History of Umpiring 7
September 29 2014 / By:
Eight years later the Umpires Association made major advances under the new leadership of Richard G. "Richie" Phillips, a Philadelphia lawyer who also represented National Basketball Association referees. A second umpire's strike on August 25, 1978, lasted only one day, owing to a court injunction against the Association, but a third strike from Opening Day to May 18, 1979, won major concessions for the union, including a salary schedule of $22,000 to $55,000, based on years of service; annual no-cut contracts; $77 per diem while traveling; and two weeks' midseason vacation. The aftermath of the prolonged strike, which demonstrated the power of the Association and the inadequacy of replacement umpires, was marked by ill will between the union umpires and "the Class of '79"--the four "scab" umpires retained on each league's staff. A fourth strike of seven of the eight 1984 playoff games was settled by the intercession of new Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who granted the umpires a sizable increase for playoff and World Series games as well as providing that the money go into a pool that would be distributed in part to umpires not working postseason contests. A fifth strike was averted in 1985 when an arbitrator--former President Richard M. Nixon--awarded umpires a 40 percent pay increase for the expanded best-of-seven playoff series. An MLUA strike appeared certain in 1991 until prodding of both sides by Commissioner Fay Vincent produced an eleventh-hour settlement.
The new four-year contract called for a salary scale ranging from $61,000 to $175,000 and a third week of in-season vacation, in exchange for a return to a "merit" instead of "rotation" system for postseason assignments. However, agreement on the pact came too late to avoid using substitute umpires for games on Opening Day.
By the early 1990s the MLUA had transformed the umpiring profession as well as the role of umpires in major league baseball. Although most attention has been focused on contract negotiations, umpires have also successfully used the power of the Association to seek from league presidents and the commissioner the impositions of fines and suspensions on players, managers, and even owners for objectionable conduct and comments.
Most significant, the press and the public increasingly viewed umpires in a critical, even cynical manner. It was charged that umpires, because of the protection afforded by the MLUA, had unilaterally created a strike zone much smaller than that prescribed by the rules, had become belligerent and confrontational in dealing with players and managers, and had assumed too large a role in games through quick ejection and exaggerated motions when making calls. To many, plate umpire Terry Cooney's ejection of Boston Red Sox star pitcher Roger Clemens in the 1990 American League Championship Series symbolized the aggressive action and arrogant attitude of the "new" umpire. That such perceptions did not square with reality was secondary to the fact that umpires no longer enjoyed the unqualified respect of fans and journalists. (On the other hand, admiration for umpires as individuals increased after one of the American League's top arbiters, Steve Palermo, suffered a career-ending gunshot wound in 1991 while attempting to prevent the robbery of two waitresses in a restaurant parking lot.)
The growth and success of the umpire's union was made possible by two factors. First, with the expansion of franchises from the traditional sixteen (8 in each league) to twenty in 1961-1962, twenty-four in 1969, and twenty-six in 1977, umpires became a numerically significant force. Second--and far more important--was television, which not only brought unprecedented publicity to umpires but also generated the enormous revenue that made it possible for major league baseball to meet the monetary demands of umpires as well as players.
Finances aside, television was a mixed blessing for umpires. If heightened visibility underscored the umpire's skill and central role in the game, it also glaringly exposed errors to millions of viewers. The photographer's camera had occasionally exposed an incorrect call, but television's instant replay both emphasized mistakes and encouraged second-guessing. When slow-motion replays began to be shown on scoreboard screens, one crew in 1975 left the field and refused to return until the practice stopped. Television also affected performance and appearance. It had once been axiomatic for umpires to develop a subdued, even somber appearance, and take pride in anonymity. But in the Age of Television, arbiters began to project themselves into leading roles. From the time televised games became popular in the early 1950s, some umpires played to the camera through flamboyant, demonstrative motions when making calls. While a few like Emmett Ashford and Ron Luciano subsequently developed "showboating" to a fine art, umpires no longer shunned the spotlight of publicity; Luciano even parlayed his popularity for comedic calls on the field into a career in the telecast booth and as a writer.