This article was written by Mark Armour
This article was published in the Fall 2009 Baseball Research Journal
Baseball traveled through rough waters beginning in the late 1960s, as it navigated increasing player unrest and the growing power of their union. Court cases, strikes, hearings, lawsuits—it was challenging to follow baseball in this period without a law degree. A legal battle that has been largely forgotten was waged by two American League umpires, men who became famous for a couple of years before sinking back into obscurity.
Baseball traveled through rough waters beginning in the late 1960s, as it navigated increasing player unrest and the growing power of their union. Court cases, strikes, hearings, lawsuits—it was challenging to follow baseball in this period without a law degree. The off-field headliners—Curt Flood, Bowie Kuhn, Marvin Miller, Andy Messersmith, Charlie Finley—are as famous as the players who were starring on the field. A legal battle that has been largely forgotten was waged by two American League umpires, men who became famous for a couple of years before sinking back into obscurity. After researching the details of their story, I wondered what had become of the two men in subsequent years. How had their lives turned out?
Alex Salerno was born and raised in Utica, New York, and became a schoolboy pitcher of local renown. He signed with the Red Sox in 1949 and spent a season in their organization before serving two years in the army. He hurt his arm in a truck accident in Korea and did not pitch professionally again. Salerno returned to Utica for a few years before enrolling in the Al Somers Umpire School in Daytona, where he graduated first in his class. He spent just five years in the minors, including two in the Pacific Coast League, before reaching the American League in late 1961 as a 30-year-old. In just his sixth major-league game, he was umpiring at third base when Roger Maris hit his record-breaking 61st home run.[fn]Al Salerno, interview with author, July 2007.[/fn]
Reaching the major leagues as an umpire has always been a difficult journey—there are a limited number of jobs, and an umpire might work twenty-five years or more once he reached the majors. For most of the 1960s, when there were twenty majorleague teams and forty umpires, there were generally about two or three openings per year.[fn]Umpiring rosters from retrosheet.org.[/fn] These slots were usually filled from one of the Triple-A leagues, by someone considered to be one of the very best umpires in the minor leagues. In 1962 the American League had one “rookie” umpire—Al Salerno.
Bill Valentine, from Little Rock, Arkansas, attended a local umpire school right after high school and was just 18 when he got his first job in Organized Baseball in 1951. He spent twelve years in the minor leagues, including seven in the Texas League and two in the PCL, before joining the AL staff in 1963. He was promoted at the instigation of Kansas City owner Charlie Finley, who had met him on a trip to Little Rock the year before. Just 30 years old, Valentine looked to have a long career ahead of him—after all, he was twentyfive years from the league’s retirement age.[fn]Bill Valentine, interview with author, June 2007.[/fn]
As full-fledged major-league umpires, Salerno and Valentine then had several fairly typical seasons—generally drawing attention only when there was an on-field melee of some sort. Salerno had a notable runin with Orioles manager Hank Bauer in 1964, which led to fines for Bauer and pitcher Steve Barber. Twins manager Sam Mele appeared to punch Valentine in 1965, leading to a five-game suspension. Nothing out of the ordinary for an umpire, and both men were honored with All-Star Game assignments—Salerno in 1964 and Valentine in 1965.
By 1968 the two men were on the same four-man crew for the first time, joining (in early June) veteran chief Jim Honochick (later more famous for his Miller Lite commercials with Boog Powell) and Emmett Ashford, the junior man in service time, who just two years earlier had become the majors’ first African American umpire.
On September 15, the four umpires concluded a routine series in Cleveland. The next morning Salerno was awakened in his hotel room by a phone call from American League president Joe Cronin. Salerno was hoping for this call, anticipating the news that he would work the upcoming World Series. Instead, Cronin told him he was fired, effective immediately. Stunned, Salerno went to find Valentine, who was just hanging up the phone. He too had been fired. Both men were told they were being let go because they could not do their jobs. “They’re just bad umpires, that’s all,” Cronin told the press.[fn]Chicago American, 18 September 1968; The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide 1969, 195.[/fn]
Joe Cronin held the post of AL president for fifteen years, beginning in 1959. The role of league president was ill defined but tended to involve a lot of consensus building; the real power was wielded by the league owners. The one exception was with the league’s umpiring staff, over which the league office held total control. The league hired the umpires, arranged them into four-man crews, and told them what to wear, how to position themselves on the field, and how to interpret the rule book.
Helping Cronin with this responsibility was Cal Hubbard, a longtime umpire who had been the league’s umpire-in-chief since 1954. Hubbard scouted prospective umpires in the minor leagues and watched AL games to help evaluate the current staff. When an umpiring crew worked in Boston, where the league had its offices, the umpires would visit with Hubbard and Cronin, where they might receive feedback on their performance. Cronin had never fired an umpire before, and he would never again. His reason for firing these two was unequivocal: They were incompetent.
Salerno and Valentine told a different story. As it happened, the two men were leading an effort to organize the AL umpires. Their National League counterparts had formed a union in 1963, and on September 12—just four days before their dismissals—Salerno had attended a meeting in Chicago with a few NL umpires and the union’s lawyer. The umpires had told Salerno that the AL could join their union if all twenty umpires agreed. The next day Salerno and Valentine had sent notes to the five AL crew chiefs about the meeting. Three days later, both men were fired.
When asked about this unusual coincidence, Joe Cronin expressed surprise—he had “no knowledge” of any desire by the umpires to organize, insisting that the two umps were “never first class at any one time.”[fn]New York Times, 18 September 1968.[/fn]
Suffice it to say that no one believed Cronin’s claim of incompetence. “To Cronin’s credit,” wrote Shirley Povich, “this was not a snap judgment. In Salerno’s case it took the AL President seven years to arrive at it; in Valentine’s case, six years.” Sounding the same theme, Red Smith wrote that Cronin “has to be one of the least perceptive or most indulgent employers this side of Utopia.” But most writers were more direct. “Cronin draws his ideas from the philosophy of William McKinley,” wrote Bob August in the Cleveland News. “Today he looks foolish, a baseball dinosaur lumbering through the 1960’s. He made a mistake and it was a beaut.”[fn]U.S. Senator Charles E. Goodell (N.Y.), news release, 16 April 1969.[/fn]
Until the terminations, no one had paid much attention to the salary and benefits of the major-league umpires. They did now. After five years with an established union, the NL umpires at the high and low end made nearly 50 percent more in salary than did their AL counterparts, received a larger per diem and mileage allowance, and had better pension benefits with lower vesting levels.[fn]The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide 1969; Goodell news release.[/fn] All of this had been achieved without public rancor. These facts only added to the growing sentiment that the “junior circuit” was the inferior league in every way. The NL had all of the black stars, had won the race to place teams in California, had much higher attendance figures, and won the All-Star Game every year. Now, it turned out, the AL stiffed their umpires and kept incompetent ones around for years on end.
The firings also came at an unusual time, as the league was expanding in 1969 and would need four new umpires. Now they needed six. Bill Kunkel and Jake O’Donnell, who were both working in the Southern Association, were hired immediately and worked with Honochick and Ashford in Cleveland on September 17. The league claimed that they wanted the two new umpires to get some experience before the season ended, which accounted for the mid-September change.
Could Salerno and Valentine have been incompetent? This is a difficult charge to prove, then or now, although there is a myriad of evidence that the umpires were not incompetent, that in fact they were very good at their jobs. Both men had received regular increases in pay and claimed to have never received a negative performance review. Cronin later admitted to pay increases even when other umpires were not getting them. Salerno had received an unscheduled bonus after the 1967 season, just one year before his dismissal.
Several managers publicly defended the umpires, including Dick Williams (who had had run-ins with both men), Hank Bauer, Al Lopez, and Alvin Dark. More tellingly, Valentine and Salerno had been assigned to the same crew and were joined by Ashford, a fairly junior umpire. It seems unlikely that the league would place its two worst umpires together.
Valentine noted that he had been given the assignment to umpire home plate in the crucial final game between the Tigers and Angels in 1967. Valentine has a point, though not precisely the one he made. There were two big series that final weekend. In Detroit, there were doubleheaders on the final two days, and the umpire rotation was rearranged so that veteran Larry Napp worked the plate in two of the games— Valentine was not shifted, but he got his scheduled game in the finale. In Boston, the Red Sox played two games against the Twins. Here the crew schedule was rearranged so that Nestor Chylak umpired the plate in the final game, in lieu of Marty Springstead (who was in his second season).[fn]Game logs from retrosheet.org.[/fn] Given that the league was willing to shift the assignments, Valentine getting the plate on October 1 is telling.
If Cronin’s intention was to pressure his umpires not to organize, his efforts backfired decisively. The day after the regular season, just two weeks after the dismissals, the remaining major-league umpires met in Chicago. The NL umpires voted unanimously to admit the AL umps into their group, to be renamed the Major League Umpires Association. The arbiters also considered striking the 1968 World Series to protest the firings. Salerno and Valentine attended the meeting and urged the umps to work, and the union’s lawyer persuaded them to do so. In the offseason the union met with Cronin to begin the process of working out a relationship, but Cronin would not agree to reinstate the fired umps.[fn]The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide 1971, 283–87.[/fn]
In January 1969, the new umpires union filed an unfair-labor-practice claim with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In a separate action, in September 1969, Salerno and Valentine filed a $4-million suit in federal court in the Southern District of New York against Major League Baseball, Joe Cronin, and the American League, alleging federal antitrust violations and defamation of character. The district court dismissed the lawsuit for lack of jurisdiction—prior Supreme Court cases had held baseball to be exempt from federal antitrust laws. The attorneys for the umpires immediately appealed. Meanwhile, in December 1969 the NLRB agreed to hear the union’s charge.
A loss in either action—the federal lawsuit or the unfair-labor charge with the NLRB—could have influenced the Supreme Court to reconsider baseball’s antitrust exemption. In the spring of 1970, the American League negotiated a confidential settlement with the new union, which required that both legal actions be dropped. In exchange the umpires would receive full reinstatement at a salary of $20,000 per year— the current rate for their experience level but $8,000 more than they made at the time of their dismissal. There was a catch: The umps would have to work a brief probationary period in the minor leagues to make sure they had “improved their game,” a stipulation all agreed was a face-saving gesture on the part of Cronin.[fn]Valentine; Salerno.[/fn]
Valentine agreed to the deal, but Salerno did not, claiming he had gone into debt fighting the case. Just prior to the scheduled hearing, the AL sweetened the pot: $20,000 in back pay and full pension credit for their missed service time. Again Salerno balked. Valentine was sufficiently alarmed to get in his car and drive from Little Rock to Utica, where he offered Salerno $10,000 of his share. The league also offered Salerno $37,500 without reinstatement. Salerno’s attorney, Joseph Kellner, advised his client that he would win reinstatement in the hearing and that he would likely win his lawsuit as well. Salerno did not believe the league would follow through on their promise to promote the umps from the minor leagues, and he wanted at least $100,000 to drop the suit. Valentine’s lawyer tried to get the AL to deal with him separately, even at lesser terms. The league would not.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
The hearings took place in Boston over nine days in July 1970. Supporters of the umpires included several former colleagues, plus managers Al Dark, Eddie Stanky, and Dick Williams, all of whom testified that the two were good umpires, among the top half in the league. Valentine broke down when he recalled the phone call from Cronin telling him he was a lousy umpire. Salerno spoke for two hours about his efforts to organize, which he said were not a secret to anyone around the league. Cronin stuck to his story, claiming that the umps were hotheaded and arrogant and, more importantly, that he had no idea that the umpires wanted to unionize. Cal Hubbard, Cronin’s assistant, told the same story. When asked on the stand if he would recommend the two umpires for positions in the minor leagues or in the National League, Cronin answered “Yes.”[fn]The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide 1971.[/fn]
In November 1970 the NLRB ruled in favor of the American League, claiming that the umpires had not adequately proven that they were fired for their union activities. The decision read that, although many umpires backed Salerno and Valentine in contending that the union activities were well known, no umpire would admit to telling Cronin or Hubbard. Without that link, there was no evidence “beyond mere suspicion or surmise” that Cronin knew the umpires were unionizing.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
As for the lawsuit, the umpires’ only real hope was to have the Supreme Court hear their case. Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for a unanimous Court in Federal Baseball v. National League, ruled baseball exempt from the Sherman antitrust act in 1922. In 1953, the Court upheld Holmes’s decision in Toolson vs. New York Yankees. In denying the appeal of the dismissal of Salerno and Valentine’s federal lawsuit, Second Circuit Judge Henry Friendly wrote, “We fully acknowledge our belief that Federal Baseball was not one of Mr. Justice Holmes’s happiest days,” but concluded that only the Supreme Court could undo the decision. “While we should not fall out of our chairs with surprise at the news that Federal Baseball and Toolson had been overruled, we are not at all certain the Court is ready to give them a happy dispatch.” Moreover, Friendly believed that Salerno and Valentine did not make enough of an antitrust claim, raising doubt that they could win their case even without baseball’s antitrust exemption.[fn]See Friendly’s decision at http://openjurist.org/429/f2d/1003/salerno-v-american-league-of-professional-basebell-clubs-e.[/fn]
As Brad Snyder outlined in his wonderful book on Curt Flood, the Supreme Court was highly unlikely to hear the Salerno case. If the court were to consider a challenge to Federal Baseball it would want a case where the facts were not in dispute (as they were in Salerno)—and a case of great national interest. After denying the petition to hear Salerno in January 1971, a few months later the court chose to hear Flood v. Kuhn, a much more appropriate case. (Appropriate or not, in July 1972 the court ruled against Flood in a 5–3 majority opinion that refused to reconsider the logic of Federal Baseball or Toolson.)[fn]Brad Snyder, A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports (New York: Viking, 2006).[/fn]
Although there were a few more less noteworthy challenges, the story had effectively come to an end. Al Salerno, a veteran of 1110 games, and Bill Valentine, of 947, were finished as majorleague umpires. But as neither man had reached 40 years of age, there were still lives to lead.
In 2007, thirty-nine years after their dismissals, I sought out the two men for interviews. Valentine was easy to find, as he was the general manager of the Arkansas Travelers in Little Rock. When I told him that I was writing a book about Joe Cronin he laughed. “Why would you want to do a thing like that?” After umpiring, Valentine had returned home to Little Rock and held a variety of jobs, including working with the local Republican Party and broadcasting. He became GM of the Travelers in 1976 and held the job for thirty-three years, retiring in early 2009. He has been inducted into both the Texas League Hall of Fame and the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and has received several minor-league Executive of the Year awards. At banquets, he used to say, “I would like to thank Joe Cronin for giving me my start in this line of work.” His wife, he noted, would tease him if he screwed up around the house. “Cronin was right, you are incompetent.”
Valentine described Cronin as a big man who drove a big car and smoked big cigars. He had no sympathy for umpires and reacted to grievances by suggesting that the umpire just quit. He felt that Cronin had lost his temper, reacted rashly, and was too stubborn to back out. But, all things considered, life had turned out pretty great, better in fact than it would have been had he remained an umpire. If he had been in Cronin’s shoes, he might very well have done the same thing. When I asked about the proposed deals before the hearing, he said, “Al’s lawyer told him we could make a lot of money. I just wanted to umpire.” He gave me Salerno’s phone number, and asked me to pass along his best wishes.
I reached Salerno at home in Utica, where life had not worked out as well. A lot had gone wrong in the previous thirty-nine years, and Salerno blamed Cronin for all of it. The heart attack at age 48, and the six subsequent operations, which he detailed for me. Sporadic employment, the lost marriage in the 1980s, all because he lost the only job he ever wanted. “My wife got sick of my complaining,” he said. He asked me how Valentine was doing and I reported that he seemed very happy. “He’s got money in his pocket, so of course he’s happy,” Salerno said.
Anticipating a question I feared asking, he offered that “the deal was a sham, they would never have allowed us back in the major leagues.” In the ensuing years Salerno had never stopped fighting the case, and he remained bitter at the current umpires who had not fought for him. He did not have enough service time to receive a pension, though the action he took led to a lowering of the minimum service time for other umpires. He was bitter at the legal system. “I served my country, and my country screwed me over.” When I spoke with him, he had just written to John Roberts, the new chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Nothing had worked, but he would keep trying.
“I am just waiting to crawl in my hole,” he said.
I had called Salerno in order to help me, but the tables had turned—it was now he who wanted help from me. He needed me to tell his story, to tell the truth, to help spread the word that he had been mistreated. I assured him that I planned to tell the entire story and that the pro-Cronin side had never really caught on with anyone. But the story might gain him some new sympathizers, though not necessarily any tangible benefit. I tried to get him to talk about other things, his favorite memories of umpiring, his life in the minor leagues, his hometown, but inevitably the conversation came back to his grievance.
He called me a few times after our original conversation and sent me a couple of packets of signed photos, affidavits, and letters. He treated me kindly, perhaps even deferentially. The last time we spoke I told him I would call him back when I returned from a family vacation. Before I could do so, on August 5, 2007, he died, having spent nearly four decades a bitter and defeated man. How much of his suffering was related to second-guessing himself over his legal challenge will remain unknown.
The two men were dealt the same cards, but the story of how they handled their similar fates might be a lesson for us all. Charles Dickens once wrote: “Reflect upon your blessings, of which every man has plenty, not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” Sadly, Salerno let his misfortune consume and define him, to the very end of his life.
This article is based on a presentation at the annual SABR convention in July 2009. The author would like to thank Brad Snyder and Craig Calcaterra for their review of the legal language in this article.
MARK ARMOUR writes baseball from Corvallis, Oregon. His biography of Joe Cronin was by the University of Nebraska Press in March 2010.