It was Opening Day in Cincinnati, and 22 major league baseball umpires were picketing outside Riverfront Stadium, trying to muster sympathy for their job action that was keeping them off the field and putting a motley assortment of minor league and amateur umps on it in their stead. With the holdouts was their attorney, Richard (Call Me Richie) Phillips, the man who had counseled them not to sign their 1979 contracts. Charles (Call Me Chub) Feeney, president of the National League, walked by and said to Phillips, "Richie, why the hell do you feel so strong?"
"I feel strong because I have a case and you don't," Phillips replied. "I have a case, and I have the fans and your owners with me."
"The owners aren't with you."
"If the owners aren't with me, then they're lying to me, Chub."
"Then they're lying to you." Feeney turned, passing one of the umpires wearing the blue uniform of the National League. He had a white cardboard sign hanging from his neck cut in the shape of a chest protector. BASEBALL UNFAIR TO UMPIRES was written across it.
"Look what you've got me doing, Mr. Feeney," said the ump.
"I don't have you doing that. He does," said Feeney, pointing to Phillips. "All you have to do is sign your contract and come back to work."
That was as close as Feeney was willing to come to negotiating the dispute last week, though baseball would soon find the absence of its regular umps embarrassing. Feeney and American League President Lee MacPhail, the men in charge of providing umpires for their respective leagues, seemed to have adopted an intransigent bargaining strategy: sign and come back; don't sign, don't come back. The whole business, they indicated, was a matter of principle, and there was no room for negotiation. But by last Sunday, the season's fifth day, their approach seemed to be failing, because as the molehill swelled to a mountain, players and managers were growing increasingly impatient for the return of major league umpires.
There was good reason to believe that undermining Phillips was more important to the league presidents than upholding any principle. Fifty major league umpires retained Phillips during the offseason to represent them individually during their 1979 salary bargaining. Actually, there have never been any real negotiations between the leagues and any of the 50 umpires. Last winter, as has been the tradition, the league presidents simply sent new contracts to the umpires, asking them to sign and return the documents by the first day of spring training—or be replaced. This was the way things had always worked, and until this year there had never been a holdout. Now, suddenly, there were 50. Phillips, who became the umpires' counsel in 1978, advised his clients not to sign the contracts and then set about getting salaries more in line with those of NBA refs—whom Phillips also represents.
It is debatable whether a meaningful comparison can be drawn between the salaries of officials in one sport and those in another. But for the record, an NBA official with 10 years' experience makes $550 per game over an 82-game schedule, or about $45,000 a season. Under existing wage scales, an umpire with 10 years in the majors who works a 162-game schedule makes about $200 a game, or approximately $32,500 a season. To proclaim that baseball is unfair to umpires may be overstating the case, when the average ump's salary is nearly $30,000 and he is allowed first-class air fare. But fairness is in the eye of the beholder—a judgment call, as it were. Suffice it to say that baseball is not as fair to its officials as basketball is to its.