"Thank God for NBC!" Sparky Anderson yelled from the dugout.
It was Sept. 2, 1974, and Anderson's second baseman Joe Morgan was just called out at home to squelch a Reds rally in a game they would go on to lose 4-3. After Tony Perez struck out to end the inning, Anderson checked a monitor in the dugout. NBC's instant replay showed Morgan clearly touched the plate before Astros catcher Milt May applied the tag. So Anderson did what he did best: He yelled, and he was swiftly ejected by home plate umpire Jerry Dale.
If Anderson wasn't quite the first to angrily advocate for the use of instant replay by the umpires, he was among them. Instant replay technology didn't exist until 1955, when Hockey Night in Canada first used it. Its first appearance in America was possibly in an Army-Navy college football game in 1963. By the 1970s, replay became an integral part of the sports broadcast.
The profession of umpiring would never be the same. As much as the pre-replay Sparkys of the world knew they were right and the umpire was a fool, proof wouldn't exist until the morning's papers.
Consider this example from Game 4 of the 1969 World Series between the Orioles and the Mets. In the 10th inning, Mets catcher J.C. Martin laid a bunt down between the first base line and the pitcher's mound. Orioles pitcher Pete Richert fielded the ball and threw to first, but hit Martin in the wrist. The rest, from the October 1972 issue of Baseball Digest:
"The ball rolled off between first and second. While Johnson was desperately trying to retrieve it, Gaspar crossed the plate to score the winning run and give the Mets a three-game-to-one edge in the series.
"The Orioles aroused a storm, insisting to plate umpire [Shag] Crawford and first base umpire John DiMuro that Martin had illegally left the basepath and should have been called out for interference.
"Newspaper photographs the next day proved Martin had left the basepath."
Crawford admitted the next day he missed the call, but by that point nothing could be done.
The 2013 World Series is set to be the last one before an expanded replay system allowing for manager appeals takes effect. The system will assuredly have its faults, but at least in 2014 and beyond the discussions will be more "how should we use this?" and less "why aren't we using this?!" And it has been a long time coming.
Once the instant replay attained ubiquitous status, it was only a matter of time until it captured World Series umpiring ineptness in action. In 1977, just three years after Anderson praised the lord for NBC's instant replay, Nestor Chylak blew a critical play at the plate in 1977's Game 1 between the Yankees and Dodgers.
With Los Angeles up 2-1, Dodgers center fielder Glenn Burke singled with Steve Garvey on second base. When Garvey attempted to score on the hit, Chylak called Garvey out, but the TV replay showed he beat the tag. Announcing for ABC, Tom Seaver incredulously replied to the call, "The umpire is out of position! The umpire is down the line! He's not even in the picture! Where is he?" AP Sports Editor Wick Temple wrote "he might as well have been in Brooklyn."
Temple's column opened with one of the first high profile calls for instant replay in baseball. From the Palm Beach Post:
"The time definitely has come for instant replays for game officials on playoffs, World Series and Super Bowl games.
"Their own credibility is at stake.
"When an umpire blows a call in an important game on national television, the whole nation feels cheated, not to mention the guy who got the wrong end of the call."
Likely the most famous example came in 1985, when Don Denkinger ruled Royals DH Jorge Orta safe at first base to begin the ninth inning of Game 6. The Cardinals led the series 3-2 and the game 1-0; as the replay shows, Orta was obviously out:
Denkinger's moment of incompetence hardly stands alone on difficulty of the call, because we see similar plays missed multiple times yearly. But his timing couldn't have been worse. The Royals would score two runs in that ninth inning, including Orta's, and go on to win Game 7 and the Series as well.
Prior to the 1986 World Series, The New York Times' Dave Anderson served another call for replay, based both on Denkinger's whiff and the NFL's 1986 decision to implement an instant replay system.
"But as baseball awaits another World Series, the memory of Don Denkinger's indisputably incorrect call as the first-base umpire in last year's sixth game provokes an obvious question: Why doesn't baseball install an instant-replay umpire?"
Commissioner Peter Ueberroth revealed he had considered the idea. He told Anderson instant replay isn't "applicable in baseball because of the difficult angles, and the speed of the ball." Going further, Ueberroth said:
"We've considered it in baseball. And we've watched hours of umpire's calls on videotape. But the answer for the foreseeable future is that we don't intend to use television in umpiring. A bad call is part of our game."
By 1987, Cardinals fans were well acquainted with this fact. Game 7 of the World Series featured a number of blown calls -- I counted at least five when I watched the full game, available on MLB's YouTube channel devoted to classic games, similar to what Tom Haudricourt noted in his Milwaukee Sentinel post-game column. At least two calls went against the Twins -- including an out call at the plate against Don Baylor -- but Minnesota had little reason to complain in victory.
For the Cardinals, in a tie game in the sixth inning, Tommy Herr was picked off at first base by Frank Viola and got into a rundown. From the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
"[Umpire Lee] Weyer later would say he was blocked from the rundown play by Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek. Understandable. When Hrbek works on his roof, his neighbors call the event a full eclipse. But a wide-angle lens captured Herr running through Hrbek and skittling safely back to first, despite Weyer's ruling."
Weyer, who missed two more plays in Game 7, admitted he got the call wrong. He even said he would be in favor of instant replay in certain situations -- something rarely heard out of umpires or league officials. The umpires union repeatedly expressed opposition to instant replay, even after National League umpire Frank Pulli used replay to reverse a call in a 1999 regular season game.
Largely due to commissioner Bud Selig's reticence, there was little progress in the 20 years following the 1987 World Series. There were incidents, of course, that would occasionally stoke the flames. The best example from the 1990s was likely the Jeffrey Maier home run in 1996, one of the decade's most memorable moments.
But a similar play from this year's postseason -- Victor Martinez's home run in Game 4 of the ALDS against Oakland -- was not overturned by replay. The trajectory of Martinez's hit was less clear, but would today's umpires with replay be willing to call an out on a play in which the ball didn't actually fall into the fielder's glove? We may have to wait for another similar play before we can say for sure.
As high definition rendered more and more plays obviously wrong in the late 2000s, the drips of support for replays turned into a tidal wave. In 2007, replays showed Matt Holliday did not touch the plate as he barrelled home to score the winning run in a Game 163 tiebreaker to send Colorado into the playoffs.
The final straw resulting in Selig's reluctant approval of limited replay came in the 2009 ALCS between the Yankees and Angels. Game 4 wasn't a close game -- New York won 10-1 -- but a rash of terrible calls in the run up to the postseason had created general anger -- more than usual -- at the umpires. In Game 4, Tim McClelland appeared to miss a tag play on a sacrifice fly as well as an odd double-tag play at first base. As Gene Wojciechowski wrote for ESPN:
"McClelland screwed up. Just like C.B. Bucknor screwed up a couple of calls in Game 1 of the AL Division Series earlier this postseason. Just like Jerry Meals screwed up in Game 3 of the NLDS. Just like Phil Cuzzi screwed up in Game 2 of the ALDS. Just like Dale Scott screwed up in Game 5 of the ALCS."
High-profile gaffes like that helped push limited use of instant replay into action, and once that wall was crashed through, it was only a matter of discussion and time until MLB settled on an expanded system like the challenges we will see beginning next season, despite Selig's reluctance.
Selig's reluctance, at least publicly, was framed around pace. "Instant Replay doesn't always solve problems, by the way. Sometimes it creates more. You can't keep stopping games," he told ESPN Radio Chicago in 2012. And he's not wrong -- both football and basketball have dealt with pacing issues with their replay systems. And surely, baseball's will have its own problems to begin with.
But as soon as it became possible to know right or wrong without a wait, the inclusion of instant replay in the umpire's toolbox became inevitable. As soon as Sparky Anderson could praise the lord for an instant replay within minutes of seeing the play with his own eyes on the field, the absolute authority of the umpire on his own disintegrated. The progress took 40 years, slowed by tradition, politics, technology and plain old inertia. But like everyone else, sports fans thirst for the truth, and with replay, we should be closer to it than ever before.