(Derryl Cousins, shown here umpiring a September game between the Dodgers and Padres, is the last replacement ump from the strike of 1979 still active in the major leagues, and second in seniority behind Joe West Photo by Associated Press).
On May 12, 1979, a Reds pitcher named Frank Pastore was fighting mad. Pastore thought he had Willie Stargell of the Pirates struck out at a key juncture, but the home-plate umpire didn’t give him the call despite the fact Stargell “jerked his body and bat,” according to the Associated Press story that ran in the Seattle Times the next day. Nor did the third-base umpire call the strike on appeal from Reds catcher Vic Correll. Both umpires were fill-in replacements for the regular National League umps, who had been out on strike all season, along with their American League counterparts. The guy umping at third, Harry Smail, was described as “a 50-year-old credit union worker” who stood over 6-feet tall and weighed more than 300 pounds.
Instead of the seventh inning ending, Stargell got a game-tying hit, and the Pirates ended up rallying for a 3-2 win. Afterward, Pastore fumed: “That was the most glaring, blatant mistake and incompetence that I’ve seen in professional umpiring this year. I struck him out. There was no question. That man at third had absolutely no idea on the play, but it was also a glaring mistake on the man behind the plate. Stargell knew that he went around, and I think that all the fans in the stands felt the same way.”
That’s just one of innumerable disputes that erupted during the three-month walkout by major-league umpires, a work stoppage that began in spring training and didn’t end until May 18 — roughly six weeks into the regular season. Yes, I know that players having disputes with umpires is hardly a new phenomenon – just like NFL players have always griped about officials’ calls. But what I found fascinating in doing some research on the 1979 baseball dispute is how much it paralleled the current situation in the NFL, which reached critical mass on Monday night in Seattle.
As time passed, the replacement umps — most of whom were local “sandlot” umpires with high school, collegiate or perhaps minor-league experience — seemed to lose control of the games. The griping of players and fans increased steadily. There were more and more incidents (though known as splashy as the Hail Mary Heard ‘Round the World). Four days after the one mentioned above, Red Sox infielder Rick Burleson was ejected for arguing a called third strike, and suspended three games for making physical contact with replacement ump Lester Pratt. In another game, a pitch hit Cubs batter Barry Foote on his hand, but the umpire ruled foul ball. Foote was tossed when he argued vehemently, but according to a Newsweek article, “Foote probably would have had to leave soon anyway,” cracked one sportswriter,’ “because his hand was swelling fast.”
Newsweek wrote about the strike in the April 23 edition, highlighting a bad call by an umpire named Dick Tremblay, “who normally runs a glass business.” It wrote:
“Baseball may yet be embarrassed by the absence of its regular umpires, who entered the second week of the 1979 season picketing outside stadiums, trying to arouse sympathy for their strike for higher salaries. In their place, a ragtag bunch of minor-league and amateur umpires was making decisions, and before the week was out, players and managers were grumbling about the increasing frequency of errors in judgment and just plain bad calls.”
Newsweek quoted Atlanta pitcher Phil Niekro: “They can be rattled. They don’t know how much they should take from the players.”
On May 13, five days before the strike ended, the Washington Post wrote an editorial entitled, ‘Where’s Bowie Kuhn?” referring to the commissioner of baseball at the time:
“Where is Bowie Kuhn hiding?
Major league umpires are on strike. Honest but uncompetent men are in their place. An unusual number of serious situations have arisen on the playing field. Indecisions and compromises are daily occurrences. …It has affected the morals of the players and Bowie Kuhn’s credibility.
It will not go away without decisive action.”
When the strike started, 50 of 52 umpires were on strike, seeking better salaries, higher per diem, and vacation time during the season. Two veteran umpires, Ted Hendry and Paul Pryor, started the season because they had already signed their contracts before the union action. Both terminated their contract after fulfilling the minimum requirement of 10 days notice that they were walking out, and joined their fellow umps on the picket line. Hendry, in a Washington Post story, said resigning from his post was the “easiest decision I ever made in my life. I’ve been so humiliated for the last two weeks.”
Hendry – who was active as an MLB umpire until 1999 – said this of the replacement umps he was working with: “Incompetent? … They’re terrible…amateur…They don’t want to work. They’re afraid. How can you work when you’re scared?”
One sidelight to the whole affair was that eight minor-league umpires were brought up to work MLB games. When the strike ended, they were retained by MLB but were ostracized for years by their umpiring peers. This group included Derryl Cousins, who is still umpiring in MLB and is currently one of its most senior umps.
The strike ended with the umpires winning significant advancements in all the areas they were seeking. The Globe and Mail of Canada wrote on May 18: “There were reports that several clubs, at least one owner and — behind the scenes – commissioner Bowie Kuhn, expressed their concern with the umpire stalement to (American League president) Lee MacPhail and his NL counterpart, Chub Feeney. Among others, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals have sent letters to their league offices telling of their dissatisfaction with the work of the substitute umpires.”
I get the sense that the issues of this dispute are more complex than those in 1979. But you have to wonder if such pressure is going to build in the NFL to the point that a settlement will be reached.