NEW YORK – Jesse Jackson criticized Major League Baseball on Thursday for sending investigators to the hometowns of umpires to ask neighbors questions that include whether the ump belongs to the Ku Klux Klan.
"Major League Baseball has done a disservice to its progressive social history by equating southern whites with white supremacists," Jackson said in a statement. "I am surprised the professional league which helped change social attitudes in all sports leagues about segregation, by championing Jackie Robinson, would make such a destructive move."
World Umpires Association president John Hirschbeck and union spokesman Lamell McMorris said Wednesday that Tom Christopher, the Milwaukee-based supervisor of security and investigations in the commissioner's office, had asked questions about Klan membership to neighbors of umpires Greg Gibson and Sam Holbrook, who reside in Kentucky. In addition, Hirschbeck said similar questions had been asked to neighbors of umpire Ron Kulpa, who lives in suburban St. Louis.
"In a year with the injustice of Jena Six, nooses hung around the country and the Tiger Woods-Golfweek scandal, Major League Baseball's false impersonations of friendships and ill-contrived questions further press sensitive racial stereotypes, with no basis for suspicion," Jackson said. "They have essentially defamed their people in their own neighborhoods."
Baseball stepped up background checks last August, after it became public that the FBI was investigating NBA referee Tim Donaghy for betting on games. Donaghy pleaded guilty to felony charges of conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting betting information through interstate commerce, and he awaits sentencing.
MLB asked umpires to sign authorizations allowing the sport to conduct financial backgrounds checks, but umps balked.
"We did not anticipate that they would approach neighbors posing as a close colleague and friend of the umpire's and asking them questions such as: Do you know if umpire 'X' is a member of the Ku Klux Klan? Does he grow marijuana plants? Does he beat his wife? Have you seen the police at his home? Does he throw wild parties?" McMorris said from India, where he was taking part in the tribute marking the 60th anniversary of the death of Mohandas K. Gandhi.
"To try to link our umpires to the Ku Klux Klan is highly offensive. It is essentially defaming the umpires in their communities by conducting a very strange and poorly executed investigation. It resembles kind of secret police in some kind of despotic nation."
Contacted Wednesday, Christopher referred questions to Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president for labor relations. Manfred did not immediately return a call.
"The claims of inappropriate questions by individuals conducting background checks was brought to our attention and looked into," Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of operations, said in a statement. "It was determined that these claims were inaccurate. Questioning was conducted with a written script consistent with common practice, and there was no inappropriate conduct on behalf of the investigators."
Alison Rohan, who lives across the street from Kulpa in Maryland Heights, Mo., said Christopher knocked on her door two or three weeks ago and gave her his card.
"He explained they were going to be talking to neighbors and friends because of the problems with the basketball league and that Ron knew about it," she said. "He listed about 10 different questions, the first one being did Ron live out of his means? For example, does he drive a Rolls-Royce?"
Rohan said she told Christopher that Kulpa lived in a manner similar to that of his neighbors.
"He asked if Ron belonged to any groups or organizations," she said.
"Groups?" she remembered replying.
"You know, like the KKK," she said Christopher told her.
"We both laughed and I said no," Rohan said. "He belongs to a neighborhood Harley-riding group of dads."
Hirschbeck, who lives in Poland, Ohio, said that shortly before Christmas, he encountered Christopher on a street in his own neighborhood. Hirschbeck said MLB was taking what the WUA considers to be a typical heavy-handed approach to umpires and that it would be brought up in negotiations for the next labor contract. The current deal expires after the 2009 season.
"Once again, baseball's favorite way of doing things: Ready, fire, aim," Hirschbeck said. "It's not a good way to start the season."