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Augie Donatelli, greatest umpire from Cambria County: From POW camp and coal mines to MLB

Augie Donatelli calling Willie Mays out in the 1950s

… both typical and atypical of his generation

Augie Donatelli was born in Heilwood and raised in Bakerton, both small communities in Cambria County. He then battled through adversity to become a Major League Baseball [MLB] umpire for 12 years.

In fact, he held the distinction of being on the cover of the first copy of Sports Illustrated in 1954.

Augie eventually married and moved to Ebensburg where they raised four children. He was gregarious and popular as a young man, but mirrored behind that were some challenges that he faced, such as being an Italian-American at a time when they were not very evident in Major League Baseball — particularly as umpires.

And he became a “rebel” of sort that went back to his days in the coal country of Cambria County. He was a major force in the unionization of umpires MLB.

Here is a little of that story and a link to the entire one.

The World War II Generation

Augie Donatelli become known as one of the best umpires of his generation. However, in a story done for the Society for American Baseball Research, an author presented an autobiography of Augie that is not read very often today, he detailed aspects of his life that motivated and propelled him to success.

The intro to that biography said this about the accomplished man,

During 24 years in the National League, August John Donatelli was one of major-league baseball’s most respected umpires. He worked four All-Star games (1953, 1959, 1962, 1969), five World Series (1955, 1957, 1961, 1967, 1973), and two League Championship Series (1969, 1972) …

In some ways Augie Donatelli was a typical umpire of the post-World War II era. He was a second-generation, working-class American who successfully used sport as a vehicle for socioeconomic mobility, part of a group of Italian-Americans – Babe Pinelli, Art Passarella, Joe Paparella, Frank Dascoli, Augie Guglielmo, Joe Linsalata, and Alex Salerno – whose presence was conspicuous for the first time in ranks of umpires in the 1940s and 1950s. He was an ex-player who turned to officiating as a way of continuing his involvement with the game. And he was among the numerous war-hardened veterans who dominated college and professional sport after 1945.

In other ways, Donatelli was atypical. The peculiar circumstances of his family life and experiences as a prisoner of war forged a distinctive personality – forceful, determined, and tough-minded with a strong sense of fairness and camaraderie. As a rapid ascent through the minor leagues suggested, he was a “born” umpire, possessing that unusual combination of skill, judgment, and demeanor that marks the truly exemplary umpire. Most important, as the “founder” of the Major League Umpires Association, Augie Donatelli is one of the few men in blue to make historically important contributions to the umpiring profession as well as major-league baseball.

Larry Gerlach, “Augie Donatelli,” Society for American Baseball Research, January 4, 2012.

In short, Augie was not just an outstanding umpire, he was a great human being who made contributions to American society.

Augie Donatelli's formative years

A son of Italian immigrants, he knew about hard-scrabble existence,

I spent most of my life in coal mining towns of Cambria County in western Pennsylvania. I was born in the small town of Heilwood on August 22, l914. When I was about two months old, my family moved over to Bakerton, where I grew up, went to high school, and joined the service during World War II.

After I got married, my wife, Mary Lou, and I moved to Ebensburg, the county seat, where we raised our four children, two girls and two boys. I lived in Ebensburg even after I got to the majors, and for 16 years worked during the offseason as a good-will representative for National Distilleries (even though I never drank whiskey). We moved to Florida a few years before I retired in 1973.

My parents were from Italy. They immigrated over here around l900, and my father, Tony, went to work in the coal mines. There were eight children in our family; I was number five. The oldest and youngest were girls; the rest boys. All the boys worked in the mines. It was dangerous and hard work, but what else were you going to do? I started even before graduating from high school. Times were tough then because of the Depression. Jobs were scarce, so I was glad to have the work. I did everything – worked outside as a coal dumper and inside as a loader and a spragger.

Larry Gerlach, Society for American Baseball Research, January 4, 2012.

Augie the coal miner — and failed player

Like so many young boys in the Great Depression years and the 1940s, Augie dreamed of making the major leagues as a player. That never occurred, though he tried to do so,

I was a decent, scrappy shortstop, so decided to give pro baseball a try. My father was very encouraging as a way of getting out of the mines. Tom Monaghan, the famous scout, signed me with the St. Louis Browns. I started out in the local Penn State League [Class D Pennsylvania Association], but it folded financially. Then I played in the Kitty League [Class D Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee], and was sent back to the Penn State League with Beaver Falls. I only played l4 games [batting .266] when the league folded again in l938, so I went back to the mines.

I was loading coal when World War II broke out. Being single, I figured I was near to being drafted, so I enlisted in the Air Force. Like a lot of young guys, I felt it was something I had to do, not to escape the mines but because you just felt it was up to you to get into it. My basic training was at Lowry Field near Denver, Colorado. When they found out I was a ballplayer, they offered me the rank of staff sergeant if I would play for the base team. So I played ball while going to armor and gunnery school.

Larry Gerlach, Society for American Baseball Research, January 4, 2012.


Augie Donatelli knew that he had signed up for a very difficult mission. He fully comprehended the dangers, and then in 1944, it occurred,

I went into combat in October 1943 and flew l8 missions as a tail gunner on a B-l7 before getting shot down. I’ll never forget it. We were shot down before the [June 6, 1944, D-Day] invasion, on the first daylight bomber raid on Berlin [March 6, 1944]. It was a rough mission – fighters diving at us, 20-millimeter shells exploding all around. We flew into the clouds to hide. What action!

That day 68 bombers were shot down. We got hit, so the crew bailed out. I got captured and taken to Frankfurt. I spent about 15 months in prison camps. We changed camps three times; the Germans kept moving us around so the Russians couldn’t liberate us.

Larry Gerlach, Society for American Baseball Research, January 4, 2012

Augie in the Pow Camp

Led to his umpiring career

Ironically, that terrible experience led to his lifetime career,

Believe it or not, I started umpiring in the prison camp at Heydekrug. When I bailed out, I broke a bone in my ankle and couldn’t do anything for a time. The guys played softball for recreation. There were lots of English POWs in the camp; some of them had been there for three years. They had a few softballs and bats, but almost no other equipment. Each of the barracks had a team, so there were games going on all the time. I would sit on the sidelines and watch the games – good gosh, what unbelievable rhubarbs they had over rules and judgment calls.

They couldn’t find any good umpires. Some of the guys found out that I had played ball and asked me if I had ever umpired. I had never umpired before and it didn’t strike me that I should umpire. But I wanted to see that the games were run right and by the rules, so I started umpiring and was put on the rules committee.

Larry Gerlach, Society for American Baseball Research, January 4, 2012

Augie behind the plate, first SI cover, 1954

Formation of the union

Augie Donatelli became a persona non grata in the offices of MLB. That was because he was the motivating force in the formation the MLB Umpires Association, one that led to the umpires being paid more with better benefits and retirement,

And the Association was damn important to me. It went through, and it certainly is helping the boys who are in there now. It helped us a lot too, but it is too bad that we couldn’t have been of the age where we could have enjoyed it more. I wanted to include the old fellows already on pension, but the boys wouldn’t go for it. Today the Umpires Association is very powerful. Now the boys get just about whatever they ask for. But then we were risking our jobs just to get it organized. Things are so much better now – pension, working conditions, everything.

Larry Gerlach, Society for American Baseball Research, January 4, 2012

To read the entire story, you can find it here:

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