Francis Burkham, First Blind Major League Baseball Umpire, Dead at 88

Burkham often made calls before the pitch was delivered

LITTLETON, Colorado–Pioneering Major League Baseball umpire Francis Burkham, credited with breaking the seeing barrier in sports officiating, has died at the age of 88 of complications from walking into traffic.  On July 2, 1963, Burkham made history as the first blind man to call a big league game when he took his spot behind home plate in a game between the San Francisco Giants and Milwaukee Braves.

“There were some definite growing pains,”  says baseball historian Bell Baker, “Burkham called every pitch a strike.  What did he know?  It’s not like he could see what was going on.”

With every pitch a strike, batters were forced to swing at virtually every ball, leading to either strike outs or ground outs on every at bat.  It was a pitcher’s dream.  The game lasted 16 innings with both starting pitchers earning a complete game.

“We were both in the zone,” recalls Braves pitcher Juan Marichal of he and Giants pitcher Warren Spahn that day, “Everything you threw was right down the center, or at least was called that day.  Spahnie even started having some fun, probably a little too much.”

With the score tied at 0-0, the left-handed Spahn started the bottom of 16th inning throwing right handed.  After his first two strikes flew ten yards over batter Willy Mays’ head, Spahn managed to wobble the third pitch within striking distance and Mays blasted it over the fence for a game winning home run, ending what has been called the greatest pitching duel of the 20th century.

There would be more bumps in the road during Burkham’s four decade career as a big league umpire.  In the late 1980s Burkham was set to work a game involving the Oakland Athletics.  Afterward, Burkham, who had recently been prescribed a steroid treatment for a back problem, accidentally showered and dressed in the A’s locker room, inadvertently leaving his medication in A’s outfielder Jose Canseco’s locker.  Canseco became addicted to the drug and eventually spawned a generation of steroid-enhanced MLB players.

But those incidents can never overshadow the trailblazing career that opened up sports officiating to the vision impaired.  Eventually, every major sport around the world would begin employing blind officials, even expanding into the Olympic games, where blind boxing and gymnastics judges have become commonplace.

“Everyone would like to change the world, but Frank Burkham actually did it,”  says longtime friend Mike Periera, “The PAC 12 now only employs blind officials for their college football games.  That never would have been possible without Frank.”

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