Academic journal article Nine

Even Umpires Sometimes Strike Out

Academic journal article Nine

Even Umpires Sometimes Strike Out

Article excerpt

Organized labor has had its share of setbacks over the years. The Homestead Strike of 1892 and the Pullman Strike of 1894 resulted in crushing defeats to fledgling unions in the steel and railroad industries. The "Ludlow Massacre" of Colorado miners in 1914 and the "Memorial Day Massacre" of 1937 at Republic Steel's Chicago plant had tragic consequences for union demonstrators. More recently, in the air traffic controllers debacle of 1981. 11,400 people were fired by President Ronald Reagan for engaging in an illegal strike.

The 1999 battle between umpires and Major League Baseball (MLB) lacks the scale or intensity of these earlier struggles. But it had a similar one-sided outcome and was the result of gross miscalculation by union leadership. This paper examines the baseball confrontation in four areas: (i) background, including early negotiations and work stoppages; (2) factors precipitating the 1999 conflict; (3) implications of the umpires' decision to resign en masse; and (4) the settlement of the dispute and its aftermath.


A young Philadelphia lawyer and former Villanova football player named Richie Phillips began representing the Major League Umpires Association in 1978. He had helped organize the then-weak union of NBA referees in the mid-19705 and served as an agent representing basketball players and officials. Phillips's success in basketball--particularly his winning a strike by referees during the 1977 playoffs--stamped him as a labor leader to be reckoned with.

Phillips's first attention-getting action with the umpires' union was to lead them in a 1979 strike. At the time, umpires' annual pay modestly ranged from $17,500 to $40,000 depending on seniority. The fifty-two umpires struck for seven weeks, from the start of the season until May 19, when an outcry from the players over poor officiating prompted league officials to grant significant monetary concessions to the union.

In the 1984 negotiations, the main issue was the amount of postseason pay and how it would be distributed. (1) The umpires wanted not only a sizable pay increase but that postseason money be shared with umpires who did not work the postseason. The union's rationale, which would be emphasized again over the years, was that favoritism influenced the merit system of selecting umpires for postseason play, so sharing would be more equitable. The union struck briefly at the outset of the playoffs. At Phillips's urging, the newly appointed commissioner of baseball, Peter Ueberroth, interceded in the dispute and arbitrated the impasse. Ueberroth awarded the umpires almost all of what they wanted.

Interestingly, it was the late president Richard M. Nixon who was called in to arbitrate a dispute in 1985, heading off another possible strike by the umpires. In 1991, a brief umpires' strike affected spring training and opening day of the regular season. Money issues again dominated the talks. But assignment of work was also on the table. From 1987 through 1990, umpires were guaranteed at least one playoff assignment every four years and one World Series assignment every fifteen years. While giving in to generous pay increases, the leagues won back the right to select umpires for the postseason solely on the basis of merit.

In 1995, however, the umpires regained the right to rotate plum assignments to the All-Star Game, league playoffs, and World Series. This is controversial because assignments are not always given to the most competent umpires. The new contract continued the hefty increases in pay. Salaries rose to a range of $75,000 to $225,000 for the regular season, with a $7,500 bonus for crew chiefs, $12,500 for a division series, $15,000 for a league championship series, and $17,500 for the World Series. This agreement was not achieved without dispute. The leagues took a proactive stance by locking out umpires for the first week of the 1995 season, using replacement arbiters. …

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