Despite the quotidian nature of these vision-related insults, “Three Blind Mice” has always had a special power to enrage. Umpires have been chucking anyone with the temerity to so much as hum the song since at least 1936. According to an Associated Press report from July of that year, umpire and Norman Rockwell subject Beans Reardon “chased [pitcher] Jim Weaver off the Pittsburgh bench” for singing the song, proving that if catchers wear the tools of ignorance, umpires don the tools of sensitivity.
In 1941, the Cubs expanded the possibility of song-based heckling by introducing the first ballpark organ. Though Wrigley Field ivory tickler Roy Nelson stuck to friendlier fare, the musicians weren’t as kind in Brooklyn. In May 1942, Ebbets Field’s Gladys Goodding welcomed Bill Stewart, Ziggy Sears, and Tom Dunn to the field with umps’ least-favorite nursery rhyme. “It was a request number from a fan,” UPI reported.
The fan may have been a part of the Dodgers Sym-Phony, a ragtag band that kept up a running commentary on the on-field action with a rotating cast of horns and drums. “Three Blind Mice” was long part of the Sym-Phony’s repertoire, along with “The Hearse Song” (“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out/ The worms play pinochle in your snout/ They eat your eyes, they eat your nose/ They eat the jelly between your toes”).
“The Brooklyn Sym-Phony used to be the worst for us—they would always play ‘The Three Blind Mice’ when we’d walk out on the field,” Beans Reardon said in a 1949 interview. “And that would eat up a feller like [umpire] Babe Pinelli. I said to the Babe, just ignore ’em, and he did and they stopped after awhile. Fans like you to growl back at ’ em.”
For the men in blue, ignoring “Three Blind Mice” is easier said than done. Goodding eventually stopped playing the song. The reason: A formal complaint from an umpire led the league office to tell her to cut it out.
Meanwhile, in the Midwest, legendary Chicago Stadium organist Al Melgard was earning a reputation as the Gladys Goodding of hockey. Often credited as the first to match music to the action on the ice, Melgard played “Clancy Lowered the Boom” when referee Francis “King” Clancy called a penalty and “Don’t Cry Joe” when an opposing coach argued a call. He’d also welcome referees onto the ice with “Three Blind Mice,” a practice that continued, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in 1958, until then-NHL president Clarence Campbell “pleaded” with Melgard to stop playing the song because it “was bad for the morale of the referee and linesmen.”
While Gooding and Melgard heeded the warnings of their leagues, Vince Lascheid, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ organist from 1970 to 2003, preferred to live dangerously. Though the NHL ordered him to cut the song from his repertoire, he said he still snuck it in every now and then to “see what would happen.” Nothing ever did.
In the cases when an organist or, more commonly these days, a button-pushing intern does get heaved, the question of jurisdiction always comes up. And the answer is: Yes, they can do that. The PBUC’s umpire manual says, “Organists are not to play in a manner that will incite spectators to react in a negative fashion to umpires’ decisions” and stipulates that a violation “can result in the umpire dismissing the violator from his or her duties for the remainder of the game.” Counter to the minor-league law of the land, MLB’s official rules are less explicit. Though there’s no specific mention of music, they do grant umpires the “authority to order a player, coach, manager or club officer or employee to do or refrain from doing anything which affects the administering of these rules, and to enforce the prescribed penalties.” Think of it as baseball’s necessary and proper clause.
Just because umpires can eject rabble-rousers doesn’t mean they always do. O’Connor says sometimes a warning is all that’s called for. “You’ve got to handle the situation as it comes up,” he says, denying that there’s a strict rule for umps who hear those telltale tones. “Every situation is unique when you’re officiating.”
The trouble for umpires is that we only hear about it when they pitch a fit. Ignoring “Three Blind Mice” doesn’t warrant blog posts, sports radio segments, or mentions from Paul Harvey. But it’s worth saying that not all officials have skin as thin as a Pirates-era Barry Bonds. There are indeed umps who possess an unexpected ability to take a ribbing without retaliating. Or maybe there’s another explanation. Perhaps it’s just that their hearing is as bad as their eyesight.