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Gregg, Eric 1951–

Eric Gregg 1951

Professional baseball umpire

Left Ghetto By Grace of God

Obsessed With Food

Endured Name-calling and Other Indignities

Became the Incredible Shrinking Umpire

From Hot Dog to Hot Water

Now Well Off the Plate

Sources

The flamboyant Eric Gregg became the second black umpire in the 103-year history of the National League when he was first called up in 1976. But Gregg was the first black to last in the National League, by quickly establishing himself as the biggest umpire on the sceneif not in popularity, then in size.

The story of Eric Gregg, from his ghetto beginnings in an area known as The Bottom of West Philadelphia to the pinnacle of his profession in 1989, is captured in his autobiography, Working the Plate: The Eric Gregg Story. It reads like an all-American success story. The book is also filled with humorous anecdotes and insights into baseball celebritiesmade possible with a pivotal assist by sportswriter Marty Appel.

Left Ghetto By Grace of God

However, the autobiography tells only half the story. Ernie Gregg is the other half of the what could have been Erics story, if it were not for baseball. Eric looks at his brother Ernie and concludes, in effect, but for the grace of God, there go I. Ernie was wasting away in a state penitentiary for drug and weapons convictions, while Eric had just finished umping his first World Series game in October of 1989. Working the Plate, as told to Marty Appel, closes with a note on this tale of two brothers and the mystery of Gods grace: Ernie and Eric, two brothers, same environment, same parents, same opportunities. Ernies looking at ten more tough ones, his body burned, his life ruined. Erics looking for many more great days on the ballfield.

But Working the Plate, which tells Erics story only through 1989, is incomplete in one key respect: While his obsession with baseball may have saved his life from the ghetto, his life-long obsession with food nearly took his life. This would become apparent in 1996, when death claimed another umpire in the same shape as Gregg. Something else besides baseball would have to save Eric Gregg from an early death.

Obsessed With Food

Greggs problems with weight began in his youth. In tenth grade, at five foot, seven inches in height and 165

At a Glance

Born May 18, 1951, in West Philadelphia, PA; son of Dorothy Mae Ginyard (who worked as a beautician out of her home) and Earnest E. Gregg (who worked 35 years as a shipper for Garrett Buchanan Paper Co.); married Ramona Conchita Camillo, December 31, 1974; children: Eric Joseito (1978), Kevin Van Arsdafe (1980), Ashley Gabrielle (1985), and Jamie Erin (1986). Education: West Philadelphia High, Philadelphia; Union Umpire Development School, St. Petersburg, FL.

Career: Professional baseball umpire, Minor leagues, 1971-77; National League, 1978-.

Awards: Outstanding Graduate in Music and Dance from the Philadelphia school system; Wall of Fame-West Philadelphia High School; Officiated 1986 All-Star Game; Officiated 1981,1987, and 1996 League Championship Series; Officiated 1989 World Series.

Addresses: HomeWest Philadelphia, PA. MemberMajor League Baseball Umpires Association (215/979-3220).

pounds, Eric was an easy out at first base on any grounder hit to the infield, even on hits to right field. To get on base, the heavy and slow Gregg learned to hit homeruns, collecting 60 round-trippers one year in sandlot ball. But he was only a third-string catcher on the Philadelphia Speed Boys. His varsity coach told him he would never make it to the big leagues, where he wanted to play for the Philadelphia Phillies, if he did not get in shape.

Gregg received his calling to the major leagues at the tender age of 17, but not as a player, and not from the usual sources. His call came in almost priest-like fashion, from up above and out of the blue, when he saw a promotional spot for an instructional umpire school. It was prepared by Major League Baseball and aired by Curt Gowdy on The Game of The Week on NBC. Gregg called the number on the TV screen and talked with umpire-tutor Barney Dreary. He was told to wait four years because the minimum age requirement was 21 and to also begin umping Little League games. Gregg did just that, but worked his way down to the Florida umpire school in just two years. At age 19 and ready to work in the minor leagues, he was six foot one and a half inches tall and 240 pounds.

Seven years later, in 1978, when Gregg first broke into the big leagues to stay, he had cut the weight down to 205 pounds. That is relatively svelte when stretched out on his now six foot, three inch frame. But two years and thousands of cheeseburgers later, Greggs weight was up to 354 pounds, his suit jacket up to a 56 long, and his collar size bulging at 22 1/2 inches. Living high on the hog with a major league salary and per diem expense account, Gregg was losing the battle of the bulge.

Endured Name-calling and Other Indignities

The pudding-face Gregg endured lots of name-calling in his umpiring days: Cheeseburger, Quarter Pounder, Hoagie, Tonsof Fun, Fat Albert, and Rerun (the name of an overweight TV character), to name a few. He took most of the teasing in stride. But if affronted during a baseball game because of his weight, Gregg wasted no time ejecting that offender.

The St. Louis Cardinals once sent him a pre-game five-pound sandwich of cold cuts. The New York Mets topped that by having a five foot long hoagie sandwich delivered pre-game to his lockerroom. Most famous of these prank episodes happened in 1988 when a hamburger was left for him at third base before a game in St. Louis. Gregg was photographed picking up the burger with glee and weighing the possibilities.

Though many serious diet and exercise regimens have been prescribed for the overweight umpire, he disdained most of them. But Gus Hoefling, the strength and flexibility coach of the Philadelphia Phillies, put Gregg through a regimen in the winter of 1980-81 at Veterans Stadium that actually worked. He reportedly gave the 361-pound Gregg a blank piece of paper, saying, This is your diet. Gregg promptly ate the paper. Over a 14-week period, he did everything else he was told, worked out consistently and dropped his nervous eating habits.

Became the Incredible Shrinking Umpire

When Gregg reported for spring training in 1981, he had lost 106 pounds. The usually obese umpire was now the incredible shrinking umpire, according to Ebony. The new Gregg looked so incredibly dapper, sleek, and lean at 255 pounds that he was the cover boy for Ebony and featured in Sports Illustrated and Jet. He was also a frequent banquet speaker and television interviewee that year.

As he told Ebony, People have been extremely good to me and Im thankful for that. So many people have complimented me for taking off the weight that Id feel like a fool if I put it on again. I want to get down to 220 pounds and stay there. That proved to be much easier said than done. Once the season began, Greggs weight came back, cheeseburger by cheeseburger, beer after beer. He was topping 300 pounds by mid-season.

Throughout his big league career, Gregg checked himself into weight loss clinics, only to regain the weight that stuck closer to him than his chest protector. In 1988, chest pains forced him into a hospital mid-season; afterwards, National League President Bart Giamatti told him obesity was jeopardizing his job. In 1990, he checked into the Duke University Diet & Fitness Center, weighing 385 pounds. Gregg would return to that clinic in 1992. He had no trouble losing pounds, but found them just as easily. But theres more to Eric Gregg than the ups and downs of various weight-loss programs.

From Hot Dog to Hot Water

As obsessed as Gregg has been with baseball and food, he is a most fun-loving guy. Hes the only umpire who will risk his dignified image to be an impish entertainer. Perhaps he is most belovedespecially with kidsfor his shenanigans with Philly Phanatic, the Philadelphia team mascot. Because hes got such great rhythm and was lauded in school for his dance ability, Gregg would regularly dance with this huge green mascot, as well as mascots from other teams. Greggs reputation as a hot dog was further ingrained in the Philadelphia area when he did television commercials for Phillies Franks. Needless to say, he ended up with all the franks that his family could fit into the freezer.

The most controversial game he ever umpired came in a 21-inning affair between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs, a game played at Wrigley Field before they had lights. The game lasted as long as it dida record-breaking 21 innings, spanning six hours ten minutes, and played across two daysbecause of two calls that Gregg made behind home plate.

With the game tied in the 8th inning, Gregg called the potential lead run for the Cubs out at home plate. He claimed that the catcher had the plate blocked long enough in a bang-bang play to tag out the runner trying to score from first on a double. For lack of a run, the game went into extra innings and took two days to complete. In the top of the 21st inning, on the second day, the Dodgers sent a runner home from third after a long fly ball. As the throw came in from the outfield, Gregg made like he was going to call the runner out, which would have kept the game tied. It was another bang-bang play at the plate that went in favor of the Dodgers. This time he called the runner safe. So the Dodgers won, 2-1, in 21 innings. And Gregg feared for his life at the hands of all the riotous hometown fans.

Now Well Off the Plate

Gregg had more reason to fear for his life after what happened on April 1, 1996. That was Opening Day of the baseball season. His close friend and fellow umpire, Big John McSherry, died that day from an obesity-induced heart attack, while umpiring behind home plate at Cincinnati before a national TV audience. Eric Gregg saw himself in the twitching, dying, 380-pound body of John McSherry.

McSherrys sudden death on the job sent a life-changing message, a call to arms against obesity. One week later, the almost 400-pound Gregg took a forced three month medical leave of absence from baseball. Gregg checked back to the Duke clinic, now for the third time.

This time was for life. The beer-guzzling, beef-eating Gregg returned to baseball later that summer a new man. Gregg is now strictly a club-soda man, maintaining a daily diet of 2300 calories and an exercise regimen that has become his new obsession. He zealously guards his half-a-day workouts (five mile walks, hour-long swims), as if his life depended on them.

Once known for guzzling six beers at the stadium and another six at a late-night bar, Gregg exclaimed in Sporting News, Ive given up all beer and alcohol. What a difference that makes. As a result, hes clearheaded, his heart is healthy, his sleep apnea is eliminated. The excessive weight has stayed off, even through the 1997 season.

Gregg realizes obesity will never be cured, but can only be controlled. I love to eat, he said in Sports Illustrated, but I love being alive even more, he continued. And thanks to Eric Gregg, the game of baseball is alive and well, especially with him working the plate.

Sources

Books

Gregg, Eric and Marty Appel, Working the Plate: The Eric Gregg Story (William Morrow and Company, 1990).

Periodicals

Ebony, September, 1981, p. 92.

Jet, August 20, 1981, p. 47; April 29, 1996, p. 51; March 24, 1997, p. 49.

Sporting News, June 3, 1996, p. 8; September 23, 1996, p. 55.

Sports Illustrated, April 20, 1981, p. 78; August 5, 1996, p. 132.

Dietrich Gruen

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