Must-click link: the umpire who crossed the picket line

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Dave McKenna of Deadspin has written a fascinating story about Steve Fields, former big league umpire.

Fields only umped it the majors for three seasons, between 1979 and 1981. He was old for a rookie ump in 1979, but that’s because the only reason he made the bigs was that he crossed the umpires union picket line during a strike that spring, becoming a scab. He was rewarded for this by the National League, who gave him one of the new positions the umps earned in the strike.

Fields was, understandably, unpopular for this act, but more than merely keep him from the union ranks, which all unions would do for permanently-hired picket line-crossers, they seemed to take things out on him personally, refusing to back him up in calls on the field and, on one occasion, refusing to come to his aide when he was injured by a foul ball. Another scab umpire — Dave Pallone — talks about how the umpires sabotaged their equipment.

Fields’ tumultuous on-field career came to a head in 1981 during a pitched dispute with Larry Bowa and Dallas Green over a controversial call on a neighborhood play at second base. It ended up carrying over to the postgame when a TV camera crew got its camera smashed when the reporter asked why the other umps didn’t back Fields’ call up. When the season ended a couple of months later — and as the ump union was in negotiations with the National League again — Fields was fired. Allegedly for poor job performance, though he went to his grave believing that the NL fired him as a favor to the ump union.

This is a fascinating story for a number of reasons, but mostly because it’s not a story that makes for easy rooting interests.

As a supporter of labor I disapprove of what Fields did to get his big league job — don’t cross picket lines, ever — and I am sympathetic to the union umps he harmed in doing so. However, my view of that is that, while you obviously do not extend union protection to strike breakers and while you are in no way required to be friendly with them, when you’re at work — and for an ump that’s all the time spent at the ballpark — you have to act professionally, and Fields’ colleagues did not do so. Maybe it’s harder to see the need for that in a baseball context, but picture these guys as electricians or forklift operators or whatever. From a strictly human and safety standpoint, you do NOT leave a guy hanging like they did Fields.

The end bit, though, about Fields’ getting fired, presents a less sympathetic situation for me. Yes, I do suspect — as Fields believed to his bones — that he was fired as a favor to union umps by the National League. The NL wasn’t going to can all of the strikebreakers from 1979, but they had a pretext for getting rid of Fields and they took it. It was a deal that worked badly for Fields, but it’s also the case that he lost any possible employment protection the moment he decided to cross that picket line in 1979 and work without the benefit of a union contract. Live by going it alone, die by going it alone.

Anyway, it’s a great story. I’m curious to hear your thoughts.