Whether dancing with team mascots or throwing his weight around in making a call, National League umpire Eric Gregg has been witnessed by baseball fans at his animated best. He injects humor into the stoic business of umpiring. In an otherwise anonymous profession, Gregg stands out.
Yet there is a paradox that exists in Gregg's life. A jovial exterior often hides the pain Gregg occasionally endures as a black umpire. Even in America's biggest cities, the issue of civil rights means nothing to some hecklers. Gregg, a 13-year veteran, and Charlie Williams are the only full-time black umpires in the majors.
"In Houston, somebody yelled 'nigger,' " Gregg said. "Last year, I threw out three fans in Chicago. I had a tough game and I called a ball that scored the winning run against the Cubs and three guys that were drunk started yelling four-letter words. I heard them say, 'Hey, come on, nigger, you heard me.' And I turned around. I couldn't believe that. I walked to the stands and I said, 'What did you say?' And he said it again. I just called time, went and got the security guards and threw them out. It still goes on. You just can't put yourself on their level; you just have to figure you're a cut above. I can't let them bother me. It's just a shame that it's still happening today."
Gregg copes with the overt racism on the job but has little tolerance for the disguised racial "jokes" he often encounters. "People, they joke around all the time, and I'll take a joke," he said. "Everybody knows I'm a good guy. But when the umpires have a dinner and they have a friend along and he tells a racial joke, I don't appreciate that. Sometimes I'm upset with it. A lot of times I'm just not prepared for it, especially with strangers."
Gregg has written "Working the Plate" (William Morrow and Company, $16.95), an autobiography of his struggle to make it as a big-league umpire after escaping an all-too-stereotypical situation of a poor upbringing. His life started at The Bottom, the literal name given to a depressed neighborhood in West Philadelphia. Gregg's father was an alcoholic. Gregg's sister died of an apparent drug overdose. Gregg's brother, Ernie, is doing 20 years in prison for gun possession.
Ernie's jail cell was fire-bombed, he was burned over 90 percent of his body and he is permanently disfigured. When Eric went to visit his brother, Ernie told him, "I messed up forever."
Gregg's escape from The Bottom was by happenstance. In 1968, at the age of 17, he was watching a baseball game on television. "I watched Curt Gowdy on the Game of the Week and he said, 'You can become a major-league umpire and in six months' work make $30,000.' I said, 'Gee, that's for me.' " Gregg did not realize the odds against entering a profession that employs little more than 100 people at the major-league level.
What made Gregg think he could make it? "I just think I had more of a dream," he said simply.
Gregg's path to the majors seemed simple enough -- aside from the racial jokes and occasional slurs. He was good at his job and it did not hurt, he said in his book, that the National League felt pressure to promote a black into major-league umpiring.
Before Gregg had to put up with remarks from hecklers, he had an even more difficult hurdle: to gain respect from those people involved in the game.
"I remember in spring training [former Orioles manager] Earl Weaver yelled to a ballplayer, 'Hey, we got a brother umpire,' and everybody ran out of the dugout to see the black umpire," Gregg said.
Even black players presented problems. Gregg said Joe Morgan, then a superstar second baseman with the Reds, expected him to make calls favoring black players. The following passage appears in Gregg's book: ". . . He'd get on me about taking care of the brothers, like I was supposed to give black players better calls than white players . . . Morgan made me think about that for a long time before I realized he was nuts."
Morgan, contacted through a spokesperson, said he had "no comment, nothing" about Gregg's passage.
Gregg wrote that Dave Concepcion, the Reds' shortstop, also wanted calls to go his way. Gregg said he had to remind him, "Dave, you're not even black, you're Latin."
Gregg said he finally told the black players, " 'When you guys come to bat, you just have a number as far as I'm concerned.' I remember Pete Rose, on a checked swing, said, 'Boy, I bet if I was Davey Lopes you'd call me safe.' I know [Rose] was joking per se, but you still think of it."
Another difficult moment for Gregg came in 1986 when the Reds and Mets had a major fight in Cincinnati. Eric Davis made a hard slide into third and Ray Knight picked a fight with him. Gregg, umpiring third, tried to restore peace by restraining Davis, who is black. Knight, who is white, proceeded to pummel Davis, who was being held back by the more-than-300-pound Gregg. Gregg got letters from blacks with this message: "Next time, hold the white guy."