VERO BEACH, Fla. — If Pete Rose was born to play baseball, if Gene Kelly was born to dance, Spencer Tracy to act or Frank Sinatra to sing, then Bruce Froemming was born to umpire.
Pete Rose may be the world's oldest living 10-year-old but Froemming is the country's only 45-year-old going on 12.
You look at Froemming and he couldn't be anything else but an umpire. His face looks like a baseball with these two bright blue eyes in it. It's the face of a kid who just got his first two-wheeled bike. It is a little boy's face in a beer-truck driver's body. It has a pink, well scrubbed, innocent look.
You imagine Froemming played an angel in the Christmas play as a schoolkid in Milwaukee. It is the face of a boy who would wait up for Santa Claus. It looks out of place without a baseball cap on it and fishing pole over the shoulder.
But Brucie is all umpire. It's all he ever wanted to be since he was 16. Roy Campanella said you got to be a man to be in big league baseball but you got to have a lot of little boy in you, too. Froemming qualified. On both counts.
For him, it's a calling, not a job. Something like holy orders. A sacrament, not a profession.
Nobody loves baseball like umpires. Nobody sacrifices more to stay in it. Lots of guys say they would play baseball for nothing but umps are the only ones who often do.
Froemming is a great umpire precisely because he treats the grand old game as if it were one of the great religions, and umpiring as a kind of priesthood. No breath of scandal ever touched an umpire, even though it was the logical place for one to start.
Froemming took his responsibilities so seriously that, in one of the first games he ever called, he not only threw out players, he also ordered the inhabitants of the press box off the field.
No one had ever done that before but, in Froemming's mind, he was well within his rights and, when the scribes didn't move fast enough, he decided to forfeit the game.
That was awkward. The incident took place in Duluth, in Class D, and the thunderstruck owner tried to explain the facts of life to his impetuous arbiter, which were that the club couldn't afford to fork over 1,600 refunds.
"We stood there like dummies, trying to figure how to get out of it," remembers Froemming today. There he was, a baby-faced, teen-aged umpire who had just banished the flower of minor league journalism from the swift completion of their sacred rounds.
Froemming thought he had right on his side. "My partner had this runner sliding into second and my partner banged him out when the shortstop came down with his glove on him. Only the ball wasn't in the glove, it was rolling over by third base.
"So, I walked out and told my partner, 'I think we better keep that runner on second base because the ball hasn't stopped rolling yet.' So, we correct the play. Only these guys in the press box set up these catcalls. So, I say 'Time!' And I run these guys. Them and their typewriters."
It got Froemming a lot of ink. People thought it was funny. But it didn't exactly make his career take off. He continued to gypsy around the chicken-wire leagues in Nebraska and points west, where the pay was $250 a month and the arguments frequent.
The $250 a month was not net, Froemming explains. Out of that, you had to pay for your uniform, whisk broom to sweep the plate, ball-and-strike indicator and the $1-a-night room with the toilet two flights down and the towels extra. He drove a beer truck in the off-season to keep body and soul together, both of which were expanding.
"I umpired in spring training for $10 a week and room and board," he said. "And, at night, I carried trays in the dining room, and I took the garbage out in this truck and dumped it on the other side of town to make ends meet."
Froemming loved it. After all, it was show biz. The only trouble was, he could never get out of the minor leagues. Bruce never had any resiliency. He got kicked upstairs to the Pacific Coast League where the pay was $3,000 a year. And, in his first spring training game, he kicked out the manager of the San Diego Padres.
That was a fellow named George Metkovich, a local hero. Froemming spotted a loose ball near the dugout, cluttering up his field. "Pick that up!" he ordered Metkovich.
"Pick it up yourself!" retorted Metkovich, adding some suggestions as to further disposition of the ball in question.
"I ran 'im," remembers Bruce.
Froemming's reputation for brashness even surfaced one afternoon when the great umpire, Al Barlick, offered him a crew job in a big league exhibition here.
"How about if I take home plate?" countered Froemming.
Barlick hit the roof and all but screwed himself in, till Walter O'Malley, the Dodger owner himself, who liked Froemming's style, soothed feelings and suggested that Barlick accede to the rookie's request.
"You don't need the home plate experience," he pointed out to Barlick. "He does."