Richie Phillips, hard-charging union official
The cause was cardiac arrest, his family said.
Mr. Phillips — who at 6 feet 2 inches and 280 pounds was called Bear by friend and foe — got his start at 13 by organizing a walkout of altar boys at his church to protest a new priest’s decision to reduce their tips for wedding ceremonies. The priest relented. Mr. Phillips once threw a chair through a window in a negotiating session for umpires.Before being retained by the umpires as general counsel and executive director of the Major League Umpires Association, Mr. Phillips helped National Basketball Association referees triple their earnings in the 1970s. During his time with the umpires, from 1978 to 1999, he got them raises, to $282,500 from $40,000 for the experienced ones and to $95,000 from $17,500 for the rookies. Both unions ended up firing him, however. The basketball referees had decided he was overpaid.
The story with the umpires was more complicated.
Their contract forbade strikes, but they feared that Major League Baseball executives were planning to fire them Dec. 31, 1999, when the contract expired. Mr. Phillips hit on the idea of having all the umpires resign Sept. 2 of that year. He thought this would make them eligible for $15 million in severance pay and pressure baseball to make concessions.
It turned out to be a monumental miscalculation. Some umpires refused to sign resignation letters, although more than 50 of the union’s 66 members did. Major League Baseball stunned the umpires by accepting the resignations and then picking those it wanted to hire back. Vacancies were filled with minor league umpires.
Twenty-two umpires were left without a job. Mr. Phillips’s opponents persuaded the National Labor Relations Board to hold a vote to decertify the Major League Umpires Association. The dissidents won and started a new union, the World Umpires Association, which became the legal bargaining unit. Mr. Phillips was out.
“It’ll go down as one of the worse moves in the history of negotiations,” said Dave Phillips (no relation), an umpire who resigned but rescinded his resignation and kept his job.
“He put us in harm’s way,” Dave Phillips added, speaking to Sports Illustrated in 1999. “He put guys on the street.”
Others emphasized that Richie Phillips’s success in increasing wages, benefits, and vacations during the season had brought prestige to a profession that elicits mainly boos from fans.
Jerry Crawford, a longtime umpire who was the president of the union at the time of the resignations, said in an interview, “He raised the value of umpires in their own eyes, as well as in the public’s.”
Richard Gregory Phillips was born in Philadelphia, where his father was a police officer. He graduated from Villanova University and its law school. He worked as a public defender and in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, where he became the chief of organized crime and homicide.
A football player in college, he became involved in the sports business by representing his friend Howard Porter, a former Villanova basketball star, in his negotiations with the Chicago Bulls in 1971. He won Porter a $1.25 million contract, large at the time, by threatening to take his client to the NBA’s rival league, the American Basketball Association. The Chicago Tribune said Mr. Phillips made his critical point by reaching into a bag, pulling out the ABA’s official red, white and blue basketball, and plunking it onto the table.
In 1976, he helped organize the NBA’s referees and forced the league to recognize them as a collective bargaining unit. A year later, during the playoffs, he called a strike that led to pay hikes and better working conditions. He took on the umpires as an additional client in 1978 and guided them through successful work stoppages in 1978, 1979, 1984, 1991, and 1995.
Mr. Phillips had also represented transport workers, carpenters, racetracks, professional golf officials, sports teams, and dozens of individual athletes. He became involved as a lawyer with Pilot Air Freight, an air cargo company, because it carried umpires’ gear from ballpark to ballpark. In 1993, he was asked to be Pilot’s chairman, and he proceeded to take the company from the brink of bankruptcy to years of rising profits.
Mr. Phillips, who had another home in Berwyn, Pa., leaves his wife of 49 years, the former Ellen Harrell; his sons, Richard and Tony; and his daughters, Stephanie and Connie Anne.
Mr. Phillips, who went to the horse track with some of the baseball executives he regularly blasted, gave a presumably jocular explanation for the handsome tips he received as an altar boy. “If you don’t come up with the envelope,” he claimed to have said, “we would drop hot incense on the bride’s feet.”