Frank Pulli, a veteran umpire for the National League before the leagues converged their umpires into one group, passed away August 28th in Florida due to complications with Parkinson’s Disease at the age of 78.
Pulli was on the field as an arbiter for 3,774 games. He was there for some memorable moments, some game-changing decisions and some game-defining circumstances. He was a mentor, according to the president of the baseball umpire’s union, Joe West, to 18 umpires over his 28-year career. Amazingly, what he never witnessed in all of those games was a no-hitter.
Let that sink in. I have been a fan of baseball all my life. I’ve never witnessed a no-hitter. Not on television. Not in person. I’ve barely come close. But I have never watched a game from the very beginning and had it turn out to be a no-hitter. At the same time, I’m not sure I’ve witnessed 3,774 games from beginning to end.
28-years of being at the ballpark every day is a long time to go without seeing a no-hitter. But Pulli was there for history.
Pulli was the first base umpire in Atlanta on April 8, 1974. He had a bird’s eye view of the action in the fourth inning when, with a runner on first base, Hank Aaron launched home run 715 over the left field wall and officially passed Babe Ruth to become the all time home run leader.
Very seldom is an umpire becoming part of a story a good thing, but Pulli found a way to be a trailblazer in his own right in 1999. An early season matchup between the St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins saw an play overturned in a way never seen before.
The Cardinals were leading the Marlins by a score of 4-1 when Cliff Floyd came to the plate with a runner on and Kent Bottenfield on the mound. Floyd drove the 0-1 delivery over the wall for an apparent home run that was ruled a double by Pulli. After the Marlins argued the call, Pulli overturned the call and ruled it a home run, drawing Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa from the dugout. It was then that Pulli did the unthinkable.
Pulli walked over to the camera bay and watched the instant replay via one of the camera’s monitors. He then ruled the play a double as the replay showed clearly that the ball did not clear the wall. The Marlins immediately filed a protest on the game, which the Cardinals went on to win.
The league office heard the protest but denied it on the grounds of the call being a judgement call. Judgement calls cannot be overturned by a protest. That being said, the league did state that they did not condone the use of instant replay and that Pulli was incorrect in doing so.
It went down in history as the first time a major league umpire utilized instant replay to overturn a call.
Later that same season, Pulli learned a new definition for the word “strike”. Pulli was one of 22 umpires that staged a resignation following a labor dispute in an attempt to force the hands of Major League Baseball. The tactic did not work and Pulli left the game of baseball.
He led a historic career that spanned decades. He was witness to, and on one occasion the author of, history in the game. He was not above controversy.
He was a big part of the game he loved.