A Brief History of Robotic Umpires

The Future. Space. Time. Robots. Umpires. Ridiculous sentence fragments or the theme of the 2012 baseball season? From phantom tags to Hawk Harrelson rants to hits that weren’t during no-hitters (Johan Santana), the state of umpiring has unfortunately trumped all other story lines this season. With Bud Selig considering an all-powerful “Fifth Umpire” to monitor instant replay from a top secret, underground facility for the 2013 season, and with tweets of “Robot Umps Now!” becoming a rallying call for cyborg-loving baseball fans, Major League Baseball stands at a precipice. When clones outnumber humans 2-to-1 in the not so distant future, this will be seen as the breaking point. 

The always amusing Casey Stengel, as traditional a figure as there can be, was even calling for some sort of electronic guidance as far back as 1960:

"I believe every umpire should take an examination in which his ball-and-strike decisions are compared to some sort of photographic record if just where the pitches really were. They use radar and electronics for everything else. I don’t know why it can’t be done in baseball."

Stengel was right, this guy would have made an excellent umpire: 

(image via

But Stengel was already thirty years behind the times when he asked for radar-powered arbiters, as the first appearance of an automated strike calling machine appears all the way back in the 1930s. Thanks to the Great Depression, men and women had plenty of spare time to tinker with a mechanized umpire.

From a 1939 issue of Popular Science,and discovered by Larry Granillo, comes a highly complex series of lights and beams that would make it completely impossible for the batter or catcher to do their jobs:

While such a device would have ruined baseball, it would have looked great when set to the musical stylings of Pink Floyd. 

Oddly enough, this wasn’t even the first time such an idea was floated. Three years earlier, Guy T. Lansford (a fake name if I’ve ever heard one) applied for a patent on a similar idea. Using photo electric cells, the ball would have to pass through a wall of “transparent” light to be considered a strike, causing a gong to ring out. Because that’s what baseball is missing, more gongs.

John Oram of Dallas, TX approached it from a similar direction in 1938, having his wall of light shine out from first base, but again (thankfully), this idea failed. Then World War II started up and the nation’s best and brightest decided, for some reason, to focus on other things instead of robotic umpires. Thanks to all-out global warfare, we missed out on electric eyebeams

By 1950, with the country ready to move on and the advent of B-movies on the way, Americans could once again focus on robots. Wholly unafraid, the Branch Rickey-led Dodgers tried out the next version of the electronic umpire while in Spring Training. The idea was so big that a newspaper in Glasgow covered it.

From the Glasgow Herald:

“He is a portable umpire who works on alternating current, is four feet high, two feet wide, and an inch and a half through the middle… His electronic innards consist of a complex series of mirrors and lenses designed by the General Electric Company, with strictly non-partisan advice tendered by the Dodgers. Three electronic beams scan the area through which a normal professional pitcher (that is, bowler) hurls the ball and to which the Brooklyn pitchers will henceforth try to accommodate themselves. Whenever one ball passes through the plane, the curve—and for no discernable reason— the speed of the ball. A recording cabinet standing about 25 ft from the umpire, and umbilically connected with him, translates the electric light signals into speech and shouts about the play.”

Sadly, the device looked like a more boring version of a record cabinet and failed to take off: 

(Print of Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider playing with a robot umpire available here.)

After the stunning failure of the shouting Phonogram, it would be five years before another model was ready for beta testing. The July 15, 1955 Mount Airy News reports:

“The electronic umpire is actually a robot, which is actuated by the same kind of controls that are used in the aircraft industry. It has two legs, and stands somewhat like a human being, although the dome-like head is mainly composed of electronic devices.”

After listing the advantages of having such an umpire, namely that it would call balls and strikes with accuracy, the paper then lists the many, many disadvantages. Such as:

“In the first place, one cannot imagine a catcher, batter, or pitcher flying into a rage and blessing out an electronic umpire. If he is electronic, his blood pressure would not rise and there would be no basis to expect that he could change his mind. His decision would have been made on upon electronic principles and those principles do not change.”

Because a robot has never disobeyed its prime objective and slaughtered a whole group of people before. A revised Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2.  A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 
  3. Calling balls and strikes correctly trumps the first two laws. By far. 

Unlike the previous attempts at robotic umpiring, this machine had a face. It was Garco, an Atomic Age celebrity who would pop up anywhere publicity was needed. Like at a hammer nails into a box convention or some sort of examination room with a beautiful woman. You know, robot stuff.

While kicking around America’s backfields and performing a variety of menial tasks in exchange for photographs, Garco eventually found himself in Hollywood in 1966 where he and Hollywood Stars manager Bobby Bragan had a row. This lead to my favorite photograph ever taken: 

(image via the Haunted Rocket)

There is even video of the event, embedded below:

Because the clip is silent, I’ve also doubled it with the Benny Hill theme or the Avengers theme in case you’re in the mood for a comedy or a drama. The songs really add a lot to the whole experience.

As Garco bounced around, amusing crowds and hammering boxes, there was still work to be done in the field of baseball robotics. A scientific leap was made in 1961 by an honest-to-gosh Major Leaguer, Charlie James, then a bit player for the St. Louis Cardinals.

(Card via Frank Kelsey)

James, an electrical engineering student at Washington University of St. Louis, had written a term paper that theorized a way to automate the calling of balls and strikes. Since he earned his money by swinging a bat in front of the flawed individuals he was attempting to eradicate, he wanted to be sure Big Blue had no reason to retaliate

With a career on-base percentage of only .283, it’s quite possible the umpires didn’t agree with James’ radical ideas. Or he just wasn’t a very good ballplayer. Perhaps we’ll never know. 

The general thrust behind James’ work was sound though, in a way resembling today’s PITCHfx cameras. Tracking the ball during its entire flight, James’ plan was to use “three radar type devices” embedded in the ground between the pitching mound and home plate with a computer that would “calculate the path of each pitch and signal ball and strike.” It sounds pretty easy until you remember the sheer size of computers during the 1960s. Teams would need to fill entire luxury boxes just to call balls and strikes.

By 1964, with his technology still not in use, and emboldened by his strongest season Major League season yet, James went further into detail:

"It’s based on electric circuits and I can assure you that it’s trigonometrically possible. The Dodgers once tried something like it with a box behind home plate. But the box got in the way. My idea is different, placing three lines flush on the ground between home plate and the pitcher’s mound…[The lines] radiate upward and a mathematical formula can predict anything that moves in a parabolic path."

I don’t know what any of that means because that sounds like math. Still, this one had its own catch:

"The only possible defect might be determining the true course of knuckleballs. But real umpires have trouble judging knucklers, too."

Considering that knuckleballers use magic and not physics to throw their pitches, this isn’t surprising. 

In 1974, the next great hope in electronic field judging came from an eleven-year-old child. After being given a school assignment to “invent something,” code for “teacher needs the day off,” Tom Perryman decided to create a device that would one day steal jobs from humans. Why did he do it? Why does anyone do anything?

“I just got tired of seeing bad calls.”

This boy’s a hero. From the Observer-Reporter:

“Originally he figured on a machine to move on tracks in a half circle behind the batter and catcher, movable to face both left and right-handed batters. His cardboard model was complete with a blower at the bottom to dust off home plate. The device would employ sound waves meeting perpendicularly to outline the strike zone—vertical waves rising from a crystal beneath the plate to determine the width and horizontal waves from the machine to measure a high or a low ball, programmed with each batter’s strike zone between knees and shoulders.”

That doesn’t sound needlessly complicated at all. Though I do appreciate the attention to detail with the inclusion of a duster for home plate. Later, Tom spoke with his PhD-carrying father and they decided to:

"[put the energized crystal] beneath home plate to determine strikes and balls by computing the time it takes for sound waves to leave the crystal, strike the ball and echo back to re-energize the crystal."

Doesn’t “re-energize the crystal with sound waves” sound like something Phiten energy bracelets claim to do? I’m also guessing the crystal would look something like this:

(via SuperMegaMonkey)

Sadly, with the advent of the 80s, people were too busy either working on Wall Street or watching Wall Street to pay much attention to what umpires were doing, and there were no major advances in the field of umpire robotics until Major League Baseball’s failed Questec System was installed in 2001. Questec was laid to rest in 2008, ushering in PITCHfx, a system that allows teams and fans to track the exact speed, horizontal and vertical movement, and precise landing point of every Major League system. Though its not used to officially evaluate umpires, Mike Fast, now a member of the Astros organization, was able to judge the veracity of every umpire’s body of work in 2011. It’s also what lets us know that Jamie Moyer’s fastball averaged only 77 mph this season and that RA Dickey is totally rad. Though PITCHfx is the most advanced system, and has the most practical application, it’s not strong enough to take over for the men in Blue. Yet. 

But this is baseball’s tradition, trying to forever close the gap between human limits and sporting perfection, not adhering to the strict restraints that were in place when the game was invented. If this was the case, we wouldn’t have sacrifice bunts (a statistical category created in 1889) or nachos that you can eat out of a batting helmet. 

(image via Miami.com)

Just as jetpacks and sky cities seem unfeasible now, baseball may never feature the looming, emotionless, metal arbiter that science fiction promised. But with the near-certainty of expanded instant replay in the near future and the advent of FIELDfx on the way, if umpires aren’t replaced by robots, at the very least they will be the human arm of a vast, interconnected cyborg network. To the future.

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    Worth the read.
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