Summer 1999: 22 Men Out

On July 14, the calm of the All-Star break was shattered by astonishing news from the Major League Umpires' Association. After a meeting of the MLUA, union head Richie Phillips announced the resignation of 57 of the 66 major league umpires, effective September 2.

Phillips explained that MLB had hurt his the umps' feelings. His men "want to continue working as umpires," insisted Phillips, "but they want to feel good about themselves and would rather not continue as umpires if they have to continue under present circumstances. They feel in the past seven months or so, they have been humiliated and denigrated."

This "humiliation" and "denigration" took several forms. Many umps were outraged when umpire Tom Hallion was suspended for bumping a player -- though not as outraged as they'd be if a player wasn't suspended for bumping an ump. When MLB redefined the rulebook strike zone to reflect the umpires' collective refusal to call the high strike, Phillips insisted that MLB had no right to do so without MLUA approval. Before the season, the MLUA blocked MLB's proposal to move control of the umpires from the league offices to the Commissioner's Office by claiming that the move would constitute a change of employer, entitling the umpires to millions in severance pay.

Phillips reserved his greatest scorn for attempts to hold the umpires accountable for their on-field performance. Upon learning of a MLBPA survey of players, coaches and managers which ranked each umpire against his peers, Phillips sneered, "I don't give any credence at all to ratings of officials because ratings are always subjective." When MLB asked clubs to chart pitches and file a report on each umpire's strike zone, Phillips snarled that this was "just another case of Big Brother watching over us."

An employer evaluating the competence of its employees. The nerve!

On the June 14 episode of HBO's Real Sports, Phillips took his arrogance to a new level. "I equate umpires with federal judges," said Phillips. "And I don't believe they should always be subject to the voter, just like federal judges are not subject to the voter." Sandy Alderson of MLB responded: "Federal judges can be impeached. I got worried when I found out that players were more concerned with who was umpiring the next day than they were about who was pitching."

Richie Phillips has run the MLUA since 1978. The umpires have prospered under his leadership: their annual salaries have risen from $17,500 to $95,000 for first-year umps, and from $39,000 to $250,000 or more for the most senior arbiters. Umpires now also receive paid vacations during the season. But throughout his tenure, Phillips has emphasized confrontation over shrewd bargaining. His in-your-face approach has worked in wage negotiations, where MLB can buy labor peace for virtual pocket change, but this time he picked the wrong battle and the wrong weapon. With one arrogant, blustering, breathtakingly stupid gesture, Phillips sent his membership on a suicide march.

In announcing the umpires' mass resignations, Phillips explained that as of September 2, they would be employed by a new company called 'Umpires, Inc." Umpires, Inc. would negotiate to provide umpiring services to MLB -- and it, not MLB, would supervise and assign the umpires. In short, Phillips proposed to turn the umpires into a self-governing association, free of MLB control.

To owners and players alike, this demand was tantamount to a municipal police union demanding an end to civilian control of the police force. Even if the owners had been willing to cede such authority, the screams of the MLBPA would have killed the deal. And the owners weren't willing. When informed of the umpires' move, Sandy Alderson of the Commissioner's Office termed the resignations "either a threat to be ignored or an offer to be accepted."

Behind the scenes, Alderson and MLB's lawyers must have been exchanging high fives. By "resigning" -- a transparent attempt to evade the no-strike clause in their labor agreement -- the umpires had abandoned the protections of their contract and left themselves at MLB's mercy. Aided by the advice of their personal attorneys, a few arbiters came to the same conclusion and rescinded their resignations.

Cracks in Phillips' support soon appeared. While nearly all of the NL umpires still backed him, a sizable group of AL dissenters, who had earlier favored replacing Phillips with a less confrontational negotiator, publicly denounced him and urged their colleagues to do the same.

On July 22 and 23, the pressure on the umpires increased. MLB announced the hiring of 25 minor-league umpires to major league positions, effective September 2. Ironically, all the new umpires had major-league experience -- experience obtained when they filled in for umps taking the midseason vacations Phillips had won for them. MLB indicated its willingness to take back those umpires who rescinded their resignations, while warning that this offer would not remain open indefinitely.

Despite the weakness of his position, Phillips remained on the attack. On July 26, the MLUA sued MLB in federal court in Philadelphia, demanding that MLB give the umpires until September 2 to withdraw their resignations. The action was assigned to the same judge who, in 1996, had enjoined the MLUA from striking over the Roberto Alomar spitting incident -- a bad omen, That same day, AL president Gene Budig announced that the nine AL umpires who had not rescinded their resignations would lose their jobs on September 2.

On July 27 these nine, along with the remaining 33 NL umpires, withdrew their resignations. The NL office announced that it had only 20 openings for the 33 returnees. The next day a group of 14 dissident umpires, led by John Hirschbeck and Joe Brinkman, released a statement lamenting, "major league umpires have been seriously harmed because union leadership adopted a flawed strategy that was doomed to fail from the beginning. The advice to quit jobs in order to keep them made no sense at all, especially under a collective bargaining contract that not only ruled out strikes, but also ruled out 'other concerted work stoppage.'"

The 13 unwanted NL arbiters got the bad news on July 29. Richie Phillips vowed, ""I will fight absolutely to the death. I will never rest till I right this wrong. I have plenty of information. They know I have the files. I have their internal memos and I will expose the fraud that exists in baseball today." Taking a rhetorical cue from Phillips, Marcia Montague, wife of soon-to-be-former NL umpire Ed Montague, wrote John Hirschbeck's wife a letter calling him a "Judas in our midst, who sold us out for 20 pieces of gold." Phillips' supporters and detractors exchanged similarly nasty barbs through the media.

On August 4, the MLUA formally accused MLB of unfair labor practices in a complaint filed with the NLRB. The union argued that despite the no-strike clause in its contract, and even though it had never filed a grievance against the practices it now alleged had provoked the umpires into acting, MLB still had no right to accept the umps' signed resignations. Rather, claimed the MLUA, these resignations "must be viewed as a symbolic gesture aimed at inducing discussions between the two sides.'' As a "symbolic gesture," a raised middle finger would have conveyed the same message with much less risk.

The NLRB had not decided at press time whether to pursue the MLUA's claim. If, as expected, it does not, the unexpected departure of 22 major league umpires won't be the saddest part of this sorry tale. The saddest part will be when Richie Phillips unashamedly continues to collect his salary from the MLUA after destroying the careers of one-third of its membership.

Copyright © 1999 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the Summer 1999 issue of Outside the Lines, the SABR Business of Baseball Committee newsletter.

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