Former MLB Umpire Eric Gregg, 55, Dies After Stroke

By Jim Salisbury
Updated: June 6, 2006

PHILADELPHIA — Eric Gregg, the fun-loving West Philadelphia native who became a popular Major League Baseball umpire, died Tuesday night at Lankenau Hospital in Wynnewood after suffering a massive stroke at his Ardmore home Sunday morning. Mr. Gregg was 55.

“He fought all the way,” his son, Kevin, said Tuesday night. “We heard from so many people around the baseball world today. So many people loved my dad. We’re just very thankful for all the support.”

Mr. Gregg, who is survived by Conchita, his wife of 31 years, and four children, was a 1968 graduate of West Philadelphia High, where he was a backup catcher.

Told that he would never be good enough to play professionally, Mr. Gregg set out to get to the big leagues as an umpire. Seven years after graduating high school, he was in the majors.

At the time of his arrival, he was the third African American umpire in the majors.

Mr. Gregg worked in the National League for 23 seasons. He was one of the most recognizable umpires ever because of his physical stature, his big smile and his electric personality.

Affectionately known as the “Plump Ump,” Mr. Gregg battled weight problems throughout his career and was once fined for being overweight.

Mr. Gregg’s umpiring career ended as part of a failed mass-resignation tactic by umpires during a 1999 labor dispute. Many of the umpires were hired back, but Mr. Gregg was not. He eventually won a $400,000 settlement from Major League Baseball.

“Being out of baseball was tough on him,” said Kevin Gregg, 26. “A big piece of his life was missing. My father loved the game of baseball.”

During an April 2000 Inquirer interview, Mr. Gregg said: “Umpiring was my life. I used to have my bags packed two weeks before spring training. It was all I knew how to do, and I was good at it. They can say I was heavy, but they can’t say I couldn’t umpire.”

Veteran umpire Rick Reed recalled Mr. Gregg before last night’s Phillies game in Phoenix.

“He had a terrific personality,” Reed said. “He enjoyed his life, and he enjoyed umpiring. He was by far one of the showmen of the game.

“Being that he was a man of color, I think he was a big influence with young umpires and especially young umpires of color coming into the game. He gave it a lot more personality than most. If you look at his overall body of work, he was a pretty darn good umpire. His personality will be missed.”

Mr. Gregg’s death touched many around baseball.

“He is one of the all-time good guys,” Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “And you say that before somebody asks you about him having a stroke.”

Larry Bowa, the former Phillies player, coach and manager, recalled a steamy day in Florida in the 1990s when Lenny Dykstra became agitated. Bowa said Dykstra argued balls and strikes with Mr. Gregg, hoping an ejection would give him a day off.

“Eric said, ‘Lenny, I know exactly what you want me to do. You want me to run you out of this game,’ ” Bowa said. “And he says, ‘If I got to stay in this heat, you got to stay in this heat, so it doesn’t matter what you call me, how many times you call me, I’m not running you out of this game.’ “

Yankees manager Joe Torre said he always admired Mr. Gregg because the umpire never held a grudge after a dispute with a player or manager.

Mr. Gregg worked the 1989 World Series. He also worked four National League Championship Series, two National League Division Series and the 1986 All-Star Game.

Mr. Gregg was proud of his Philadelphia roots, and after his umpiring days he worked for Chickie’s and Pete’s, the local sports bar and restaurant. He even poured beer at the restaurant’s concession stands at Veterans Stadium and Citizens Bank Park.

Mr. Gregg had his right knee replaced in March, and Kevin Gregg said his father was taking blood thinners to prevent clots at the time of the stroke.

The family was working on funeral arrangements as of press time.

NOTE: Staff writers Mark Narducci and Todd Zolecki also contributed to this article, which contains information from the Associated Press