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Men in blue

Twin brothers Wayne, left, and Warren Cook have collectively umpired 7,500 ball games during 42 and 36 years of calling balls and strikes on diamonds all across Minnesota.

Twin brothers Wayne, left, and Warren Cook have collectively umpired 7,500 ball games during 42 and 36 years of calling balls and strikes on diamonds all across Minnesota.

Twin brothers have umpired 7,500 games

Before the first inning starts, they stand near home plate and watch baseballs thud into the catcher’s mitt as a pitcher warms up for another game.

When it’s game time, well-known 65-year-old veteran umpires and Sleepy Eye natives Wayne and Warren Cook brush dirt off the plate, adjust a protective mask and yell “play ball.”

It’s a scene that has collectively been repeated for 78 years for the twin brothers on baseball diamonds all across Minnesota and beyond.

And the Cooks show no signs of slowing down as they remain busy calling balls and strikes, with both brothers each scheduled to work more than 100 games again this summer.

You might say umpiring is a family affair, as Wayne’s 29-year-old son Jeff is in his 12th year as an umpire, which includes working the state VFW baseball tournament in 2005 at age 17. Another brother, Steve, also spent time on the diamond as an umpire, and uncle Art Mathiowetz, at age 60, was Wayne’s partner for his first home plate game assignment. In addition, their brother Jeff Cook who died at age 48 of cancer, was inducted into the Minnesota State Amateur Hall of Fame in 2006 as a player for Leavenworth, while two more uncles, Duke and Mel Cook, also are members of the Hall of Fame.

The Cooks grew up on a farm about 10 miles southwest of Sleepy Eye, with Wayne and Warren serving as 11-year-old bat boys for the Mulligan Township amateur baseball team in the early ‘60s.

“I think we were destined to be consumed by baseball,” Wayne explained. “We built our own baseball field and every Sunday during the summer the neighbor kids would come over and we played ball.”

Even their dad, Wilfred “Dutch” Cook, would come out to the diamond carrying his scoop shovel to tell the boys it was time to do chores. “One time I was pitching, and dad stepped into the batter’s box with his shovel ,and he belts the first pitch I threw to center field for a home run,” Wayne recalled. “There was a big corn crib about 280 feet out there, so that’s a long way to hit a baseball using a shovel,” he added.

The Cook boys played in the summer teenage bi-county baseball league and high school ball for Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s. Wayne was a lefty pitcher, and Warren the catcher. “But I always had arm trouble; and I remember Warren catching the last couple innings of a no-hitter,” Wayne said.

In 1967 St. Mary’s reached the state tournament, but Wayne suffered an appendicitis attack and was hospitalized during the tournament. In his senior year of 1968 he hurt his arm again and ended up as the team scorekeeper.

Both Wayne and Warren played amateur baseball for Leavenworth before they decided to give umpiring a try. “I was pretty raw when I started umpiring in 1974. But I got more interested after talking to Joe Brunner, of New Ulm, who had come back from an umpire school,” Wayne commented.

Wayne Cook calls a runner out at first base while umpiring another amateur baseball game in Bird Island. Photo by Steve Palmer

Wayne Cook calls a runner out at first base while umpiring another amateur baseball game in Bird Island. Photo by Steve Palmer

Another mentor and hall of fame umpire, Otto Joe Siewert, of Redwood Falls, encouraged Wayne to attend umpire school too and in 1978, he went to the Joe Brinkman Major League Umpire School in Sarasota, Fla. “I was there for six weeks ,and it was intense,” recalled Wayne. “At the time the school cost $1,900. Now it costs $4,000-$5,000 for aspiring young umpires who want to follow the dream of becoming a big league umpire,” he explained.

Wayne began working baseball games for the New Ulm Area Umpire Association before getting his first newspaper job at Northfield and then worked for the Northwest Umpires Association out of Bloomington for two years.

In following years his newspaper sports writing career took him to papers in Little Falls, Redwood Falls (twice) plus Marshall. In addition he was the sports information director for Southwest State University in Marshall for seven years in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Warren was employed for 35 years at a Sleepy Eye business that printed calendars and advertising items.

After working for the Central Minnesota and Southwest Umpires Associations, Wayne and Warren co-founded the South Central Umpires Association in 1990 which has continued to serve teams in the Sleepy Eye-New Ulm area for the past 25 years. Both belong to the South Central Umpires Association while Wayne also works college games for the Fargo-Moorhead Area Umpires Ass’n.

Wayne and Warren have umpired in 70 state tournaments combined for amateur, Legion, VFW and youth baseball games during their careers, plus six national fast pitch softball tourneys for Wayne.

They both agree umpires need to have a passion for the game to be successful. “You have to be as close to being a perfectionist as you can,” Wayne explained. “Each time you step on the field you need to bring your ‘A’ game. You want to be professional, have confidence in your knowledge of the rules, be vocal and in control. When you have a good game it’s as satisfying as it would be for a batter who got four hits in the game.”

Both men know that to work a heavy schedule of games they need to be in good physical condition. “I recently did 10 straight days of doubleheader games – that’s 20 games, but I also referee football and basketball games doing 60-some games each winter and that helps me to stay active,” Wayne stated.

Home plate umpire Warren Cook calls a strike as Bird Island catcher Mason Clark throws the ball back to his pitcher Barry Wohler still pitching at age 53.     Photo by Steve Palmer

Home plate umpire Warren Cook calls a strike as Bird Island catcher Mason Clark throws the ball back to his pitcher Barry Wohler still pitching at age 53. Photo by Steve Palmer

Still, both of them have suffered injuries from working behind the plate. Warren sustained a broken forearm last year when hit by a pitched ball and now wears a padded brace to protect his arm. Wayne once took a foul tip that ricocheted off his collarbone and broke it, sidelining him for five weeks.

One of Wayne’s longtime umpire partners for 33 years was Ron Lenz who is now retired. “For 25 years we worked all of the college baseball games for MLC in New Ulm,” he said. But it didn’t start out so well when Ron missed the first doubleheader they were supposed to work because his assignment postcard notice didn’t arrive in the mail until two days after the games were played.

Another hall of fame umpire Wayne worked with for 20 years on baseball and fast-pitch softball diamonds was Maurice Potter of Windom. “Maurice was deaf and couldn’t speak, but he was firm and didn’t take a lot of guff from anybody,” Wayne recalled. “He always had a notepad with him, and if he got into a jam with a player or manager, he’d write it down on paper so his decision could be read and explained,” Wayne stated.

No hitters, star players, championship teams, extra innings and playoff games, controversy and games affected by weather are all stored in the Cooks remarkable baseball scorebook-like memory banks.

“I umped countless no-hitters, had five perfect games, seen seven triple plays and worked games with players like Terry Steinbach, Dana Kiecker, Mike Kingery, Jim Eisenriech, Dan Smith and Michael Restovich, who all became major league baseball players,” Wayne recalled. Just last summer he worked a 19-inning, five-hour game between Sacred Heart and Raymond.

Hot weather can take a toll on players, but it hasn’t affected the Cooks too much, unless you’re the home plate ump and the inside chest protector heats up the body. “I think the temperature feels about 20 degrees hotter, so you have to stay hydrated,” Wayne explained. It’s on those days Wayne said he wished he still had his old-style “balloon” chest protector to wear.

Wayne once was the plate umpire at New Ulm’s Johnson Park when the game temperature reached 103 degrees. “The Cold Spring catcher collapsed behind the plate,” Wayne said. “I was scared to see him lying there, and we had a long delay. He couldn’t finish the game but he returned the next year and actually played baseball until he reached 42 years old.”

Warren’s state tourney games have been interesting too. In a Class B amateur game between Bemidji and Hamel a batter from each team got beaned and a bench-clearing brawl followed, with several players getting ejected.

Another state tourney game saw a team’s manager hit his second home run to put his team ahead in the seventh inning. In the eigth there was an argument whether a run should have counted, and the manager was thrown out of the game when he bumped Warren.

“The team only had eight players left, but the state board let them keep playing until they could make a decision. It finally came with just one out left to play that they needed nine players on the field, so they had to forfeit after holding the lead,” Wayne recalled.

In 1994 the Cook brothers were umpiring the Class C state amateur championship game in Arlington between Milroy and Belle Plaine that saw the losing team commit nine errors. “That turned out to be the only state title game we worked together,” Wayne noted.

Another memory for Wayne was the 1989 Class 2A high school state baseball tournament at Midway Stadium in St. Paul. It was his first state high school tourney game, and New Ulm was undefeated and ranked No. 1. But New Ulm lost 3-2 in nine innings when Wayne called a New Ulm runner out on a close play at the plate to finish the game.

One of the saddest endings in Wayne’s career occurred 36 years ago when the winning pitcher in a bi-county game he worked died along with his girlfriend in a car crash a half hour after the contest ended.

Besides Minnesota, Wayne has umpired games in Iowa, South and North Dakota, Missouri and Texas. He once drove 5 ½ hours to Jamestown, N.D. for a doubleheader. “All the way driving there I hoped the games wouldn’t get rained out,” he laughed.

Wayne knows he’s worked more than 4,400 games in his 42-year career. When he started he umpired about 25 games a year. Last year he did 115 and he’ll be going over that number this year. Meanwhile, Warren figures he’s umpired about 3,100 games in his 36 years as an umpire for an amazing combined total of 7,500 games between them.

Both brothers are concerned about the increasing shortage of umpires not only in baseball but for all sports. “In the last five years there’s been a bigger decline where you see only one umpire working a game now,” said Wayne. “I worry about who’s going to replace us since a lot of umpires are in their 50s or older, so we’re coming to a crossroads to find new umpires,” he stated.

Other changes the Cooks have noticed in the past four decades include finding enough players for some towns to field a team. However, a positive change has been the return of wooden bats.

“I think eliminating aluminum bats has improved safety for players,” Wayne said. “I once worked a game when a pitcher got hit in the head by a line drive off an aluminum bat. There was a lot of blood on the ground where he fell. It was one of the scariest moments I’ve ever seen on the ball field.”

Both men say they’ve had so many other great experiences meeting numerous baseball players, fans and some celebrities over the years and they are grateful for the memories. For Wayne and Warren, umpiring is a way of giving back to the game they truly love.

“It’s been quite a journey for us, and we’d like to umpire for as long as we can. We’ve been blessed, but if it gets to be more work than fun, then we’ll know it’s time to quit, but I’ll hate to see that day when it comes,” Wayne concluded.

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