On Tuesday, news broke of Cuban-born veteran umpire Angel Hernandez filing a discrimination suit against Major League Baseball and commissioner Rob Manfred. In the suit, Hernandez claims to have been passed over for permanent crew chief numerous times in favor of less experienced umpires and alleges much of the issue began in 2011 when Joe Torre took over as MLB’s chief baseball officer.
Many have dismissed the case based on the fact that Hernandez is a terrible umpire and therefore deservedly sits out World Series games and crew chief appointments. But here’s the thing: It’s possible for Hernandez to both be bad at his job and be discriminated against. One does not preclude the other, and it may even be the case that he was chosen as a target on the pretense of his poor performance masking the discrimination, which has been a method utilized by other employers throughout American history.
Hernandez’s shaky umpiring has been well documented in recent years, ranging from calling Adam Rosales’s home run a double in 2013 to numerous concerns about his strike zone, some of which prompted Giants announcer Duane Kuiper to label Hernandez unfit for MLB umpiring. Fans have frequently charged him with being the worst umpire in Major League Baseball, struggling to find any defense for his continued employment. From the fan perspective, then, Hernandez’s failure to advance as an umpire seems like a non-issue. But such issues are rarely so black and white, and so we press on, illuminating the gray area to create an image no longer in want of depth.
Umpires are subject to fairly rigorous evaluation, wherein they receive performance reports following each game and have non-strike zone calls (fair-foul, base calls, etc.) compiled using the SURE system. Beginning this season, MLB has utilized PITCHf/x to analyze umpires’ strike zones, providing more in-depth data. Overall, umpires boast call accuracies of upward of 95 percent, and many outrageous calls noted by fans are largely inconsequential in umpire evaluations. Umpires receive mid-year and year-end evaluations, and in addition to game-by-game analysis of their strike zones, the evaluations consider every on-field play as well as the umpire’s ability to handle arguments. Each end-of-year evaluation is crafted by a committee comprised of umpiring supervisors, MLB’s chief baseball officer, and the VP of baseball operations. Promotions are given based on experience and overall performance, while World Series umpires face stricter measures based on that season’s evaluations alone.
So let’s take a closer look at Hernandez’s case. He alleges that Torre has held a grudge against him since his 2001 balk call on Andy Pettitte, after which Torre remarked that Hernandez “just wanted to be noticed over there,” a belief that has permeated his evaluations post-2011. He cites pre-2011 evaluations that praise him for his situation-handling, awarding him “exceeds standard” in all such areas. Additional 2011 evaluations demonstrate inconsistencies, praising him for his baseball instincts and his perfect first half of game calling while reducing his overall grade from “exceeds” to “meets,” a move that conflicted with observers’ accounts of him as “a very good umpire.”
Hernandez further contends that this grudge is racially motivated and reveals larger racial trends in baseball. Only one of the 10 umpires promoted to crew chief since 2011 has been more experienced than Hernandez, who’s been an umpire for 24 years; since 2000, no game has featured a minority permanent crew chief (Hernandez served as interim crew chief for portions of the 2005 and 2012 seasons). Since 2010, 34 of the 35 World Series umpires have been white, and the notoriously hot-headed Joe West has appeared in two of them (2012, 2016). The most recent World Series featured none of the top five umpires in terms of accuracy, instead choosing the second-worst, John Hirschbeck, as well as a number of veterans. Experience, therefore, must weigh more heavily in the selection process than accuracy/performance.
Though many do not take seriously Hernandez as a competent umpire, it is imperative at least to entertain his charge of racial discrimination against MLB. Indeed, it reflects a larger trend of racism in MLB and in American society at large. Of the roughly 100 umpires in MLB, only 10 are non-white, a trend that carries down through the minors, but one that MLB states it is trying to reverse. The 2016 MLB race and gender report card assigned Major League Baseball a B overall on racial diversity, but gave team-level hiring a C-, citing the dearth of non-white managers and executives. In 2011, a study concluded minority pitchers believe they are frequently at a disadvantage due to biases in pitch calling from white umpires, demonstrating the depth of racism in baseball. Though this study was attacked for focusing on perception rather than fact, it reveals an important element of racism: It is all-encompassing, impacting the mindset of minorities in all areas of life. While white umpires might not actually base calls on racism, the threat that they will negatively impacts minority pitchers.
Hernandez’s suit further speaks to the practice of denying minorities leadership positions. As of 2014, under 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies were headed by minorities; the trend applies to heads of academic institutions, politicians, and cultural leaders. Placing minorities in positions of authority poses a threat of overturning embedded systems of racism and therefore dispersing the power accrued by white males. It is therefore ‘safer’ for companies and institutions to develop a facade of racial inclusion by employing minorities in lower-level positions, forcing them to operate within a racist system.
There is no denying that Hernandez is a bad umpire. The evidence is plentiful. But this argument cannot be used to brush off his charges of racial discrimination. When a member of a racial minority speaks out against racism, they frequently do so at a personal and professional risk. When racism permeates something as it does professional baseball, it is wise to at least entertain the claims of those whom it negatively impacts. Call Hernandez out for his horrendous strike zone and combative nature, but do not attempt to silence him or dismiss this suit. Instead, entertain its validity and give voice to minorities who attempt to speak out against the insidious net of oppression that casts itself over all walks of life, even major league umpiring.
Mary Craig is a baseball history enthusiast who writes about the sport’s relation to America’s political history. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymcraig.