An effort by major-league umpires to force early negotiations for a new labor contract disintegrated yesterday when they collectively rescinded the resignations they had submitted to Major League Baseball earlier this month.
The move, which came late in the afternoon after a setback in a court challenge in Philadelphia, left the union membership severely split and one-third of its members without jobs. It appears too late for some of the umpires to regain their positions because the National and American leagues had already hired 25 new umpires.
The development is a significant blow to the umpires in their effort to get baseball officials to negotiate with them, and a signal that their strategy of mass resignation had failed. The union had embarked on the resignation strategy because its labor agreement with the leagues bars the umpires from striking.
More than 50 umpires of the 66-member union signed letters of resignation, effective Sept. 2, at a meeting July 14, but some almost immediately changed their minds and reversed their positions.
But 33 of 36 National League umpires and nine of 32 American League umpires (two of whom are not union members) stuck to their resignations until yesterday, when they withdrew them "without prejudice," meaning they could reinstate them.
However, many of them won't have a chance. A baseball official said the American League, which has hired 12 new umpires, sent letters to its nine umpires Monday notifying them that their resignations had been accepted.
The National League in recent days hired 13 minor-league umpires, meaning it has 49 umpires for 36 positions.
"Len Coleman has to make some decisions," another baseball official said, referring to the National League president. "There are going to be certain guys who aren't going to have jobs."
The union reversed its strategy after Judge Edmund Ludwig of U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, during a series of conference calls with baseball's lawyers and Richie Phillips, the union's lawyer and chief negotiator, refused to grant the union a temporary restraining order.
The union had filed a lawsuit the previous day asking, among other things, that the umpires be permitted to withdraw their resignations up until the effective date.
Instead, Ludwig urged the two sides to arrange an interim truce. After the last call, Phillips held a second conference call with the umpires and recommended that they rescind their resignations.
"Richie said he knows we'll take some hits for changing our position," Bruce Froemming, an NL umpire and a member of the union's board of directors, said from Atlanta. "But we changed our position to move the process forward and open up a dialogue between the parties. We wanted to show baseball that we are now in position to talk and that we're not threatening anything."
But Phillips' ability to negotiate a new agreement could be severely hampered by the division that has been created in the union, mostly by AL umpires who object to his aggressive negotiating style.
Naming the two umpires considered to be leaders of the dissident group, Froemming said, "I think John Hirschbeck and Joe Brinkman have caused us a lot of problems. To go off on their own, when the vote was 49 to 14 to support Richie, I don't think is healthy for us." He was referring to a vote last February to extend Phillips' contract.
One umpire who voted against Phillips, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said yesterday: "Richie is caught in a time warp, using ice picks and baseball bats to drive his points home. While that was good in '79 and subsequent years, we're dealing with a new culture in baseball."
At their July 14 meeting, Phillips recommended the resignation strategy because he thought Major League Baseball would initiate negotiations for a contract to replace the one that expires Dec. 31 rather than lose the umpires and have to play the final month of the season and the postseason with minor league umpires.
However, the union miscalculated because baseball officials did not react to the mass resignation, maintaining official silence for the past two weeks
Phillips did not return a telephone call seeking comment, but he issued a statement in which he referred to "this very unseemly affair that was deliberately provoked by Major League Baseball." He also said the union was considering filing unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board.
The statement also said: "A group of very fine umpires stand very tall and will hold their heads high forever. They are to be admired for their resolve and courage. They are confident they will eventually prevail."