Monday, August 13, 2018

WUA Rebrands as MLB Umpires Launch MLBUA

In August 2017, Angel Hernandez ejected Ian Kinsler, whose post-game tirade prompted the World Umpires Association (WUA)'s white wristband protest against umpire abuse. One year later, the Major League Baseball Umpires Association (@MLBUA) serves as MLB umpiring's new brand, replacing WUA, alongside a new union website and social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and even YouTube.

MLB umpires' new website is
MLB umps' now joins NBA (National Basketball Referees Association,, NHL (National Hockey League Officials Association,, NFL (NFL Referees Association,, and MLS (Professional Referee Association, officials as the final sport of North America's "big five" to take its officiating union public with a website and/or social media accounts.

MLBUA explained the major league umpires' transition from WUA to MLBUA in an introductory blog post on the new association's website:

The union representing MLB Umpires has a new name – the Major League Baseball Umpires Association ("the MLBUA"). MLB Umpires are re-engaging with the baseball world with a new logo, a new website, and a social media presence. This re-engagement is historically significant. As the officials of baseball, Umpires have traditionally maintained a quiet position in off-line conversations about the game.  Now, we have the tools to engage in the ongoing dialog about America’s favorite game throughout the year. In addition to this website, you can also follow the MLBUA through Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Already, MLBUA on Twitter has tweeted out a reply to Joe Girardi's suggestion that umpires call pitches from behind the mound, highlighted the important work of UMPS CARE Charities, recounted that one time a moth flew into Bruce Dreckman's ear, and tweeted at a few broadcasters, too.
Related PostJoe West Greets Girardi's Ump Proposal with Snark & Stat (8/7/18).
Related PostInjury Scout - Dreckman's Moth Ear Canal Adventure (8/9/18).

As MLBUA wrote, this latest move "is historically significant." How so and what's the history?

How Did We Get Here? A history of a union entering the digital age.
In 1970, umpires seeking better compensation staged a one-day strike during the American and National League Championship Series, prompting both the AL and NL presidents to acknowledge a union as a representative of all major league umpires (and to give the umpires a pay raise). This union was called the Major League Umpires Association (MLUA).

MLUA and Richie Phillips: Pennsylvania labor lawyer Richie Phillips, who had successfully gotten NBA referees a three-fold salary increase in the 1970s, was tapped to serve as general counsel and executive director of the MLUA in 1978, holding the position over the next two decades while securing new labor agreements and such while representing the umpires to the two league offices: from '78 to '99, umpires salaries increased from $17,500 to $95,000 for rookies and from $40,000 to $282,500 for experienced veterans. That's a 443% increase for rookies in about 22 years.

By contrast, per the Wendelstedt School, MLB umpires presently start at $120,000/yr, which amounts to a 21% increase over approximately 19 years from 2000 to 2018 (120-95=25; 25/120=20.8%). The key difference, naturally, is that the 1978-99 period started with a much lower salary than did the 2000-18 era.

Richie Phillips, former MLUA general counsel.
By 1999—a so-called contract year for the umpires (CBA negotiation year)—MLUA's relationship with MLB had deteriorated to such a point that the league, in an effort to exert greater control over its umpires in the AL and NL, proposed a restructuring maneuver that would merge the two bodies into one central MLB umpiring staff, answering to the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, as opposed to the AL or NL president. As its first order of business, the newly emboldened Office of the Commissioner (BOC) sought to raise the strike zone, which upset the MLUA, which felt that MLB was attempting to suffocate its membership.

The MLUA also feared that MLB was angling to fire its umpires when the contract ran out on December 31, 1999.

In July 1999, MLUA voted to strike to head-off a potential MLB-imposed lockout, but this proved problematic: the CBA Phillips had negotiated with MLB in effect through 1999 prohibited strikes, so Phillips proposed a different strategy to counter a potential mass-firing: mass resignation, which would trigger about $15 million in severance payments, not to mention depleting a majority of the staff, both circumstances that Phillips was counting on MLB to consider as untenable and unacceptable.

AL Umpire Ken Kaiser lost his job in 1999.
Suffice it to say, the move was a miscalculation. For instance, if MLB was indeed angling to fire the top AL and NL umpires, it likely wouldn't consider a mass resignation as worse for its numbers than a mass firing, and MLB seemed willing to absorb the multi-million dollar cost in exchange for greater control over the umpiring staff.

Mass Resignation: Though 57 MLUA umpires (of 66 total, which excludes Derryl Cousins and John Shulock, who were not members of MLUA because they crossed the picket line to work during the 1979 umpires' strike) sent letters of resignation, Phillips' plan backfired as 42 of the resigning umpires opted, as a group, to rescind their resignations, leaving the MLUA fractured and vulnerable.

MLB pounced, accepting 22 resignations and hiring 25 minor league replacements, opting to cherry pick which of the resigned umpires to hire back. Suddenly, long-time major league umpires such as Gary Darling, Larry Vanover, Joe West, and Bob Davidson were out of baseball. A few, such as Rich Garcia and Frank Pulli, landed Supervisor gigs with the league.
Related PostPlate Meeting Podcast Episode 1 - Bob Davidson (7/17/18).

Fates of the 22 accepted-resignation umpires.
The Resigned 22: Through years of arbitration, lawsuits, new CBA negotiations, and other remedies, including several umpires who re-entered minor league baseball in an effort to work their way back to the big leagues (Davidson, Tom Hallion, Ed Hickox), 11 of the 22 umpires whose resignations were accepted eventually made it back to the MLB level; some of the others, including Jim Evans, Dale Ford, and Ken Kaiser, retired with severance; some, such as Drew Coble, Frank Pulli, and Terry Tata, received back pay; and the rest, including Eric Gregg, simply lost their careers.

World Umpires Association: Shortly thereafter, the remaining umpires voted to decertify the MLUA, push Phillips out, and replace it with the World Umpires Association, voting John Hirschbeck as president.

Through presiding officers Hirschbeck and successor Joe West, the WUA continued negotiating CBAs and represented the new, combined AL/NL umpires as one full-time MLB umpiring staff (which invited Cousins and Shulock back into the fold, given the MLUA's dissolution).

WUA's First Website: In the year 2000, WUA launched its website, announcing the union's purpose, objectives, and activities—sort of a public major-league umpires' newsletter. Over the years, the website highlighted umpires' accomplishments, engaged in recruitment efforts with advertisements for umpire schools, and provided general information about umpiring and the WUA umpires.

WUA's website, circa 2008.
The website did not, however, make a habit of explaining the rules of the game, responding to team discontent, or generally interacting with non-officials.

By 2010, however, the website had fallen into an apparent state of disrepair, destined to an infinite loop of redirects and error messages; WUA's last stable site appeared online in 2008.

Around this time, came on the scene, but with a copyright of "Joe West Co.," this may have better been deemed umpire Joe West's personal venture, as opposed to a continuation of WUA's activities.

For all intents and purposes, in that case, WUA's online presence dropped to a minimal level, while Joe West Co.'s majorleagueumpires site and West Vest Blog continued posting umpiring information and news into early 2016.

Kinsler, Hernandez, and WUA's White Wristband Protest: The related post, linked below, contains a far more detailed account of the events between 2011 and 2017, but in summary form, WUA and BOC's relationship began to experience a new source of friction as players became more emboldened in their public, and often profane, criticism of umpires, while receiving little if any meaningful discipline from newly-installed MLB Vice President of Baseball Operations Joe Torre, now Chief Baseball Officer.

The pendulum which had once favored the umpires in the second half of the 20th century had crossed back over the median in a significant way, jumpstarted by the 1999 shakeup, and was on its way toward the "Open Season on Umpires" terminus.
Related PostWUA-MLB Relations Deteriorate with New Umpire Protest (8/19/17).

Angel's ejection of Kinsler woke up the WUA.
From its suspension of Bob Davidson alongside Charlie Manuel for an ejection in Philadelphia to its lack of action when Phillies pitcher Jonathan Papelbon repeatedly bashed DJ Reyburn in a 2012 postgame interview, to its treatment of Angel Campos' career following ejections involving Don Mattingly's Dodgers, to its failure to suspend David Ortiz for violently destroying a dugout phone in protest of a Tim Timmons call, to its failure to suspend ejected manager John Gibbons for returning to the field after entering the clubhouse (the first time around), to its suspension of Joe West for three-games for comments about Adrian Beltre that Beltre himself said, "I don't think the suspension was necessary, I know he was kidding. I didn't think it was a big deal," BOC did not endear itself to WUA from 2012-17.

John Farrell argues his 3B Coach's ejection.
For instance, when Torre's group issued a memo in July 2016 warning managers to stop consulting video replay in order to argue balls and strikes, the targeted managerial ejections were replaced by a significant uptick in assistant coach ejections—generally hitting coaches—for arguing balls and strikes...We ran the number at the time and found that the rate of manager + coach ejections for arguing balls and strikes post-Torre memo was remarkably similar to the rate of manager ejections for arguing balls and strikes prior to the memo (49.25 games-per-ejection after, compared to 53.76 before).

In a few cases, these ejections quickly turned into double whammies as now the managers were being ejected, not directly for arguing balls and strikes, but for arguing the ejection of their assistant coaches!
Related PostTorre's Warning Leads to Coach, Not Manager, Ejections (8/22/16).

This all manifested in Angel Hernandez's ejection of then-Tigers 2B Ian Kinsler and Manager Brad Ausmus for arguing a correctly called strike in August 2017 (again, the manager wasn't directly ejected for arguing balls and strikes, but in support of his player, who was ejected for arguing balls and strikes). After the game, Kinsler accused Hernandez of "messing with baseball games, blatantly," saying, "He needs to find another job. He really does. He's just that bad."
Related PostMLB Ejections 135-35 - Angel Hernandez (1-2; DET x2) (8/14/17).

In 2017, umpires put their collective foot down.
On August 18, MLB fined, but did not suspend Kinsler, thus placing the proverbial straw atop the major league umpires' unprotected backs.

Having likely held its collective tongue for several years as it perceived BOC as having continually hung the umpiring profession out to dry, WUA released a statement decrying BOC for its apparent lack of concern for its umpiring staff and announcing its infamous white-wristband protest:

"The Office of the Commissioner has failed to address this and other escalating attacks on umpires...Our most important duty is to protect the integrity of the game, and we will continue to do that job every day. But the Office of the Commissioner must protect our integrity when we are attacked simply for doing our jobs. Enough is enough. Umpires will wear the wristbands until our concerns are taken seriously by the Office of the Commissioner."
Related PostFined - Kinsler Not Suspended for Hernandez Comments (8/18/17).

When MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred responded by threatening the Union with penalties and punishments while offering a meeting instead, the umpires removed the wristbands, but hardly went underground.
Related PostWUA Secures Commissioner Meeting, Suspends Protest (8/20/17).

Conclusion & Gil's Call: Given all of this, MLBUA's summation that "this re-engagement is historically significant" doesn't just cover the fact that WUA didn't have a functioning website for 10 years, and doesn't just allude to MLB umpires being the last of the major professional sports officials' associations to get a new website.

No, this statement is jam-packed with significant meaning for an organization whose members have voices yearning to be heard—especially when the Commissioner's Office won't necessarily have their backs.

Congratulations to the MLBUA on this step forward and we look forward to hearing from this newly-galvanized group looking to restore decorum and decency to baseball's treatment of the profession.

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