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


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.

Minor League Baseball teams sold over $70 million in merchandise in 2017

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Every so often here, we discuss the criminally low pay of Minor League Baseball players. Most of them make less than $7,500 a year, which includes the regular season as well as spring training, playoffs, and offseason training. The abysmal pay forces minor leaguers to eat unhealthy food, live in cramped quarters, and forego consistent, quality sleep, among other things.

What makes this situation worse is that Minor League Baseball is a huge money-maker for their parent teams in Major League Baseball. Josh Norris of Baseball America reported yesterday that Minor League Baseball teams sold $70.8 million in merchandise in 2017. That represented a 3.6 percent increase over the previous record set in 2016. This is just merchandise. Now think about concession and ticket sales.

Minor League Baseball COO Brian Earle said, “Minor League Baseball team names and logos continue to be among the most popular in all of professional sports, and our teams have made promoting their brand a priority for their respective organizations. The teams have done a tremendous job of using their team marks and logos to build an identity that is appealing to fans not just locally, but in some cases, globally as well.”

You may recall that Major League Baseball had been lobbying Congress to pass legislation exempting minor league players from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Doing so classified baseball players as seasonal workers, which means they are not entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay. That legislation passed earlier this year. Minor League Baseball generates profits hand over fist and it is now legally protected from having to share that with the labor that produced it.

Many points of divergence led us to this point, but the question is how do we change it? Minor leaguers are routinely taken advantage of because they don’t have a union. Compare the minors in baseball to the minors in hockey, where minor leaguers have a union. As SB Nation’s Marc Normandin pointed out last month, the minimum salary for American Hockey League players is $45,000 and the average salary is $118,000. They receive a playoff share of around $20,000, and receive health insurance that covers themselves as well as their families. Furthermore, the minor league hockey players’ per diem is $74, about three times as much as minor league baseball players’ per diem of $25.

Major League Baseball and its 30 teams have shown no inclination towards treating minor league players simply out of moral obligation or good will, so the minor leaguers need union coverage to force their conditions to improve. This could be as simple as the MLBPA expanding its coverage to the minor leagues because, after all, some minor leaguers do become major leaguers, right? Or the minor leaguers could themselves create a union. It’s easy to say, but tougher to do, which is why they still don’t have a union.

At any rate, every fan of baseball should be enraged when they read that Minor League Baseball keeps setting records year after year when it comes to selling hats and t-shirts, then refuses to share any of that wealth with the labor responsible for it. It’s morally reprehensible.