Ed Rommel, a knuckleballer who won 171 games in 13 seasons beginning in 1920, later spent 22 years as an American League umpire. On April 18, 1956, he became the first umpire in the 20th Century to wear eyeglasses during a game. His groundbreaking move, unnoticed at the time, came at Griffith Stadium on a day the Yankees beat the Senators, 9-5.
Rommel, then 58, was the third-base umpire in Washington the day he made history. None of his calls were close. Nobody even noticed his eyeglasses until he told a reporter about what he did more than a week later.
On April 24, 1956, A.L. umpire Frank Umont donned eyeglasses for a game between the Tigers and the Athletics in Kansas City. This time, reporters noticed, and the next day’s newspapers were full of stories about what was said to be the first time a major league umpire wore glasses during game. This prompted both Rommel and National League umpire Larry Goetz to confirm that they had already done it — Goetz in the second game of an April 22 doubleheader in Philadelphia. (Behind the plate in the first game, he didn’t wear his glasses.)
“I believe it was the first time in the majors, and no one noticed them,” Rommel told Paul Menton of the Baltimore Sun after the stories about Umont had appeared. “The doctor this winter said I didn’t need glasses unless my eyes bothered me. I decided to get them anyhow for night games, when I’m on the bases…. I don’t need them for anything close, like reading, or calling balls and strikes.”
“Sure it’s OK for umpires to wear them,” Senators’ bespectacled catcher Clint Courtney said of Rommel’s glasses. Courtney was thought to be the first backstop to wear eyeglasses under his mask. “If a player can see better with them, an umpire definitely can.”
At least one 19th century major league umpire, Billy McLean, wore glasses, Bill Francis wrote in a post on the Hall of Fame’s web site about the 1956 breakthrough.
Throughout the years, a number of well-known players, prior to contact lenses becoming commonplace, wore glasses, but never a 20th-century umpire.
The idea that umpires need glasses has forever been a vocal complaint of fans and players who didn’t like the calls. In fact, suggestions that the leagues require umpires to submit to eye examines and, if needed, be required to wear glasses were the subject of serious debate by the early 1930s, if not before. Former pitcher and longtime executive Johnny Ogden promoted the idea when he ran the minor league Baltimore Orioles.
The leagues were known to tolerate a veteran umpire whose eyesight was failing. During his last several seasons through 1914, Jack Sheridan, a longtime well-regarded A.L. umpire, was limited to handling the bases, after his eyesight became so bad he could no longer accurately call balls and strikes. Still, no serious effort was made over the years by either league to determine if any umpire’s eyesight was less than perfect.
Prior to the 1956 season, American League President Will Harridge had made it clear to A.L. umpire that they were allowed to wear glasses with league approval.
“At our regular winter rules meeting with the umpires last January,” Harridge said, “we decided upon an eye examination for the entire umpire staff. Excellent reports were received with two exceptions: Frank Umont was advised to wear glasses for a time, the physician explaining that glasses probably would correct a slight defect in one eye and that he possibly could discontinue wearing.
“Ed Rommel … also was advised to wear glasses, should his eyes give him trouble this season,” he added. “We feel our action in holding the examination was practical and in the best interest of the game and the league likely will hold similar examinations each winter.”
Goetz, the first N.L. umpire to don glasses, worked in the National League from 1936 to 1957. He said he did not ask N.L. President Warren Giles for permission. “I didn’t think it was necessary,” Goetz said at the time.
Although the use of eyeglasses by umpires was widely endorsed by players and others, Yankees manager Casey Stengel had his own take on it: “They rob you for 20 years,” Stengel said of the umpires, “and then they put on glasses.”