Major League Umpires and Unionization

This article was written by Chris Williams

This article was published in The SABR Book of Umpires and Umpiring

The SABR Book of Umpires and Umpiring (2017)Major-league baseball players and umpires are sometimes at odds, but both groups seemed to be thinking along the same lines around 1968. It was then that the Major League Baseball Players Association won the first collective bargaining agreement in professional sports, and umpires started on the road to formation of a union that would eventually be recognized as the official bargaining agent for major-league umpires.


Umpire Ernie Stewart started umpiring in the American League in 1940 but left baseball in 1945 after becoming embroiled in an effort to improve working conditions for umpires1 and what was apparently a power struggle between Happy Chandler, then the relatively new commissioner of baseball, and Will Harridge, the president of the AL. According to Stewart, Chandler had concerns about the low pay for umpires and their poor working conditions and asked Stewart to write to the other umpires to determine their views and to “start the ball rolling for better conditions.”2 One of Stewart’s letters found its way to Harridge, who was at odds with Chandler. Harridge considered Chandler’s actions a challenge to his authority over the umpires and requested Stewart’s resignation, asserting that Stewart had been disloyal to the umpires. Stewart denied any disloyalty and requested a meeting with both the commissioner and Harridge. At the meeting Chandler advocated for Stewart, but Harridge argued that his authority over the AL umpires gave him the power to demand Stewart’s resignation,3 and that the hiring and firing of umpires was exclusively within the purview of the league. Ultimately, Stewart was presented with a letter of resignation that Chandler told him to sign.4 When the departure of Stewart was reported in the St. Petersburg Evening Independent, Stewart blamed his dismissal on his interest in trying to obtain higher salaries for umpires. When asked for comment, Harridge did not deny Stewart’s version and merely stated: “If that’s the way he prefers to have the story go out, that’s perfect with me.”5 Chandler himself served only one term as commissioner, reportedly because, in part, the owners were unhappy with his perceived support for the unionization of umpires.6

Almost 20 years later, National League umpires began efforts to organize. At the 1963 owners’ Winter Meetings, an attorney hired by the NL umpires, John J. Reynolds, was allowed to make a presentation about the umpires’ concerns related to pensions and health insurance. A disappointingly small increase in pensions resulted and there was no movement on health insurance. In May 1964 the umpires informed the league that if there were no further negotiations the umpires would set a strike date. The league responded that unless the umpires’ association was discontinued, all umpires would be fired. The strike was averted when the league agreed to allow the umpires’ lawyer to make another presentation at the All-Star break. After the second presentation, the league agreed to pension increases and added life insurance to the umpires’ benefits.7 Off to what many might have considered a good start, the NL umpires’ union was officially chartered in Illinois in 1964.8 The directors included Augie Donatelli, Jocko Conlan, Al Barlick, Tom Gorman, and Shag Crawford.9

Donatelli, the son and brother of coal miners and himself a coal miner in his early days, spearheaded the efforts to unionize the NL umpires.10 He had experienced the hardships of coal mining in Pennsylvania and saw the mine owners use their economic advantage to impose their will when establishing working conditions and pay. Donatelli was fired from a job as a “check weigh-man” assigned by the union to try to curb abuses at the weigh stations that determined miners’ pay because he stood with the union and refused a company order to empty a coal car. He was later rehired after the company accepted the union’s demands.11 As an umpire, after a significant dispute with a player or manager, Donatelli would sometimes resume his position and, catching the eye of another umpire, mime shoveling coal to convey his belief that as hard as umpiring might be, it was better than the mines.12 Donatelli had been a crew chief before he became active in organizing the umpires but was demoted supposedly for poor performance.13 He was then assigned to work with Al Barlick, another union man, and the two used their time together to chart unionization efforts.14

Despite the successes with pensions and insurance, the union that was formed in 1964 was not recognized by the National League, which insisted on individual season-to-season contracts with each umpire, treating the umpires as independent contractors.15 According to American League umpire Bill McKinley, the AL umpires lagged behind the NL umpires in their organizing efforts because the NL umpires had requested and gotten the league’s permission for John J. Reynolds to attend the annual meeting to discuss unionization and moved on from there.16 (Although the grant of permission might be seen as signaling a more open attitude by the league to unionization, National League umpire John Kibler recalled that in 1963 he was barred from a meeting of NL umpires by Barlick and Donatelli because Kibler was a rookie and they did not want Kibler to risk getting fired for attending the meeting.17)

In 1964 Bill McKinley and other American League umpire crew chiefs approached league President Joe Cronin with their concerns and an outline of what they wanted. According to McKinley, Cronin said he would take the umpires’ requests to the Winter Meetings. Subsequently, in 1965, McKinley was informed that he was being retired. McKinley had not planned to retire and believed his organizing efforts were the cause of his mandatory retirement, as well as the termination of two other AL umpires, Ed Runge and Joe Paparella.18

By September 1968, four years after the National League umpires union was formed, the NL umpires had better salaries and per diems than their AL counterparts. Al Salerno, Bill Valentine, and several other American League umpires attended a meeting with their National League counterparts in Chicago and proposed that the umpires of both leagues join together in one union. When the opinions of AL umpires were solicited by mail, most of them favored the union. Shortly after reportedly being told of the organizing efforts of Salerno and Valentine, Cronin called them and fired them, citing incompetence as the reason.19 In response, the National League umpires voted to admit American League umpires to their union and the Major League Umpires Association (MLUA) was formed. AL umpire salaries were later increased to match NL salaries, but Salerno and Valentine were not reinstated, and the union ultimately voted not to support them in their efforts to be rehired.20

Union Recognition

In 1969 the new Major League Umpires Association (MLUA) petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election among the American League umpires to determine whether they wished to be represented by a union for purposes of negotiating with the league. The league opposed the petition, arguing that baseball did not involve interstate commerce, relying on a series of earlier court decisions upholding the sport’s antitrust exemption on the basis that interstate commerce was not affected. The NLRB sided with the umpires and the MLUA was recognized as the official bargaining agent for the AL umpires. Later, membership in the MLUA was expanded to include all major-league umpires.21

In October 1970 the first umpires strike occurred, on the first day of the League Championship Series. The umpires sought more pay for working the extra games created by the addition of the League Championship Series to the postseason. Minor-league umpires worked the first National League game and minor-league and retired major-league umpires worked the first American League game.22 Whether because of the quality of the officiating or because union workers at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh refused to cross the umpires’ picket line, or for other reasons, by the start of the second games an agreement was in place and the umpires were back at work. They succeeded in getting a pay raise for working League Championship Series games from $2,500 to $4,000 and for World Series games from $6,500 to $8,000.23

In 1978 Richard G. Phillips, a lawyer from Philadelphia and “a renowned hardball negotiator,”24 became executive director of the MLUA. Phillips had represented the referees in the American Basketball Association and “had some compassion for the umpires.”25 The collective bargaining agreement for 1977-1982 included basic terms that both sides had agreed on, but also some open clauses that were to be negotiated. The umpires felt that the commissioner’s office was putting off those negotiations, and Phillips organized a one-day walkout in protest. A federal court ordered the umpires back to work.26

Despite the recognition of the MLUA as the umpires’ bargaining agent, the leagues held fast to the requirement of individual contracts. Before the beginning of the 1979 season, the leagues sent letters to the umpires informing them that any umpire who had not signed his individual contract would not be allowed to work spring training. A short time later a second letter followed, threatening to hire replacements for any umpires who did not sign their contracts. On Opening Day the umpires began a strike that lasted until May 18, during which the umpires picketed the ballparks and, reportedly, Phillips persuaded several other unions to support the umpires. Eventually a settlement was reached, with an improved salary structure and a two-week in-season vacation. The minor-league umpires who had worked during the strike were shunned and eventually resigned.27

While the leagues and the umpires were at odds, the league presidents and the commissioner were in their own power struggles. In October 1984 the NL umpires threatened to walk out of the NL playoffs because talks with the league president, Chub Feeney, were not going well. To avoid a strike, Peter Ueberroth, who had been commissioner since March of that year, took a hand in the negotiations and offered terms that were more liberal than those Feeney had offered.28 In 1991, Commissioner Fay Vincent took over negotiations with the NL umpires from league President Bill White.29 Ultimately, after the 1999 season, Commissioner Bud Selig eliminated the offices of the league presidents and moved control of umpiring issues to the commissioner’s office.30

1999: A Tumultuous Year

At the February 1999 meeting of the Major League Umpires Association, umpires Joe Brinkman, John Hirschbeck, and Tim Welke attempted to block the reappointment of Phillips as executive director, but failed.31 The year before, Brinkman had asked Ronald M. Shapiro, a lawyer who represented numerous players in their contract negotiations with owners and who had worked with several umpires on matters not involving unionization, to challenge Phillips for the post of executive director of the MLUA.32 Shapiro declined but agreed to advise Brinkman and other umpires who were dissatisfied with Phillips.

At the same time dissident umpires were busy trying to change their union, the commissioner’s office was flexing its muscles. On February 19, 1999, in what was assumed by the umpires to be a show of strength, Sandy Alderson, a vice president of Major League Baseball, sent a memo stating a policy that the top of the strike zone was to be two inches above the top of the uniform pants. The umpires felt that the new policy contravened the official rules and were insulted that the commissioner had not sought umpire input. They also took exception to MLB’s use of MLUA umpires for an exhibition game in Cuba without first negotiating with the MLUA.33

Adding fuel to the fire, on April 9 Alderson asked teams to chart pitches and report to the commissioner’s office on strike zone consistency.34 The umpires again felt disrespected. Then in June, umpire Tom Hallion was suspended for three games for bumping a player, the first-ever umpire suspension, and the umpires attributed it to Selig as part of his mission to control them.35 The MLUA filed suit, alleging that the new policies from the commissioner’s office violated the collective bargaining agreement.36 Things then began to move fast.

On June 30, 1999, the MLUA Board of Directors discussed whether to strike to oppose the actions of the commissioner’s office, but the suggestion was rejected because their contract included a no-strike clause and the umpires expected that if they went on strike, they would simply be ordered back to work by a federal court.37 On July 14, 1999, at a special meeting of the MLUA membership during the All-Star Game break, Phillips proposed a mass resignation, apparently thinking that Major League Baseball would not want to have to use minor-league umpires nor would it want to pay the approximately $15 million in voluntary termination pay required under the contract if the resignations were accepted.38 The plan was that each umpire would send a letter stating that he would resign effective September 5, 1999.39 On July 15, 1999, 57 umpires major league umpires (out of a total of 68) signed resignation letters,40 and Phillips announced the resignations at a press conference.41 John Hirschbeck and Joe Brinkman opposed the mass-resignation strategy, and did not sign resignation letters.42

Some of the umpires who had sent resignation letters apparently had second thoughts, and 13 of them sent letters to MLB between July 18 and July 22 rescinding their resignations. On July 22 representatives of Major League Baseball decided not to negotiate with the union.43 They also accepted the 13 rescission letters, effectively reinstating those umpires, and began replacing the umpires who had not rescinded. That same day, the National League made eight offers of employment to minor-league umpires and the American League made 12, all of which were accepted.44

The next day the MLUA filed suit in federal court seeking an order prohibiting the leagues from accepting the resignations, but on July 26, 1999 the court declined to grant the order.45 On July 27, 1999 Phillips wrote to the two league presidents stating that all remaining resignation letters were rescinded.46 However, by then the American League had no umpiring positions open and accepted the resignations of nine umpires, while the National League had 19 positions open with 32 umpires to fill them, and accepted the rescissions of 19 and the resignations of the remaining 13.47 Major League Baseball had called the umpires’ bluff and 22 umpires were out of work.

Decertification of the MLUA

On September 27, 1999, more than 40 umpires participated in a conference call with Brinkman, Shapiro, and several labor lawyers. The lawyers agreed that decertification of the MLUA and replacing it with a different union offered the best chance of resolving the conflict and getting the 22 terminated umpires back to work.48 On October 3, on another conference call with umpires, Hirschbeck and Shapiro succeeded in obtaining $100,000 in funding from the umpires for the cost of a decertification campaign. The decertification petition was filed with the NLRB on October 16 and on November 30 the umpires voted 57 to 35 to decertify the Major League Umpires Association.

Perhaps predictably, the MLUA filed a petition with the NLRB in December of 1999 to overturn the decertification vote, arguing that Major League Baseball had violated federal labor law by negotiating with a union other than the MLUA. On February 20, 2000, the NLRB rejected the MLUA’s request, finding that MLB had not improperly influenced the decertification election.49

On February 24, 2000 the umpires formally voted to certify the World Umpires Association (WUA), a newly formed organization, for all regular full-time major-league umpires.50 With John Hirschbeck as its first president, the WUA went on to negotiate a five-year collective-bargaining agreement, covering 2000-2004.51 Subsequent five-year contracts have been negotiated without further strikes, and eventually 11 of the 22 umpires who were terminated were reinstated.52 The World Umpires Association now also represents International League and the Pacific Coast League umpires, as well as international umpires who work tournaments, including the World Baseball Classic, sanctioned by MLB.53


In an effort to reinstate the 22 umpires who had resigned and whose rescissions had not been accepted, on August 27, 1999, the Major League Umpires Association filed a demand for arbitration under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.54 The union alleged that MLB had conspired with Shapiro and an insurgent union movement in violation of the contract.55 The court held a hearing on September 1 and the MLUA and MLB entered into a Memorandum of Understanding, under the terms of which the suit was withdrawn and the dispute would be taken to arbitration, with both sides allowed to put forth their procedural and substantive arguments, including MLB’s position that the dispute was not subject to the contract’s arbitration provisions.56 The arbitration proceedings lasted approximately a year, with 17 days of testimony. When the decision was announced on May 11, 2001, the arbitrator found no evidence of a conspiracy but ordered reinstatement of two American League umpires (Drew Coble and Greg Kosc) and seven National League umpires (Garg Darling, Bill Hohn, Terry Tata, Frank Pulli, Larry Poncino, Joe West, and Larry Vanover), with full back pay and benefits.57 The remaining umpires got no relief.

Federal Court

Unhappy with the arbitrator’s decision, both sides filed suit in US District Court hoping to have the arbitrator’s decision set aside.58 The court confirmed the arbitrator’s determinations that the dispute was subject to arbitration, that the leagues were entitled to rely on the resignation letters and to hire replacements, and that the six rescission letters submitted to the American League on July 27, 1999, were ineffective, as the AL umpire corps was fully staffed on that date.59 Still unhappy, both sides appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.60 In March 2004 the appeals court affirmed the decision of the District Court 61 and in 2005 the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

State Court

As if the arbitration and the six years of litigation in federal court that followed weren’t enough, on January 2, 2001, Phillips and his law firm, Richard G. Phillips Associates, filed suit in Pennsylvania state court against multiple defendants, including Selig; Robert Manfred, Alderson, and Francis X. Coonelly (all employees of the commissioner’s office); the NL; the AL; Brinkman, Hirschbeck, David Phillips, and Tim Welke (all umpires); the World Umpires Association; and Shapiro and Shapiro’s law firm.62 The suit alleged ten separate claims, including tortious interference with existing and prospective contractual relations, defamation, false light invasion of privacy, commercial disparagement, injurious falsehood, fraudulent conveyance of property, conspiracy, unjust enrichment, and breach of contract.63

Although an allegation that the commissioner and the leagues had conspired with the umpires to be rid of Phillips and the MLUA might seem hard to believe, it may have been based, to some extent, on a perception that Major League Baseball would rather deal with Shapiro than Phillips. Shapiro, the author of The Power of Nice: How to Negotiate So Everyone Wins – Especially You, was often perceived as favoring a nonconfrontational negotiating style, while Phillips was noted for being especially contentious.64 Phillips was thought by some to have intimidated MLB leaders to the extent that they were unwilling to discipline umpires who made mistakes,65 and getting rid of Phillips might have been perceived by some owners as a positive step.

The defendants attempted to move Phillips’ case to federal court, arguing that his claims arose under federal labor law. The case was sent back to state court, however, when the federal court ruled that the plaintiffs’ claims arose solely under state law.66

Back in state court, on September 19, 2001, three of the claims asserted against the defendants (fraudulent conveyance of property, unjust enrichment, and breach of contract) were dismissed on legal grounds before trial.67 Then, after five years during which the parties explored each other’s claims and presented their legal arguments to the court, the judge ruled for the defendants without a trial on the remaining claims (tortious interference with existing and prospective contractual relations, defamation, false light invasion of privacy, commercial disparagement, injurious falsehood, and conspiracy).68 Phillips appealed, but rather than relying on the original 10 claims, the only question presented on appeal was whether Shapiro and the other defendants had conspired to “interfere with the existing contractual attorney-client relationship between Plaintiffs and their client.”69 Phillips lost the appeal, and on March 24, 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined review.70

Some Effects of Unionization

After the long strike in 1979, the umpires won an improved salary structure and a two-week in-season vacation.71 The one-day strike on the first day of the 1970 League Championship Series resulted in better pay for postseason games. Over time there have been improvements in the umpires’ pensions (including early retirement if an umpire wishes), travel accommodations, and per-diem expense money. In addition, the rotation of umpiring assignments for the All-Star Game and postseason games was negotiated by the union.

CHRIS WILLIAMS is a lawyer in the employee benefits group at Perkins Coie LLP in Los Angeles and a long-time member of SABR. Having lived in Baltimore for many years her first love is the Orioles, but now that she’s in SoCal she also roots for the Angels and Dodgers.



1 Larry R. Gerlach, The Men in Blue (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980), 122.

2 Gerlach, 124 (quoting Stewart).

3 John Bacchia, Augie (Bloomington: iUniverse, Inc., 2011), 194.

4 Gerlach, 124.

5 “American League Fires Umpire Ernie Stewart,” St. Petersburg Evening Independent, August 16, 1945: 8, at .

6 Andrew Zimbalist, Baseball and Billions (New York: BasicBooks, 1992), 43.

7 Bacchia, 196-199.

8 Bacchia, 4.

9 Bacchia, 195.

10 Bacchia, 4.

11 Bacchia, 24-27.

12 Bacchia, xii-xiii, 151.

13 Bacchia, 196.

14 Bacchia, 191.

15 Ibid.

16 Gerlach, 169.

17 John C. Skipper, Umpires (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1997), 41.

18 Gerlach, 169.

19 Bacchia, 199-200.

20 Bacchia, 201.

21 Roger I. Abrams, Legal Bases (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), 79.

22 Gerlach, 211.

23 Bacchia, 203.

24 Ronald M. Shapiro, The Power of Nice (Hoboken: Wiley, Revised and Updated 2015), 238.

25 Ron Luciano, The Umpire Strikes Back (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), 232.

26 Luciano, 233.

27 Luciano, 234-238.

28 John Helyar, Lords of the Realm (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 332.

29 Helyar, 513.

30 See, e.g., ESPN Baseball, “Coleman Upset at Losing Authority,” September 10, 1999, at; Baseball Almanac, “Commissioners of Major League Baseball, American League Presidents and National League Presidents,” at;, “The Commissionership: A Historical Perspective,” at; ESPN Baseball, “Four Umpire Evaluators to Be Fired,” September 29, 1999, at .

31 Shapiro, 239.

32 Shapiro, 58-59, 202-205, 239.

33 Major League Umpires Assoc. v. American League of Professional Baseball Clubs, 357 F.3d 272 (3d Cir. 2004), n. 1.

34 Matthew Callan, “Called Out: The Forgotten Baseball Umpires Strike of 1999,” The Classical, October 2, 2012, at

35 Matthew Callan, John H. Minan, and Kevin Cole, The Little White Book of Baseball Law (Chicago: ABA Publishing, 2009), 196; Major League Umpires Association v. American League of Professional Baseball Clubs, et al., 357 F.3d 272 (3d Cir. 2004).

36 Callan, Minan, and Cole, 196.

37 Phillips v. Selig, 959 A.2d 420 (2008).

38 Phillips v. Selig, 959 A.2d 420, 425 (2008).

39 Ibid.

40Major League Umpires Assoc. v. American League of Professional Baseball Clubs, 357 F.3d 272, 276 (3d Cir. 2004).

41 Phillips v. Selig, 959 A.2d 420, 425 (2008).

42 Ibid.

43 Major League Umpires Assoc. v. American League of Professional Baseball Clubs, 357 F.3d 272, 276 (3d Cir. 2004).

44 Phillips v. Selig, 959 A.2d 420, 425 (2008).

45 Phillips v. Selig, 959 A.2d 420, 426 (2008).

46 Ibid.

47 Major League Umpires Assoc. v. American League of Professional Baseball Clubs, 357 F.3d 272, 277-78 (3d Cir. 2004).

48 Shapiro, 240.

49 Phillips v. Selig, 959 A.2d 420, 426 (2008).

50 Phillips v. Selig, 959 A.2d 420, 427 (2008).

51 Peter Schmuck, “Deal Calls Umpires Safe Through 2004,” Baltimore Sun, September 2, 2000.

52 Barry M. Bloom and Tom Singer, “Umpires Ratify Labor Agreement,”, January 19, 2010, at .

53, “World Umpires Association” at .

54 Phillips v. Selig, 959 A.2d 420, 426 (2008).

55 Ibid.

56 Major League Umpires Assoc. v. American League of Professional Baseball Clubs, 357 F.3d 272, 278 (3d Cir. 2004).

57 Ibid.

58 Major League Umpires Assoc. v. American League of Professional Baseball Clubs, 357 F.3d 272, 275.

59 Major League Umpires Assoc. v. American League of Professional Baseball Clubs, 357 F.3d 272, 278 (3d Cir. 2004).

60 Major League Umpires Assoc. v. American League of Professional Baseball Clubs, 357 F.3d 272, 278-279 (3d Cir. 2004).

61 Major League Umpires Assoc. v. American League of Professional Baseball Clubs, 357 F.3d 272, 289 (3d Cir. 2004).

62 Phillips v. Selig, 2001 WL 1807951 (Ct. of Common Pleas, Phila. County, July Term 2000, No. 1550) (2001).

63 Phillips v. Selig, 2001 WL 1807951 at *2 (Ct. of Common Pleas, Phila. County, July Term 2000, No 1550) (2001).

64 Helyar, 332.

65 John Feinstein, Play Ball (New York: Villard Books, 1993), 195.

66 Phillips v. Selig, 157 F. Supp. 2d 419 (E.D. Pa. 2001).

67 Phillips v. Selig, 2001 WL 1807951 at *3-4 (Ct. of Common Pleas, Phila. County, July Term 2000, No. 1550) (2001).

68 Phillips v. Selig, 959 A.2d 420, 427 (2008).

69 Ibid.

70 Phillips v. Selig, 967 A.2d 960 (S. Ct. Pa., 2009).

71 Luciano, 234-238.