Until this year, major league umpires could be found in groups of four. They were men with similar professional interests enduring a lonely life together—airport to hotel to ball park, with a beer or a movie along the way to relieve the monotony. So what if fans booed and players griped and managers questioned their parentage? They were in this together, by golly. They were a team. All for one and one for all.
That is the way it used to be. Last week three-fourths of a major league umpiring crew sat at a table in a New York bar while the fourth, an outcast, was off somewhere on his own. There are eight of these outcasts in baseball today, four in each league. They were brought up from the minors during the umpire "strike" this spring, which spanned all of spring training and 45 days of the season, and they stayed on as vacation substitutes for the regulars. But as they rotate from crew to crew, most of the senior umpires are greeting them with turned backs and open hostility. This alone would be cause for concern, but on occasion the bad feelings have spilled out onto the playing field, affecting the game itself.
When American League President Lee MacPhail discussed the problem with Richie Phillips, the attorney for the association that represents the established umps, the two men agreed that "if one of the new umpires needs help on a play, he will get it." Earlier this month the National League put out a memo instructing its umpires not to make "uncomplimentary, personal remarks" about each other.
The memo was a topic of conversation in the New York bar last week. "We can't call them 'scabs,' " said crew chief Bob Engel. "The league says we have to call them 'new umpires.' "
August 19, 1979
"But they are scabs," interrupted Paul Runge. "I looked it up in Webster's and one of the definitions is 'a worker who replaces a union worker during a strike.' So they are scabs."
Technically the eight were not strikebreakers because the 52 regular umpires had been working under a contract with a no-strike clause. The walkout won them substantial increases in salary and per diem payments as well as paid in-season vacations. When the veterans returned, the eight rookies, the only active professional umps among those working during the walkout, remained. The veterans have shown their resentment in many ways, even though in Mac-Phail's interpretation, the agreement says "there would be no recrimination on either side."
There have been-recriminations, lots of them—and for good reason, argue the senior umps. "The new umpires prolonged the strike. They embarrassed us," says National League Umpire Ed Montague. "Why should they be embraced now? Let them take their own cabs and stay at different hotels and be lonely." American League crew chief Don Denkinger has said, "I will not ride with them. I will not eat with them. I will not have idle conversation with them." National League veteran Billy Williams told mild-mannered rookie Fred Brocklander, "If you were in labor, you'd have a busted jaw now, and your nose would be on the other side of your face." Williams, a former member of the steam-fitters union, added, "I've got to umpire with you, but I don't have to be your friend."
In the exclusive world of umpires, friendship and companionship can be very important. "From what I know of good umpiring," says National League supervisor Blake Cullen, "it seems like you've got to have a rapport. You play cards or maybe golf together, and later, when you've got runners on first and third and the ball is hit to the outfield, you know who's doing what. They don't discuss these situations with the new men."
Instead, they have embarrassed them, off the field and on. There have been numerous instances of veteran umpires ignoring the rookies, even during arguments when they could have used a show of support. "That kind of stuff can really damage the integrity of the game," says Mets Manager Joe Torre.
It is particularly damaging when a catcher or batter appeals a rookie umpire's ball or strike call on a checked swing and the veteran umpire automatically reverses it. "I've noticed that more and more," says one catcher. "Occasionally it's so obvious it's hard to believe."
Some veteran umps apparently think the obvious slights are the best kind. Last month, during a game in the Houston Astrodome between the Astros and the Dodgers, a foul ball struck rookie home-plate Umpire Lanny Harris in the throat. While the Houston trainer examined him, the three veterans stood impassively at their positions. "That was——," L.A. Shortstop Bill Russell said afterward. "The guys in the dugout really got on the third-base ump."
On another occasion, the four umpires were gathered around home plate when one of the veterans clapped his hands as if to end the discussion and send everyone to his position. Rookie Dave Pallone immediately turned and ran out toward second base. The others remained at home plate.
Pallone, 27, has been a favorite target of the hazing. One day in June he opened his bag in the umpires' dressing room in Candlestick Park and found a padlock on his mask, his cap mangled and the straps of his shin guards cut. "Obviously the elves didn't do it," says supervisor Cullen. "I asked the guys in his crew point blank and nobody said anything. What can you do? I couldn't fine everybody."
Nor is it known who the guilty party was in an incident involving American League rookie Derryl Cousins. Shortly after the walkout ended, he arrived in his Minnesota dressing room to find the word "Scab," instead of his name, written above his locker.
Locker-room hazing is not nearly as important as conflict on the field, of course. "I don't agree with what the new umpires did. I never will," says American League crew chief Dave Phillips. "But professionalism should go to the forefront in games. My crew and I do not believe in treating the rookies any differently once we cross the white lines." True to his word, Phillips came to the defense of rookie Dallas Parks several times last week, most notably in an argument involving those two notorious umpire baiters, Earl Weaver and Billy Martin.
At the heart of this controversy is the veteran umps' belief that the rookies cost them money last spring and made the walkout unnecessarily lengthy. They argue further that the rookies have taken jobs that should have gone to other, better qualified minor-leaguers. To be sure, the major leagues did not sign the eight best minor league umps. The National League was turned down by the first five minor-leaguers it contacted, and the American League was rebuffed by one of its top five. Only two of the eight were considered highly promising from the beginning, John Shulock and Fred Spenn. "I couldn't live with myself if I treated the rookies like nothing ever happened," says Billy Williams. "They took advantage of what we were doing to get to the majors. They cost other minor league umpires—better umpires—a chance to be here. Ask [Steve Fields] if he could have gotten to the major leagues any other way. If he says he could have, he's a liar and I'll tell him that to his face."
At the same time, the veterans have only respect for a young umpire named Dan Morrison, who turned down an American League contract in the spring but came to the bigs as a sub when Lou DiMuro was injured. "I wanted to make it on my own ability and not by defying these other guys," Morrison says. "And I figured that when I made it I was going to be here for 20 or 25 years and I would have to get along with these guys."
Morrison was confident that he could reach the top on his own. Others, not as sure of themselves, took their opportunities when they came. "It was a tough decision," Fred Brocklander says. "I'm going to be 39 years old and, if I had said no, that was it. I had struggled emotionally and mentally all those years in the minors and I had persevered. I felt like I was in the middle."
Brocklander says the crucial factor in his decision was the relationship between the major league umps and their poor cousins in the minors. "They never took us into the Umpires Association," he says. "If they had, I never would have worked while they were out."
Brocklander and the seven other outcast umps are still not welcome. With but 52 members, the association is one of the most elite unions in the country. There is no evidence that the veteran umps remember their roots beyond the passing down of an occasional used chest protector or travel bag to a Triple-A hopeful. "They don't give a damn about the minor leagues," says Dallas Parks, who waited seven years for his chance. "They leave the minor leagues and forget about them."
Parks is a big, gentle man who, despite his resentment, has a passive demeanor. He has never ridden in a car with the other members of his crew or sat with them at a dinner table. On the one occasion he found himself on the same plane, the veterans did not acknowledge his existence. After a game he always showers last and stays away from the buffet in the umpires' room until the others have finished serving themselves. "He's very quiet, very humble," says crew chief Phillips. "That has helped his situation."
Parks is also very smart, because he knows how the hiring game is played. "This profession is the most competitive in sports," he says. "There's so many trying to become so few. It's a long road, a rocky road, a lucky road and an——kissing road. There's a lot of older umpires who have gotten here by a lot more unethical ways than we have. Ours is the black-sheep way. Two months ago I would have said I wished I hadn't done it. But now, yes, I'd do it again. After a while, you can get acclimated to anything. For me, that's a tough thing to say because I've always wanted people to like me. But now I know a human being can get used to about anything."
That is not Shulock's opinion, however. "I wouldn't do it again," he says, "and if the situation should ever arise for another minor league umpire, I would say, 'Stay right where you are.' "
Better relations between the umps will come only as the outcasts prove themselves on the field. Cullen says the National League rookies are not the four worst umps in his league. "They're even getting some grudging respect from the other umpires," he says. "That has helped the situation some, but a few of the older ones won't even let me discuss it with them. They just turn away."
As a last resort, Cullen says he may put the four new umps into a single crew next season. But he is reluctant to do this because he feels that would remove any hope of reconciliation. There is some question, however, as to whether reconciliation can occur. Too many umpires share the feelings of American Leaguer Mike Reilly, who says, "Things are never going to get better with me."
The rookie umps do have sympathy from at least one veteran umpire. Bill Deegan. During the 1970 playoffs, when the umps staged a one-day walkout, Deegan crossed the picket line. He stayed on the following year as a regular American Leaguer. "I can relate to what these kids are going through," he says. "I'm still not accepted by a few of the hard-nosed guys. I've proven myself to be a good umpire and they still reject me."
After all, once an umpire makes up his mind, he is not about to change it. In this instance, however, the more obstinate veterans are hurting the game they are paid to uphold.