Frank Schwab was a highly successful VFL umpire on the field and, off the field, was extremely popular and held in the highest esteem throughout the football fraternity – a thorough gentleman to all who knew him.
There was no better indication of that esteem than his colleagues’ response when, in 1963, he was stricken with an umpiring career ending illness. Schwab was appointed to the North Melbourne versus Fitzroy match scheduled for 10 June. Early that morning, he complained of a bad headache and later collapsed while cleaning his car. He was raced to hospital and a brain hemorrhage was diagnosed.
Initially, things looked very grim with Frank being placed in an oxygen tent. But, after a day or so, he rallied and the worst passed. Immediately his fellow umpires learned of the illness, they rallied around Frank and his family. They arranged to transport Frank’s wife, Jean, so she could visit the hospital and, noting his recovery would take some time, voted to pay his annual Association subscription through the Association Welfare Fund. Further, as a result of the long recuperation period, Frank’s employers ceased paying his salary — and so the Umpires Association organised a series of benefit events as part of a general appeal to raise funds to see the Schwabs through.
Following theatre nights, donations from other umpiring groups and various fund raising activities, the significant sum of nineteen hundred pounds was eventually presented to the Schwab family.
Only a man who commanded the highest respect of family his colleagues would evoke such response in times of ill fortune. Football was always in Frank’s blood. After leaving Camberwell High School, he ran the boundary for a year with the VFL before playing for Camberwell in the Victorian Football Association.
When Frank came back to the VFL as a field umpire in 1955, his talent was obvious and his rise to senior VFL football was swift. He debuted in the VFL in round 14 1956 at Windy Hill when the Bombers faced North Melbourne. His second game was a sensational draw between Hawthorn and South Melbourne and his fourth saw him booed from the field at Kardinia Park following the Cats’ first loss at home in 22 matches. Hostile crowd reaction to umpires’ decisions, such as the booing at Geelong, are not uncommon in VFL/AFL history, but Schwab certainly endured more than his fair share in the early stages of his career.
For, in the following year (1957), Frank incurred the supporters’ wrath again, this time at the hands of the Essendon faithful, following what they considered ‘daylight robbery’ as a result of his final decision of the day on 27 July.
With seconds remaining, Melbourne trailed Essendon by five points and the ball was on the Demons’ half forward line. Bomber rover, Stan Booth, kicked the ball over the boundary line when tackled by Ron Barassi. Schwab decided that the act was deliberate and awarded the free kick to Demon forward Athol Webb, who coolly converted from a difficult angle to snatch an unlikely victory.
Schwab made the decision quickly and was correct, but the Essendon crowd noted that Melbourne coach Norm Smith, who was seated on the boundary line near to the incident, had sprung from the bench appealing for the free. Feeling cheated, they focused their displeasure on the umpires as they left the field in a demonstration of an intensity not seen for many years.
‘The Sun News Pictorial’ noted on its front page the next day:
Police had to protect field umpire Frank Schwab from the big crowd of violently hostile Essendon supporters. A bottle narrowly missed Schwab as police hustled him through the surging crowd on the ground. Police had to push several men away. Mud and rubbish of all kinds were pelted at the umpires. Some of the mud struck Schwab. A crowd of about 2000 remained tightly packed around the wire race through which the umpires passed into their dressing room for about 20 minutes after the match. They chanted, “We want Schwab”, and counted him out between bursts of groaning and hooting. Five policemen escorted Schwab through the back door to his car that had been driven by a friend to a small gate behind the main grand stand. The press clearly indicated Schwab’s decision was correct and the Umpires’ Appointment Board showed their approval by appointing him to all the remaining rounds and the 1957 Night Grand Final between South Melbourne and Geelong.
Despite excellent performances, Schwab was unable to break into the finals panels that were dominated by Allan Nash and Bill Barbour until 1960. That year, he was appointed to the Second Semi Final. It was an indicator of the great year to follow. After an outstanding home and away season in 1961, Schwab umpired the First Semi Final, which saw Footscray defeat St.Kilda by nine points and, two weeks later, the Preliminary Final between Footscray and Melbourne. On Grand Final Day, Frank and Jack Irving were in line for the big job and it was Schwab that got the nod from the Board. As the day unfolded, Hawthorn won its first flag at the cost of the Bulldogs – – and Schwab umpired well, remaining unnoticed on his biggest day.
Success continued in Frank’s final full season of umpiring (1962). He was appointed to the interstate match in Perth between Western Australia and South Australia and, at season’s end, was voted as the Sporting Globe’s umpire of the year. Once again, he umpired the First Semi Final — and this one was a heart-stopper, with Carlton mounting an outstanding comeback to pip Melbourne by two points. A critical decision by Frank during the last minute of play once again enveloped him in controversy.
Melbourne star, Geoff Tunbridge, spilled a sitter mark on the half forward line and was crashed by Carlton’s Graeme Anderson. Demon forward Laurie Mithen grabbed the loose ball and goaled, which would have put Melbourne in front. But, Frank blew his whistle for what most critics termed “a puzzling ball-up decision — it should have been playon or a free kick to Tunbridge”, and the Demon goal was disallowed. The siren sounded seconds later.
Needless to say, the decision was discussed for days afterwards. Frank also umpired the Preliminary Final in 1962 — and the result was even closer than the First Semi. When the final siren sounded, Carlton and Geelong were level at 85 points apiece – at that time, only the third finals draw in history. Schwab’s 128th and final VFL match was the week prior to his hemorrhage when Collingwood and Essendon clashed at Victoria Park. VFL Grand Final umpire and long time VFL Umpires’ Coach, Allan Nash, was a contemporary of Schwab’s and recalls, “Frank was a lovely, well liked man. Without a doubt, he never had an enemy. He was a good umpire and a nice young bloke. He was a masculine umpire — he wasn’t fat and he wasn’t thin…he had a good build”.
Despite not returning to VFL umpiring after his recovery, Schwab was not lost to football. A regular in the Hawthorn rooms, he was a great supporter of his son Peter’s footballing endeavours. After a great playing career, Peter (current Hawthorn coach) continued the Schwab connection with umpiring, being appointed AFL Director of Umpiring.
Frank’s brother, the late Alan Schwab, also had a strong association and affinity with the men in white. During his time as AFL Commissioner, relations between the Umpires’ Association and the League were at an all time high, due in no small part to Alan’s understanding of umpiring, courtesy of his brother.
Frank was also a regular attendee at the Grand Final Umpires’ Club Dinners. He became a Life Member of the AFLUA in 1966.
Frank Schwab passed away on 29 January 2004 at Box Hill Hospital after a brief illness, aged 71.