Al Salerno

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Alexander Joseph Salerno

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Biographical Information[edit]

Al Salerno was an American League umpire whose firing in 1968 along with that of colleague Bill Valentine led to the formation of the umpires union.

Born and raised in Utica, NY, he was a pitcher in high school and signed with the Boston Red Sox in 1949. He spent a season in the minor leagues, playing for the Marion Red Sox of the Ohio-Indiana League in 1950. He went 3-4, 6.29 in 14 games, pitching 83 innings. He also apparently spent some time with the Kinston Eagles of the Coastal Plain League later in the season, although statistics are unavailable. He was on Marion's roster for brief stints in 1951, but again there is no statistical record available, then was drafted into the army in March of 1952. He served two years in South Korea during the Korean War, where he hurt his arm. He was in spring training in 1954, on the roster of the Olean Giants, but was released before the season started. Two years later, he decided to enroll in the Al Somers umpiring school in Daytona Beach, FL, after having umpired American Legion games around his hometown.

If Salerno was not much of a pitcher, he was a born umpire, however. He graduated first in his class from umpiring school and immediately found a job in the minor leagues, starting in the Pioneer League in 1957. After a couple of seasons, he was picked up by the AAA International League, which sent him first to the Eastern League in 1959. On February 7 of that year, he had been married to Joan Marie Nole. He then moved to the Pacific Coast League in 1960, and by the end of the 1961 season, he was umpiring in the American League. In only his sixth major league game, he was umpiring at third base when Roger Maris hit his record-breaking 61st homer of the season for the New York Yankees. His quick rise to the major leagues, at a time when there was an average of only one rookie umpire per season, proves how well he was regarded in the profession. He umpired for 7 full season in the American League, from 1962 to 1968, during which he was called to work the 1964 All-Star Game as the right field umpire. The only notable incident of his career was a run-in with Baltimore Orioles manager Hank Bauer in 1964, which led to fines for Bauer and pitcher Steve Barber. In 1968, he was part of a crew with veteran Jim Honochick, Emmett Ashford, the first African-American major league umpire, and Bill Valentine.

Salerno's life took a dramatic turn on September 15, 1968, when he received a phone call from American League President Joe Cronin at his hotel room in Cleveland, OH. He was expecting to be told he had been selected to work that year's World Series; instead, he was informed he was being fired for incompetence. His colleague Valentine received a similar call immediately thereafter. They were the only two umpires Cronin ever fired for those motives during his tenure as League President, which lasted from 1959 to 1973. There is no indication anywhere, however, that Salerno or Valentine were sub-par umpires; they had in fact been getting regular raises and special performance bonuses. The real reason behind the firing was that they were leading an effort to organize American League umpires - the National League umpires had already formed a union in 1963. On September 12, 1968, Salerno had attended a meeting in Chicago, IL with some NL umpires and their union's lawyer; the NL umpires had told him they were ready to accept their AL colleagues into the union if they decided to join unanimously, at which point Salerno and Valentine had sent a note to all the other American League crew chiefs informing them of this development. Cronin claimed he had no knowledge of this business and said that "(the two umpires were) never first class at any one time." No one put any weight in Cronin's explanation at the time, as the move was too transparent.

The firings were effective immediately. Cronin called up Bill Kunkel and Jake O'Donnell from the Southern Association to take the two fired umpires' place in Holochick's crew, and they were at work on September 17th. But if the firings were meant to send a warning to other American League umpires, they backfired. The day after the season, the National League umpires voted unanimously to admit their American League colleagues into their union, which was renamed the Major League Umpires Association. The umpires considered striking during the World Series in support of their two colleagues, but the two persuaded them not to. They asked Cronin to reinstate them however, but the AL President would not abide. In January 1969, the union filed an unfair labor practice claim with the National Labor Relations Board, while Salerno and Valentine filed a lawsuit for $4 million in federal court against Major League Baseball, Cronin and the American League, alleging violation of antitrust and defamation of character. Under pressure, the American League negotiated a settlement with the umpires union in the spring of 1970, agreeing to take the two men back on staff at a higher salary in exchange for their dropping their lawsuits and agreeing to a brief probationary period in the minor leagues. Valentine agreed to the deal, but not Salerno, who claimed he had gone into debt to fight his lawsuit and needed more compensation. The AL agreed to add $20,000 in back pay and full pension credit for the missed season. In spite of pressure from Valentine, Salerno would not budge, as he was confident he would prevail in the reinstatement hearing and in the lawsuit.

At the National Labor Relations Board hearings in July of 1970, managers Dick Williams, Alvin Dark and Eddie Stanky all testified on the two umpires' behalf. Yet, the NLRB somehow ruled in favor of the American League when it released its findings in November, as there was no incontrovertible evidence that Cronin and AL supervisor of umpires Cal Hubbard knew of the two men's union activities at the time of the firing. In the federal court lawsuit, because of baseball's long-standing antitrust exemption, dating back to Oliver Wendell Holmes' ruling in the 1922 Federal Baseball Club v. National League case, only a Supreme Court decision could give the umpires a favorable outcome. However, they were denied appeal after a lower court judge ruled that the exemption applied to their case, and that was the end of the lawsuit. Salerno and Valentine had lost on both counts and were now left with nothing.

Valentine managed to find work again in baseball, becoming a highly-respected minor league executive, but things did not go as well for Salerno. He suffered a heart attack at age 48, then underwent six follow-up operations over the years. He was employed only sporadically, and his mariage fell apart in the 1980s. He remained convinced that he had done the right thing in turning down the settlement offer, because he considered that Cronin would have made sure the two reinstated umpires never made it back to the major leagues. A bitter and defeated man, he considered that the legal system had wronged him and was still hoping from some sort of relief at the time of his death in 2007.

Further Reading[edit]

  • Mark Armour: "A Tale of Two Umpires: When Al Salerno and Bill Valentine Got Thrown Out of the Game", in The Baseball Research Journal, SABR, Volume 38, Number 2 (Fall 2009), pp. 126-130.

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