Hail to the (umpire) chief: Mitchell native Schlimgen retired, but stays with the game for amateur tourney
Longtime baseball figure entered South Dakota Umpires Association Hall of Fame in 2019
MITCHELL — Joe Schlimgen likes to consider himself a “man of all seasons.”
It’s a title that is well-earned. Over his decades in the world of South Dakota sports, has been a spectator, player and coach in all types of seasonal sports. He’s also been a referee and umpire, officiating games of football, basketball, baseball and softball at multiple levels of each game.
Today, he is enjoying his retirement from his career in education as well as an umpire, but his work on the baseball field isn’t done. He is in his second season as the umpire in chief for the South Dakota Amateur Baseball Association, and he is on duty this week and next as he oversees officials at the South Dakota State B Amateur Baseball Tournament in Mitchell.
It’s a role he has earned through years of dedication to the game, having umpired dozens of tournaments at the Teener, Legion and amateur levels in South Dakota.
“I love baseball,” Schlimgen, 1965 graduate of Notre Dame High School in Mitchell, told the Mitchell Republic. “And I’ve seen a lot. You don’t have enough time (to hear it all).”
A Mitchell native, Schlimgen began playing baseball when he was 8. Following high school, he attended Northern State University in pursuit of a business degree while playing on the golf team for legendary coach Bob Wachs, but he eventually switched to an education major. That would set up a 32-year career in teaching and school administration.
Schlimgen, 75, began umpiring out of college in 1969, working an amateur game in Spencer at the behest of South Dakota Amateur Baseball Hall of Famer Chuck Feiner. After a stint in Emery, where he coached an undefeated high school football team during the 1972 season and a South Dakota State B Boys Basketball Tournament champion team during the 1972-73 season, he headed for Battle Creek, Iowa, for another job.
It was then that he began to find his niche as an umpire.
“Umpiring seemed to be the next thing. I played amateur baseball for a couple of years, and when I went to Iowa was when I got into umpiring real heavy,” Schlimgen said.
It was about 10 years before he came back to South Dakota on another career stop and his time with South Dakota baseball was started in earnest. Since, he has been a regular presence at state baseball tournaments. In fact, he’s worked so many state tournaments he admits it’s hard to remember exactly how many he’s officiated, but he knows he’s about halfway to the century mark.
“And then I came back here and have been in over 50 state tournaments,” Schlimgen said.
That tradition continues today at the state tournament in Mitchell, where Schlimgen is on duty as umpire in chief.
Richard “Rock” Rockafellow, the current vice president of South Dakota Amateur Baseball who served as the umpire in chief for 28 South Dakota state tournaments, agreed umpiring can be a difficult job, but it can be a rewarding one, as well.
“It can be a lot of fun and it can be a royal pain,” Rockafellow said.
Umpires in chief help with the selection process for umpires working the state tournament, and are on hand at games to arbitrate in cases where there is a disputed call on the field. State officials select an experienced former umpire for the position to help ensure impartiality in the selection process and in on-the-field calls.
Someone with Schilmgen’s experience fits the bill in both cases, Rockafellow said.
“He knows the rules, and he worked a lot of baseball himself. He’s umpired a lot of state tournaments with Legion and amateur. And he puts on clinics,” Rockafellow said. “That’s who you need — someone who knows the rules and who has worked the games themselves.”
Matt Clark, president of the South Dakota Umpires Association, said Schlimgen, having just recently retired and living in Mitchell where the state tournament is regularly held, was a clear choice to take over as umpire in chief.
“They had asked us if we had any ideas (on who to appoint as umpire and chief), and with Joe retiring and living right there, the shoe kind of fit,” Clark said.
Patience and a thick skin is a virtue when it comes to umpiring. An umpire can spend long hours in the hot sun while dealing with disgruntled players upset with close calls. Members of the crowd can sometimes heckle or hurl taunts.
Clark said those factors can make it hard to keep a full roster of umpires on hand. In addition to the pressure on the field, there is the physical stress. Just recently, an umpire had to be swapped out for another due to heat exhaustion at a tournament in Gregory when it hit 111 degrees on the field, he said.
Schlimgen is also known for mentoring young up-and-coming umpires through those trials, and having that kind of ambassador for officials is crucial for keeping new umpires at the ready.
“Somebody like that means a lot to our association, because we all know we need younger people, and because we’re getting up there in age, in four or five years we may lose 10 or 15 more umpires,” Clark said. “It’s hard to get guys recruited into the game.”
While he is no longer an on-the-field umpire, he knows where the challenges are for umpires on the hook for a call. It’s key for an umpire to be consistent in their calls from the start to the end of the game, he said, and to call it fair for both teams.
“I’d say the toughest part of it is the players who go berzerk and get upset over a call,” Schlimgen said. “There are no two (umpires) who have the same strike zone. Good players and teams will bat around the first time and know what that (strike zone) is. If the consistency is there starting the game, and in the ninth inning that same consistency is still there both ways, you’ve got a good official.”
Umpiring is a great option for players who have retired but want to stay close to the game, he said. And for younger people just starting out, it’s a good way to make a little money in the summer. And good umpires are always in demand, he said.
But it does take a special breed to endure the challenges.
“For a young person who loves the game, it’s a pretty good summer income,” Schlimgen said. “I’d just say you have got to have a love for the game. And we’ve lost so many umpires because some parent or some fan got on their tail. You have to have a thick skin and have the confidence that you’re doing it right. Sometimes that’s not easy.”
Schlimgen is overseeing about 20 umpires on the field during the 2022 South Dakota State B Amateur Baseball Tournament. The tournament makes August a fun time of year at Cadwell Park, which hosts the games in Mitchell, and as the first weekend of this year’s tournament gets underway, Schlimgen said he would like to see Mitchell named as the permanent home for the tournament.
“I would like to see the commissioners designate Mitchell as the permanent home for it. If you ask any amateur player, they think it should be Mitchell,” Schlimgen said.
Schilmgen formally retired from umpiring in 2019, when he felt it was time to move on and take advantage of the extra time to spend with his grandchildren, many of whom are involved in sports. One grandson has even donned the mask as an umpire himself, he said.
At his home in Mitchell, Schlimgen keeps many pieces of memorabilia from his days as a high school administrator, coach and umpire. Included in that collection is a baseball from every South Dakota state tournament he has worked in his career, from amateur to teener and everywhere in between.
Also featured are mementos like a plaque celebrating his induction into the South Dakota Umpires Association Hall of Fame in 2019, the year he retired from umpiring. There are items celebrating his success with the Emery Eagles and their state basketball tournament title and tokens of appreciation from his time as a superintendent of schools in Plankinton, where he also won a state high school title coaching boys golf in 1997.
It’s a display of a life spent in sports, from the Little League player to the umpire in chief of the state B tournament. The journey has been worth it, he said, noting that he loved molding players into winning teams as a coach and keeping order on the baseball field as an umpire.
They are tough jobs, but someone has to do them, and Schilmgen cherishes all the memories made along the way and the stories that come with them.
“I probably have a story for every (memento), if I had time to sit down and tell them,” Schlimgen said.