly obese umps who came up through the ranks in the 1980s and 90s. Officially listed at 288 pounds—a weight that most observers considered woefully underreported—Kaiser put his girth to good use in the off-season. Before he made the majors, he worked winters as a barroom bouncer, repo man, and, most notably, as a black-hooded, axe-wielding professional wrestler known as "The Hatchet." After undergoing training with the likes of Bobby "The Brain" Heenan and Mad Dog Vashon, Kaiser began traveling the circuit as a body-slamming bad guy for hire. He grappled with such legends as Haystacks Calhoun, Andre the Giant, and Dino Bravo, pocketing as little as $25 a match for his exertions. Wisely, Kaiser insisted on donning an executioner's mask for the gig, out of fear that public exposure would put the kibosh on his umpiring career.

Only once did he come close to having his secret life revealed. Fellow ump Eric Gregg happened to be sitting ringside at a match in Philadelphia, during which Kaiser's mask was accidentally ripped off his face. After receiving his major league call-up in 1982, Kaiser forswore the squared circle—although he did return to the ring once more for charity. He mud-wrestled two female behemoths billing themselves as the Gonzo Sisters. After surviving their famed "Smother Hold"—in which his head was buried in the vast expanse of the Sisters' breasts—Kaiser managed to pin one on top of the other and claim the match.

Did He Write a Book?
Why, yes. Planet of the Umps: A Baseball Life from Behind the Plate was published in 2003.

3. Terry Tata

Life on the road presents the same temptations and pitfalls for umpires as it does for players. Witness the curious case of Terry Tata, a highly-regarded National League ump who did little to court controversy over the course of a 26-year career—on the field, anyway. The stepson of another longtime man in blue, Augie Guglielmo, Tata earned the everlasting respect of his colleagues for declining the league's invitation to cross the picket line during a 1970 umpire's strike. Away from the diamond, Tata had a taste for the high life. That caught up with him on the night of June 22, 1993, when he was drugged and robbed by a female con artist in his room at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Burlingame, California.

According to published reports, hours after working second base in that evening's game between the San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park, Tata invited a woman he had met in the hotel bar up to his room for a little red wine and light conversation. She slipped a tranquilizer into his glass and made off Tata's Rolex watch, a gold bracelet, two World Series rings, and $500 in cash. Tata managed to elude the sting of bad publicity, but he could not escape the wrath of Bud Selig six years later, when the baseball commissioner muscled him out for helping to organize an ill-fated mass resignation by disgruntled umpires in September of 1999.

Did he write a book?
No, but with a name like Tata, he would have no shortage of cute titles to choose from.

4. Ron Luciano

A colorful American League ump who wrote a string of whimsically titled bestsellers about life in the majors, Ron Luciano was the face of his profession for many baseball fans of the 1970s and 80s. The 6'4", 280-pound upstate New York native was a former All-America offensive tackle who blocked for Jim Brown at Syracuse. Drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1959, he bounced around the NFL before finishing up his career in the AFL with the Buffalo Bills. In 1964, Luciano turned to umpiring to satisfy his athletic jones. He graduated to the big leagues in 1969 and began carving out a reputation as one of the game's most articulate, and eccentric, men in blue.

An avid bird watcher, Luciano spent much of his down time on the road up on the roof of his hotel with a pair of binoculars—to the point where his fellow umps briefly suspected him of being a peeping tom. He became famous for his confrontations with managers—particularly the Baltimore Orioles' Earl Weaver, whom he once threw out of both games of a doubleheader. But Luciano's clownish public face masked considerable private pain. Friends knew him as an introverted loner who cared little for baseball and rarely watched a game he wasn't working. After retiring from the diamond in 1980, Luciano descended deeper and deeper into depression. On the afternoon of January 18, 1995, he entered the garage of his home in the village of Endicott, New York. He placed a black hose over the exhaust pipe of his brown Cadillac, keyed the ignition, rolled up the windows, and climbed into the car. A handyman found his body a few hours later.

Did he write a book?
Yes, five of them. The Umpire Strikes Back, Strike Two, The Fall of the Roman Umpire, Remembrance of Swings Past, and Baseball Lite.

5. Eric Gregg

John McSherry, a 400-pound mountain of a man who literally dropped dead of a heart attack on the diamond, may have been the unhealthiest umpire in major league history. The dangerously adipose Eric Gregg was a close second. In fact, his prodigious carriage tended to overshadow his real historical achievement as the only the third African-American umpire in major league history. Often called "Rerun" or "The Plump Ump," Gregg weighed 357 pounds at his heaviest, and was regularly subjected to taunts from fans and players alike. Major League officials were so concerned about Gregg's weight that they ordered him to go to a fat farm in the off-season. But it was Gregg's erratic performance behind the mask that would prove his undoing.

Notorious for his galactically wide strike zone, Gregg had a poor reputation within the umpiring community. He was also easily distracted. During one critical game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies in 1979, Gregg was forced to admit he was too busy watching Mary Sue Styles, the Phillies' nubile young ball girl, to tell whether a game-changing home run was fair or foul. After being forced out of the game by commissioner Bud Selig in 1999, Gregg enjoyed a lucrative second career as commissioner of The Wing Bowl, an annual chicken wing eating contest sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating. He died of a stroke in 2007.

Did he write a book?
Yes, the appropriately titled Working the Plate in 1990.

6. Dave Pallone

If only Dave Pallone could be remembered solely for being the major leagues' first publicly acknowledged gay umpire, he'd probably be a lot better off. But his story is more complicated than that. Pallone was one of eight minor league men in blue to cross the picket line during the 1979 umpires' strike, making him a pariah in the close-knit umpiring community. His nine-year career in the Show would be marked by controversy, invariably attributable to Pallone's abrasive personality. He picked fights with players, including a running feud with Dave Concepcion of the Cincinnati Reds, whom he accused of repeatedly spitting on him. When fans would taunt him between innings, Pallone would mimic their gestures back at them—a habit that did little to endear him to players or patrons alike.

Rumors about his homosexuality were rampant in major league clubhouses, supplying the subtext to Pallone's infamous finger-jabbing shoving match with Reds star Pete Rose in May of 1988. That altercation precipitated a near-riot at Riverfront Stadium and earned Rose a 30-day suspension. But Pallone likely would have survived to jab another day had he not had his sexual orientation and off-field proclivities exposed by the New York Post in a front-page newspaper article that September. Even more damaging than the involuntary outing, Pallone was linked to, but never charged in, a case involving a teenage sex ring being run out of a friend's house in upstate New York, prompting his firing by commissioner Bart Giamatti in the off-season.

Did he write a book?
Yes, his 1990 tell-all Behind the Mask is considered the Ball Four of major league umpire memoirs. In it, Pallone reveals that he had an affair with a prominent major league star and "brief encounters with a few [other] ballplayers."

7. Pam Postema

Pioneering female umpire Pam Postema was on the fast track to the majors when her career path was derailed by the untimely death of her most powerful patron. The first woman to officiate in a professional baseball game, Postema overcame enormous resistance from fellow umpires and many players to rise through the ranks of the minors. Houston Astros hurler Bob Knepper famously dismissed her candidacy for a big league promotion, saying: "I don't think a woman should be an umpire. There are some things that men shouldn't do and some things that a woman shouldn't do. I think umpiring is one of them." Major League Baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti believed in her, however, and was on the verge of awarding her a big-league promotion when he keeled over and died of a heart attack in September of 1989. Postema's hopes for making the Show died with him. After leaving the game, Postema filed a sexual discrimination suit against Major League Baseball, telling the press: "I believe I belong in the major leagues. If it weren't for the fact that I'm a woman, I would be there right now." The two sides eventually settled out of court. She later worked as a truck driver for Federal Express and a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service.

Did she write a book?
Yes, the delightfully bitter You've Got to Have Balls to Make It in This League, published in 1992. Sample passage: "Almost all of the people in the baseball community don't want anyone interrupting their little male-dominated way of life. They want big, fat male umpires. They want those macho, tobacco-chewing, sleazy sort of borderline alcoholics."

8. Joe West

"Publicity hound" isn't a term you normally hear applied to major league umpires, who generally hew to the belief that if nobody's talking about you you must be doing your job correctly. But Cowboy Joe West, as he prefers to style himself, is no ordinary umpire. In fact, he's the worst umpire in America, if you believe a poll conducted by Baseball America magazine. Surveys of major league players also routinely rank West among the game's worst officials, which is why it's so important for the imperious North Carolina native to have outside interests. West's include country music, which he has performed with the likes of Merle Haggard, Mickey Gilley, and Box Car Willie. He has recorded two CDs of C&W standards and originals, Blue Cowboy and Diamond Dreams, which he sells on his official website

Always keen to diversify, West also holds the patent on one of the game's most popular chest protectors, the so-called "West Vest," and markets a line of umpiring equipment endorsed by Major League Baseball. Of course, we only know about any of this thanks to the diligent efforts of West's publicist—yes, publicist—Marty Martel of Tennessee's Midnight Special Productions, who once aptly described his client as "one of the most unique individuals in the professional sports world."

Did he write a book?
Not yet, but you know it's coming.

You can pick up a copy of The Underground Baseball Encyclopedia on Amazon. Learn more about the book (and baseball) on the Encyclopedia's Facebook page. Author Robert Schnakenberg also writes about the nexus of history and popular culture at his blog Historical Meet-Ups.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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