Behind the lines….Six Guns at the Plate

They had a problem in Kansas City. The fans were out of control. Though firearms were outlawed in town, bats, bottles, fists, and even knives came into play when groups of drunken rival fans got into disagreements over an umpire’s call.

Working behind the plate on the diamond near Fourteenth and Oak Street was a hazard many chose not to risk, creating an umpire shortage reminiscent of today.

The ballpark was the home of the Kansas City Antelopes, one of the first professional baseball teams in America. The year was 1866, and the Antelopes predated the arrival of the Cincinnati Red Legs, generally regarded as the first major league baseball franchise by three years.

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The Antelopes had a fan, a famous one who would a decade later fade into immortality in Deadwood, South Dakota.

Wild Bill Hickock loved the game of baseball. He never missed an Antelope game when he was in Kansas City, and it was there that he gained his reputation for fine clothes, fine cigars, fine food, and less than scrupulous women.

Wild Bill HIckok western gunfighter and sometime baseball umpire {h/t Wikipedia}

Many if not most of the Antelopes games ended in brawls on the field. The mayor and city council considered banning baseball, but cooler heads prevailed. In a game between the Antelopes and the Atchison Pomeroys, the contest came to a halt amidst a hail of rocks, bottles, bats, and punches between the two sides.

The Pomeroys beat the Antelopes on a Saturday afternoon in Kansas City, then returned the following weekend for a rematch, the rematch that ended in a brawl.

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Wild Bill was in the stands that afternoon but didn’t take part in the riot.

A team official suggested that maybe Wild Bill could serve as an umpire for the rescheduled contest. He agreed with the stipulation that the city council allow him to wear his pair of Colt pistols behind the plate. The city made an exception and Wild Bill called a good game without incident.

The home boys won 48-28 in a Little League-style score and though no other umpire is recorded as carrying guns on the field, the fans settled down and baseball became a bit more dignified.

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There are a couple of things we can take away from this story. The first is that games should be dignified. They should be played fiercely but within the rules. The second is that the people in the stands are there to watch, they are not part of the team, part of the officiating crew, nor do they serve any part in the contest aside from cheering for their favorite squad, that’s it.

I’m not advocating arming referees, but as football begins this Thursday afternoon with Shoshoni hosting Pine Bluffs at 4 p.m. and Wind River traveling to Saratoga the same day for a 5:30 kickoff, you’re going to notice big changes in the game.

Those changes aren’t on the field, but they’re clearly evident in the game times.

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Officials are in short supply, very short supply, and rather than enforce decorum by kicking out unruly fans, not for the game, but for the entire school year, it’s easier to have the dwindling pool of game officials just do more and more with fewer and fewer numbers.

What that means to you is that Class 1-A 9-man football will have most of their games on Thursday, Class 1-A 6-man will play on Saturday and nearby schools will schedule Friday game times for officiating crews are able to work two games, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. That means a lot of Class 2-A games kicking off at 2 p.m. or shortly thereafter so a Class 3-A or 4-A school 50 to 75 miles away can play at the traditional Friday night at 7 p.m.

Members of the 307 Football Officials Association routinely work four games from Thursday to Saturday every week of the season {h/t Chris Edwards}

That’s a lot of wear and tear on officiating crews, many of which are manned by men in their 50s, 60s, and older. There aren’t very many young officials working the gridiron these days. Officials have joined the dwindling ranks of teachers, bus drivers, and other school personnel. It takes a special person to put up with the growing insanity at your local middle or high school.

Somewhere in the “woke” trend, respect has missed the cut. Not to label this a political problem, because it’s not, it’s a societal issue and there is a difference.

The lack of respect for teachers, coaches, and support staff has become endemic, and it’s easy to spot on game days with the vile, insulting language flowing from fans.

As a coach, I was far from an angel. I had my share of technical fouls, a few personal foul penalties, and I was tossed from two football games in a 30+ year career. Yes, I lost it when officials wouldn’t protect my players from late hits or illegal contact. No, I shouldn’t have done it, but I understand the difference between the big mouth in the stands berating an official, and the coach defending his team.

Good officials do as well. They’ll flag a coach or hit them with a “T” when they go beyond the boundaries, but they also understand what the coach is trying to do and know the pressures that same coach is facing from the same clowns screaming in the stands.

At the end of the day, players win games, coaches lose games, and officials cheat your team, at least that’s the clueless mantra you’ll hear flowing from the worst sections of the grandstands.

Until the system changes the ranks of game officials will continue to decline. Without officials, there can’t be games.

Imagine if the buffoons hammering away verbally at coaches and officials were called on to actually help by managing the games, the result would be carnage. They are the epitome of an uninformed critic. “A critic that enters the battlefield after the war is over and shoots the wounded.”

Maybe Wild Bill was right. Intimidation often ends a lot of complaints. Are officials perfect? No way, I coached too long to ever believe that, but on the other hand, I’ve officiated football, basketball, and baseball almost as long as I’ve coached, and I know I’ve missed calls, every good official admits that as well.

The moral of the story is to enjoy the game, cheer for your team (not just your kid) and groan when a call doesn’t go your way, but don’t make a fool of yourself just because you don’t agree with the penalty.

Here’s to a good, well-behaved season.

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