MLB Umpire Sues the League, Commissioner for Racial Discrimination

Jul 21, 2017

By Jordan Kobritz
Earlier this month MLB umpire Angel Hernandez filed a lawsuit against the league and Commissioner Rob Manfred alleging racial discrimination against minority umpires.
Hernandez’ suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati, comes on the heels of two discrimination charges he filed against MLB with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in June. The suit claims violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Ohio state law. U.S. District Court judge Michael Barrett will oversee the case.
Neither Hernandez nor his attorney have spoken publicly about the lawsuit, but that isn’t surprising. By contract, MLB umpires, their agents or their lawyers, are prohibited from publicly criticizing the league, a team, player or manager.
What we do know for certain is Hernandez should consider himself extremely fortunate to still be employed as one of MLB’s 92 umpires. A native of Cuba, Hernandez, 55, began his MLB career as a part-time umpire in 1993 and was promoted to a full time position in 1995. Throughout the past 25 years he has consistently been rated among the five worst umpires in the league, usually in the top — or bottom – three and not infrequently, the absolute worst. Hernandez has earned a reputation for making poor decisions, initiating confrontations and having an unpredictable strike zone.
In a 2010 ESPN survey of players, Hernandez was chosen as the third worst umpire in the league. To prove that ranking wasn’t a fluke, a year later Hernandez again finished third from the bottom in another player poll conducted by Sports Illustrated. Informal polls over the years have rated him the worst umpire in the league. Even when other umpires trump Hernandez in incompetence, they tend to exhibit a better personality and demeanor. That combination of incompetence and nature is why Hernandez may be the most unpopular umpire among the players.
Hernandez alleges in his suit that MLB discriminates against minorities in promotion and post-season assignments, which carry additional compensation and prestige. The suit states that although Hernandez was made a temporary crew chief in 2005 and 2012, the assignment was never made permanent even though he applied for the promotion on four occasions. Hernandez also says he has been passed over several times for a chance to work the World Series despite high marks on evaluations. As a result, the suit seeks back pay and unspecified compensatory damages from the league.
One allegation in the complaint is that MLB has only promoted one minority umpire, an Hispanic, to permanent crew chief in the history of the game and Hernandez claims only one non-white umpire has worked a World Series since 2011.
Hernandez says he has seen “other, less experienced, generally white umpires” promoted ahead of him. However, by any standard of measure those same umpires were more qualified than Hernandez. Ironically, Hernandez was selected to umpire first base in this year’s All-Star Game in Miami, his third such assignment. He also worked the 2002 and 2005 World Series. Last season Hernandez was a member of the crew that worked the National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and the Cubs. It was the seventh time in his career he has worked a League Championship Series.
You might think since the introduction of instant replay an umpire’s effect on the outcome of a game has been minimized. However, that isn’t necessarily the case. Not all calls are reviewable, including ball and strike calls, which means an umpire’s impact on the outcome of a game remains huge. 
In the suit, Hernandez states his performance ratings were solid until 2011 but declined thereafter. That’s when former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre was named MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer, a position that includes oversight of the league’s umpires. Hernandez and Torre have history and Hernandez says in his complaint that “Torre’s general negative attitude” towards him “permeated (the umpire’s) yearly evaluations.” The suit cites language in performance evaluations since Torre assumed his position that mirror comments Torre made against Hernandez when he was managing the Yankees.
Hernandez may be right on one count. In a league where 31.9% of players are of Latin descent and 42.5% are of color, only 10 of the 92 umpires are black or Hispanic. However, unlike players, whose average MLB career lasts six years, umpires are similar to Supreme Court judges: They are employed for life. In the history of MLB, no umpire has ever been terminated for poor performance, although a number of them have been fined and suspended for letting their ego run wild or for forgetting the rules. One was terminated after failing repeated drug tests.
The lawsuit states, “The selection of these less qualified, white individuals over Hernandez was motivated by racial, national origin and/or ethnic considerations.” However, even if Hernandez is right that racial discrimination exists in evaluating umpires, he’s hardly the one to be making such a charge.
Hernandez is represented by Kevin L. Murphy and J. Jeffrey Landen of Murphy Landen Jones PLLC.
The case is Hernandez v. The Office of the Commissioner of Baseball et al., case number 1:17-cv-00456, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.
The author is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at


Articles in Current Issue