The late umpire/raconteur Ron Luciano considered Ken Kaiser, who died today after a long battle with diabetes, a friend and protege who came up and did things the hard way. Unfortunately, Kaiser’s career ended the same way, when he tied his dinghy to the leaky ship of the old Major League Umpires Association, and its executive director Richie Phillips sank it.
“Describing Kenny Kaiser’s road to the major leagues as a rocky one,” wrote Luciano in Strike Two, “is something like calling the Grand Canyon a drainage ditch.”
Forget problems your first day as a professional umpire. Kaiser found them the day before his first scheduled game as a Florida State League (Class D) umpire. He played pool with a fellow and “one thing led to another,” the other being a fight in which Kaiser took a blow to his ribs with a pool cue.
“I did the only thing I could do,” Kaiser, a one-time professional wrestler, told Luciano. “I hit him over the head with the table. How could I have known he was the catcher for the Cardinals’ farm club?” Florida State League president George McDonald fined Kaiser $25. And Kaiser had yet to officiate a single professional game.
Luciano said the best things about the minors for umps are the memories. “You’ve had a great night,” one-time American League ump Rocky Roe noted, “if they’re not waiting for you after the game with tar and feathers.”
Kaiser survived to work as an American League ump from 1977 through 1999, his work including two World Series, one All-Star Game, and several other postseason sets. Respected and sometimes loathed, as many umps are—though he once wrote with more than a little pleasure that Hall of Famer George Brett liked to crack him dirty jokes as he checked in at the plate when he worked behind it—Kaiser was one of those arbiters who wasn’t short of snappy comebacks, even at Earl Weaver’s expense.
“I’ll never forget the time he came out there to argue,” Kaiser once said of the short but screamy Orioles manager, “and he turned his hat around. I turned my hat around, too, and he said he wanted to punch me. I said, ‘Go ahead, you midget, you’ll hit my knee’.”
Kaiser also remembered working a game when Nolan Ryan was a Mets prospect with a live fastball that would have been immune even to one of today’s GPS apps. “When he pitched, people in the stands ducked,” Kaiser recalled. “You could hear the fans screaming, ‘Women and children first!’”
His career ended thanks to his assent to to a 1999 ploy that backfired completely, after Phillips and the MLUA sought, in effect, to strong-arm baseball into immunising umpires from accountability.
Feeling “humiliated” and “denigrated” over matters from Tom Hallion’s suspension for bumping a player even inadvertently (how much blue murder would umps scream if a player wasn’t suspended for bumping an ump even inadvertently?) to baseball government’s insistence on holding umps accountable for their performance, Phillips announced the resignations of 57 of baseball’s 66 major league umpires on 14 July 1999.
“[T]hey want to feel good about themselves and would rather not continue as umpires if they have to continue under present circumstances. They feel, in the past seven months or so, they have been humiliated and denigrated.”
Phillips—who died in 2013—in essence sought to proclaim and consecrate major league umpires as laws unto themselves. When the commissioner’s office asked teams to chart pitches and file reports on individual umpires’ strike zones, Phillips denounced the request as “just another case of Big Brother watching over us.”
The mass resignations were in truth a bid to end-run the no-strike clause in the umpires’ labour agreement with major league baseball. And Phillips announced concurrently that the umpires would be employed by a new body called Umpires, Inc., who would negotiate to provide major league umpires and would also be the sole supervisor of the arbiters as well as the first and final caller on who’d be assigned to which games.
“To owners and players alike,” observed the Society for American Baseball Research analyst Doug Pappas, “this demand was tantamount to a municipal police union demanding an end to civilian control of a police force.”
Sandy Alderson, then working in the commissioner’s office, sneering back at Phillips comparing umps to unelected federal judges, reminded one and all, “Federal judges can be impeached. I got worried when I found out players were more concerned with who was umpiring the next day than they were about who was pitching.”
Alderson had one answer to the mass resignations: they were “either a threat to be ignored or an offer to be accepted.” The commissioner’s office accepted the offer, and a few of the umps, after consulting their personal lawyers, yanked their resignations back fast.
Then a group of dissenting American League umps, Kaiser not among them, but John Hirschbeck and Joe Brinkman leading them, denounced Phillips publicly and urging their colleagues to do likewise. Near the end of July 1999, baseball hired 25 minor league umps all of whom had major league experience filling in for umps on their mid-year vacations.
Shortly after that, then-American League president Gene Budig (then-commissioner Bud Selig hadn’t yet folded the individual league offices) said nine American League umps who hadn’t rescinded their resignations would lose their jobs come 2 September. Those nine and 33 National League umps withdrew their resignations. Alas, the league said they had only twenty openings.
Hirschbeck and Brinkman then helped form the new World Umpires Association, after the arbiters first decertified the MLUA by an almost 2-to-1 margin. The WUA negotiated and got many of the umps who walked off Phillips’s cliff re-hired; the MLUA continued representing many of the resigners. Kaiser was among the ones who missed when MLB rehired half the terminated.
Out of a job was the ump who was voted the American League’s most colourful umpire in 1986 and, in a players’ poll, the worst in the league in 1989. Some players and managers liked and even admired him; some merely tolerated him. “If I was so horseshit,” said Kaiser, rarely at a loss for a quip, of the 1989 poll, “I wouldn’t be in the major leagues for 23 years, would I?” Who did they poll? A hundred guys who can’t hit or pitch.”
“He really missed baseball; it was the love of his life and his passion, and they took it away from him,” said Rochester Democrat & Chronicle writer Bob Matthews, a longtime acquaintance who covered Kaiser in the minors. “But it was his own fault that he quit, and when push came to shove, he got shoved.”
“My whole life,” Kaiser said when his career was ended, “is gone.”
Still, he tried to keep a sense of humour about it. (Kaiser did receive a severance in due course, as did several of the other mass-resigning umps who weren’t rehired.) “Occasionally I’ll get to yell at one of my two kids, but it’s not the same thing,” he lamented. My kids have gone off on their own, so I can’t even eject them from the house.”
Kaiser published a memoir, Planet of the Umps, in 2003. “Two things nobody wants to grow up to be are an umpire and broke,” he wrote. “Thanks to my career in baseball, I got both.”
And it didn’t have to be that way. May God welcome him mercifully and assign him and His tortured servant Luciano together, to work more than a few games in His Elysian Fields. He might not even mind if Earl Weaver manages one team.