We are reader supported. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Also, as an Amazon affiliate, we earn from qualifying purchases.
Any longtime player or fan of baseball is familiar with the use of the nickname “blue” to catch the attention of an umpire. The question, “Why are umpires called blue?” is fair for newcomers to the game to ask.
Baseball umpires are called “blue” because of the color of the uniform they wear ~ or, more specifically, used to wear. The term dates back to days when baseball umpires wore dark navy blue suits on the field. It continued through the 1960s when Major League Baseball umpires added light-blue polo shirts, and other shades of blue into the 1970s and thereafter.
Today, umpires at any level ~ even while not wearing anything blue in color ~ get called “blue,” usually to get their attention or make a statement of opinion about a call. In reality, today’s Major League Baseball umpires usually wear uniforms of black and gray, though they do sometimes don light blue polo shirts,
Most baseball umpires do not mind the moniker. But some object to it and prefer simply, “ump,” or better yet, “Mr. Umpire.” At the professional baseball levels, coaches and players usually know names of umpires and can be expected to use those names instead of monikers.
Anyone who has played baseball for a long time understands the motto, “The umpire is my friend.” If an umpire asks not to call him (or her) blue, it is wise to obey.
The most commonly accepted explanation for the nickname is the blue-dominated uniforms the umpires have worn over the years. However, some fans insist there is another, more spiteful, origin.
According to the Dickson Baseball Dictionary, “The term may have been derogatory at one time, as if it referred not to the umpire’s uniform, but to someone who “blew it” ~ as in a blown call on the field.
This is possible. In the old days of baseball, in the 1800s and through about a quarter of the 1900s, fans inside stadiums were particularly brutal to umpires, tossing verbal insults and even threats all game long.
Nonetheless, nowadays the term is almost always used in a friendly manner, as in asking, “What’s the count, Blue?” Or, “We got 2 outs, right, Blue?”
The moniker probably did not migrate to local levels once fans in MLB stadiums heard it during a game. However, it makes sense for coaches in Little League, youth, or school baseball leagues to call umpires “blue.” Mainly because the umpires are not full-time, and usually their names are not known.
Again, it’s either “blue,” or “umpire,” “ump,” or “Mr. Umpire.” Anything else and you’re asking for a warning or to get ejected from the game.
Are there Blues in Other Sports?
In the National Basketball Association and National Football League, they are not umpires but officials, or referees. The most-used nickname for them is probably “zebra,” due to the vertical stripes worn on their shirts. “The zebras are calling a lot of fouls,” a game announcer might say.
The home plate umpire, because he or she is in charge almost all the time. The home plate umpire calls balls and strikes and dictates the flow of the game. The other umpires are there basically just to make calls on bases and catches.
In the MLB, the umpires work in crews of 4, who travel to do a series of games (usually 3 or 4 in a row between the same teams). They usually rotate their assignment so no umpire will cover home plate for more than one game. In the MLB’s case, the home plate umpire is called the “crew chief.”
Pretty much in every level of baseball lower than the major leagues, umpires are quite often called blue. Part of the reason is, at those levels, umpires are indeed typically in blue shirts. It’s kind of a reminder to players, coaches, and fans, if they need to get his or her attention.
The main reason is, at the lower levels fans (and sometimes teams) do not run across the same umpires as often, making it difficult to know their names. A simple, friendly “blue” is a starting point. Umpires might wear uniform numbers, like the players, but they never have their name on the backs of jerseys.
Major League Baseball, umpire crews now most often wear black polo shirts, with charcoal-gray pants. Sometimes they don light blue shirts, such as on very sunny or hot days. When it’s cold, they usually wear black windbreaker-like jackets, or black polos with long sleeves underneath for warmth. Those black polos usually have blue highlighting somewhere on them.
But they are not in all-blue suits like they were in the first part of the 20th century. Could you imagine umpiring a baseball game in a men’s suit?
Or, how about in the red blazers that American League umpires wore in the 1970s. We’re not making this up.
Not really. However, fans, players, and coaches alike should understand how very hard it is, mentally and physically, to serve as an umpire behind home plate.
First, they can be expected to squat 120 or more times over a couple or few hours, to get low enough to call balls and strikes. Second, while in that position, the umpire is prone to being struck with fast-moving foul-tip balls.
Then, for good umpires at least, there is hustle. While wearing shin guards, a chest protector, and thick protective boots, the home plate umpire is expected to move to get into the best position possible to make calls. That is, he must run to the right spots, quickly.
This can mean a sprint once a ball is struck, first forward then down the 1st-base line, to possibly cover plays at that base should that umpire not be there. (This is especially true in youth baseball when a single umpire behind the plate does the whole game; he or she has to run to whichever base there might be a play for the best view).
Good umpires will get some slack for bad calls, if they can be seen hustling into a good position to make the call.
Question: Why would a home plate umpire run onto the field during play?
Answer: If he or she is the only umpire, once a ball is struck fairly they should move forward to in front of the plate, and then down the 1st-base line. (Unless there are runners on 2nd and/or 3rd base, in which case the umpire must stick close to home base for potential calls there). Sometimes in lower-level baseball, a 2-umpire crew will agree who has which base, as in the infield umpire will take calls at 1st and 2nd base, while the home plate umpire will take the other 2.
Q.: Why do they still call umpires “blue,” if umpires wear only black and gray?
A.: Tradition. It’s just something in baseball vernacular that has survived the test of time, and gets passed on to other locales, and other levels of play. It’s like a popular term that gets temporarily en vogue. The only difference is, “blue” never went away.