Henry Van Duley has two passions — baseball and good stories.
Ask him a question and the answer will likely be a tale constructed of memories of a life spent on the baseball field. Van Duley has seen the game from a variety of vantage points: as a player, a coach, administrator and even umpire.
But a day in mid-May saw the completion of Van Duley’s 50 year umpiring career. He retired May 13 after a girl’s high school softball game between Seton School and Emmanuel Christian School. His send-off included a rousing chorus of “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
“The coaches on both sides were telling me not to quit, but I knew that I had run out of gas. My feet and legs hurt,” said Van Duley, who said his prosthetic leg played a role in his retirement.
Memories of his long involvement with the game of baseball surround Van Duley in his house near Stonewall Memorial Gardens. Certificates documenting his many accomplishments adorn the walls and old newspaper clippings and photographs spill out of drawers.
“When you are 74 and retired, all you have are your memories,” Van Duley said.
America’s favorite pastime has consumed his life. There were many times when he was so nervous the night before a game that he couldn’t sleep.
Van Duley began playing the game as a 10-year-old in Georgetown for the Washington Boys’ Club. He played all four years at Washington Lee High School, starting every year. He then spent three years in the U.S. Navy playing baseball before joining the semi-pro team in Gainesville for the next 15 years.
The game’s attraction to Van Duley? It’s both an individual and a team sport, he said. When he was 24 years-old Van Duley was asked to start umpiring games for local leagues.
“I had played the game before. It’s tough to umpire if you’ve never played the game. It helps to know the feelings of the players and coaches,” Van Duley said.
He received membership in the Sandlot Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984 and is a lifetime member of the Northern Virginia and Bull Run Baseball Umpire Associations.
“I have umpired so many high school, American Legion, college and semi-pro games that I can’t remember them all,” Van Duley said, launching into another story of his umpiring days. This time he recounts a difficult game he officiated many years ago in Maryland.
“It was hot; the fans were screaming in my ear. There were times during that game that I wished I had stuck some cotton in my ears,” he mused.
Van Duley recalls calling to a fan in the stands, asking him to bring the umpires some beers after the game. Not expecting him to grant his request, Van Duley was shocked to see the man show up later in the parking lot with a six pack of beer.
Van Duley prides himself on his superb people skills or what he terms “getting people to eat out of the palm of my hand.” His secret, he said, is to use tact and develop a rapport with people.
“You also have to have some fun. Don’t argue with them,” he said.
This formula — a combination of diplomacy and humor — proved successful during his long career.
“You don’t survive for 50 years if you can’t get along with people. Some people don’t too last long because they can’t take the heat or they aren’t tactful,” Van Duley said.
Van Duley has held various offices in the NVBUA, including that of Commissioner, the lead position in the association. For the last eight years he has officiated private school games, predominantly girl’s softball.
“The girls know how to get it done,” Van Duley said. “Those games are so easy, I should have been doing that for the last 50 years,” he laughed.
Time on the diamond isn’t always pleasurable, dealing with hostilities from players, coaches and fans who disagreed with Van Duley’s calls on the field.
“You can run into some rough times. Anything can happen at any time,” Van Duley said. But he’s gotten through those rough moments with his ability to control the game.
“You have to earn that control and respect from people,” he said. “It takes awhile to build up confidence and consistency.”
He has earned that respect from people throughout the local baseball world.
John Porter, current Commissioner for the NVBUA, also praised Van Duley, telling young umpires for the past 15 years that if they work with Van Duley, they are working with a legend.
Van Duley had some advice young umpires.
“Know the rules, avoid confrontations, use tact and do the best job that you can,” he said.
Now that he has given up his life’s devotion, Van Duley said that he plans on spending time outside, “mulching and mowing my lawn.”
Van Duley said he will miss umpiring, but said, “I was lucky to last 50 years. I am happy with my career and what I have done.”