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Baseball, America’s link

July 3, 2008
Wayne Cook

LAKE BENTON - I've worked nine years at the Independent, and I only knew him as Hugo. He worked in the mail room during the day shift.

I've since learned he's Hugo Zick, and that we have a lot in common.

We both played fastpitch softball and give it up to umpire baseball.

We both had dreams of making the major leagues some day.

Zick came from Lucan, which was rich in fastpitch softball tradition.

He played the game along with his brothers, Otto and Steve.

"We didn't know anything about slowpitch at that time," Zick said of his softball career which began in the late 1940s.

I played fastpitch softball in college and with the East College Drive Merchants in the early 1970s.

I later pitched for Milroy and Marshall in the Redwood County League. That's the same league where Zick's roots were.

We had another common bond, that being a friend of the late Larry Knigge of Marshall, the secretary of the Southwest Umpires Association.

Zick and I both worked with that association, while I've also worked with the New Ulm, Central Minnesota (St. Cloud), Northwest (Bloomington) and South Central (Redwood Falls/Sleepy Eye) umpiring groups.

Zick remembers how he was introduced to the Southwest Umpires Association.

"I was working at Erickson's gas station," he said. "One night, I stopped in for a beer and the guys (umpires) were having a meeting back there.

Hugo remembers Knigge and his coke bottle glasses.

"I told him, 'If you can umpire with those, I can umpire'," Zick said.

It was the beginning of his umpiring career, which spanned from 1956-71.

He started when he was 27 years old. I started when I was 25 in 1975.

Two games into his career, he almost quit the job.

"I was getting too much trash talk from mangers and players," Zick said.

That's where Knigge helped solve the problem of everybody trying to intimidate Hugo.

"Larry asked me, 'What are you doing?'," Zick said. "As a rookie, all I said was strike, out, ball, safe. He said, 'Let them know you mean business.' After that, I didn't have any trouble."

Hugo and I share another thing: Big-league dreams to be an umpire.

I went to Bill Kinneman's school in Sarasota, Fla, and had the honor of working a Chicago White Sox intra-squad game. Knuckleballer Wilbur Wood was pitching. The rookies beat the veterans, 2-1.

"I saw an ad (about umpires school) in the newspaper," Hugo said.

Zick attended George Barr's umpire school in Palm Beach, Fla.

It was around 1964-65, when the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta.

Hugo was lucky enough to work the plate in a Braves' intra-squad game as part of spring training.

"I got to umpire Hank Aaron, Joe Torre and Woody Woodward," Zick said. "I got to shake hands with Torre because he was the catcher and captain of the team."

It didn't take Torre long to notice it wasn't the regular professional umpires working the game, but rather those from umpire school.

A few times, the catcher disagreed with the umpire's ball/strike call.

"He never got up from his (catcher's) stance," Hugo said. "He said, 'If this was a regular game, I'd be all over your butt.' That was it. He threw the ball back to the pitcher. He let me know in a sensible way. He knew we were rookies."

"The reason I got to work behind home plate, was because of the 11-12 umpires down there, I had the most experience. So I got to go behind the plate. I had two packages of Dentyne gym in my pocket. I shook hands with Joe Torre. I swear his hand was twice as big as mine."

Zick's dreams of becoming a professional umpire were over.

"That was way back with 15 minor leagues around the country," Hugo said. "The saddest part of it was, when I got out of school in the middle of March, all the leagues had their umpires. That was it."

He has vivid memories of Aaron being an outstanding home run hitter.

"I was in awe when he came up to the plate," Zick said. "He took a couple of pitches, then he swung. He started trotting. It was a home run. That was my biggest thrill, umpiring him."

Hugo went back to his local association, getting the chance to work the state tournament in his third year back.

"That was a thrill the first year," Zick said. "To be a rookie practically and to be (umpiring) up there."

When he returned to southwestern Minnesota, he wasn't cocky.

"Some players thought I was, but I wasn't," Hugo said. "I was myself. Some fans hollered, 'You better go back to Florida'."

Zick and I differed in one thing. He liked working the bases, and I liked working the plate.

We share another common thread, that of being able to umpire with Windom's Maurice Potter, who was deaf and mute. He actually worked with me in my first game, Legion baseball at Storden-Jeffers.

"I always gave him a hard time," Zick said. "I told him to hurry up and get the game over because it's beer time. He was a very good umpire."

Hugo had more patience than I did, as I ejected 11 players in 11 games (with one umpire) in the St. Cloud area following umpires school.

Zick only threw out one player during his career.

We both agree that if you umpire long enough and take your job seriously, you will meet good people and make lasting relationships off the field.

"Out of 100 people, 98 were good ones," Hugo said. "Of the two individuals, I threw one out - the one and only one - and the other one I should have thrown out or the base umpire should have thrown out.

"I called a high strike, and he let me know about it. That ticked me off. The next pitch was the same place. I called it a strike. I walked away and heard something land behind me. He tossed the bat."

Zick didn't see the bat go flying so he couldn't eject the player.

What about the only player that Hugo did throw out?

A few weeks later, he came up and apologized.

"He said I was right," Hugo said. "I told him it's nice for him to (apologize)."

Up until this week's interview, I don't think Hugo Zick thought that he had that much in common with me, but it's a small world




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