Former major league umpire Eric Gregg, known for his big personality, extra-wide strike zone and oversized frame, died Monday night, a day after suffering a massive stroke. He was 55.
Gregg, the third black umpire in major league baseball, had complained to family members Sunday morning at his home in Ardmore, Pa., that he couldn't feel anything on his left side. He was hospitalized and died at 6:45 p.m. Monday.
He called his first game in 1975 and became a member of the National League staff in 1978. Known for his large strike zone when calling balls and strikes, Gregg worked the 1989 World Series, four championship series, two division series and one All-Star game.
Gregg was among 22 umpires who lost their jobs in 1999 after union head Richie Phillips called for mass resignations as a way of forcing an early start to contract negotiations.
Gregg was plagued by financial woes soon after he left baseball. Though he once earned a six-figure salary, he complained in 2000 that he could not afford college tuition for his sons or braces for his daughter.
"He got squeezed in that umpire thing and then it seemed like from then on, things didn't really roll his way after that," said New York Yankees coach Larry Bowa.
In December 2004, Gregg and five other umpires whose resignations were accepted in 1999 received severance pay and health benefits for themselves and their families. Gregg received $400,000 under the deal
The 6-foot-3 Gregg battled weight problems throughout his career. In 1996, shortly after his friend and fellow umpire John McSherry died, Gregg entered a weight-loss program at Duke University. By adjusting his diet and exercise program, he lost 100 pounds from his former frame of nearly 400.
At one point, he was fined $5,000 for reporting in at more than 300 pounds
He often was criticized for calling strikes too wide.
In Game 5 of the 1997 NL championship series against Atlanta, Florida's Livan Hernandez struck out 15 batters and the Braves' Greg Maddux fanned nine as the teams combined to set a championship series record with 25 in the Marlins' 2-1 win. Eight players were called out and several more fell behind in the count as Gregg appeared to make the plate wider than its usual 17 inches. "Eric will be ever known for one game, but I don't think that's fair," said Braves pitcher John Smoltz.
Umpire crew chief Tim McClelland recalled when Gregg was one of his instructors at umpire school in 1976.
He was "probably one of the most well-liked umpires because he had a great personality, a great sense of humor," McClelland said.
Gregg is survived by his wife and four children.