Hall of Fame umpire Doug Harvey, called ‘God’ by players, dies at 87

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Plate umpire Doug Harvey gestures before play resumes in the fourth inning of a playoff game between the Astros and Phillies in Houston on Oct. 11, 1980. Harvey, one of 10 umpires enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame, died Saturday at 87. | AP

VISALIA, Calif. — Doug Harvey was so sure of his calls on the diamond, he ended every game the same way. Following the last out, the umpire took his wad of chewing tobacco and flung it on home plate.

“I never did have any doubt in my mind,” he once said. “The only thing in my mind was, ‘Bring it on, suckers!’”

One of only 10 umpires in the Hall of Fame, and held in such regard by major league players and managers they called him “God,” Harvey died Saturday. He was 87.

The Hall said Sunday that Harvey had been in hospice care. He died of natural causes.

Harvey umpired in the National League from 1962 through 1992, and was a crew chief for 18 seasons. He worked five World Series, including the plate for Kirk Gibson’s extraordinary home run in the 1988 opener, and six All-Star Games. His 4,673 games in the regular season rank fifth.

Commissioner Rob Manfred praised Harvey’s “strong presence and communication skills.” He said in a statement: “A generation of umpires learned as a result of Doug’s example, his eagerness to teach the game and his excellent timing behind the plate.”

In particular, Harvey would take an extra split-second to call a play, to be sure he got it right. Remember, that was long before replay could sort things out.

A day after being elected to the Hall in 2010, Harvey was asked if he ever got it wrong.

“Oh, sure,” he said, laughing. “But I remember one year I went until Aug. 28 till I kicked a play at second base.”

Over his 31 seasons, Harvey ejected 58 people. The first person he tossed was Joe Torre, as a player in 1962; his last ejection was Torre, too, as a manager in 1992.

“You always respected him because he came out to do his job and (did it) with a lot of class,” once recalled Torre, a fellow Hall of Famer. “He prepared himself every day. He was very consistent, and that’s the highest compliment you can pay anybody.”

Harvey was diagnosed with oral cancer in 1997 and went through radiation treatments, a seizure and a stroke while recovering. Harvey and wife Joy, married since 1960, took their message about the dangers of smokeless tobacco to players, coaches and managers at all levels.

During his final tour of duty around the NL, Harvey was treated to crowd reactions unusual for an umpire. Instead of the constant heckling and criticism from the stands, the ump known for shock of silver hair got standing ovations and gifts as he made his last trip into various cities.

“Doug Harvey set the bar for future umpires. He was revered for his calm demeanor, ability to control the game, knowledge of the strike zone and comprehension of the rules,” Hall President Jeff Idelson said. “He umpired with integrity, heart and common sense.”

Harvey grew up a three-sport star in El Centro, a small California town near the Mexican border. Before making the majors at 32, Harvey held some 53 jobs, from farming, to construction, to milking cows.

He umpired his first game for $3 at 16, when the regular umpire did not show for a fast-pitch softball game. He enjoyed it and soon was umpiring Little League and Pony League games.

Harvey spent four years in the minors, where he met Joy while umpiring a Class C game in Bakersfield. They had three sons together.

By the time he umpired his first big league game in 1962, Harvey’s hair had turned foul-line white, suiting him for the role of baseball arbiter. Knee problems forced him to retire three decades later.

Harvey twice was a World Series crew chief and twice called balls and strikes in the All-Star Game. He worked the NL Championship Series nine times, and was the plate umpire for the one-game 1980 playoff between Houston and the Dodgers to decide the NL West winner.

Later in his career, Harvey appeared in the “You Make the Call” segments on the televised Game of the Week.

Harvey said the toughest player to umpire was Bob Gibson, who wanted to expand the strike zone six inches on each side. Throughout his career, Gibson would routinely argue with Harvey. Years later when Gibson was a pitching coach for the Braves, the two combatants would joke about their past.

That was a tenet of Harvey’s life both at home and on the field: Let bygones be bygones.

“I always tell my wife, if you’re looking for something to put on my gravestone,” Harvey once said, “put down: ‘He was an honest man and he never held a grudge.’”

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