He was at the top of his profession before it all ended in bizarre fashion.
Bob Engel, who grew up in Bakersfield and went on to become one of Major League Baseball’s premier umpires, died Monday in Fallon, Nev. He was 84.
At the pinnacle of his career, Engel worked many high-profile games, and was president of the MLB umpires union. His first major league game was Aug. 24, 1965.
At his lowest moment, he was charged with stealing more than 4,000 baseball cards from a Target retail store in Bakersfield in April 1990. After pleading no contest to two misdemeanor charges of shoplifting, Engel announced his retirement that summer.
“I wish his career ended differently,” lamented longtime friend Jim Darling. “But in his heyday, as a professional, as a guy with a sense of humor, that guy was one of a kind.”
Engel had been in poor health for some time, according to friends. A service honoring Engel — who served two years in the Army — will be held at 1:15 p.m. Thursday at Bakersfield National Cemetery.
ONE OF THE BEST
Bakersfield baseball card scandals aside, Engel was at the top of his class as far as umpiring was concerned.
His 25-year career in the big leagues was no small feat. Friends and former colleagues pointed out Engel’s longevity and his position — as former president of the umpires union — as clear indicators of his stature within the game.
Engel also worked the World Series in 1972, 1979 and 1985. He worked six National League Championship Series and four All-Star Games. Those are top-shelf numbers, to be sure.
“He was well respected by all the players and managers. A terrific umpire,” said George Culver, a Bakersfield native and former MLB pitcher who took the field alongside Engel. “Day in and day out, he was the same guy. Never got rattled.”
Larry Press, the former longtime sports editor and columnist at The Californian, said Engel had a good personality. Press recalled Engel’s playing days at Bakersfield High School and Bakersfield College.
“He was a local guy who made good,” Press said. “Twenty-five years as an umpire. That’s a damn good career.”
Engel worked his way up through the ranks, officiating at the local level — high school baseball and basketball in particular — while cutting his teeth in the minor league baseball circuits, with stints in the Sooner State League, California League and Pacific Coast League.
Culver recalled pitching in a 14-inning Central Section championship game in high school with Engel behind the plate. That night, Culver said, Engel worked a California League game on the pro level.
“He had a long, long night ahead of him,” Culver recalled with a laugh.
Once Culver got to the majors, there Engel was again. The two formed a bond and friendship.
“He was a confident umpire,” Culver said. “If he made a mistake, he owned up to it.
“He was a pro. As good of an umpire in the major leagues as there was during that time.”
When Engel would throw a baseball back to the pitcher, he had a style all his own, Culver said.
“He’d throw you knuckleballs and curveballs and he’d laugh. We’d go along with it,” Culver said. “He’d just look at you and kind of grin. No other umpire had ever done that, I’m sure. One of a kind.”
Engel returned to Bakersfield often. In an era when umpires weren’t paid high salaries, Darling said Engel came back during the offseason to work as a car salesman at Valley Oldsmobile.
Darling added that Engel was manager of the sports and RV show at the Kern County Fairgrounds, where the two met in the late 1980s.
Darling said Engel became a loyal friend. Engel brought Darling into the umpires' locker room at Dodger Stadium before a game, and introduced him to manager Tommy Lasorda.
Darling added that when Engel worked a series at Dodger Stadium, he would drive back to Bakersfield between games.
“He was a cool guy. Great sense of humor,” Darling said.
While Darling said Engel was fiery and that “you just didn’t want to cross him,” he added that Engel had a “heart of gold.”
“He’d help you out any way he could,” Darling said. “We remained good friends.”
When his umpiring career was over, Engel returned to live in Bakersfield.
Engel, who was born in Atascadero, is survived by his wife of 64 years, Patricia (Plannette) Engel; daughter Lisa Owens and son Lance Engel; and grandchildren Amanda Owens and Gunther Engel.
He was preceded in death by grandson Ryan Dobbs and brother Richard.
A BIZARRE FINISH
Engel’s career ended on a down note, however, when he was charged with shoplifiting several boxes of baseball cards from a Bakersfield Target in April 1990. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to perform 40 hours of community service.
Engel, who was 56 at the time, resigned as an MLB umpire.
Press said when writing stories on Engel following the umpire’s career, the baseball card incident would inevitably pop up despite Engel’s objections.
Press explained that even if he omitted Engel's history, it would be added during the editing process.
“What you do lives after you," Press said.
During a Friday phone interview, Culver spoke about another big league umpire, Doug Harvey — a California native from South Gate who rose through the California League — who was an MLB ump from 1962-92.
Harvey settled in Porterville, and recently died, on Jan. 13. In 2011, Harvey was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Him and Bob were a real team,” Culver said.
When asked if Engel would also be an MLB Hall of Famer if not for his transgression, Culver didn’t hesitate.
“In my opinion, he would have been.”