King Kaufman's Sports Daily

If a study about racial bias in umps is to be believed, the news is that such bias is easy to fix. Are you listening, NBA? Plus: Phil Rizzuto.


Salon Staff
August 15, 2007 8:00PM (UTC)

Hot on the heels of a study that found a slight racial bias in the work of NBA referees comes one that finds the same thing in the work of major league baseball umpires.

Next they'll be telling us there's racial bias in law enforcement. I mean, where does it end?

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The baseball study, by economics researchers at Auburn and McGill universities and the University of Texas at Austin, asserts that "controlling for umpire, pitcher, and batter fixed effects and other factors, strikes are more likely to be called if the umpire and pitcher match race/ethnicity."

Like the NBA study, which was reported in May, this one has not yet been subjected to peer review. There has been some criticism that the study is flawed because of sample-size problems, since there are so few minority umpires. Eighty-seven percent of major league umpires are white, as are 71 percent of pitchers, according to the study.

I'm pleased to be able to address those concerns in simple terms: I have no idea if those concerns are valid.

But there does at least seem to be something there with the group that is large enough, whites. The researchers, who looked at the 2.1 million pitches that were thrown from 2004 to 2006, write that the likelihood a pitch will be called a strike goes up by about 1 percent when the pitcher and umpire have the same race or ethnicity, which usually means they're both white. Since about 53 percent of the 275 pitches in an average game are called balls or strikes, the study says, something like one and a half pitches per game are affected.

That could be huge, of course. We've all seen a game turn on a single ball-strike call. But that's kind of beside the point. These researchers are economists, after all, and when economists study sports, they're usually not interested so much in the games themselves as in the fact that they are such handy laboratories. Here's what they're getting at:

"The results suggest that attempts to measure salary discrimination generally may be flawed, since the productivity measures can themselves be contaminated by the effects of racial preferences."

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And that makes the rest of their findings even more interesting: The researchers say that the bias effect disappears in games where QuesTec, a computerized system that measures the accuracy and consistency of umpires' ball-strike calls, is used. It also goes away in well-attended games, and when there are three balls or two strikes on the hitter, in which case the next called pitch will result in the end of the at-bat.

Lead researcher Daniel Hamermesh of the University of Texas called that an encouraging finding.

"The fact that with a little bit of effort this kind of behavior can be altered, that's very gratifying," he told Time. "I wish with society as a whole we could reduce the impact of discrimination as easily as it could be done in baseball."

Which brings us back to the NBA, which likes to brag about how its officials are the most scrutinized and evaluated in all of sports, though that already dubious claim -- what, exactly, constitutes a foul in the NBA again? -- took a gut shot when the Tim Donaghy scandal broke.

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This study, unless it's shown on peer review to be nonsense, ought to be considered another body blow for the NBA's story that its officiating is as good as it can be, the odd "rogue, isolated criminal" in debt to the gills notwithstanding.

If the umpire study is accurate, baseball has accomplished more oversight than the NBA just by sticking a QuesTec system in about a third of the ballparks. It should be noted that the NBA says it has done its own study that found no racial bias, though it should also be noted that the league won't release that study or allow other researchers to look at the raw data.

The sniff test doesn't give the baseball study as good a grade as it gave the NBA study. There are a lot of good questions to ask. Hamermesh has said he's sure any bias is unconscious, but if that's so, how to explain QuesTec, the count or the size of the crowd affecting umpire behavior? And why would a white umpire give a break to white pitchers but not white batters, or catchers?

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But at the very least it's fascinating food for thought. I'd love to see a similar study done about European soccer, which has been plagued by sometimes vicious racism among the fans. I'd really love to see similar studies about subjectively judged sports such as gymnastics, boxing and figure skating.

I'm not saying any of those studies would find racial bias, necessarily. But if they did, it wouldn't surprise me. Would it surprise you?

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Phil Rizzuto, 1916-2007 [PERMALINK]

Phil Rizzuto, the legendary New York Yankees shortstop turned broadcaster who died Tuesday at 90, retired from the booth just before radio broadcasts became easy to access from anywhere via the Internet.

For that reason, people who weren't old enough to see him in his playing days, which ended in 1956, and who didn't live in the New York area knew him mostly as the TV spokesman for the Money Store. Or, rather, in the Scooter's side-of-the-mouth Brooklynese, the Money Stohh.

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I would say that's a shame for such a terrific ballplayer, a defensive whiz who may not have been a deserving Hall of Famer but was a mainstay of the '40s and '50s versions of the Yankees dynasty and a member in good standing of the Hall of Real Good, and who was also a distinctively eccentric and lovable announcer for 40 years.

But it's not a shame because Phil Rizzuto was a great spokesman for the Money Store. Remember when he dressed like Santa Claus? Come on!

My favorite Rizzuto-ism was the scorekeeping notation he invented for plays that escaped his gaze while he was busy reading a birthday greeting or eating the cannoli his restaurant pals had sent to the booth. He'd write "WW" in his scorebook. It stood for "wasn't watching." Genius.

The best way to appreciate Rizzuto in all his goofy glory might be an odd little book of found poetry called "O Holy Cow: The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto," in which editors Tom Peyer and Hart Seely collected some of the Scooter's unorthodox commentary and presented it as free verse.

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Then again, the real poetry may have been watching Rizzuto play short, something this column was born way too late to do. Yanks pitcher Vic Raschi once said his best pitch was any one the batter hit Rizzuto's way.

And then there was this delicious couplet written by the great Ogden Nash, versifying about Rizzuto's style in Life magazine in 1955:

The wardrobe acquired by Phil Rizzuto
Is as tasty as melon and prosciutto.

Previous column: Outsports: The book

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