The Most Entertaining Umpire in Minor League History

Umpire Harry “Steamboat” Johnson. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

He wiggled his hands when calling strikes, opened boxes of baseballs with his teeth and slid with runners for a closer view. He also umpired more minor league baseball games than anyone in history.

Umpire Harry “Steamboat” Johnson was on the field in ballparks across the country from 1911-1946, and his stories are as great as his nickname.

“He can outsprint any of the players when it comes to making a dash for a base and the gusto with which he brushes off home plate makes you think he is getting paid by the stroke,” the Charlotte Observer observed.

“Steamboat tells the batter to kick dust on the plate so he can have an excuse to dust it off. He usually finishes with his personal touch, a grand flourish which sends the whisk broom sailing,” the Daily News described.

Steamboat’s first professional season was 1911, working Ohio-Pennsylvania League games alone. He’d stand behind home plate until a batter reached base, then reposition himself behind the mound. “It was tough when someone tried to steal when the pitcher was throwing,” Steamboat told The Indianapolis Star.

When fans heckled him from the top row in Youngstown one day, Steamboat called time, ascended up the bleachers in full gear, plopped down next to them and called balls and strikes from the stands.

He bounced around circuits like the New York State League, Three-I League and Western League in succeeding years. He also umpired solo in 1918 for the International League, which cut back on umpires to save money during World War I.

After roaming through the Midwest and Northeast, Steamboat stuck in the South. He became an icon in the Southern Association, where he umpired for 27 of his 36 seasons, including every year from 1922-1946. “His mannerisms never made a hit in the North, but down south he is regarded as the greatest ump in the game,” the Democrat and Chronicle wrote.

“On a third strike, when a batter let it pass, Johnson would look toward the sky, in the fashion of a dog barking at the moon, and howl, ‘The batter’s o-u-u-u-t!’ ” the Arkansas Democrat recounted.

He asked players to wash his eyes with water between innings to preserve his sight, perfect 20/20 vision proven by the optometrist certificate he kept in his pocket to show questioning fans.

“When a ball was fouled down the third base line, no matter how wide foul it rolled, he would rush down after the pill, with his eyes glued upon the ball,” the Arkansas Democrat described. “Then he would turn and with a majestic gesture call ‘Foul!’ ”

One day Steamboat wasn’t sure if a fly ball went past Birmingham’s left field pole fair or foul, so he climbed over the outfield fence, found the ball’s landing spot and factored that into his decision.

In the days following a missed-base appeal call, he followed Shreveport hitters through their entire home run trots to make sure they touched all the bases.

Steamboat’s upbeat antics earned praise in the press. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote that he “loves to put snap into his gestures, adding a bit of pep to a game that usually drags in interest for even the most rabid of the Southern League’s customers.

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“He was constantly urging the ball players to hurry. It was seldom that a nine-inning game lasted much longer than two hours when Johnson was umpire-in-chief,” the newspaper continued.

As for the nickname “Steamboat,” it referred to his voice. Minor league ballparks didn’t have public address announcers in his era, so the home plate umpire faced the crowd pregame and announced the starting lineups.

“He has a voice like a Mississippi River steamboat,” The Atlanta Georgian wrote. “From now on he is ‘Steamboat’ Johnson to Atlantans.”

“He begins his announcements at home plate with his arms flying around in the air and winds up at second base with more peculiar stunts that make fans get into their seats before the game gets under way,” The Minneapolis Star detailed.

“The long burrs that follow each word, with the final yodeling of the last name is a treat for anyone bothered with the blues,” the Reading Times reported. When Nashville changed pitchers, he announced and spelled each new hurler’s name. There was a saying in the Southern Association that people in Memphis could hear Steamboat work a game in Atlanta by raising a window.

“When Steamboat called ‘em out, you could hear it over in the next county,” The Tampa Tribune quipped.

“I wanted the fellows in the cheap seats to hear whether it’s a ball or a strike,” Steamboat explained to the The Indianapolis Star.

Nashville Banner columnist Fred Russell later brooded, “I always thought that the advent of the public address system in ballparks was Steamer’s saddest day.”

Steamboat used those pipes moonlighting as a wrestling announcer in Nashville in 1920. His other offseason employers over the years included a chemical plant, a department store, a stadium light company, a truck line, refereeing boxing matches and giving speeches.

“The Steamer is a luncheon speaker of real ability and always makes a great hit whenever called upon,” The Pantagraph wrote.

It was hazardous to be an umpire in this rowdy era. Players, managers and fans were all capable of violent outbursts if a call didn’t go their way.

Nashville’s entire infield threw their gloves at him one day in Memphis. A New Orleans pitcher put Steamboat in a headlock after the umpire accused him of doctoring the ball. Birmingham’s second baseman gave Steamboat “a mighty clout to the jaw” after an ejection.

“Mr. Steamboat Johnson, the Southern League umpire, estimates that 4,000 pop bottles have been hurled at his beano during his career,” The Tampa Tribune stated.

And how many reached their intended target?

“Steamboat Johnson, minor league umpire, has seventeen pop bottle scars on his scalp,” The Honolulu Advertiser answered.

“Johnson says every scar is the result of an honest decision,” added the Stevens Point Journal.

When a catcher named McGrath clobbered him with his mask during an argument over a steal of home in 1917, Steamboat finished the game with a blood-soaked handkerchief pressed against his head before getting post-game stitches.

The Morning Call said “Steamboat has been mobbed, kicked, beaten, bitten, hit with various objects and shot at.”

Shot at?

It happened after a crucial call that went against the home team at the end of a game in Atlanta. Steamboat avoided an unruly mob with the help of a police escort and made it to the umpire’s locker room shower. That’s when an outraged fan fired a pistol at the shower. “The bullet missed me because I was bending down washing my feet,” Steamboat explained to the Ottawa Citizen.

Steamboat was assaulted by fans in Des Moines after an extra-inning ground rules dispute. He hid in a shed when fans chased him in Peoria. A female fan in New Orleans whacked him repeatedly with her umbrella. Pennsylvanians threw coal at him one day in Wilkes-Barre.

“You had to be able to take it in Wilkes-Barre,” Steamboat wrote in his memoir Standing the Gaff: The Life and Hard Times of a Minor League Umpire.

Yes, Steamboat penned an autobiography. He set up a table at ballparks before games and sold copies for $1.25. One day he blew a call in Mobile and the angry customers returned the books by throwing them at him on the field during a game. Steamboat picked up the books and sold them the next day in Memphis.

Steamboat wore a suit, traveled by train and didn’t chat with fans away from the ballpark so he wouldn’t be accused of conspiring with gamblers. He was on the field when gamblers ended a game in 1912.

“St. Joe was playing Denver at St. Joe in the Western League. There were a lot of cowboys on hand who had bet on the game,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported. “Each carried a couple of pistols. The score was tied and the home team loaded the bases in the ninth with two out. The batsman raised a tall fly ball to center field. The outfielder was camped under it when these cowboys whipped out their guns and shot the ball into bits.”

So, when cowboys shoot a live ball into bits, what’s the ruling?

“It was a home run, because the ball had disappeared from my view, having been shot into small pieces by the accurate aim of the cowboys,” Steamboat told The Tennessean.

Steamboat wasn’t just an entertainer. He was a well-respected umpire who was selected to work a July 1939 exhibition in Cooperstown for the Baseball Hall of Fame’s opening festivities. He was also selected to fill in on 54 major league games in 1914. Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and John McGraw were both on his list of “dead birds,” Steamboat’s phrase for people he ejected.

“He declined several offers to advance to the major leagues full-time because he likes the Southern too well,” the Star Tribune explained.

The Arkansas Gazette said Steamboat worked “desperately hard at his profession, and was dauntless in the clutch.” The Charlotte News once wrote “the umpiring of Steamboat Johnson was the best seen here in years, and he was given an ovation after each inning.”

Steamboat was asked to give a 20-minute speech at baseball’s winter convention in 1922 on the state of umpiring. He worked on the speech for a month and it declared an umpire must have “a good physique, strong mind, clear eyes, even temperament, quick judgement and be forceful enough in character to command.” MLB commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was so impressed by the speech that he asked for a copy.

Steamboat was a kind person who thanked crowds and told them “God bless you” after games. He never drank alcohol and tried to convert tobacco-spitting players to licorice. His wife Bertha attended games but never rooted for either team. She opened a restaurant in Memphis and called it “Steamboat Johnson’s Eat Shoppe.”

Late in his long career, Steamboat was showered with praise and gifts. The Memphis Chickasaws held “Steamboat Johnson Day” at their stadium and the Birmingham Barons held a similar bash. The mayor of New Orleans proclaimed an official “Steamboat Johnson Day” in his city.

Steamboat received an engraved watch from the Southern Association and a gold pass from the Association of Professional Baseball Players and Umpires, granting him lifetime admission to any major league or minor league game. “I don’t know quite what to say. I’ve been often cussed but never honored,” Steamboat joked to The Atlanta Constitution.

Steamboat hung up his mask following the 1946 season at age 66. He worked 5,700 career games, including 4,400 consecutive Southern Association contests, a streak longer than Cal Ripken’s or Lou Gehrig’s. “I may have missed a few low ones but I’ve never missed an assignment,” Steamboat told The Daily News-Journal.

Steamboat Johnson’s umpire card. Courtesy of Retrosheet.

Steamboat’s minor league longevity records will never be broken. These days, minor league umpires rarely last a dozen years without being promoted to the majors or cut loose to find a new line of work.

Former Southern Association president Billy Evans, himself a former MLB umpire, called Steamboat the “most colorful umpire in organized baseball” and named him the league’s first Supervisor of Umpires. “The ancient arbiter was too valuable to the league for goodwill purposes, even if he couldn’t see the distant foul lines,” The Tennessean wrote.

After three years in that position and another year running his own umpire school, Steamboat passed away in 1951 at age 70. His official death certificate lists his middle name as “Steamboat.” Newspapers across the South ran lengthy obituaries.

“The history of the Southern Association will never be complete without a generous mention of Harry ‘Steamboat’ Johnson. He is the Southern Association,” the Pensacola News Journal wrote.

The Southern League launched its Hall of Fame in 2014 to honor league alumni, “including those with Southern Association roots,” according to an MiLB.com article. The official Southern League Hall of Fame website says inductees shall include “players, managers, coaches, umpires, league and team executives, owners and media members.”

If the league is looking for its first Hall of Fame umpire, who better than Steamboat, the most famous Southern Association umpire of all.

References and Resources

  • Harry Johnson, Standing the Gaff: The Life and Hard Times of a Minor League Umpire
  • John C. Skipper, Umpires: Classic Baseball Stories from the Men Who Made the Calls
  • Alabama Journal
  • Arkansas Democrat
  • Asbury Park Press
  • Asheville Citizen-Times
  • Charlotte Observer
  • Daily Arkansas Gazette
  • Dayton Daily News
  • Democrat and Chronicle
  • Dothan Eagle
  • El Paso Herald-Post
  • Hagerstown Daily Mail
  • Montgomery Advertiser
  • Nashville Banner
  • News-Herald
  • New York Daily News
  • Ottawa Citizen
  • Pensacola News Journal
  • Phoenix Gazette
  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
  • Press & Sun-Bulletin
  • Raleigh Register
  • Reading Times
  • Salt Lake Tribune
  • Shreveport Times
  • Sioux City Journal
  • Star Tribune
  • Stevens Point Journal
  • The Anaconda Standard
  • The Anniston Star
  • The Arkansas Gazette
  • The Atlanta Constitution
  • The Atlanta Journal
  • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
  • The Charlotte News
  • The Daily News Journal
  • The Des Moines Register
  • The Dispatch
  • The Evening Journal
  • The Greenville News
  • The Honolulu Advertiser
  • The Indianapolis Star
  • The Leaf-Chronicle
  • The Minneapolis Star
  • The Morning Call
  • The Morning News
  • The Pantagraph
  • The Tampa Tribune
  • The Tennessean
  • Baseball in Mobile
  • Baseball-Reference
  • Retrosheet
  • Southern League Baseball


Tim Hagerty is the broadcaster for the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas and has written for MLB.com and The Sporting News. Follow him on Twitter @MinorsTeamNames.
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wubbie075
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wubbie075

nevermind

Andy
Member
Andy

Wonderful. I admit to my share of ball/strike complaints and the story of him joining a heckler in the stands to call em from there made me spit out my coffee. Sublime.

e_lbj
Member
Member

Great Article! I really enjoyed learning about this true character.

pedeysRSox
Member
pedeysRSox

Planet of the umps, penned by the late Ken Kaiser also mentioned Steamboat Johnson and his autobiography in his book.