(This is the first part of a 32-part series on umpires using whistles in Major League Baseball)
Cincinnati--In 1893, on a lush green pitch in the English countryside, the whistle, the size of an obese child's fist, was first used to keep the peace during a soccer match between Bracknell and Crowhorn. Reports from that day's contest, over 100 years ago, describe how the athletes were "in shock and awe" of the ear-splitting sound that was, up until that day, used only by the London Police Department.
One newspaper summary of the day read: "Behavior yesterday day on the soggy pitch was the best I had ever seen up to that point. The whistle device turned the normally rough footballers into perfect English gentlemen. Honestly, they could have played the game at Wimbledon."
Before the whistle was a common sound at athletic events, referees would clap, or yelp loudly to signify the starting or stopping of play or when a foul had been committed.
A century later, the whistle, now the size of an obese child's fingernail, is a common sight at most sporting events, well, that is, except for the American pastime of baseball. Why did the whistle never takeoff in the diamond sport, and why, considering the game's commitment to tradition, is there a relentless push by umpires (old and young) to utilize the sound devices in the near future?
Actually, if the whistle were to become a fixture in the MLB (umps are shooting for 2012), it would be a return and not an entirely new concept for the league. The whistle made a brief appearance in 1901, lasting only 25 games at the beginning of the season before being eliminated by Commissioner Gelding Stevenson after receiving over 1000 death threats.
Now, the push is on to bring it back. "When I call a third strike I want to be able to blow a whistle to add that extra kick to my signature shout," said 21-year veteran umpire Jack Burrows. "NHL, NBA and NFL officials have them, why not us? I'll blow the &*^% out the whistle when I throw a whining manager out of the game. You can count on that."
"I think I would blow the whistle whether [players] were safe or out," said second base umpire Tim Bauer, a Huntingdon Valley, PA native. "If they were out, I'd do my normal fist pump, arm bent at 45 degrees, and really blow that whistle. I'd blow it when someone called timeout, as well."
It appears most players hold the belief that umpires would improve accuracy in calling plays or balls and strikes if they had whistles. "Let's face it," said Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals first baseman, "whistles should be a tool of the trade. I don't even think we would need instant replay if umps had whistles."
But could the whistle disrupt the flow of a game? Thirty umpires were asked if they would use the whistle to let the pitcher know he could throw a pitch ... every time. That would mean the whistles would be used, for pitching alone, over 100 times per nine innings. That's a lot of whistle!
Tomorrow: What are whistles made from?