The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why has so little effort been made to bring women into the MLB umpire ranks?

(Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Fay Vincent was commissioner of Major League Baseball from 1989 to 1992.

The umpires in baseball are often taken for granted, like the field geometry, the bases, the fair poles and the seats in the stands. Except for those moments when a decision angers one team or the other, umpires are part of the background to the game. Perhaps that explains why it goes so little noted that there are no female umpires in Major League Baseball, when both the National Basketball Association and National Football League have female referees. In February, Sarah Thomas became the first woman to officiate in a Super Bowl.

I pay attention to the sports officials who enforce the rules because my father worked as an NFL referee. I grew up with respect for baseball umpires and football and basketball referees, having learned at an early age their importance to the integrity and competition of these sports.

Our increasing national sensitivity to equal job opportunities for women has resulted in women serving in Major League Baseball in various capacities. This year, for the first time, there is a female general manager of a major-league club — Kim Ng, with the Miami Marlins. In January 2020, the San Francisco Giants hired the first female full-time coach in MLB history, Alyssa Nakken, a former Sacramento State softball star. Women also occupy high-ranking administrative positions in baseball. But the door to becoming a full-fledged major-league umpire been shut tight from the start and hasn’t budged.

Big-league umpires are members of a union and, thus far, there has been little evidence of efforts by MLB or the union to open the door to female umpires. Historically, umpires learned their trade by paying their way to and attending a school for aspiring umpires owned and run by old-time umpires, not by MLB. Today, there are only two certified umpire academies; the pipeline to umping in the majors is not capacious.

That odd structure has long served to produce entry-level umpires who began their careers in the minor leagues, where they made minimal wages and lived on meager per diem allowances. MLB hired minor-league umpires when needed; there was no regular promotion system run by MLB, so some minor-league umps waited for many years in the hope of finally getting a big-league trial. There are 76 full-time umpires in the major leagues, and a space opens up only when someone retires.

These days, the financial rewards for MLB umpires is attractive. The starting salary for umpires is about $110,000, and senior umpires can make up to $430,000, with excellent benefits. (MLB umpires took a pay cut for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.)

Over the years, very few women have sought umpiring as a career. I know of only one example of a woman who, during the 1980s, worked her way up the minor-league ladder to Triple-A ball and eventually got a serious tryout for the majors. When Pam Postema was released by MLB in 1989, before I became commissioner, a sex-discrimination lawsuit ensued and was settled. During my tenure, the issue didn’t arise again.

The attempt by Major League Baseball to improve the number and status of women behind the scenes in baseball is laudable. My question is why so little apparent effort has been made to address the failure of MLB to recruit and develop women to serve in the umpire ranks. Yes, the athletes in big-league baseball are all men, but that’s also the case with pro football and basketball. The success of female officials in those major sports leaves little reason to doubt that women would make fine umpires.

MLB should take full control of the recruiting and development of umpires. As technology reduces some of the scope of umpiring, MLB will need to retain umpires’ unique knowledge of the rules and preserve their role in maintaining on-field order and discipline. As of 2018, the U.S. military had 63 female generals and admirals; it’s time for the national pastime to put women in command on big-league ballfields.

Read more:

David Von Drehle: Why the Negro Leagues will never fully be integrated into Major League Baseball

Sally Jenkins: Kim Ng’s hire doesn’t solve gender inequity, but it takes ‘unprecedented’ to ‘possible’

Sergio Peçanha: What will it take to achieve gender equality in American politics?