A well-rounded athlete who had a CFL stint cut short due to injury, Jim McKean’s professional plans were unclear when he decided to take in a Montreal Expos game in the team’s early days at Jarry Park.
He would leave the stadium with a new career path, one that led to a 30-season run as a big-league umpire and eventual spot in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
McKean, who played for the Grey Cup champion Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1966 before spending nearly four decades in baseball, died early Thursday morning. He was 73.
Jamie McKean, one of his sons, said McKean died in his sleep at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Fla., near his home.
After spending parts of two seasons in his native Montreal as an Alouettes punter and backup quarterback, McKean played six games for the Roughriders in ‘66 before a mid-season back injury ended his football career.
He completed his education degree that year at what is now Concordia University. He would return to his alma mater to serve as an assistant basketball coach at Loyola College, which later merged with Sir George Williams University.
McKean, who also had a brief turn as a junior hockey referee, maintained a strong interest in baseball and caught a break one day while watching the Expos play.
“One of his buddies had a few too many drinks and yelled out to the umpire on the field, Billy Williams, ‘Hey my friend wants to be an umpire,’” Jamie McKean said. “He said, ‘OK well if he’s serious, tell him to come down to the locker-room after the game.”
McKean did just that.
“My dad went home and changed like it was a job interview. He came back and spoke to him and (Williams) gave him the information for an umpire school down here in Gulfport, Fla. So he went down, that was probably 1970-ish, and he made it.
“He was one of the few chosen. They really liked his athletic background.”
McKean played baseball, football and basketball at Monklands High School in Montreal. He also played junior football for the Junior Notre Dame de Grace Maple Leafs.
Over 25 career CFL regular-season games, McKean had 116 punts for a 38.7-yard average. He hurt his back in September 1966, with Alan Ford assuming punting duties for the rest of the Roughriders’ championship season.
Once he turned to baseball, McKean called minor-league games for a few years before joining the American League staff in 1973. Known for his jovial spirit and friendliness, he was on the field for 10 no-hitters over his career.
“His demeanour I think was his biggest asset,” Jamie McKean said. “He was a very calm but forceful guy.”
Even as a veteran umpire, McKean still used a checklist as a reminder for how he wanted to interact with others.
“It was sort of his 10 pointers,” his son said. “It was always, ‘Walk up and introduce yourself to the managers. Introduce yourself to the players. Know everybody by their first name. Don’t take anything personally.’”
McKean worked all-star games in 1980, 1982 and 1993. He worked the World Series in 1979, 1985 and 1995.
“Major League Baseball sends its deepest condolences to the family and friends of Jim McKean, an accomplished major league umpire and later an umpire supervisor for the office of the commissioner,” MLB said in an emailed statement. “Jim was a highly respected figure in the sport, and we are particularly grateful that he represented our game so well in his native Canada.”
His 10 no-hitters tied the umpire record shared by Silk O’Loughlin and Paul Pryor, a mark broken when Bruce Froemming worked his 11th with the St. Louis Cardinals’ Bud Smith on the mound in September 2001.
McKean was the third-base umpire when Cleveland Indians pitcher Len Barker threw a perfect game against the Toronto Blue Jays in May 1981.
Named MLB umpire of the year in 1988, McKean also called games in three division series and five league championship series.
“To be honest with you, umpires have to get up for big games, too,” he told The Associated Press in 2008. “My premise is, if the umpiring is not good, the games are not good. You can have the two best teams in the world, and if that umpire behind the plate or that umpire on the bases is not good, then it’s not going to be a good game. So that’s where the pressure lies.”
McKean became supervisor of umpires with the commissioner’s office in 2002 and spent seven years in the role.
“He always made it a point to be friends with everybody,” Jamie McKean said. “That’s the groundskeeper, that’s the clubhouse guy, that’s the people in the hotel and the airline folks. I mean everybody, not just the players and the managers.”
McKean was behind the plate when Toronto’s Roy Halladay was hitless through 8 2/3 innings against Detroit on Sept. 27, 1998, then allowed Bobby Higginson’s home run. It was the second big-league appearance for the late Halladay, who was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame this week.
McKean was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004. He became an umpire analyst for ESPN in 2011.
“He loved to talk to people, he liked to tell stories,” Hall operations director Scott Crawford said from St. Marys, Ont. “He liked to get them laughing and have a great time.”
McKean developed an infection last fall after being treated for a kidney issue. He appeared to have recovered but remained weakened.
“I think his heart just gave out,” Jamie McKean said.
A moment of silence was held Thursday morning at the MLB/Major League Umpires annual meetings in Arizona.
“RIP Jim McKean. Everyone in the game loved him,” longtime baseball writer and broadcaster Ken Rosenthal said on Twitter.
A viewing was scheduled for Sunday evening and a funeral will be held Monday morning in St. Petersburg.
McKean is also survived by another son, Brett. McKean’s wife, the former Ann Carey, died in 2007.