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Sorting through the umpire controversy

MLB umpires have often been the subject of abuse at the hands of the league. The creation and use of a strong union is something we should support, not fear.

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Oakland Athletics v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Last Saturday, MLB umpires banded together to wear white wristbands in protest of players’ treatment of them, and a perceived lack of enforcement on the part of the league. The protest was in response to the MLB fining Ian Kinsler $10,000 for declaring that controversial umpire Angel Hernandez should pursue a different occupation, as well as a more general concern with “escalating verbal attacks” levied on them by players and managers. Earlier this season, umpire Joe West was suspended three games for calling Adrian Beltre the biggest complainer in the game in an interview with USA Today, which umpires viewed as supremely unfair, particularly in light of the Kinsler being fined rather than suspended. The protest ended after one day, when commissioner Rob Manfred agreed to meet with union representatives to discuss the matter, but condemnation of the protest has continued.

The relationship between umpire and fan/player has always been rife with contention, even moreso now in the age of replay. Audiences can now almost instantly see when an umpire has made a bad call, and each instance is magnified and harped on during broadcasts and throughout the season. Umpires are often thought of as impediments to a team’s success or villains openly sabotaging a team. And so the protest was met with the derision often reserved for umpires, as people once again accused them of trying to eclipse the game and doing so at a particularly inopportune time. But as with Angel Hernandez’s racial discrimination suit, it is possible for umpires to both make mistakes at their job and simultaneously face undue hardship.

The unionization of umpires

Much of the World Umpire Association’s grievances stem from the idea succinctly put by Joe West that “people don’t respect authority like they used to.” Now, this statement is not without its problems. It is never a good idea to blindly follow authority, and it often seems that umpires have authoritarian power on the baseball field; they can decide the outcome of games with their strike zones and safe/out calls, and get to eject players and coaches from games without facing repercussions (or at least ones visible to the public). However, the reality of umpires’ position in the game is quite different.

The Major League Umpires Association, the predecessor of the World Umpire Association, was founded in 1970 to combat the firing of two veteran umpires for trying to form a union. Over the next decade, the union fought hard for increased wages, more job security, and larger pension plans, but it was not until the umpire strike in 1995 and the subsequent introduction of a roaming crew that they received vacation days. Prior to the union, umpires were paid a little less than players, did not receive any off days during the 7-month season, and had no job security. Though players were also treated unfairly at the hands of owners and Major League Baseball, they were viewed as less expendable than umpires, and so punishment for their combined efforts to unionize frequently rested on umpires, many of whom were fired through the 1920s and ‘30s, the height of unionization efforts prior to the 1960s.

In 1999, the umpires again went on strike, opposing efforts to place them under the purview of the commissioner and the league’s insistence they reduce the size of the strike zone. Tensions between umpires and owners boiled over after Tom Hallion was suspended three games for bumping a player. In July, umpires agreed to a mass resignation, hoping that forcing owners to replace them with amateur umps would reveal how instrumental professional umpires are to the conduct of the game. The ensuing legal standoff between the MLUA and MLB, as well as MLB’s refusal to reinstate 22 umpires who had resigned, ripped the union apart and precipitated the formation of the hopefully stronger World Umpire Association.

The formation of this union was over 100 years in the making, and a testament to the slow progress umpires had made since the time in which they were constantly subject to both verbal and physical attacks from players largely designed by clubs to boost attendance. By the early 1900s, the umpire was no longer heralded as the esteemed gentleman arbiter of the game. He was now a villain, a scourge upon the beloved game, and so fans (occasionally joined by players) let out their frustration by routinely chanting “kill the umpire!” during games, a suggestion that was not out of realm of possibility. This abuse, compounded by the difficulty in presiding over an oft-changing rulebook, led to high turnover rates for umpires, reducing the possibility of union formation.

Backed by the increasing professionalization of baseball in the twentieth century, umpires received incremental salary increases, and by the 1950s, they were subject merely to verbal abuse, the physical form having been curtailed by steep fines. Umpires once again became the personification of the game’s integrity. But umpires now faced more competition and were subject to lengthy tryouts in both the minors and the majors before officially being hired. Umpires were also in charge of acquiring their own equipment, and the per diem they received covered only roughly half of their travel expenses. Umpires watched their largely stagnant salaries in comparison to player raises and decided to fight for better work standards. But as umpires fought to increase their pay and benefits through the ‘60s and ‘70s, their status again shifted to that of villains, as fans sided with owners in decrying umpires for their selfishness. Suddenly, umpires were charged with showboating, making themselves more important than the game, and fans began to view them as making far more errors than was actually the case. As the MLUA and then WUA engaged in more frequent battles with MLB throughout the late 1900s, their status among fans decreased, and it has yet to recover. [1]

How fans should view umpires

It is true that Joe West and Angel Hernandez, the faces of the WUA, are not particularly great at their jobs, often featuring bizarre strike zones and itchy trigger fingers. It is also true that umpires have a difficult, thankless job; people rarely applaud them for their good calls, and tear them apart for their mistakes.

Fans have long called for more transparency with respect to disciplining umpires, but instituting complete transparency might have adverse effects. It is likely that fans believe umpires should be punished at higher rates than the actually optimal rate. In its history, Major League Baseball has proved it has no problem with disciplining umpires, often doing so unprovoked. The reduction in suspensions over the past two decades is therefore a sign of more limited power for the MLB and more rigorous standards for disciplining its employees.

The league still suspends umpires on occasion, having done so to West, Fieldin Culbreth, and Bob Davidson in recent years. Any regular fan could probably rattle off at least three or four other instances for which they believe an umpire deserved to be suspended. But umpiring is a supremely difficult job, and umpires are already held in low regard by fans. Opening up and expanding the discipline process may satisfy fans, or it might make umpires appear even more villainous and incompetent than they currently do. A fan’s perspective of umpires is already largely driven by perception, and it is forgotten that even the worst umpires, like West and Hernandez, are some of the best in the world. Seeing just how frequently umpires are punished (if this is the case) might increase trust, or it might lower the already-bad opinion of umpires that many fans already hold.

None of this discussion is to say that fans should be prohibited from criticizing umpires, because umpires do make mistakes and there are problems with quick ejections. But when that criticism is meant not to improve their umpiring, but abuse them, it crosses a line. Fans have to view umpires as human beings, not in the sense that every person is fallible, but rather that they are human beings who operate outside of baseball and are entitled to respect from their fans and employers. Making umpires more accountable to Major League Baseball undoes all of the progress they have worked toward for over a century; it puts them back in a position in which they have long been exploited and for which they are still being exploited. Minor league umpires have similar lives as minor league players, toiling away in poor conditions for little money (making an average of $2,200 per month during the season), and major league ones are not yet being paid their worth. Fans are quick to point out that they make far more than most Americans—an argument levied against players, as well—and their job could be more grueling. But as employees of a billion dollar industry, they, like players, are severely underpaid. And they, like players, are subject to fan ire conditioned by years of careful molding by billionaire owners.

So feel free to talk about Joe West and Angel Hernandez’s poor strike zones and large egos, but do not forget they are but two members of a group of people whose hard work makes baseball what it is. And do not tell anybody that their speaking up about perceived injustices has come at an inopportune time, because it is likely one instance of a long history of facing injustices, injustices which they are only now able to speak on. It is okay to think that umpires might be exaggerating their grievances, so long as you recognize that you enter into the conversation holding biases, and that those who claim abuse deserve the opportunity to tell their story.


[1] Robert Federick Burke, “Much More Than a Game: Players, Owners, & American Baseball Since 1921,” (Charlotte: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

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.