Jeff Graver of Fremont comes from an athletic family.
His younger brother, Lonnie, was one of the best shooting guards in Midland University men’s basketball history and was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame in 2001. Another brother, Terry, is a successful softball and girls basketball coach at Elkhorn South High School.
His brother-in-law, Dana Altman, is the head men’s basketball coach at the University of Oregon while a nephew, Wes Ferguson of Fremont High School, is the defending state track all-class gold medalist in the 800 meters.
Jeff Graver, though, has been successful in his own right. He will be inducted Sunday into the Nebraska Baseball Hall of Fame during ceremonies at the Country Cookin’ Restaurant and Event Center in Beatrice.
“It is a great honor to get recognized,” Graver said. “It was very humbling to find out about it. Some of the guys that got inducted ahead of me were friends of mine that I umpired with. To go into (the hall) with those guys is a really nice deal.”
Those Hall of Fame umpires include 2010 inductee Steve Farlee of Norfolk and former Fremonter Bruce Allen, who was inducted in 2011.
“They were a couple of the guys that nominated me for this,” Graver said.
Bill Larson of Lyons is being induced for Distinguished Service. The 2019 class also includes: Tim Carroll of Lincoln, who was an All-Big Eight selection at Nebraska before going on the play in the Chicago White Sox organization; Virgil Richardson of Fairbury, who was a power hitter in the semi-pro leagues; Vance Toline of Stromsburg, who was a dominant left-handed pitcher in the late 1940s; Paul Meyers of Omaha, who earned All-American honors as an outfielder at Nebraska; and Bob Gibson. The latter, an Omaha native, helped the St. Louis Cardinals win the 1964 and 1967 Word Series. He was enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown (N.Y.) in 1981. Gibson is not expected to attend the ceremony.
“It would kind of be neat if he could be there, but it is great to go in with someone like him who had so much success at such a high level,” Graver said.
Graver has umpired at various levels, including high school, American Legion, college and semipro. He also did games for the Lincoln Salt Dogs and Sioux City Explorers in the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball.
Rich McGill of Fremont worked several games with Graver during his career.
“First of all, Jeff really loves the game of baseball,” the former Midland University men’s basketball coach said. “Baseball is his thing. I think umpiring was a way for him to still be a part of the game.”
McGill said players and coaches respected Graver because he had the attribute that all umpires should have — consistency.
“He was an outstanding balls and strikes umpire,” he said. “His strike zone was the same in the eighth inning as it was in the second inning. When we walked into the park, pitchers were generally pretty glad to see we were there. That consistency separates the great ones from the average ones.”
Graver was an educator at Bennington, Dawson-Verdon, Waterloo/Valley, and Millard North. He retired from Fremont Public Schools in May of 2018. Like his brother Terry, he also spent time as a coach at the prep level.
“With umpiring, it is the end of the game and then you go home to get ready for the next game,” Graver said. “The big difference is when the game is over, it is over. With coaching, though, it hangs on with you for a while.”
Graver has a plethora of memories, including working the Midland vs. Dana baseball games.
“Those were wars,” he said, noting that former Dana head coach Paul Davis is now the pitching coach for the Seattle Mariners.
Graver also worked several Nebraska vs. Creighton games.
“That was by far the most fun,” he said. “They had the best crowds. I worked one year at Rosenblatt (Stadium) when it was late in the year and they were both fighting for regionals. I stayed out of trouble and that was the most important thing.”
While Graver was half-joking about the last comment, he does believe umpires should never have the focus on them.
“I always thought if you stayed under the radar and there wasn’t much griping, you did a pretty good job, especially on the balls and strikes,” he said. “We can all miss a pitch or kick one on the bases, but at the end of the day you try to do it right.”
Graver recalls talking with McGill following games the two worked together. He estimates they were umpiring partners for more than 200 games.
“We would ask each other about this pitch or that play,” he said. “We weren’t perfect, but we got better by reviewing and talking about it. I always thought if you quit learning and trying to get better, then you might as well give up.”
McGill said Graver was a great umpire partner.
“I knew he would never throw me under the bus and he knew I would never throw him under the bus,” he said. “We would talk about plays afterward and we might disagree about what one of us might have done or didn’t do, but never out on the field. You have to be a united front on the field. There are two teams playing, but there is another team out there and that is the umpires. It is always easier to work good games between good teams, but sometimes that doesn’t work. You should, however, always be good every time you go out there as an officiating crew.”
While Graver doesn’t umpire games anymore, he is still connected to baseball. He evaluates umpires and is a supervisor of officials for the Class A and Class B state baseball high school tournaments.
“I coordinate and schedule umpires for the state tournaments,” he said. “I handle evaluations so that has kept me close to umpiring and helped me get to know new people.”
It has been an enjoyable journey.
“I have made a lot of good friends that are good friends to this day,” Graver said. “I’ve had a lot of fun.”
What advice would he give to someone who is just starting to umpire?
“First, they need to get out and work the games,” Graver said. “You get paid to work. New umpires need to listen more and talk less. What I mean by that is that if you are working with an experienced official and they are giving you instructions, listen instead of talking. You haven’t done enough and need to listen to learn.
“The third thing is to just do your job. It isn’t about you, it is about the teams and the game. That is one thing I learned from Coach McGill. It is about the kids and the game.”