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Technically, the umpires are not on strike. They have a no-strike clause in their collective-bargaining agreement, which runs through 1981. It is not the collective-bargaining agreement that is at issue now, as it was last August, when the umpires were ordered back to work by a U.S. District Court judge after a one-day walkout. This time around, the controversy centers on individual salaries. Phillips is asking an additional $520,000 in pay for the 50 umpires, which breaks down to $20,000 per team—or about what it will cost the Pirates for Dave Parker's services this week.
"We feel very strongly about this," says MacPhail. "We're not ready to abandon what we feel is the historical pattern of salaries, which the umpires knew very well and accepted when they signed the basic agreement. Everybody's perspective gets a little twisted today, particularly in our business where you have these tremendous players' salaries. But it's sort of incongruous to sit in a court and listen to an umpire say how badly paid he is when it turns out he's getting more than the judge hearing the case. As a group they're well paid, in the top 7% of wage earners in the country. We're not pleading poverty. This is a matter of principle."
To which Phillips answers, "The major stumbling block is the stubbornness of MacPhail and Feeney. As league presidents, they have nothing to do but sign baseballs each year and control the umpires. Now that they have seemingly lost control of the umpires, the only thing left for them to do is sign the ball, and I think they're afraid that baseball isn't going to pay them a hundred grand a year each for their autographs."
Of the 52 regular umpires, the only two to sign their contracts were first-year man Ted Hendry of the American League and 18-season National Leaguer Paul Pryor. Hendry did so without knowledge of the pending walkout, but Pryor deliberately broke ranks. Dick Stello has umped 10 seasons in the National League; last Thursday, while picketing the Yankees' home opener, he said. "The funny thing is that Feeney told us in 1977 while we were working on the agreement that established minimum pay levels for years of service, 'You guys are forcing me to give my worst umpire an $8,000 raise.' That was Pryor. Eighteen years and they've never even made him a crew chief. The umpires' association did that for him, and this is how he pays us back. I'll probably never speak to him again."
Pryor's conscience gave him fits for three days, and then Friday night he called Dave Phillips, a fellow umpire, to ask if the group would welcome him back if he quit working. "He told me they were the worst three days of his life." Phillips says. "He said he needed $5,000 to pay his bills or he'd go to jail. He'd invested a lot of money in these travel bags that he was selling, and he was going broke. I told him he'd sold his soul and he'd have to live with himself. But it's sad. An umpire should have enough money in his pocket so that he doesn't have to go around peddling stuff."
Pryor did not umpire the next day, but he returned to work in St. Louis on Sunday when it was discovered that his contract required that he give the league 10 days' notice before quitting. It has been reported that Hendry may resign early this week.
In the umps' absence, baseball has scrambled to round up crew chiefs who have had experience umpiring professional games, usually in the high minor leagues. Each chief has been working with three local umpires brought in by the home team. These are men who customarily pick up a few bucks working college and other amateur games. Two days before the respective league openers in Cincinnati and Seattle last Wednesday, nine minor league umpires were signed to contracts that guarantee them major league salaries. No sooner were these signatures on the contracts than the name-calling got started in earnest.
Three of the holdouts, Joe West, Richie Garcia and Steve Palermo, said that one of the men hired as a crew chief, a minor league ump, allegedly had run up gambling debts in New England last year after betting on football and basketball. The same ump was reportedly fired from a Latin American league this winter. Barney Deary, the supervisor of minor league umpires, says he investigated the charges and found no wrongdoing.
Customarily, before an umpire is hired, his background is thoroughly checked out by two former FBI agents on the commissioner's staff, who pay special attention to determining if the prospect is a gambler. This precaution has not been given top priority in light of the dearth of quality umpires. That certainly jeopardizes the "integrity of baseball," which used to be Bowie Kuhn's favorite topic before he began talking mostly about how satisfied he is with the manner in which the league presidents are handling the umpire dispute. "They check on your neighbors, former employers, relatives," says Dave Phillips, a crew chief in only his ninth season, who was offered less than $30,000 by MacPhail this year. "It seems ludicrous that if a man has that kind of background, the major leagues would hire him, when they ordinarily take such elaborate precautions."
The alleged gambler is not the only replacement who has drawn the fire of the embittered umpires. Al Forman, an Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference ump who was behind the plate for the Yankee opener and performed flawlessly, was the object of derision, having been canned by the National League 14 years ago. One of the minor-leaguers who accepted a contract was regarded scornfully for purportedly bursting into tears as he explained that bucking the strike was the only way he'd ever make the big leagues.