Kill The Umpire!

Back in 1950, we kids of the Houston East End didn’t possess a whole lot of sophistication about  good movie acting or the importance of a multi-dimensional story narrative, but we knew who and  what we liked to see up there on the silver screen.

The Bowery Boys, The Three Stooges, and just about any western that the Avalon Theatre at 75th and  Lawndale threw at us were good enough filler for our Saturday afternoons in Pecan Park.

The big hope-spiritual fire-lighters, however, usually turned out to be any of those old classic black and whites  about baseball. And there was no bigger actor in these film epics than the great old character actor William  Bendix.

No bigger baseball movie of the time ever surpassed the endearment of one flick in particular. The 1948 biopic called “The Babe Ruth Story,” starring William Bendix, was our killer choice, as 8 to 10  year olds, for greatest movie of all the time. We were stunned when neither the movie or its star  won an Academy Award for the effort.

What’s even more stunning to me today is the fact that we even knew what the Academy Awards  were back in 1948. There was no television in Houston back then, so, we had to have either heard about the deal over the radio, read it the newspapers, or else, heard our parents talking about them.

Whatever the case, we found ourselves again nursing encouragement for Bill Bendix when he came  out as the star of “Kill The Umpire,” the story of a neer-do-well ex-ballplayer who hates umpires, but whose stronger addiction to baseball causes him to lose one job after another for sneaking off to the ballpark during the workday.

Bendix’s wife in the movie, played by the wonderful Una Merkel, makes an early far-sighted statement in the movie for what it reveals about our future understanding of addictions. Totally frustrated by her husband’s compelling attraction to baseball, regardless of consequences to his job security, she says something like, “I wish they had a program like AA for baseball nuts. Then I could call up Baseball Anonymous and have them come over here and straighten you out.” – (Hey! That was pretty good thinking for 1950!)

As much as Bendix loves baseball, he hates umpires even more, (Whoops! Here comes “irony.” The writers worked that little literary twist into the story line.) When Bendix finally runs out of job choices because of work-skipping attraction to day-game baseball, he’s at rope’s end for work until his retired umpire father-in-law gets him into school as an umpire-in-training. Bendix hates the ide of becoming an umpire, but he fears the thought of losing his wife even more.

The rest of the movie is about what Bendix learns from actually becoming an umpire. He has to deal with the receiving side of fan contempt and ward off the bribery and intimidation attempts of gangsters to control the game through the umpires. A ton of slap-stick and car chase action also then invades plot for the sakes of holding our kid-attention spans. (Yep! We had short kid attention spans even before doctors found a way to diagnose and make money with the drug companies from exotic variant opinions on “attention deficit disorders.”)

Back to the movie: After “Kill The Umpire,” we are now totally convinced that Bendix takes the Oscar this time. Of course, he doesn’t.

I still love the characters and blue-collar settings and feel of these old movies, even if I haven’t improved much on picking Oscar winners. In one scene from “Kill The Umpire,” Bill Bendix is come home to his wife, who knows that he has been fired again for going to the ballgame and being detected there by his boss when he attempts to attack an umpire with a coke bottle.

Una is waiting on the small concrete porch of their little bungalow with hands on hips and a scowl on her face. Bendix is walking head down toward his wife in silence.

When Bendix reaches his wife, he asks a question that only a husband from 1950 would ask, especially, under these circumstances.

“What’s for supper, Sweetheart?” Bendix asks.

“Better get your catcher’s mitt!” Una says.

Gotta love it. And I still do.

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5 Responses to “Kill The Umpire!”

  1. Bill Rogers Says:

    Good article. I would assume not too many of us today have seen this movie, but it’s pretty good. Sort of corny, but good. I had to watch it as my first cousin once removed (whatever that means) is in the movie as “the young fireman.” His name is Bill Lechner (my mother’s maiden name) and has one line for about 10 seconds. He’s listed in the movie bio at this link.
    http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=27641&category=Full%20Credits

    Bill never made the big time in the movies, but appeared in over 60 films, TV shows, advertisments, etc. Looking at his list of films, he appeared with may really BIG names. See the list at: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0496081/

    One of his claims to fame was as the spokesman for GM. He played the role of Johnny in the Johnny & Lucille Oldsmobile commercials back in the 50s. Remember “Come away with me Lucille in my Merry Oldsmobile?”

    I never had the chance to meet Bill as he died in 1994. I’m still kicking myself in the rear for not seeking him out during my traveling days.

    At any rate, it’s a cute movie. THanks.

  2. bbprof Says:

    Bill:

    I loved the movie. Didn’t he get the nickname—“two call Johnson” because of his eye drops> Was a wonderful movie though I doubt if I thought “Rilet” would get an academy award—an Emmy maybe—not “invented” yet I guess. Keep strolling down memory lane—best baseball movie of all time? Bang the Drum Slowly…by far…well i guess the Natural is a close second. BB

  3. Darrell Pittman Says:

    Personally, I haven’t put much stock in the Oscars ever since “Ernest Goes to Camp” was passed over for Best Picture of 1987.

  4. David Munger Says:

    Best baseball movie, For The Love Of The Game. The actors actually
    looked liked they had played ball before. It’s all subjective but whatever floats your boat.

  5. Mark Wernick Says:

    Hi Bill. I love this article and the reader comments. As it happens, I own a copy of this movie on DVD, and I watched it for the first time (that I remember) only within the past few years. I looked up info on Jeff Richards, the young man who plays his son-in-law (or daughter’s boyfriend, can’t remember which) thinking he looked more like a ball-player than an actor. Turns out he did play professionally in the minor leagues until an injury derailed his career. His acting career never seems to have evolved very much and ended in 1966. He died in 1989. However, he did make at least one baseball movie in which he starred as a ballplayer named Adam Polachuk, “Big Leaguer”, a copy of which I managed to buy. Carl Hubbell has a significacnt part in the movie. Polachuk plays an extremely talented wannabe at a tryouot whose father is a Polish immigrant who’s convinced baseball is a frivolous distraction from the crucial task of earning a living, so Polachuk has to join the tryout camp secretly so his father won;t find out. But he does find out when his son’s exploits make the headlines, and he comes to the tryout camp to order his son home. I think Carl Hubbell plays an important role in helping the father see things differently. I thoroughly enjoy a lot of these old movies as period pieces even where they lack the acting and technical sophistication of today’s movies. It’s interesting to me that William Frawley seems to have parts in so many of these old baseball movies. Thanks for another enjoyable article.

    Mark

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