Wilmington Morning News - February 25, 1980

Gregg fulfills his ‘major’ fantasy


By Matt Zabitka


Eric Eugene Gregg was a 5-foot-9, 180-pound baseball catcher for Coach Joe Goldenberg at West Philly High in the late 60s. His fantasy, though, was to be a football quarterback for Coach Bear Bryant at Alabama, in the mold of his idol Joe Namath.


Instead, Gregg wound up as a major league baseball umpire. And today, at the age of 28, standing 6-feet-3 and weighing 255, the Philadelphian already has two years of umpiring in the majors, six in the minors and one in the Dominican Republic behind him.


This winter, the big guy with the infectious laugh and the demeanor of a used car salesman decided to branch out; try his hand and voice as an after-dinner speaker on sports' rubber chicken circuit. It was in that capacity that I first came eyeball-to-eyeball with him. Happened at the 31st annual banquet of the Wilmington Sportswriters and Broadcasters Association at Hotel Du Pont, Jan. 14.


Gregg was a smasheroo at the WSBA bash, using just the right voice inflections in speaking about true life experiences.


Pete Rose had ribbed Gregg about a call he made at the Vet during a Phillies-Pirates game last season and Gregg came back with the last word and laugh.


"That game was the night of Sept 25," he said. "Keith Moreland (Phillies reserve catcher) drilled a long one headed toward the left field foul pole. I lost sight of the ball in the overhead lights. I was hesitant about calling it foul or fair. But I looked down at Mary Sue Styles (Phillies' ball girl stationed near the left field foul line) and saw her jumping up and down, yelling 'It's a home run.' Well, that was good enough for me, so I called it a home run."


What surprised me was that Gregg said his stint at the WSBA affair was his first crack as an after-dinner speaker.


"I was nervous as hell before the banquet," Gregg recalled. "I wanted to impress the people. Pete (Rose) was aware of my nervousness. He told me to be myself and everything would turn out fine. And it did.


"Three months ago, I told my wife I'd like to take a shot at speaking at banquets. I felt I had good stories, a good voice and could do it. I called up Bill Pettit, Larry Bowa's agent, for a luncheon date. I told him I'm not super star or anything of the sort, but I could speak, and I had a movie I could show. Nothing came out of that luncheon. I got the WSBA job on my own. That WSBA job led to a speaking engagement at the Philadelphia Sportswriters dinner. From there, things began to happen for me.


"Then Pettit got me a big one, the Dapper Dan in Pittsburgh, Feb. 1-2. At the luncheon on Feb. 1 they allotted me three minutes. I was so good they invited me to speak at the banquet the next night. It was supposed to be for three minutes, but they stretched it to five for me.


"I've also taped a TV program (Captain Noah's Show) that'll be aired March 1, 10:30 a.m., on Channel 6. The last banquet I have before going to spring training will be on March 12, for the IBM people in Warminster, Pa."


Gregg got into umpiring working kids' (7-9 years old) games in Philly, getting $10.00 a game for handling the bases as well as balls and strikes. He then took and passed an officiating course at Southern High, qualifying him to work high school jayvee games for $16.50. He then graduated to scholastic varsity games at $18.20 a game. At 18, he was working Legion baseball games for $10.00.


"The first pro game I worked was in 1971 in the New York-Pennsylvania League," he said. "I remember Jimmy Rice was playing in that league then, with Williamsport. We got paid $550.00 a month and 10¢ a mile for traveling. I didn't drive. I went everywhere with my partner. He had a Volkswagen. We worked together that entire season. We lived on hot dogs and hamburgers at the ball park, and on Sundays we had the special – Kentucky fried chicken."


He spent 1972 and the first two weeks of the 1973 season in the Florida State League, after which he jumped to the Eastern League.


The winter of 1973-74, he umpired in the Dominican Republic. "It was a big thrill for me," he said, "as there were many major leaguers playing in the league. One game I worked behind the plate when Juan Marichal was pitching for Escogieo, managed by Felipe Alou. Marichal was one of my boyhood idols."


Gregg put in three years (1974-77) in the Pacific Coast League before being promoted to the majors.


"Being an umpire is a very lonely life," he said softly, "especially on the road. I've watched so many soap operas on TV I can tell you the plots of just about every one. My favorite one is 'The Young and Restless.' I also like 'Days of Our Lives' and 'General Hospital.' On the road, from 11:30 a.m. until about 3:30 p.m., that's all I do every day, watch soap operas. Even follow the soaps when I'm at home. Oh, once in a while I'll take in a movie if anything good is showing."


His big ambition as an umpire is to work playoff and World Series games. "Oh, All-Star Games are nice, but they're nothing like the playoffs and World Series," he noted.


In all his years as an umpire, Gregg, a black, confessed that he has never been the victim of racial slurs. "Oh, maybe a couple times from fans in the low minors, but never in the majors."


Being in the biggies has its advantages in other things besides pay.


"Umpires are given two brand new suits, hats, ball bags and shirts every two years, at no cost to us. We also get our special shoes free, through a deal with a shoe manufacturing company.


"This year, for the first time, umpires in both the American and National Leagues will be wearing identical uniforms."


Does Gregg have any advice for aspiring umpires?


"I'd tell them to first work as many games as possible, and try to get advice from senior umpires who've been at it a long time. And they should never try to copy umpires they see on TV."


Gregg hopes to umpire until he's 55. Longer if they give him an extension. He's getting his gear ready now for spring training. He'll be leaving for Florida March 12.


"I'll be mostly in the St. Pete's-Tampa area, working Pittsburgh, Phillies, Mets, Cards games."


Now that his fantasy of being an Alabama quarterback has totally evaporated, he has another fantasy. But this one has a much greater chance of bearing fruit. He's like to do a regular sports show on TV: And judging from the way he handled himself at the WSBA banquet, he's ripe for the tube, or maybe as a one-man nightclub act.