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Major League Umpires Association

From BR Bullpen

The Major League Umpires Association was the union representing Major League Baseball umpires from 1970 to 1999. It was replaced by the World Umpires Association after a disastrous negotiating strategy backfired in 1999.

The National League umpires union was first formed in 1963, and was successful in raising its members salaries during the 1960s, while American League umpires, who lacked similar representation, were left behind. The Association was formed as a result of the firing of two veteran American League umpires, Al Salerno and Bill Valentine, at the tail end of the 1968 season, officially for poor performance, but in fact because they had been trying to get AL umpires to join the National League's union. In a show of solidarity, the NL umpires voted to admit their AL colleagues into their union on the day after the season, and the Major League Umpires Association was formed. It failed in its efforts to obtain reinstatement for Salerno and Valentine, however; it negociated a tentative settlement before the 1970 season, but Salerno found it insufficient in light of the damage he had suffered and what the ordeal had cost him, and rejected it. The two then lost both their grievance to the National Labor Relations Board and their court case. The union was not off to a good start.

Things began to change when the Association hired fiery legal counsel Richie Phillips as its head in 1978 and won recognition as an official bargaining unit after a one-day strike that year. It must be said that working conditions for umpires at the time were very poor, with ridiculously low salaries, a seven-month season during which they worked seven days a week with no rest periods or vacation time, and poor job security.

The Association went on strike at the beginning of the 1979 season. At first, public reaction was opposed to the umpires, the common statement being that "any guy in a bar could do their job", but it took very little time for the replacement umpires, drawn from the minor leagues and amateur ranks, to show they were clearly inferior to the striking umpires. Within a short period, the fans were clamoring for the return of the regular umpires, and Major League Baseball settled the strike after six weeks by making major concessions. However, it also kept on staff a number of the minor league umpires it had promoted during the strike, and these umpires, considered scabs by the regulars, were ostracized on the field and off and most were eventually driven to resign.

Other labor conflicts followed over the next few years, most famously during the 1984 Postseason, when MLB called on a couple of retired umpires to work home plate, with the help of amateur umpires, to ensure the games could be played. The umpires struck again on Opening Day, 1995, just after the devastating 1994 strike had been settled. These years of confrontation resulted in major benefits for umpires: salaries that were commensurate with their standing as the best of a very difficult profession, the addition of floating umpires to allow umpires to take holidays during the season, as well as additional crews to allow more rest breaks.

In 1999, however, all of this was thrown away on a very bad misjudgment by Phillips. As head of the Association, he convinced umpires to resign en masse on September 2nd, hoping to throw Major League Baseball into a crisis that would force it to bargain with a gun to its head. Instead, MLB accepted all of the resignations, then picked and chose which umpires it wanted to re-hire on an individual basis. Tensions against Phillips became unbearable, and a dissident group led by veteran umpires John Hirschbeck and Joe Brinkman decided to form a competing union. With 22 umpires out of work, a 57 to 35 vote by the umpires on November 30th led to the decertification of the union and its replacement by the World Umpires Association, whose board of directors would consist only of umpires. The out-of-work umpires were all eventually rehired or allowed to retire with compensation paid for lost wages, but the era of highly-militant umpires seeking confrontation at every turn was over.

Further Reading[edit]

  • Mark Armour: "A Tale of Two Umpires: When Al Salerno and Bill Valentine Got Thrown Out of the Game", in The Baseball Research Journal, SABR, Volume 38, Number 2 (Fall 2009), pp. 126-130.

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