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Through an Umpire's Eyes

Little League umpire writes letter to parents just before dying of a concussion?

Published Jun 24, 2004


Glurge:   Little League umpire writes an open letter to parents just before dying of a concussion caused by a thrown bat.

Example:   [Canfield & Hansen, 1996]

Donald Jensen was struck in the head by a thrown bat while umpiring a Little League game in Terre Haute, Indiana. He continued to work the game, but later that evening was placed in the hospital by a doctor. While being kept overnight for observation, Jensen wrote the following letter:

Dear Parent of a Little Leaguer:

I'm an umpire. I don't do it for a living, but only on Saturdays and Sundays for fun. I've played the game, coached it and watched it. But somehow, nothing takes the place of umpiring. Maybe it's because I feel that deep down I'm providing a fair chance for all the kids to play the game without disagreements and arguments.

With all the fun I've had, there is still something that bothers me about my job. Some of you folks don't understand why I'm here. Some of you feel I'm there to exert authority over your son. For that reason, you often yell at me when I make a mistake, or encourage your son to say things that hurt my feelings. How many of you really understand that I try to be perfect? I try not to make a mistake. I don't want your son to feel he got a bad deal from an umpire. Yet no matter how hard I try, I can't be perfect. I counted the number of calls I made in a six-inning game today. The total number of decisions, whether on balls and strikes or safe and outs, was 146. I tried my best to get them all right, but I'm sure I missed some. When I figured out my percentage on paper, I could have missed eight calls today and still gotten about 95 percent of the calls right. In most occupations that percentage would be considered excellent. If I were in school, that grade would receive an A for sure.

But your demands are higher than that. Let me tell you more about my game today. There was one real close call that ended the game. A runner for the home team was trying to steal the plate on a passed ball. The catcher chased the ball down and threw to the pitcher covering the plate. The pitcher made the tag and I called the runner out. As I was getting my equipment to leave, I overheard one of the parents comment, "It's too bad the kids have to lose games because of rotten umpires. That was one of the lousiest calls I've ever seen." Later, at the concession stand, a couple of kids were telling their friends, "Boy, the umpires were lousy today. They lost the game for us." I felt just terrible when I got home. Here was a group of kids who had made a lot of mistakes which had cost them a number of runs.

The purpose of Little League is to teach baseball skills to young men. Obviously, a team which does not play well in a given game, yet is given the opportunity to blame that loss on an umpire for one call or two, is being given the chance to take all responsibility for the loss from their shoulders. A parent or adult leader who permits the younger player to blame his failures on an umpire, regardless of the quality of that umpire, is doing the worst kind of injustice to that youngster. Rather than learning responsibility, such an attitude is fostering an improper outlook toward the ideals of the game itself. This irresponsibility is bound to carry over to future years.

As I sit here writing this letter, I am no longer as upset as I was this afternoon, I wanted to quit umpiring, but fortunately, my wife reminded me of another situation that occurred last week. I was umpiring behind the plate for a pitcher who pantomimed his displeasure at any call on a borderline pitch that was not in his team's favor. One could sense that he wanted the crowd to realize that he was a fine, talented player who was doing his best to get along, but that I was a black-hearted villain who was working against him. The kid continued acting like this for two innings, while at the same time yelling at his own players, who dared to make a mistake. For two innings the manager watched this. When the kid returned to the dugout to bat in the top of the third, the manager called him aside. In a voice loud enough that I was able to overhear, the lecture went like this: "Listen son, it is time you mike a decision. You can be an umpire, an actor, or a pitcher. But you can only be one at a time when you are playing for me. Right now it is your job to pitch. And, you are basically doing a lousy job. Leave the acting to actors, the umpiring to the umpires, or you won't do any pitching here. Now what is it going to be?"

Needless to say, the kid chose the pitching route and went on to win the game. When the game was over the kid followed me to my car. Fighting his hardest to keep back the tears he apologized for his actions and thanked me for umpiring his game. He said he had learned a lesson that he would never forget.

I can't help but wonder how many more fine young men are missing their chance to develop into outstanding ball players because their parents encourage them to spend time umpiring.

The following morning Donald Jensen died of a brain concussion.

Origins:   My first


thought upon reading this item was that I could understand the author's viewpoint, as seen from both sides of the fence. As a Little Leaguer, I participated in plenty of games that were decided by close plays, and to our minds the close plays that went against us were always the result of blown calls by the umpires. Later, as an umpire myself, I had to deal with managers, coaches, and parents who felt it appropriate to loudly criticize and heckle the officiating crew throughout every game, and to encourage the kids participating in the sport to do the same.

My second thought was that the author of this piece wrote rather eloquently for someone spending the night in a hospital dying of a concussion.

Since this piece was published in the book A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul in 1996, many other readers have had similar thoughts: Was it really penned by a Little League umpire who died soon afterwards from the effects of being struck in the head by a thrown bat? Since the preface to the piece sets events in Terre Haute, Indiana, that is where the inquiries were directed, and in August 1996, sports columnist Andy Amey of the Terre Haute Tribune Star attempted to run the story to ground. As he reported in his August 1 column that year:

[A] friend of mine asked me if I knew any background on the story. Newspapers from both coasts have inquired through our office since the book came out.

Naturally, the first person we would try to confirm this information with is Don Stinson, the District 4 Little League administrator.

"Has that story come up again?" he said when I asked him this week. "I started hearing that about 15 years ago."

Stinson, whose Little League tenure spans a couple of decades, has no recollection of the incident. He's asked his predecessors in the position, and they don't remember it either.

Amey called upon readers who might have additional information on the story to come forward. Two weeks later, all he had was a theory about the possible origins of this mysterious piece:

I haven't yet solved the mystery of Donald Jenson, the Terre Haute umpire supposedly hit by a bat who died after penning an inspirational message about Little League baseball.

But I've been treated to one theory.

Greg Jennings, current dentist and former Terre Haute North shortstop, told me that his father Don Jennings, coach of the 1974 Patriot state baseball champions, had found a poem about a Little Leaguer many years ago and had passed it along to Terre Haute Little League officials.

It went like this:

Just a Little Boy

He stands at the plate with his heart pounding fast.
The bases are loaded, the die has been cast.
Mom and Dad cannot help him, he stands all alone.
A hit at this moment would send the team home.
The ball nears the plate, he swings and he misses.
There's a groan from the crowd, with some boos and some hisses.
The thoughtless voice cries, "Strike out the bum."
Tears fill his eyes; the game's no longer fun.
So open your heart and give him a break
For it's moments like this a man you can make.
Keep this in mind when you hear someone forget:
He's just a little boy, and not a man yet.

Don Jennings said this week that he'd received the poem from some friends who lived at Prairie Creek, and when it appeared on the 1972 Terre Haute Little League handbook he was given credit as a contributor.

Greg remembers that lots of people immediately thought Don had written the poem, which created something of a stir around the Jennings household.

"If they want to give me credit, OK, because that's pretty good," Don Jennings said of the poem this week, "but I did not write it."

Did Don Jennings of Terre Haute and his passed-along poem about a little boy trying to cope with a tough situation in a Little League game mutate into epistolary glurge about Donald Jensen (or Donald Jenson), the umpire who was struck in the head by a thrown bat and spent his last night on Earth composing an open letter to the parents of Little Leaguers before dropping dead of a concussion? Andy Amey didn't think it likely but couldn't come up with any better explanation:

Now I agree that it's pretty far-fetched to assume that from such a poem would develop the story of Donald Jenson that appeared in "A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul."

But it's no more far-fetched than having a Little League umpire die from a thrown bat and having no one in town remember the incident.

I could see the story getting embellished a little with each re-telling, until finally somebody built a complete legend around it. And it isn't much of a step from Don Jennings to Donald Jenson.

It works for me, at least until I get a correction that proves otherwise.

Queried about this item several years later, Amey said he'd heard nothing more on the matter since the publication of the "Donald Jenson" piece had prompted an initial burst of inquiries back in 1996:

I don't remember ever hearing another word about the Donald Jenson Story after I wrote those two columns. Certainly no one has come up to me and said, "Yes, I was there when this guy got hit," or anything like that, and Little League isn't so old that there aren't people around town who were here when it got started. So as far as I know, it's strictly a legend — at least as far as Terre Haute is concerned.

Other versions of this piece attribute it to sources going back as far as 1975 (most notably The Washington Journal of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation), but we haven't yet been able to obtain copies of those putative sources to verify them. Our guess is that the original version — which may or may not have been written by someone named Donald Jensen, who may or may not have been a Little League umpire — lacked the opening and closing paragraphs, which were tacked on later by someone else in an attempt to strengthen the message by adding poignancy to it. We place a good deal of stock in dying utterances; if someone was willing to expend his last efforts in this life setting down a message for others to read, then surely that message must be one of great truthfulness and importance.

Last updated:   11 March 2007

  Sources Sources:

    Amey, Andy.   "Inspirational Little League Story Keeps Coming Up."

    The [Terre Haute] Tribune Star.   1 August 1996.

    Amey, Andy.   "One Clue Pops Up to Solve Little League Mystery."

    The [Terre Haute] Tribune Star.   15 August 1996.

    Canfield, Jack and Mark Victor Hansen.   A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

    Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1996.   ISBN 1-558-74379-0.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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