Perry Barber Interview (The Beginning)

At home plate, Perry Barber lays down the law to Wille Randolph and University of Michigan head coach Rich Maloney.

After writing the post on Elaine Weddington, Perry Barber commented and sent me a long email thanking me for addressing the issue of women in baseball. Like most of you, I didn’t know who she was, but I guess, that exemplifies the lack of women in baseball and the lack of knowledge about those in baseball. Anyway, Perry Barber is an umpire that has worked baseball games from the littlest of little leagues to Grapefruit games. Not many women have been a part of baseball history, so I started asking her some questions and decided to make it more of an interview. She graciously accepted. Not only did she accept, but she sent me back such excellent (and very long) answers to about 10 questions that I will split it up into about 4 parts to make it easier to digest. Therefore, come back every day this week to learn more about this remarkable woman. Before we get on to the questions, I would like to thank Perry for taking the time to answer the questions and tell us about herself, baseball, and umpiring in baseball. For more on Perry Barber, go to her website and her blog.

1) Where did you get your passion for baseball?

From books! I’m an inveterate trivia aficionada and former Jeopardy! Champion (talk about Way Back and Gone – I was a champ back in the dark ages, in 1972 when I was still a teenager, on the original version with Art Fleming as the host and Don Pardo as the announcer) and became determined to beat my friend Barry Bell at baseball trivia. That was the sole, driving force behind my decision to educate myself about baseball, and for an entire year (1979 – ’80) all I did was read books about it. I could hold my own at rock ‘n roll trivia, but when it came to baseball I was at sea. (Barry, by the way, was working in the mailroom at William Morris, one of the big New York booking agencies back then. He graduated to and has been Bruce Springsteen’s booking agent for the last thirty years.) So I read and read and read, and from the first book about baseball I read (a collection of Ring Lardner short stories, You Know Me Al), I was hooked. It was like falling in love at first sight, and my love affair with baseball has long outlasted any of my other romances! The first five books that changed my life were: You Know Me Al (Ring Lardner); Five Seasons by Roger Angell; Eight Men Out, by Eliot Asinov; A False Spring by Pat Jordan; and The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires by Larry Gerlach. During that first year, I studied baseball as if it were a subject you learn in school, and never went to an actual game. I could tell you who was on third when Fred Merkle didn’t touch second at the Polo Grounds on September 23rd, 1908 (Moose McCormick,) but I couldn’t tell you why the third baseman would throw to first with a runner on third and two outs rather than trying to get the out on the baserunner. I didn’t know what a force play was.

Baseball brought my mother and me back together in the years before she died, after many extended spells when we were often angry and confused about each other, as happens sometimes with mothers and daughters. She was worried about my peripatetic, uncertain lifestyle – but she never complained when she came to Mets fantasy camp and saw me umpiring games featuring Tom Seaver, Al Jackson, Jerry Koosman, and other players she had, unbeknownst to me when I was a kid, idolized. Or when I took her to Japan in 1990, where I taped a series of commercials for a life insurance company and was fawned over, paid extravagantly, and adored by millions due to my having umpired some Japanese major league spring training games there the year before. It turns out that when I fell in love with baseball, it opened an avenue of communication between my mother and me that hadn’t existed before. Because I never evinced any interest in baseball until I was twenty-eight years old, it wasn’t something we ever talked about or shared delight in. Once I was hooked, however, I would visit her In Palm Springs, California, where she moved to from New York in 1973, and stay for months at a time; such is the flexibility of the frequently unemployed. We would drive almost every night (well, she would, as I didn’t learn how to drive until the summer of 1980 – I grew up in New York City, remember -) to see either the Dodgers in L.A. or the Angels in Anaheim. Baseball became a unifying force in our lives, and gave me precious time with my mom I might otherwise not have had. (By the way, my father died when I was six years old, so male influences didn’t play much of a role in the formation of my character or aspirations. I have an older brother Rocky whom I adore, but he was out of the house by the time he was twelve and my twin sister and I were ten; he went off to boarding school in New Jersey, so we grew up in a total matriarchy.) Baseball also provided a bridge between my twin sister and me back in the nineteen eighties when we were on the outs, which was often; the only place I would see her was at the ballpark, usually Shea Stadium, where I used to be able to get in for the price of general admission, a buck fifty, and get a seat right behind the Mets’ dugout. (I knew ushers.)

2) When did you realize you wanted to work in professional baseball?

As soon as I went to umpire school for the first time, in January of 1982. I went just to get trained and achieve some degree of proficiency, but once I was there I got into the idea of making it into pro ball and following in the footsteps of Bernice Gera, Christine Wren, and Pam Postema, the only three women up to that point to have made it into pro ball. Gera and Wren were long gone, but my first year at umpire school, 1982, Pam had just been promoted to Triple AAA after eight years in the low minor leagues. I never placed high enough in my class any of the years I attended to get a job in pro ball, but that didn’t deter me from umpiring anywhere I could get an assignment. I did youth games in California where my sister was living, Florida, and New York, high school, some college, adult amateur leagues, anything I could get. Back then I had to do a lot of convincing to get assignors to use me – some of them would just hang up on me when I called asking to join their associations – so I started going to these complexes in St. Petersburg where the colleges that come down to Florida in the spring used to stay and would find the head coaches, just walk up to them while they were having supper in the mess hall, and say, hey do you need umpires for your games? Call me if you do. And some of them did, so I began assigning as well as just umpiring, and eventually talked my way into umpiring the Mets fantasy camp in 1985, right after my fourth trip to umpire school (Harry Wendelstedt’s, in 1982, ’83, ’84, and ’85.) Buddy Harrelson gave me a tryout, and the next year I was assigning the whole camp and four others. I was also, through my alliance with the Mets, umpiring intrasquads and split squads in St Petersburg as far back as 1985. St. Pete is where they used to train and play until they moved to Port St. Lucie on the east coast in 1988. I kept going back to umpire school every January from 1982 through 1985, thinking I could change the instructors’ minds about me and that they would at last send me to Bradenton, the next level in the winnowing process that ultimately decided the fates of about thirty rookie umpires each year who start their careers on the lowest rungs of the minor league ladder (rookie ball like the Gulf Coast league, or short A Ball, like the New York Penn league) just like the ballplayers do. But it never happened: I never graded out higher than fortieth in classes averaging 150 to 200 students. My first year at school, I made my twin sister Warren go with me so I wouldn’t be the only woman in attendance, That didn’t work out too well; I was there to learn to umpire, and she was majoring in drinking. The other times I went, I was lucky there was one other woman student each year. In 1984, there were three of us! (One of them roomed with me briefly and had the worst foot/shoe odor I have ever experienced in my life. It was so nauseating, like body decomp, that I had to request a room of my own after the first week. I just couldn’t take it.)

3) How did you get your start in professional baseball?

Since I wasn’t being promoted out of school, the usual and now only path into pro ball, I took matters into my own hands by hopping a Greyhound bus from Daytona Beach, where umpire school was held, to St. Petersburg in the middle of the night my last year at umpire school in 1985 (which wasn’t technically my “last” year there, since I also went back in 2005) in order to get to an “audition” at the Mets fantasy camp that I had talked Buddy Harrelson and the camp director, a nice guy named Norman Amster, into giving me. I stood up the publisher of a magazine (Referee Magazine; the publisher was and still is Barry Mano) who was writing a profile of me to do it, too! Barry was supposed to interview me at umpire school the day after I hopped on the bus, and back then there were no cell phones so I had no way of reaching him to tell him I wasn’t going to make it. I stood him up (but left him a note of apology) to make the Mets fantasy camp tryout, although the story eventually got written anyway, and I guess the Mets front office people thought I did a decent job because as I said, by the next year I was assigning all the major league fantasy camps (Mets, Phillies, Reds, Orioles, Red Sox) that Norman Amster was running. One day in 1985 while I was working a fantasy camp game at the old Payson complex in St. Pete where the Mets played some of their spring training games, something amazing happened. (The Mets played most of their games in what used to be Al Lang Stadium in downtown St. Pete, which they shared with the Cardinals; Al Lang is still standing and is known as Progress Energy Park, which the Tampa Bay Rays deserted for Port Charlotte only this spring. All the fuss this year was made about the Dodgers leaving Vero Beach, but for me, the emptiness of old Al Lang is far sadder.) This balding, avuncular older man named Arthur Richman, the Mets’ traveling secretary back then, walked over and sort of growled at me, “Dolly, I need umpires. Would you like to umpire some intrasquads for me?” It was the best proposal any woman ever got from a man! I’m not sure I even knew what an intrasquad was at that point, but I jumped at the opportunity and three weeks later found myself umpiring a spring training game in front of three thousand spectators, Mets vs. Mets, with Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Darryl Strawberry, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Dwight Gooden, players I had come to idolize in my alter ego as mild-mannered former singer/songwriter/baseball nut. I was shitting in my pants, believe me, but I got through that first baptism by fire and forged a relationship with the Mets that thrives to this day. Through my dealings with them and the cachet it has bestowed upon me, I’ve umpired for half a dozen Grapefruit League team over the last thirty years, and wound up being hired a decade later (1998) as the assignor/supervisor of umpires in the Atlantic League, a great independent league that had a team (the Long Island Ducks) Buddy was managing. It was my ongoing friendship with him that got me the job in the Atlantic League, which was actually my only truly legitimate “pro ball” experience other than the spring training games I’ve worked here and in Japan.



Quick note: Earlier, the links to her sites didn’t work, but hopefully, that’s fixed now.

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