As umpire, Bill Kinnamon of Largo saw Roger Maris break Babe Ruth's home run record

LARGO — The pitch that New York Yankees star Roger Maris belted out of Yankee Stadium for his record-breaking 61st home run on Oct. 1, 1961, was a breaking ball.

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"Slider," Bill Kinnamon said. "It started outside, broke right down the pipe and Roger hit a line drive into the right field boxes."

Kinnamon, who has lived in Largo for more than 20 years, had a bird's eye view of the legendary blast.

He wasn't just among the 23,154 in attendance that day to see Maris surpass baseball legend Babe Ruth's single-season home run record.

He was the umpire behind the plate.

"I've run into people over the years who say they were there, and say, 'Oh, I remember that,'?" said Kinnamon, now 90. "But I was very close to it."

Today, Kinnamon spends his days inside his Bardmoor Golf & Tennis Club home with his wife, Grace, and Katy, the couple's bichon frise. He watches lots of TV, enjoys meeting with friends and attends about 20 to 25 Rays games a year (he sits along the third base side in Section 123).

"He watches everything that goes on," said Grace, whom Kinnamon married in 2001.

Forty years have passed since a lingering hip injury forced Kinnamon to retire after 10 seasons as a major league umpire, but even now he can paint a picture of what professional baseball was like in the 1960s with stunningly vivid detail.

"Those were the good old days," said Kinnamon, who has minor health issues but said he's otherwise fine.

Athletics were always in Kinnamon's blood. Born in Nebraska, he was a multisport high school star and later played baseball and football at the University of Nebraska.

World War II came, and Kinnamon had to leave school.

As a supply sergeant in the Army, he said he was stationed off the coast of Alaska for three long and cold years before returning to college. Soon after finishing school, Kinnamon became an agent for the Internal Revenue Service in Wyoming.

Truth be known, he didn't much care for the job.

So when an ad for Bill McGowan's umpire school in Daytona Beach appeared in the Sporting News in 1951, he jumped at the opportunity. Before long, Kinnamon had switched careers.

"I loved it from the first day," Kinnamon said. "I remember my wife at the time saying, 'You went from the IRS, where everybody hates you, to being an umpire, where everybody hates you.'?"

After several years working minor league games, Kinnamon broke into the majors in 1960. His first of some 1,500 games was in Kansas City.

Kinnamon, like most umpires, had his own unique style. He liked to get close to the action, he said. He wasn't flashy and didn't enjoy arguments.

Yankees infielder Bobby Richardson was his favorite player. Outfielder Jimmy Piersall, whose bouts with mental illness made him the subject of the movie Fear Strikes Out, gave him the most trouble.

Kinnamon worked three All-Star games and the 1968 World Series between Detroit and St. Louis, one of the century's most famous. He was behind the plate in Game 4 of the series, as the Cardinals' Bob Gibson pitched against the Tigers' Denny McLain.

"All the guys that worked in his era loved him to death," said former American League umpire Jim Evans, who attended umpire school when Kinnamon was an instructor.

A week before Maris' 61st homer, Kinnamon also was behind the plate for No. 60.

On the day the slugger passed Ruth, Kinnamon had been scheduled to work first base. But before the game, the umpires' supervisor made a switch because the umpire scheduled to be behind the plate had just come up from Triple A ball.

A few hours later, Kinnamon had arguably the best seat in the house when Maris made history on the pitch from Boston's Tracy Stallard.

"I," Kinnamon said, "can still see it."

Keith Niebuhr can be reached at kniebuhr@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4156.

The umpire's calls

Bill Kinnamon, a former major league umpire who lives in Largo, recalls some of the 1960s' most prominent baseball players :

Luis Aparicio (Orioles, White Sox): "I don't think he ever said a word. He was very quiet."

Yogi Berra (Yankees): "The best catcher I ever saw. He would talk to all the players … all game long."

Rocky Colavito (Tigers, Indians to name a few): "A good guy. A happy-go-lucky guy. He was laughing all the time."

Al Kaline (Tigers): "Very aloof and always had a chip (on his shoulder)."

Mickey Mantle (Yankees): "One of my friends. Very outgoing personality. Everybody liked him."

Brooks Robinson (Orioles): "He'd say 'hello' before the game and 'goodbye' after it. He didn't want to talk during the game because he wanted to concentrate."

Carl Yastrzemski (Red Sox): "Easy to get along with. When you're that good, you don't have to have a chip (on your shoulder)."

As umpire, Bill Kinnamon of Largo saw Roger Maris break Babe Ruth's home run record 06/05/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 5, 2009 9:36pm]

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