Baseball Men - The Man in Blue

Our "Baseball Men" interview series continues with Eric Gregg, veteran National League Umpire.

An umpire's job doesn't usually lend itself to a lot of attention, but Eric Gregg was very much the exception to that rule during his 24-year career.


The reasons' for Gregg's conspicuous status were fairly obvious. The first thing people noticed was color - Gregg established himself as only the third black umpire in Major League history when he debuted in 1975. Beyond that was a 300 pounds-plus frame, the kind that would catch anyone's attention. And, always, there was a personality factor. Eric Gregg had the kind of booming voice and expressive character that could fill any room, the kind of natural showman who garnered off-field cameos in Diet Pepsi commercials and ‘The Young and the Restless'.


The last few years haven't been easy for Gregg. His overly-generous strike zone in the 1997 National League Championship Series was a public relations disaster. Anonymous player surveys came back with harsh criticism of his on-field performance. After Gregg lost his $250,000 a year job during an ill-fated strike action in 1999, he has struggled with hard times and financial problems.


I spoke to Gregg by phone on August 9th, but anyone who's around the Philadelphia area can easily meet him in person. The Philadelphia native is back home, pouring drinks for fans in the Ashburn Alley section of Citizen's Ballpark and working as a bartender at the nearby Chickie and Pete's sports bar.


All of it is a turnaround from life in the big leagues, but Gregg doesn't seem to harbor any regrets about his times in the game. "I loved every minute of it," he chuckled. 



In his ‘Planet of the Umps' autobiography, Ken Kaiser wrote ‘Nobody ever grows up thinking about being broke or being an umpire'.


That's for sure.


But that got me to wondering - when did you start thinking about your future line of work?


From an early age, I wanted to be just like Willie Mays, and it just wasn't happening. Finally, I got to high school and my coach, he said ‘Big E, if you can't play for West Philly High, there's no way you'll play for the Phillies'.


I got very upset, went home that weekend and cried like a baby. I was only 15 years old. I always watched the Game of the Week, and just then I heard Curt Gowdy do a commercial, saying ‘Become a Major League umpire - get $30,000 for six months work'. I said, ‘That's for me'.


I wrote away to umpiring school and John McSherry was in charge of development back at the time. He said, ‘You're too young, kid; you gotta be 21 years old to go to umpiring school'. I was disappointed with that but he said I could start off in American Legion and Little League games to see if I liked it. And that's what I did. I worked one year of Little League ball.


By the time I turned 19, they'd dropped the age limit, and I passed the test they gave you as far as high school education, no criminal background, certain height, certain weight. They accepted me and I was very fortunate - I finished first in my class of 60 and won the award for the umpire most likely to go all the way. Within five years, I was in the big leagues.


But that was a tough five years in the minors.


The minors were much tougher for umpires than the ball players. They have a team of 25, 30 guys, but us umpires? It was just the two of us. We had to get along with each other, whether we liked it or not. It was very difficult - traveling by car, fleabag motels without hot water, no money whatsoever. It was really, really difficult, but I knew it would be a really, really nice career if you make it. That it would be a really great experience even if you don't make it.


Even in the majors, that was the toughest part, the traveling to and from, the stress of making a flight, checking in at a hotel at three or four in the morning, or missing a flight. It's all first-class in the big leagues, of course, but it's stressful.  


You really have to want it, you really have to have a dream, that's what it's all about. I was very fortunate and I did want it.


Did you have any mentors coming up to the majors?


No, I just had myself.


I came from a tough background where we had a lot of problems with a broken home, with my brothers and sisters getting in trouble. I just had a dream. I told my Mom one day, ‘I'm going to be on TV'. She said ‘The only way you're going to be on TV is if I pick you up and put you on top of it'. (laughs) They made fun of it.


None of my friends made it far - half of them went to Vietnam and the other half had problems just throughout life. They always said, ‘You're out of your mind, there's no such thing as a black umpire in Major League Baseball'. At the time, it was Emmett Ashford only. I just had the dream but nobody gave me credit. The people I worked with thought it would be just a matter of time before I'd be back home doing what I'd normally do. I fooled everybody, but I remembered the late Dr. Martin Luther King:  ‘If you really believe in something and you really want to do it, you can do it'.


I was never was a good student, I was never a good player, but I knew I could be a good umpire. I went to the school with the attitude that I could be the best, and it did work out for the best.


Was it mostly in the fact that you wanted to make something of yourself, or was it something about the game?


It was mostly that I just loved the game.


For as long as I remember I'd always be imitating Willie Mays and throwing like Juan Marichal and those guys. When it was too hot to play baseball, nobody wanted to play but me. When I had some money, everyone wanted to go to the movies; I wanted to go to the ballpark. I said ‘I'm going to Connie Mack Stadium'. It cost 30 cents to go to the bus and I had 20 pennies but I remember, back then, the bus driver wouldn't take the time to count ‘em. Hang enough at the ballpark, and they'd give you free popcorn and a free Coke.


As a kid, I had a great time in baseball, even by myself. I'll never forget it.


In your ‘Working the Plate' autobiography you mentioned that you were just the third black umpire in the Majors, after Emmett Ashford and Arthur Williams, when you first made it up in 1975. Did race make your job more difficult?


It was tough, especially in the Southern Leagues, where they'd call you all kinds of names and stuff. But, hey, I was from the ghetto. I heard those names before and they didn't bother me. That's why I got a job out of umpiring school, even as young as I was. I remember Big John McSherry and Frank Pulli, who were my instructors. They said, ‘Hey, that kid's from the ‘hood. He's got a good temper, he can really handle himself'. They were right. It was no big deal to me.


They were really racial down there in Florida, but I learned a lot and grew up fast. I had some good partners in the minors. Thank God for that. If you fall in with a bad partner, a guy who's been around a long time, he's frustrated and you can pick up some bad habits and suddenly you're dead wood.


I suppose tuning out the crowd wasn't any big deal to you on a day to day basis.


Don't think you're going to win over by making a call for them. You can't go out there and try to please everybody. You just got to be honest with yourself, hustle, and do the best you can.


They tell you back in umpiring school - ‘If you get overexcited about people calling you names, you're in the wrong profession'. It's like being a police officer. You have to be a cut above. You're there to set an example.


But you wouldn't be human if you could completely ignore an angry crowd of 40,000 people.


Yeah, especially when your family starts getting on you. (laughs) I remember one time, I called out a couple of Phillies and my wife didn't talk to me for two weeks. She was a big Larry Bowa fan. It does happen.


You just can't let it go home with you, though; you just have to let it go. Sometimes things can make you a bit upset, they might be racial - very seldom, but it has happened. In my situation, they always called me ‘Fat Albert' and ‘Rerun', things like that. It's kind of comical. The fans paid their money to do what they want and say what they want. As long as they don't use bad language, or throw too many things at you, you're OK.


If that didn't bother you too much, I guess the possibility of making a wrong call didn't bother you, either.


Nah. We always gotta be right. What they used to say is, ‘It's the only job in the world where you have to start off perfect and then get better'.


You know, even when we're wrong we have to be right. When the players make mistakes and try to put the pressure on us, we just have to handle it, not let our emotions get in the game, and be steady all the time.


One of the urban myths around the umpires is, if a ball player gives them a hard enough time, they send a message back by refusing to give them the benefit of the doubt on close plays. Did that ever happen to you?


No, no, you never do that. You just have to be honest, never take any stuff, and just let ‘em know - ‘Hey, I'm the boss and this is the way it's going to be'. I mean, you might be a little more emphatic in your strikes, to let them know you won't go into some kind of shell. As far as making a call, though, you'd never do that because you have to live with yourself.


We all make mistakes. I know it, the players know it. If you can say, at the end of the day, I called it from the heart and not the head, you're a good umpire.


Have you ever forgotten the pitch count?


Sure, that happened, on long foul balls, for instance. If an umpire says that's never happened to him, he's lying.


What, for you, was the toughest call on the field?


A long home run down the line. Every umpire has his problems with it, Little League, high school, major leagues, whatever. They tell you in umpiring - follow the ball, follow the ball, keep your eye on the ball. But, at a certain height, you lose the ball in the lights, in the glare. You see absolutely nothing.


And now you're guessing, but you have to make a call. Hey, you got a chance of guessing the right one, but sometimes you pick the wrong one. Hopefully, though, someone in your crew sees it and calls it right.


What was the toughest pitch for you to call?


By far, the split finger fastball by my man Bruce Sutter. Also, there was the knuckle ball by [Charlie] Hough when he was with the Dodgers. Also, Phil Niekro. He could have unbelievable control for strikes and all of the sudden, the next three balls would be in the dugout. Generally, you have to be patient and let the ball call itself.


Can you think of an instance where you ended up reversing yourself on the play?


EG:  Sure. I had a 21-inning game with the Dodgers at Wrigley Field back in the early 1980's [August 19, 1982]. Larry Bowa…


Him again?


 (laughs) Bowa was trying to score from third base and he definitely beat the throw, but [Mike] Scioscia was probably one of the best catchers ever as far as blocking the plate. I put my hand up to call him safe, and it would have won the game for the Cubs. When the dust cleared, though, all of the sudden, there was Larry Bowa's foot, nowhere near the plate. So I went back on my call and all hell broke loose. I threw out four or five guys, including Bowa, only because I had to go back on my call.


Have you ever admitted that you blew a call?


I've never done that. Even if I knew I missed it, I would just say ‘That's the way I saw it, hey, let's go'. I'd never admit I blew a call.


Did players like to talk to you between innings?


I talked to players all the time. Catchers, hitters, all the time, joking back and forth. They knew I loved my job.


Do you see ball players away from the field?


After the game, we all go to sports bars. You might see Schmidty across the bar, I'll send him a drink, he'll send me a drink. Or there might be some guys you don't get along with, and you don't say nothing at all.


I remember one time, I called a balk against Steve Carlton in a ball game. Afterwards, at a restaurant, four young [Phillies] said, ‘How could you balk Lefty'? I said, ‘Guys, the game is over. Knock that s--- off'. When it's over, it's over.


Do any ball players stand out in your mind as good guys?


Oh, yeah. I just ask for guys to be fair with me, and some guys are fair and some aren't.


Richie Allen, I was a fan of his when I was growing up, and he was one of the best guys in the world. Bull Luzinski never said a word, he was very quiet. Jay Bell, he was a class guy. You could tell the class guys in a situation where he's 0-for-6 and he never says a word. There were more than a few.


I remember my first months in the big leagues; I got a phone call in the Astrodome. I said ‘Who's this?' He said, ‘Tommy John. I just want to tell you that you worked a good game. You're just a rookie, kid, but if you keep umpiring like that, you'll hang around for a long time'. That made me feel real good because my partner, [Frank] Pulli, and crew chief, Doug Harvey, told me how John threw a tough slider in the dirt. I stayed with the pitch and called it a strike when it was a strike.


Any bad guys?


We had a guy - what's his name? Tim Foli. He was an umpire's headache, but he was very smart, he knew when to shut up. He talked just enough to piss you off, but not enough for you to throw him out.


What triggered an ejection for you?


Any time they'd say anything directed to you, it's an ejection. ‘You a------, you suck, you mother------, you stink'. You can't argue balls and strikes, obviously. It depends. Whenever they try to show you up by falling to their knees or turning their back to you. You try to warn them first, but umpires don't throw anybody out, players eject themselves. They know when they should stop.


(laughs) Lasorda was the best. He'd come out to argue. ‘C'mon, you missed that'. I'd say, ‘Tommy, it wasn't even close'. He'd say to me, ‘Are we on national TV?' and I'd say, ‘No'. He'd say, ‘See you later'. It was all in jest.


Some guys come out serious, like they want to kill you, on a tough play. Most managers, though, the next day it's all over and they forget about it. I'd say to them, ‘I'm not here to determine the game; I'm here to run the game'.


Did any managers try to get themselves thrown out in order to fire up their team?


Lasorda used to do that sometimes. Sparky Anderson, you'd know when he wanted to get thrown out. Buck Rodgers, one time, almost begged me to throw him out. He'd say, ‘I know you got the play right, but my players are going nuts. Just run me real quick'.


Sometimes you get a player like Lenny Dykstra. Back in '93, when they won the division they were out partying all night on Saturday. It was in St. Louis and it was like 110 degrees on the field. Dykstra was upset he was in the lineup. On a play where he was out by 10 feet at second base, he went nuts, calling me ‘Rerun' and ‘Fat Albert'. I smiled and said, ‘Wait a minute. I know what this is'. He played all two-and-a-half, three hours that day.


Did you ever get nervous before playoffs, in particular, thinking you might be remembered for a mistake, kind of like Don Denkinger in the 1985 World Series or Richie Garcia in the '96 ALDS?


For me, it was the big strike zone in the '97 playoffs. The Braves had 15 strikeouts but they forget that Maddux had nine strikeouts. After the game, Maddux said, ‘Eric, don't worry about what they said. We've got four Cy Young winners on this team and without guys like you, Pulli, and [Ed] Montague calling strikes, we wouldn't get that pitch'.


The World Series, to me, wasn't as much pressure as the playoffs. In the World Series, everyone's relaxed, they're happy to be there. Some teams, they're so happy to be there, they fall apart. That's what happened to St. Louis [in 2004]. In the playoffs, though, it's so much more pressure, because if you don't win that, you're not in the World Series. Any player will tell you - there's more pressure in the playoffs than the World Series.


I've always wondered why there's never, ever been the slightest hint of corruption in terms of gamblers trying to bribe umpires.


In order to get to the big leagues, first of all, they have guys follow you, they check you out; they know your background. We make enough money that we don't have to worry about it and we don't go to those type of places.


I mean, there's just so much pressure in this game, even if we were offered [a bribe], we couldn't do it. It's just too much. It's tough enough to get the play right, think about what it would take to get the play wrong! The thought would never even cross my mind.


How do you feel about instant replay?


Back when I started, there was no such thing as instant replay. Now there are more cameras than fans at a ballpark. They got cameras over your head, over there. They want to put a camera on the umpire's mask!


You can't take away the human element, man. You got guys in the NFL now, they're afraid to call a touchdown because they're afraid of being reversed. If you're on top of the play, you gotta call it. We're human, we're gonna make mistakes, but 99% of the time, we're right. The guys who don't get it right don't make it to the majors.


If you had a chance to do it all again, would you want to live life in the majors as a ballplayer or as an umpire?


During the National Anthem, I had tears in my eyes for the fact that a kid from the ghetto had an opportunity to live in the game for 23 years. Man, my Mom was so proud of me.


You know, as a baseball guy, I think I made out better as umpire than as a player. I was there for every minute of it, from the beginning of the game to the end of the game. I didn't have off days; I didn't have to come in from the dugout or the bullpen.


Looking back, how would you like to be remembered in the game?


I hope they say that I was a good, fun guy, that I loved what I was doing, every minute of it. I hope they say, ‘He wasn't the best umpire, but he always gave his best'.


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