Roger Hammond throws out baseball terms like someone who has been on the diamond a long, long time.
They pepper his speech.
The skin infields (from the days of dirt infields).
The bangers at first. (Plays where the pop of the ball-to-glove and foot-on-base happen almost simultaneously.)
The summer scrub league (Little League) he grew up in at Crete, captured in yellowed newspaper clippings in a precious sports scrapbook his mother made a lifetime ago.
Hammond is 72, living in Red Cloud, retired from a 44-year career in education. But baseball lasted even longer.
He retired in late July after 60 years as an umpire.
If you did the math, Hammond would need to be 12 when he started … and your math would be correct.
His coach came up short one umpire, and looked to the players gathered around him on a ballfield in Crete’s Tuxedo Park.
“Hey, Roger. You want to ump for us?” he asked the 12-year-old.
A second baseman who really hankered to pitch, Hammond answered with a quick “Heck, yeah.”
He’s been doing it ever since – and not for the pay, which that first day was a vanilla ice cream cone, funded by a pass of a hat through the crowd.
It didn’t matter. Hammond was hooked.
Baseball officials and the Nebraska School Activities Association say there aren’t many – if any – who can match Hammond’s longevity.
Not only did he ump baseball for 60 years, NSAA records show he also officiated softball, volleyball (42 years), track (19 years) and basketball (46 years) in Nebraska. He is registered to officiate volleyball and track again this year.
There are others who have dedicated 30 to 50 years of their lives officiating in Nebraska, said Nate Neuhaus, NSAA assistant director and supervisor of officials. But it’s not the norm.
The average age of Nebraska officials is 55 across all sports, and longtime referees defy the current trend.
“We have a good pool of first-year officials right now, but unfortunately, retention rates are not good,” Neuhaus said. “We lose a lot of new officials in the first three years because of the way they are treated.”
Hammond didn’t worry about that when he started out. He just knew he loved baseball. He played all sports at Crete High School. By 19, he was umping American Legion Baseball.
He made Doane College’s baseball team, but served as a manager most of the time. His claim to fame came against the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. With the team’s starting catchers out with injuries, he filled in and hit a home run.
Hammond turned his 1974 bachelor’s degree in education from Wayne State into a long career as a physical education/health teacher, coach and principal in towns across Nebraska, including Schuyler, McCook, Rising City and Red Cloud.
In every location he umpired summer baseball up to six nights a week.
The pay has improved since that first ice cream cone. Hammond said the going rate to ump a baseball game in his region is roughly $80 for a single and $140 for a double-header. Some regions pay mileage.
“He sends me an email at the end of the year with how many miles he puts on and it always amazes me,” said Gary Cullison of Beatrice, who headed the Southeast Umpire Association for 25 years. “He’s willing to drive to all the towns. He’s out there for the kids and he really respects the game.”
Traveling to about 80 games a summer, Hammond’s odometer adds 5,000 miles, easy, from Wymore and Wilber to Curtis, Elwood, Loomis, Imperial.
He’s seen about everything a Nebraska summer can dish out. Brutal heat that made him drink eight water bottles in one game. Sheets of rain that hid the edges of blacktop roads as he drove home at night. When driving home wasn’t feasible, he’d pitch a tent at a local park, read a book and rest up for the next day.
His commitment to baseball rubbed off on his family, which includes three children with his wife Paula. Neil, a math teacher with Gretna Public Schools, officiates volleyball, basketball, and baseball. Heather, officiates volleyball. Working with them was a highlight of the career, he said.
Officiating has its share of tough days, which Hammond referenced with humor.
“Know what it takes to be an umpire? When you start a game you have to be perfect and get better from there,” he says.
But he tells his younger peers, with all seriousness: Call a good game. Be approachable. Listen to people. There’s always room to learn.
Heated moments with coaches and fans arise in every sport for many reasons, he and other umpires said.
When the “hot calls” came, Hammond relied on the rule books. Sometimes, he’d ring a fellow ump on the drive home to rehash a play. Often the call was to Larry Nuss of Sutton, who officiated baseball with Hammond for more than 20 years.
“We’ve had countless conversations going home, trying to stay awake,” Nuss said. “Often it’s: ‘Hey this happened. Did I make the right call?’”
Hammond taught him a lot, he said, from making sure you are in the right place in time to make a solid call, to selling the call.
“He taught me how to confront a coach and how to listen to a coach,” Nuss said.
Recruiting young umpires to step into those uncomfortable situations is a hard sell.
“We have some new guys, but it’s hard to get a young guy to stay after they get hollered at two or three times,” Nuss said.
The harsh treatment has contributed to a decreasing pool of officials not only in Nebraska, but across the nation, said Neuhaus, whose role with the NSAA includes dealing with any issues that arise with officials.
A general lack of sportsmanship toward officials is a big contributor, he said, from coaches to spectators.
“We’re seeing more and more, a parent or someone involved with the game doesn’t want to accept the call and they blame the officials, not the mistake potentially made by the participant.”
In the past, disputes resulted in verbal abuse, but some more recent situations have escalated – people following an official out, threatening force, things “we can’t allow to continue,” Neuhaus said.
It seems to be better in smaller, rural communities where officials may know the coaches and players, said Aaron Dahl, of Geneva, who at 32 has umpired for eight years. Experienced voices like Hammond – who Dahl says knows “the ins and outs of the rule book” – won’t be around forever and he knows of only a handful of people his age looking to join.
“I don’t know that I’ll be able to last as long as Roger,” he joked.
Overall, Nebraska’s officiating pool is holding pretty steady, Neuhaus said.
In the 2022-23 school year, the NSAA had 459 classified officials in volleyball, 800 in football and 931 in basketball. By comparison, in 2010, volleyball drew 475 registered officials, football had 874 and basketball drew 1,091.
“We’re in an OK place right now, but a tipping point is coming,” Neuhaus said.
As long as officials are at an event, the general public won’t realize there is a problem, he said. “They can’t see we are scrambling and losing officials until we hit a rock-bottom moment. Until games get canceled, I don’t think people will change their behaviors.”
“We all need to realize officials are people and they are out there to provide a service.”
People sometimes ask Hammond how he has lasted so long. “In baseball, if you call a good game, you’re usually OK,” he answers.
“I’ve loved every minute. And I’ve always felt like every game, at every level, deserves good officiating.”
This summer, his strike zone felt like “the best it has ever been.” But at 72, his body is talking to him, especially the knees, telling him it’s time.
As the summer wound down to his final games, Hammond ended his career much like he started it as a 12-year-old kid – not asking for much.
He took a few selfies with fellow umpires, faces he knows he will miss.
He relished the moments when coaches told him “I’m sorry you’re retiring. You do a good job.”
The one bit of fanfare? His request to sing the national anthem at one of the last games he called during an American Legion district tournament in Wilber.
“I thought ‘Why not go out with the rockets’ red glare?’”
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