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Amateur Umpire Lou Willhite Sees 'Em, Calls 'Em Like a Pro

May 14, 1987|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — The high school game was in extra innings. Lou Willhite's left arm ached--it had been struck earlier by a baseball--so the $36 he would get for umpiring behind home plate would be well earned.

The bases were loaded. Two outs. A batter with two strikes on him watched a pitch flash by.

Willhite jumped to his right and thrust out the arm that didn't hurt.

"STEEEEEEEEEE!"

This deep noise, barely intelligible in the cool, damp 10 p.m. air but universally understood as strike three, came from behind Willhite's mask.

It was so emphatic, the batter didn't argue, nor did his coach.

Watching among the sparse crowd in Blair Field's dim grandstand was John Herbold, a longtime critic of umpires.

"Most of (Willhite's) calls are good, and that's not easy to do," said Herbold, the baseball coach at Cal State Los Angeles.

"Certain people are meant to be umpires. He looks like an umpire. He's about the right height; he dresses well, doesn't take sides, doesn't chitchat a lot with players. He goes about his business in a businesslike way."

Willhite, 54, is an inch shy of 6 feet tall, with a build solid enough to convey authority. His blue shirt and gray slacks were neatly pressed. His attention to the game was equally crisp. He was a gentleman who demanded--and received--gentlemanly behavior.

"It's great to go to a game and have the coaches and players respect me," Willhite, one of the best-known amateur officials in Southern California, said last week. "You try to do a super job for the boys, the coaches and the fans so they don't even know you're there. I take pride in that."

Willhite has officiated nine CIF baseball championship games, five football finals and two basketball finals. He has worked the Connie Mack World Series in Farmington, N.M., nine times. And he has been assigned to the NCAA Division II World Series that starts next week in Montgomery, Ala.

"I've been lucky," he said. "And I've been a hard worker."

Willhite hustles through about five college or high school baseball games a week.

"He eats it up," said Russ Fendley, another veteran Long Beach official. "He'll work an afternoon game at 3, then work a 7 o'clock game 35 miles away. He loves it that much. He never shows that he's tired."

A native of Fullerton, Willhite was a left fielder for Wilson High School's CIF championship team of 1950. "I was never a superstar, always just an ordinary player," said Willhite, who later played softball.

Because of a desire to stay around sports, he began umpiring and refereeing in 1960.

"I said to my wife, 'I'm going to officiate,' " Willhite said, "and went out and spent $120 for the equipment--chest protector, shin guards and mask."

He made an immediate impression.

"The Western Softball Congress assigned me to three games my first month," Willhite said. "The next month I had 19 games."

Willhite worked for an oil company for 20 years--he's now retired--and officiated as a hobby. He had ambitions of being a professional umpire, but he was in his late 20s when he started, and the pro leagues were interested in younger men.

But the arduousness of working tournaments away from home has diminished his regrets.

"It's not fair to your family," he said. "The travel is rough. I realize the older you get how hard it is to live out of a suitcase. You officiate starting at 6, work to midnight, go out dancing with the group or have a few beers--I'm not a drinking man, but I'll go out with the group--then you get up in the morning feeling lousy, and you have to do the same thing."

Willhite has been married to his wife, Shirbey, for 23 years. "A lot of wives don't put up with it like she has," he said. "She's never, never complained."

Willhite has had to put up with a lot himself.

His shirt was torn off after he called a technical foul in a recreation basketball game.

After a baseball game, a coach tried to kick in his dressing room door.

Once, after calling a runner out at second base, Willhite was hit in the forehead by an infielder's relay throw to first for a double play attempt. "Knocked him cold as a cucumber," Fendley said.

And there was the time a pass receiver ran over Willhite during an El Rancho-Whittier football game. "Nearly killed him," said Fendley. "I came running all the way across the field, and here he was lying with his face in the mud. I shook him and he looked up at me, like 'I'm not hurt.' "

Umpires, Willhite likes to emphasize, are not perfect.

"We miss strikes, miss outs, make mistakes just like ballplayers do or a manager does, but hopefully we won't make very many," he said.

Willhite's belief in his ability, though, is so strong that Fendley enjoys kidding him about it.

"I'll be working the bases, and I'll go up to the plate between innings and whisper to him: 'Boy, they're all over you in the dugout; they think you are the worst plate umpire they have ever seen; why don't you try to get your strike zone right?' Oh, he'll blow up. I get a kick out of it.

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