It was Opening Day in Cincinnati, and 22 major league baseball umpires were picketing outside Riverfront Stadium, trying to muster sympathy for their job action that was keeping them off the field and putting a motley assortment of minor league and amateur umps on it in their stead. With the holdouts was their attorney, Richard (Call Me Richie) Phillips, the man who had counseled them not to sign their 1979 contracts. Charles (Call Me Chub) Feeney, president of the National League, walked by and said to Phillips, "Richie, why the hell do you feel so strong?"
"I feel strong because I have a case and you don't," Phillips replied. "I have a case, and I have the fans and your owners with me."
"The owners aren't with you."
"If the owners aren't with me, then they're lying to me, Chub."
April 16, 1979
"Then they're lying to you." Feeney turned, passing one of the umpires wearing the blue uniform of the National League. He had a white cardboard sign hanging from his neck cut in the shape of a chest protector. BASEBALL UNFAIR TO UMPIRES was written across it.
"Look what you've got me doing, Mr. Feeney," said the ump.
"I don't have you doing that. He does," said Feeney, pointing to Phillips. "All you have to do is sign your contract and come back to work."
That was as close as Feeney was willing to come to negotiating the dispute last week, though baseball would soon find the absence of its regular umps embarrassing. Feeney and American League President Lee MacPhail, the men in charge of providing umpires for their respective leagues, seemed to have adopted an intransigent bargaining strategy: sign and come back; don't sign, don't come back. The whole business, they indicated, was a matter of principle, and there was no room for negotiation. But by last Sunday, the season's fifth day, their approach seemed to be failing, because as the molehill swelled to a mountain, players and managers were growing increasingly impatient for the return of major league umpires.
There was good reason to believe that undermining Phillips was more important to the league presidents than upholding any principle. Fifty major league umpires retained Phillips during the offseason to represent them individually during their 1979 salary bargaining. Actually, there have never been any real negotiations between the leagues and any of the 50 umpires. Last winter, as has been the tradition, the league presidents simply sent new contracts to the umpires, asking them to sign and return the documents by the first day of spring training—or be replaced. This was the way things had always worked, and until this year there had never been a holdout. Now, suddenly, there were 50. Phillips, who became the umpires' counsel in 1978, advised his clients not to sign the contracts and then set about getting salaries more in line with those of NBA refs—whom Phillips also represents.
It is debatable whether a meaningful comparison can be drawn between the salaries of officials in one sport and those in another. But for the record, an NBA official with 10 years' experience makes $550 per game over an 82-game schedule, or about $45,000 a season. Under existing wage scales, an umpire with 10 years in the majors who works a 162-game schedule makes about $200 a game, or approximately $32,500 a season. To proclaim that baseball is unfair to umpires may be overstating the case, when the average ump's salary is nearly $30,000 and he is allowed first-class air fare. But fairness is in the eye of the beholder—a judgment call, as it were. Suffice it to say that baseball is not as fair to its officials as basketball is to its.
Technically, the umpires are not on strike. They have a no-strike clause in their collective-bargaining agreement, which runs through 1981. It is not the collective-bargaining agreement that is at issue now, as it was last August, when the umpires were ordered back to work by a U.S. District Court judge after a one-day walkout. This time around, the controversy centers on individual salaries. Phillips is asking an additional $520,000 in pay for the 50 umpires, which breaks down to $20,000 per team—or about what it will cost the Pirates for Dave Parker's services this week.
"We feel very strongly about this," says MacPhail. "We're not ready to abandon what we feel is the historical pattern of salaries, which the umpires knew very well and accepted when they signed the basic agreement. Everybody's perspective gets a little twisted today, particularly in our business where you have these tremendous players' salaries. But it's sort of incongruous to sit in a court and listen to an umpire say how badly paid he is when it turns out he's getting more than the judge hearing the case. As a group they're well paid, in the top 7% of wage earners in the country. We're not pleading poverty. This is a matter of principle."
To which Phillips answers, "The major stumbling block is the stubbornness of MacPhail and Feeney. As league presidents, they have nothing to do but sign baseballs each year and control the umpires. Now that they have seemingly lost control of the umpires, the only thing left for them to do is sign the ball, and I think they're afraid that baseball isn't going to pay them a hundred grand a year each for their autographs."
Of the 52 regular umpires, the only two to sign their contracts were first-year man Ted Hendry of the American League and 18-season National Leaguer Paul Pryor. Hendry did so without knowledge of the pending walkout, but Pryor deliberately broke ranks. Dick Stello has umped 10 seasons in the National League; last Thursday, while picketing the Yankees' home opener, he said. "The funny thing is that Feeney told us in 1977 while we were working on the agreement that established minimum pay levels for years of service, 'You guys are forcing me to give my worst umpire an $8,000 raise.' That was Pryor. Eighteen years and they've never even made him a crew chief. The umpires' association did that for him, and this is how he pays us back. I'll probably never speak to him again."
Pryor's conscience gave him fits for three days, and then Friday night he called Dave Phillips, a fellow umpire, to ask if the group would welcome him back if he quit working. "He told me they were the worst three days of his life." Phillips says. "He said he needed $5,000 to pay his bills or he'd go to jail. He'd invested a lot of money in these travel bags that he was selling, and he was going broke. I told him he'd sold his soul and he'd have to live with himself. But it's sad. An umpire should have enough money in his pocket so that he doesn't have to go around peddling stuff."
Pryor did not umpire the next day, but he returned to work in St. Louis on Sunday when it was discovered that his contract required that he give the league 10 days' notice before quitting. It has been reported that Hendry may resign early this week.
In the umps' absence, baseball has scrambled to round up crew chiefs who have had experience umpiring professional games, usually in the high minor leagues. Each chief has been working with three local umpires brought in by the home team. These are men who customarily pick up a few bucks working college and other amateur games. Two days before the respective league openers in Cincinnati and Seattle last Wednesday, nine minor league umpires were signed to contracts that guarantee them major league salaries. No sooner were these signatures on the contracts than the name-calling got started in earnest.
Three of the holdouts, Joe West, Richie Garcia and Steve Palermo, said that one of the men hired as a crew chief, a minor league ump, allegedly had run up gambling debts in New England last year after betting on football and basketball. The same ump was reportedly fired from a Latin American league this winter. Barney Deary, the supervisor of minor league umpires, says he investigated the charges and found no wrongdoing.
Customarily, before an umpire is hired, his background is thoroughly checked out by two former FBI agents on the commissioner's staff, who pay special attention to determining if the prospect is a gambler. This precaution has not been given top priority in light of the dearth of quality umpires. That certainly jeopardizes the "integrity of baseball," which used to be Bowie Kuhn's favorite topic before he began talking mostly about how satisfied he is with the manner in which the league presidents are handling the umpire dispute. "They check on your neighbors, former employers, relatives," says Dave Phillips, a crew chief in only his ninth season, who was offered less than $30,000 by MacPhail this year. "It seems ludicrous that if a man has that kind of background, the major leagues would hire him, when they ordinarily take such elaborate precautions."
The alleged gambler is not the only replacement who has drawn the fire of the embittered umpires. Al Forman, an Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference ump who was behind the plate for the Yankee opener and performed flawlessly, was the object of derision, having been canned by the National League 14 years ago. One of the minor-leaguers who accepted a contract was regarded scornfully for purportedly bursting into tears as he explained that bucking the strike was the only way he'd ever make the big leagues.
Jimmy Dunne, another ECAC umpire and a salesman of forklift trucks in real life, was one of the Yankee Stadium crew for New York's opening series with Milwaukee. The ruddy-faced, snow-white-haired Dunne, 58, was acutely aware of how the amateurs' presence was being viewed. "Everyone's looking at us with a jaundiced eye," he said. "Ordinarily it's just the players who are against you, but now it's the fans and the umpires, too. Everyone's hoping we fall right on our faces."
Some of the replacement umps did just that, and with increasing frequency as the week wore on. In Boston and Cincinnati, for example, second-base umpires had to be repeatedly asked to move out of the batter's field of vision. In Kansas City, where Toronto was playing. Rick Bosetti hit a grounder to Royal First Baseman John Wathan in the second inning Thursday. Wathan bobbled the ball as the runner crossed the bag, but Bosetti was called out by Umpire Harold Easley, who makes his living working for a chain of drugstores. Bosetti threw his helmet in anger, which immediately brought K.C. Manager Whitey Herzog from the bench, demanding Bosetti be ejected for helmet slinging, as the American League rules stipulate. Crew Chief John Shulock, an ump from the American Association, said he had never heard of the rule. Replied Herzog, "I wouldn't bull you about this. If you don't believe me, just ask our third-base coach, Chuck Hiller." Bosetti got the thumb.
Reminded that Easley was an "amateur" umpire, Bosetti said after the game, "The guy was getting paid, wasn't he? [He was: $108.02 a game, the same as the other temporary umpires.] That makes him a professional. Here's a man just off the sandlot. It must have been a real trip for him tonight."
Although the going got similarly rough for many of the other major league novices, one stand-in ump who went on a joyride was Murray Strey, a meter supervisor who worked the plate Saturday night in Houston, where Astro Ken Forsch pitched a no-hitter. Not surprisingly, Forsch thought Strey had done a terrific job.
No-hitters aside, the longer the regular umpires stay out, the more instances of ineptness will take place. And there will be more name-calling. And more damage to baseball's reputation. By week's end, some of the owners were growing restless. In light of the players' huge salaries, few begrudge the umpires their modest demands, if meeting them will restore some order. It is said that the best-officiated game is the one in which the umpires are least noticed. That is hardly possible when every umpire on the field is wearing a different color suit—black, gray, navy—and spectators and players alike are scrutinizing their every move.
Because the league presidents have backed themselves into a corner, it will likely take a third party to get negotiations started. Perhaps the commissioner will descend from his throne. If he does, the umpires are likely to be winners, not because they have crippled baseball with their absence or because their replacements have performed all that unsatisfactorily. They'll win because this whole business has been a terrible—and embarrassing—nuisance.