Kook called them as she saw them

Two Canadian big leaguers helped Canada’s only female pro umpire

By: Scott Langdon

Canadian Baseball Network

Shanna Kook was studying the viola at McGill University when she decided a career in music wasn’t for her. She set her sights on becoming a professional baseball umpire instead.

The Toronto native was umpiring professionally in the short season, Rookie-class Pioneer League little more than a year after she left McGill, making her the first and only Canadian woman to umpire in professional baseball.  

Kook says she made it into the pro ranks easier with  guidance from Montreal’s Jim McKean, a 30-year MLB umpire.

“I decided to give umpire school in Florida a try, but I didn’t do too well the first year. I was young and hadn’t been umpiring that long at the amateur level in Toronto. Technically, I was completely out of my element,” she explained.  

The cost of attending an umpire school for a second try was prohibitive, until McKean provided   wisdom.

“I was umpiring in the Women’s World Series tournament and Jim provided good advice that helped me get a scholarship from Major League Baseball to fund a second session at umpire school. I was better prepared the second time and finished top five in my class,” she said.  Kook was 21 years old at the time. Three of the other umpires in the top five - Dan Bellino, Vic Carapazza and Mark Ripperger - are major league umpires.

The high standing resulted in an invitation to attend what is now called the MiLB Professional Umpires Academy. Kook performed well there and earned her first pro job in the Pioneer League.

Cincinnati Reds’ first baseman Joey Votto and Toronto Blue Jays’ catcher Russell Martin, both also born in Toronto but raised in Montreal, were playing in the Pioneer League in 2003. Martin was an unexpected help to Kook.

“Russell played for Ogden, Utah, a Dodgers’ farm team. I enjoyed umpiring the plate when he was catching because he was one of the only ones to squat low enough so I could actually see over him to call pitches on the low, outside corner,” she laughed. Kook stood five feet five inches tall.

Umpiring in the minor leagues can be a physical and emotional challenge at times. There is low pay (in 2016, minor league umpires are paid $1,990 a month to start), long hours and even longer drives of up to 13 hours from Montana to Idaho in the Pioneer League, for example. Today, minor-league umpires at the Class A level drive a rental vehicle provided by Minor League Baseball. But they drove their own vehicles in Kook’s era.

“My partner drove us from city to city in his pickup truck. That was an experience. We got along well, maybe in part because he was the only Class A umpire to get his own room on the road,” she chuckled.

Kook umpired for two years in the Pioneer League with stops across Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. The life on the road took its toll on her. 

“My contract had ended and life on the road was difficult. There were many challenges that I faced as a woman and an umpire and I became quite homesick after a while. It was an emotional rollercoaster,” she said. 

Kook started umpiring at the age of 14 after attending an Ontario Baseball Association Umpire’s Clinic and within a few years had earned Level 3 certification. She realized at a young age she had a passion for baseball and umpiring.

“Find what you enjoy, what you’re passionate about. Rewards come from your passion. My umpiring hobby turned into a professional job. You don’t want to end up years later wishing you had done something when it’s too late,” she concluded.

Today, Kook is still adhering to policies, rules and regulations as she did as an umpire. She is an anti-money laundering investigator for one of Canada’s largest banks.