FILE - In this Aug. 31, 1999 file photo, Major League Baseball umpires union chief Richie Phillips, right, gestures as he offers a "no comment" quote to reporters outside of the Federal Courthouse in Philadelphia. Phillips, a hard-charging negotiator for NBA referees and Major League Baseball umpires, has died. He was 72. Phillips' death was reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, which said he died Friday, May 31, 2013 of cardiac arrest at his second home in Cape May, N.J. (AP Photo/Chris Gardner)
Updated: July 7, 2013 12:28PM
PHILADELPHIA — Richie Phillips, a tough-talking Philly lawyer who became a negotiator for Major League Baseball umpires and NBA referees, has died. He was 72.
Mr. Phillips’ death was reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, which said he died Friday of cardiac arrest at his second home in Cape May, N.J. His death was confirmed by the D’Anjolell Memorial Home in Broomall, where a viewing is scheduled Thursday.
“We got so much because of Richie — pensions, vacations, better salaries,” former umpire and board member Don Denkinger said Tuesday.
Mr. Phillips represented NBA referees in the 1970s and ’80s and led MLB umps from 1978 until 1999, when a failed tactic of mass resignations cost 22 umpires their jobs. The setback prompted umpires to abandon Mr. Phillips’ Major League Umpires Association and form a new union, the World Umpires Association.
Mr. Phillips liked to tell the story of how, at age 13 while growing up in the Philadelphia area, he led a strike of altar boys at his parish over a dispute about their tips. In years to come, his work stoppages involved a lot more money.
Under Mr. Phillips, big league umpires held a seven-week strike in 1979, another walkout at the start of the 1984 playoffs and a brief interruption on opening day in 1991. There were other work stoppages, too.
“He had his feet on the ground and knew what he wanted,” Denkinger said. “He’d keep talking until 6 a.m. if that’s what it took.”
A little more than that, sometimes.
“Every once in a while, he’d stage a breakdown. Throw something through a wall or something to get attention,” Denkinger said. “But he wanted baseball to know that we were important, that we were valuable and worth it.”
When Mr. Phillips became the umpires’ negotiator in 1978, rookie umpires made $17,500. By 2000, they earned at least $95,000.
Denkinger, who started as an umpire in 1969 and retired in 1998, credited Mr. Phillips with getting umpires their first pensions and vacations.
Mr. Phillips often came across as loud and brash. Many umpires praised him over the years, saying his personality was what it took to deal with MLB hierarchy.
But Mr. Phillips’ reign came to a sudden end in 1999. Trying to press his negotiating points, he convinced umpires to turn in their resignations all at once, hoping to force MLB into a corner.
Many of the umps followed Mr. Phillips’ advice. Instead, MLB accepted 22 of them and minor league umpires took their place in early September on a permanent basis. By the end of the year, Mr. Phillips also was out of a job.
“Richie would always tell the guys to stick together and we’d get things hammered out, and that’s what they did,” Denkinger said. “When it all came apart in 1999, he didn’t have everybody, he didn’t have 100 percent.”
Umpire Brian Gorman said Mr. Phillips won a lot of benefits for the umpires.
“Sadly, he’ll probably be remembered for the resignation strategy,” Gorman said. “It’s too bad, because he did a lot for us. A lot of the things he did for us 20 years ago are still helping us now.”
Mr. Phillips graduated from law school at Villanova and later worked in the Philadelphia public defender’s office and the district attorney’s office. He also worked with trade unions in the city.