Perry Barber Interview (The Meat: Part 2)

Tom Seaver, Perry Barber, and Rube Walker (the man who was catching when Bobby Thomson hit his “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”) having fun with the “no intentionally touching the umpire” rule.

After the first two days, we’ve learned about Perry Barber and her experiences in baseball. Today, we learn about what can be done, what she is doing, and what her hopes are to bring more women into baseball. Again, you may not agree with her or everything she says, but I think this is an important issue in today’s game. Perry brings up some interesting points and solutions. The point is to start a debate so that brilliant and creative minds can work together to come up with an ingenious solution and ignore this situation no longer.

7) What does/can professional baseball need to do about including more women, and in what positions?

Baseball needs people already in positions to make a difference (the minor league presidents, umpire school instructors and evaluators, league commissioners, supervisors, public relations people, and the media) to take the bull by the horns and do what Rod Thorn of the NBA did: actually make an effort, a legitimate, concerted, sustained effort to find, recruit, train, and then actually hire and promote women. In ALL positions. Front office. Umpiring. Instructing at and recruiting for the umpire schools. General management. Why are there no women general managers? I mean, really. On-field management. Why are there no women managers? It’s just ridiculous to assume and perpetuate the myth that players will respond less efficiently or successfully to the stewardship of a woman manager than that of a man. And there are cases of male managers who haven’t been players, or at least not major league players (Dave Bristol, for example, who never made it out of Class B.) There are plenty of women in this country who have played baseball, against all odds, and know strategy and the minutiae associated with managing and leading a team. Why not capitalize on their creativity, competitiveness, insight, and wisdom? All over the world, in Africa and Europe and Asia, women’s capabilities are being recognized and utilized, and their participation in the political process particularly is being MANDATED BY LAW. (Look at Liberia, for heaven’s sake. They are way ahead of us in this arena.) In 1997, Rod Thorn, at the time the head of operations for the NBA, took a look at the basketball court and had the vision and the balls to say, “What’s wrong with this picture?” He knew there were qualified women referees out there and that the problem was NOT that they wouldn’t cut it in the NBA, but simply that they just weren’t being approached, considered, or invited to the camps and tryouts like the men were. So he charged Darrell Garretson, the supervisor of referees (since deceased) with the task of finding and bringing women referees to him. He didn’t wait around twiddling his thumbs, thinking that qualified women refs would magically appear at his doorstep begging for jobs. He took action. This is what is needed: action has to be taken. It’s not enough to simply erase the barriers; someone at some point has to actually do something pro-active the way Rod Thorn did rather than just be passively tolerant. Passive tolerance accomplishes little. From the group Thorn saw and evaluated, he actually hired two women as NBA refs – what a concept! Two instead of just one! And they worked on a crew together! What an estrogen overload that must have been – and one of them, Violet Palmer, is still on the NBA staff twelve years later. (Dee Kantner went back to the WNBA after a few years.) Palmer’s ascension and durability completely disprove the myth, the outmoded paradigm, that women are not capable of officiating professional sports at the highest levels. That we are either too much this (crazy, estrogen-driven, weak, soft, subject to hormonal fluctuations, etc.) or not enough that (loud, powerful, take-charge, emotionally stable, interested) to be able to function as referees and umpires. Baseball needs to be pro-active about presenting itself as a career option for women, something that most American women, no matter how young or old, just don’t regard as a choice or even a possibility in their lives. And whose fault is that? I lay the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of Major League Baseball, the individual clubs, the umpire schools in particular, and the little league, high school, collegiate, and professional umpiring associations. The only recruitment poster I have ever seen advertising for women to train as basketball referees was in the women athlete’s locker room at New York Tech out on Long Island. What is the reason for that? It’s because sports officiating is not presented to women as either a career path, an avocation, or even something they might just enjoy and be good at. The women who wind up doing it usually enter the ranks by virtue of their own initiative and determination, not because someone told them, “Hey, I think this is the job for you,” and opened doors for them or encouraged them. It’s much more a case of, why would you want to do this? Why not get married instead, or get a real job like teaching or nursing? Roadblocks, negativity, impediments, nay-saying, and obstructionism are more the norm for women seeking entry into baseball officiating in this country, even now. (About other sports, I can’t say.) Canada and Australia are taking the lead in providing programs for women officials that actively seek out new candidates, recruit, train, and assign them games – and they turn out some damn fine officials, too; I’ve umpired with several Canadian women in international tournaments in Taiwan and North Carolina – but baseball in the United States is still stagnating in the nineteenth century, relatively speaking. It’s always been the last corporate bastion of white male dominance; witness the appearance of black major league ballplayers as late as 1947. The Red Sox were the last mlb team to add a black player, Pumpsie Green, to their roster – in 1959, twelve years after Jackie Robinson “broke” the color barrier. That’s how sluggishly baseball responds to change. Robinson didn’t really “break” the barrier, did he? He vaulted over it, but to this day, it still remains in place for others to penetrate and pulverize into oblivion. As far as I’m concerned, Robinson’s mission will not be complete until there is a woman on the ballfield with the men. Only then will true “equality” be achieved. In the general discussion about equality in this country, women are so often left out of the equation. Why? Equality for us most often comes as a sequel rather than as the main event; blacks gained the right to vote before women did, and we had to fight tooth and nail for that right, as we have most of the ones we now enjoy. Someone in baseball, someday, will have the vision and the balls Rod Thorn did, and say, ”What’s wrong with this picture? Bring me women!!!” And finally, the phrase “woman umpire” will become as redundant as “woman doctor” or “female astronaut.” I plan on not just being around to see that, but actively playing a part in making it happen.

9) Tell us about the documentary you are working on? What is it about? What is the purpose?

The documentary started out as one thing and has become another entirely, much to my delight. My working title for it is “Outside the Box,” which I like on several levels, although it started out as “Balls and Strikes,” which I find a bit pedestrian. The filmmaker Bryan Gunnar Cole, who approached me about making the documentary last summer at a softball game in Central Park I was umpiring gratis for a friend of mine who had asked me to (Bryan was one of the players,) had a narrative already in mind in which he would follow several women umps, including me, through our seasons, sort of a cinema verité thing. But because of the reticence to get involved of one of the women he had already met and decided he wanted to focus on (her name is Kate Sargeant, and she went back to umpire school this past January and did not place high enough in her class to get a job in pro ball,) Bryan decided, with my gentle nudging, to change the narrative. So now the plan is to indeed show the daily activities in which we (four or five of us, including three who have been in pro ball) engage as we progress through our seasons, but for those activities to include our active search for six women candidates that those of us in the film will “pre-train” next December and then send to umpire school on scholarship next January, with the goal of getting at least two, ideally all of them, into pro ball in 2010. I’m really excited about this concept, as it subversively combines a frank, funny, unvarnished and electrifying cinematic depiction of what we do and experience with the activism I keep harping on. We will not only be filming what we experience as a way to illuminate the ignorant masses, but we will also be changing the baseball landscape at the same time. If we have enough money in our budget, I want to send a hundred women to umpire school! Two hundred! My original idea was to flood the two schools (Harry Wendelstedt’s and Jim Evans’) with enough women so the ratio of men to women was fifty-fifty; that way, multiple women would have to be promoted into minor league ball all at once instead of singly and intermittently, the way it’s been happening since Bernice Gera went to court in 1972 and got the height and weight restrictions thrown out that had prevented women –and a lot of men, too – from entering the ranks of professional umpires. It’s always been one woman every five or six years; that’s apparently all baseball can handle. There has thus never been any support system for the women who have made it (and there are only six so far in the whole history of organized baseball since 1846, when the first “professional” game was played at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey with Alexander Cartwright as the first umpire.) No support system, no network of mentoring, sharing advising, counseling, persevering, cheering on. We have been “chosen” slowly and reluctantly, and only because we kick and scream to be chosen, and once we are, we’re left to twist in the wind instead of being supported, encouraged, and promoted. I could tell you horror story after horror story of things that have happened to all of us; and I’m not saying that being treated badly is the exclusive province of women umpires. Obviously, it’s not. But the status quo for us is one of inertia, indifference, and sometimes even outright hostility rather than of activism and energetic support. Anyway, my original idea of flooding the schools with women in order to induce change from the bottom up, where several at once would get into the low minor leagues and by process of attrition and the laws of averages, at least two would eventually make it to the majors, has been streamlined. The goal is more modest now; six women are probably all we’ll be able to afford to train and send to school, but it’s a start. The film will open people’s eyes to the truth, which is that nothing has changed and nothing will change unless we make it change. We can’t wait for some guy years or decades down the road to finally see the light and decide that women will be an asset rather than a liability on a major league crew; we have to make it happen. That is what the film will accomplish, at least that’s the idea. And it will win an academy award, of course. Not too lofty a goal!

10) What are your future goals for yourself in professional baseball?

In professional ball, for myself, not many, because I’ve never technically been “in” legitimate pro ball, meaning minor or major league baseball, and have no expectation of ever being on the umpiring staff of a pro league. I’ve worked independent ball, the Atlantic League, which was and still is a pretty good circuit with quite a few big leaguers either on the way back to or out of the Show. I do major and minor league spring training every year, and umpire internationally through USA Baseball. I’ve also umpired Japanese major league spring training games in Osaka and Kobe. But I’m not now and never have been on the umpiring staff of any pro league other than the Rocky Mountain, one of those start-up leagues that fails within three months and stiffs all the personnel, and the Empire State League, which lasted two seasons. My goals in amateur ball? I’d love to see it restored as an Olympic sport, and umpire in the Olympics. My other goals, besides to keep working as long as I’m ambulatory and capable, are to ensure a mechanism is in place before I die whereby women candidates will be recruited, trained, and evaluated fairly, and will be offered jobs in pro and amateur ball and promoted as routinely as men are. To shine a light on what we do, to lift the veil of secrecy and misunderstanding about what we do and where we come from (the swamps!), to present umpiring as an attractive, appealing prospect for young men and women, and older ones too, rather than as a mere fallback for failed athletes or an undertaking that others view with contempt and hostility. To bolster the ranks of umpires with men and women, to change the baseball landscape, to help others avoid the obstacles and pitfalls I’ve faced, to elevate the discourse about umpires, and portray umpiring as a fun and fulfilling vocation or avocation. To let people know that umpiring has immeasurably enriched my life and my relationships, and has taught me more about myself than any amount of psychotherapy possibly could. Bruce Lee said, “All knowledge leads to self-knowledge,” and there isn’t one game, no matter how exciting or boring, how close the score or how out of reach, how celebrated or ragtag the players, or in what setting, from which I don’t take away valuable insights into my own character and motivations, and hopefully learn from them. There is as much, maybe more, to be learned from failure as there is from success, for athletes and umpires. To get a Plate Umpire Barbie made so little girls are inculcated with the idea that this is the job for them! (Barbie will have stylish pink ball bags.) To finish this film and make others that show umpires as real people, not just caricatures to be mocked and made fun of. To finish my book and get it published, opening up an avenue of discussion about umpiring that will both edify and entertain. To walk on a ballfield with women partners as a matter of routine rather than exception. To fight no more not to be in a league of our own.

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