I knew him as an instructor, and as an umpiring acquaintance. But that was enough for former big league umpire John McSherry to call you…his friend.
Many of you have forgotten. And most are too young to even know.
But on this date, April 1, 1996, National League umpire John McSherry collapsed from a massive heart attack just seven pitches into the Reds opening day game against the Montreal Expos in Cincinnati…and died, shockingly, behind home plate in front of 50,000 people.
I remember watching it on television at the old BK Photo camera store in downtown Troy, Ohio…and I was stunned.
Stunned, because as some know, I spent the better part of seven years between 1975 and 1981 working as a minor league umpire. And when you’re there doing it…you never think of your mortality, and especially that way. There’s nothing in the rule book, or league manual, about dying in front of 50,000 in full uniform. I had bad games in my seven seasons, but never that bad.
Stunned, too, because I knew John McSherry – and I knew him pretty well, at that.
John was an instructor at the Major League Umpire Academy in St. Petersburg, Florida when I attended umpire school after graduating from Ohio State University in the winter of 1975. In fact, he was one of seven major league umpires that worked as an instructor at the school, along with Nick Bremigan, Steve Palermo, Richie Garcia, Joe Brinkman, Frank Pulli, and Eric Gregg. All were good people, great at their profession, and great at sharing the little things that made you better on the field.
McSherry, though, stood out. While the others were rather normal in size, John was about 6’5″ and weighed well over 300 pounds. He was a massive man with a soft voice and mild mannerisms on the field. He never got rattled, he never raised his voice, and he was known in the profession, despite his size, for being one of the very best. Even at 300 pounds McSherry was quick on his feet and covered a surprising amount of ground.
What really impressed, though, was the attention he gave to student umpires in the school. While frankly some of the others took teaching lightly, McSherry spent hours of his own time after sessions working one-on-one with those struggling to master the strike zone, how to call check swings, rules interpretations…anything. He freely gave and he never became agitated over repeated mistakes.
It was John McScherry who told me one day, prior to my working a Phillies inter-squad game in spring training, “If you’re unsure call it a strike. You’ll always get less argument by being aggressive.” I did on that day, and I never changed. And McSherry was right. I gained the reputation for being a pitcher’s umpire over the years, but I rarely had disagreements that led to ejections over balls and strikes.
McSherry was a big man with an enormous appetite, as well as enormous generosity for appreciating minor league umpires when they were around him in spring training. Once, after working a Reds -Tigers game at Joker Marchant Stadium, in Lakeland, he invited the five minor leaguers in the Tigers’ camp to come to his room at the Holiday Inn that night to watch the NCAA regional basketball finals. When we got there here was McSherry sitting on the bed with a 24-piece bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and enough beer to wash it down. Also in the room was Joe West, with a bucket and brew of his own. McSherry promptly shelled out a $100 and bought chicken and beer for the five of us…while he ate the entire bucket in front of him and washed it down with cold, refreshing Budweisers. When I watched him collapse that day in 1996…that was the first memory that flashed through my mind.
Hal McCoy tells the story of seeing McSherry after a game in St. Louis one night, sitting by himself at a window table in a downtown pizzeria, devouring an 18″ deep-dish deluxe…by himself. Stories of his appetite are legendary.
So, too, are stories of his kindness. On an off-day in 1978 I was driving through Atlanta on my way to a series in Memphis, when I stopped by Fulton County Stadium to see the Braves play the Mets. McSherry was working first base. There weren’t many people in the park that night and my partner and I worked our way down to the field seats where we got his attention. He acknowledged us and shouted that he’d meet us after the game by the player’s entrance. He actually got there before we did, and waited, choosing to hang out with a couple of minor leaguers…and bought us dinner.
He was 51 years old when he died on this date twenty years ago today, and you would never have guessed that he already had 25 years in as a big league umpire. He was still as enthusiastic about umpiring as he was the day he started.
When I have the occasion to talk with old umpires from those days, his name still frequently comes up; still a shock that he left baseball and life the way he did. I remember umpire school, fried chicken at the Holiday Inn, and John McSherry…fondly.