22 Men Out

My July column warned of impending labor trouble between Major League Baseball and the Major League Umpires’ Association. I didn’t know how quickly that trouble would arrive -- or how the inept leadership of union head Richie Phillips would cause a third of the MLUA’s membership to lose their jobs.

On July 14, while Boston was recovering from the All-Star game, a meeting of the MLUA ended with a startling announcement: more than 50 of the 68 major league umpires were resigning, effective September 2.

Richie Phillips explained that MLB had hurt 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."

Boo hoo. Such a confrontational approach was nothing new for Phillips, who had won numerous wage increases basically by screaming at the top of his lungs until MLB paid the umps to shut up and go back to work. But this time he picked the wrong battle and the wrong weapon. With one arrogant, blustering, breathtakingly stupid gesture, Phillips sent his members on a suicide march.

Phillips explained that as of September 2, the resigning umpires would join a new company called ‘Umpires, Inc.” Umpires, Inc. would negotiate with MLB to provide umpires – and would hire, fire and schedule the arbiters. MLB would no longer control its own umpires.

MLB would have rejected this demand even if the umps had offered to work for free. Making it now only infuriated the owners still further. 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 that agreement. They had no right to their jobs after September 2 unless the leagues chose to take them back. After fighting for years to keep MLB from firing incompetent umps, the MLUA had simply handed MLB all the power it needed.

Those umpires who discussed Phillips’ strategy with their personal lawyers heard the same message. Even Marvin Miller, legendary former head of the Players’ Association, said that the umps had given MLB so many weapons that their best strategy was to throw themselves at MLB’s mercy. Some soon rescinded their resignations.

The crisis brought conflicts within the union into the open. While nearly all of the NL umpires backed Phillips, more than a dozen AL arbiters had voted not to renew his contract. Several of them, led by Dave Phillips and John Hirschbeck, publicly denounced Phillips and urged their colleagues to ask for their jobs back before it was too late.

On July 22 and 23, the pressure on the umpires increased. MLB announced it had hired more than two dozen minor league umpires, effective September 2. More umps rescinded their resignations. Phillips hurried to court, demanding that the umps be given until September 2 to withdraw their resignations. (An interesting argument: “If I give six weeks’ notice, you have no right to accept it, or to hire my replacement, until the last minute in case I change my mind.”) He dropped the suit just as MLB was preparing to move for sanctions against him.

By July 26 only nine AL umpires had yet to rescind. That day, AL president Gene Budig announced that the nine had lost their jobs. The nine, and the remaining 33 NL umpires, hurriedly rescinded their resignations, but it was too late. The NL office announced that it had only 20 openings for the 33 returnees.

On July 28 14 dissident umpires 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.’”

When the 13 unwanted NL arbiters got the bad news, Phillips vowed, "I will fight absolutely to the death.” Marcia Montague, wife of soon-to-be-ex 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.” The dissenters noted that many of Phillips’ staunchest backers held offseason jobs with a company he controlled. Members of many crews stopped speaking to one another.

Returning to court, the MLUA now argued that the 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 lawsuit went nowhere. The National Labor Relations Board refused to intervene. The 22 umps who relied on their union leader to protect their interests now follow the pennant races from their living rooms. Yet they still believe Richie Phillips when he says that an arbitrator will reinstate them. Where are the cult deprogrammers when we need them?

Copyright © 1999 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the September 1999 issue of Boston Baseball.

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