Every sport you officiate, play, or observe has signals.


American football referees are important and provide meaningful signals to convey why a flag was thrown.  The referee is anxiously watched to see if there was holding, interference, a loss of down, illegal motion, illegal block, or some other violation that took place.


Soccer (football) officials are watched for signals for holding, pushing, tripping, illegal blocks, or, when a ball is kicked out-of-play, which team will be putting the ball in play.


Basketball officials inform players and spectators if a block, push, travel, an illegal screen, or another violation takes place.  Yes, signals are important for all sports.


It should be noted that in softball, meaningful signals are provided not just for the catcher, the batter, the runner(s), or the defensive player making the play, but also for all teammates on the field or in the dugout, the coaches, and the spectators.


Umpire manuals state that signals are a very important aspect of umpiring.  The adopted signals are to be dignified, informative, and meaningful.  Poorly executed and unauthorized signals serve only to confuse.  The manner in which a signal is given determines, at least to a degree, its acceptance by players, coaches and spectators.


Do you ever notice unnecessary signals at American football, soccer, or basketball games?  No.


Do you see them given in softball?  Yes.


Now the question is, WHY?  I wish there was an answer.  The proper signals are discussed and demonstrated in clinics, training classes, and schools or umpire seminars.  Poor signals and unnecessary signals are downgraded.  Yet they are still seen around the world, particularly by the plate umpire.


Fast pitch umpires do not have to indicate high, low, inside or outside pitches with hand motions.  If some indication is necessary, a simple head movement towards the location of the pitch can be used.  It certainly draws less attention.


Slow pitch umpires do not have to indicate where a pitch crossed the plate, hit the ground in front of the plate, hit the plate, or missed the strike zone.  These are all unnecessary and a waste of the umpire’s time.


If the ball is in the strike zone, ring it up.  If it isn’t, simply state, “ball.”  If anything else is needed, the plate umpire can tell the catcher and let him/her pass the information on to the pitcher, coaches, or other defensive players.


Another unnecessary signal is tapping both closed fists together to indicate a full count.  How can a no-no count also be a three balls, two strikes count?  Talk about unauthorized signals being confusing.  Umpires should show three fingers on the left hand and two on the right.  Then all players and spectators will know the count is three-two.


When requesting the count or the number of outs from their partner(s), umpires should simply step out and verbally request either, and then expect a verbal reply from their partner.  When asking for help on a check swing, step out and point to your partner and verbally ask “Swing?”  The partner should immediately reply back with a strike hammer signal and verbal “Yes” or a safe signal and verbal “No!”  There is nothing secretive to these signals.


Possibly the only umpire-to-umpire signal still maintained without verbal comment is the “infield fly” signal which is asked by placing the right hand to the left chest.  The partner will reply with a similar signal.    This reminds both that the infield fly is in effect, if it occurs.  When the “infield fly” situation is no longer in effect, rubbing the right palm down the left arm indicates there are no longer runners at first and second; first, second, and third, or that there are two outs.


Give meaning to your signals at all times.  When “safe” or “out” calls are made, remember to sell them if they are close.  This involves pointing at the play to show you have seen a tag, a miss, or a pulled foot.  Then step towards the play and give a clear signal – either with arms straight out (safe) or an overhand signal (out).  If the play is routine, keep the signal high and in view of all.


Making a clear and distinct signal will show confidence in yourself and help show all that you are in control of the game.  Work on your signals in the off-season, or when a new year is beginning, work hard to improve if you have been offering unnecessary signals.  Observe yourself in a mirror or have someone take a video of your game to show you how you look on the field.  Have a great season!


Merle Butler is the ISF’s Director of Umpires and a member of the ISF Hall of Fame.


(This article appeared in the Jan.-Apr. 2005 issue of World Softball magazine, Volume 33, Number 1.)