Archive for the ‘Perry Barber Interview’ Category

Perry Barber Interview (Stories)

March 19, 2009
Her photo is the one with the mask at eye level.

In the final installment of the interview, I asked for a few stories that Perry Barber might be able to tell us. As you can imagine, I got a few detailed and interesting stories instead of the couple jokes that I expected. Before I give you her response, I would like to thank Perry Barber for sharing all her thoughts, insights, experiences, and pictures (I didn’t even have to ask. She just linked me some of her pictures to choose from. I always like to include pictures because I’m a visual learner and understand concepts and ideas better when I have something to look at and associate. You never know if people realize these things sometimes, but it appears that they do). Thank you again, Perry.

8) Are there any interesting stories you can tell us about your experience in the minor leagues as an umpire?

Any? How about gazillions? They’re all interesting to me; I see poetry and humor in the most prosaic of double plays. My first game in “professional” ball, back in 1983 in the Rocky Mountain League, which had a very short lifespan and still owes me and dozens of players quite a bit of money, I was on the bases in Tooele, Utah, and the home team manager came out to make a pitching change. I was such a raw rookie, just out of umpire school for the second time, and knew it was my responsibility to run towards the bullpen and inform the new pitcher that he was in the game. So I hustle down there, all professional and alert, and point at the player in the bullpen standing up with the baseball in his hand.”Let’s go, you’re in the game!” I shouted assertively. “Who, me?” the player I was pointing at yelled back, looking totally mystified. “Yes, you, let’s go!” I commanded. “But I’m the catcher!” he protested.

That’s one. Here’s another, which I’ve excerpted from my forthcoming memoir Kiss the Umpire (spelled Kill the Umpire, with the two “l”s in Kill crossed out and the two “s”s written above, which I don’t know how to reproduce here in this Word document.)

This wasn’t the nightmare where you walk into a room full of strangers and suddenly realize you’re naked, but it was close. What on earth had I gotten myself into? I was performing a public service, for heaven’s sake, making all of twelve dollars to umpire this peewee baseball game for a bunch of surly six-year-olds, and everybody was screaming at me! I was appalled by the venom in the jeers I heard spewing from the bleachers near the first base dugout. An insane impulse fueled by my mother, of all people, had brought me to this place, and I was regretting it more feverishly with every epithet hurled at me by some irate parent.

“Go back to the kitchen, you bitch!” a dainty matron shrieked, the incisive wit of her remark eliciting hysterical laughter that sounded like the howling of starved hyenas. My mother, stoic and silent in the front row of the stands, could restrain herself no longer and raised her five-foot-two-inch frame off the metal bench as I watched, transfixed.

“That umpire is my daughter,” she hissed, “and you will refrain from speaking to her in that manner!” She glared at the offending critic, seething, as a tiny child snickered at me bitterly, daring me to sneer back. “Surely you don’t want all these impressionable young minds here to be tainted by your language and behavior,” she added icily.

Bravo, Jack, I thought, grateful for the moral support. This was, after all, her idea, not mine. She was the one who had shown me the ad in the Palm Springs newspaper resulting in my current “employment,” if you could call it that. I turned my attention to the infield where a little cherub was tossing the ball up and down in a churlish snit. “Are you ready?” he snarled at me frantically, his angelic features distorted by fury and the frenzy of his impatience.

The turmoil around me was dismaying, but strangely, I was taking a perverse pleasure in this pillory disguised as the “baseball opportunity” promised so enticingly by the ad. Never in my life had I been vilified so up close and personally, in such a hostile arena, yet it was a peculiarly uplifting rather than degrading experience. Still, discretion being the better part of valor, I was judiciously plotting a quick getaway with my mother, who had kindly chauffeured me to the game because I, a lifelong New Yorker, had learned to drive only the year before and did not have a car. This made me, in all probability, the only living twenty-eight-year-old single white female, currently unattached but looking for love, whose mother had just driven her to her first little league game.

And this:

The prospect of working a major league intrasquad with Frank Umont, a former – very former – major league umpire, thrilled me. I had umpired dozens of spring training games for the Mets since 1985, but this would be my first with the Yankees and I definitely wanted to make a good impression. Having the septuagenarian Umont as a partner could only be a good thing for me in spite of his lack of mobility. There were bound to be people, coaches and some older personnel, who would recognize him and offer him the respect he was due from his decades of major league service. Being his partner would bestow a lot of credibility on Joe and me, two unknowns. What I was most concerned about was working the three-umpire system. I had very little experience with it at that time so we decided to make it easy on ourselves and not use any regular rotations, which are often complicated choreographies dictated by specific plays. The plan we devised was simple: Joe was to stay behind the plate, Umont would plant himself on the foul line behind the first baseman, and I would be ready at all times for plays at second and third. In other words, nobody had to move except me.

This strategy turned out to be a boon for all of us, but especially for yours truly. It also made me, temporarily, the apple of George Steinbrenner’s eye. Arthur [Richman, the newly-installed Yankees vice-president who hired me] had introduced me to the oft-maligned magnate before the game started. Steinbrenner was holding court in one of the dugouts and seemed pleased to meet me, but a bit confused about who I was. He called me “Pam” and I explained that I was Perry, not Pam Postema, who at the time was the only woman calling balls and strikes in all of pro ball and who looks nothing like me. I did a lot of spring training intrasquads and split squads but I didn’t count as a “professional” umpire because I wasn’t employed by a minor league during the regular season the way Pam was. The spring training games I work are often scheduled only a few days before they get played, sometimes even the night before, and local high school or college umpires like me get hired at short notice for them by the equipment managers or the traveling secretaries of the major league teams. I had friends in these positions all over the National League, but until Arthur switched his allegiance from the Mets to the Yankees I had no such champion among the American League clubs. This would be my first opportunity to test myself on unfamiliar territory, and I was determined to make the most of my audition.

It never hurts to be charming, even in the nondescript uniform of an umpire, so while I had Steinbrenner’s attention I thanked him for the chance to work the game. “Arthur says you’ll give him a lot of shit if I don’t do a good job!” I teased.

“I give him a lot of shit anyway,” he joked back.

I nodded, grinning. “He tells me about it all the time.” It was true. Arthur confided in me frequently about his spirited interactions with the legendary owner. Ranted, was more like it. According to Arthur, the two of them ranted frequently, chiefly about each other.

The game started off with a bang. The leadoff batter singled to right, which meant that as soon as he hit the ball I was sprinting towards the infield from my position on the third base line. The batter rounded first, looking over his shoulder, and saw the right fielder having trouble getting a handle on the ball. He speeded up and motored towards second as I settled in smoothly, waiting for the tag by the shortstop. “Safe!” I shouted, confident and alert.

I saw Umont beaming at me from behind first base, proud of his little protégé. A murmur arose from the crowd, signaling an ever so slight defrosting of their initially chilly reception. General reaction had been lukewarm at best when the public address announcer introduced the umpires, and I heard the usual shocked queries. “Look, is that a girl?” people asked, as if I were from Mars or the IRS.

“I didn’t know girls could do that, daddy,” a tot squealed. I have very mixed emotions about such comments. They should make me happy and proud, but my delight at hearing them is often tempered by regret because of the solitary nature of my calling. Umpiring may be a crowded fraternity, but for me it’s almost always a sorority of one.

Have you ever watched the movie Thelma and Louise? There is a scene in it where Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, on the lam from the law, are driving around the rim of the Grand Canyon. “I feel awake,” Davis tells Sarandon. “Wide awake. I don’t remember ever feeling this awake.” That’s the sensation I get, a sort of calm hyper-awareness, a hormonally induced high, when a game starts to flow. It’s like being charged with a low hum of focused energy. Once the Yankee pitchers found their rhythm, the pace of things picked up dramatically. I glided in and punched a runner out on a close play at second with an aggressive, strategically timed motion. Joe was nailing his plate game and Umont was still vertical. We were firing on all cylinders. By the fourth inning I knew I had the crowd in the palm of my hand, because everybody was pretty much ignoring me.

For an umpire, being ignored is a good thing. After watching me suspiciously up to that point, most people could tell I knew what I was doing so they started paying attention to the game again instead of scrutinizing every move I made. I was really beginning to loosen up when I found myself on the infield near second base with runners at first and second. This positioned me for a play at second or third while Umont was making like a statue at first and Joe, obviously, was home. The batter swung and bounced a double play ball, the umpire’s best friend, right towards shortstop Alvaro Espinoza.

There is something colloquially called a “phantom tag” that shortstops and second basemen apply on the front end of a double play in order to spare themselves unnecessary risk of injury from a runner sliding or crashing into the bag. The phantom tag occurs when the fielder motions as if he were tagging a runner but doesn’t actually touch him, or steps on the ground in the immediate vicinity of the bag rather than directly on it, to avoid getting hurt by a runner. Umpires will permit this and grant the out if a fielder clearly could have gotten it but chooses not to because of an oncoming runner. In other words, if the ball is there, call an out even if the fielder doesn’t actually touch the base or the runner. Fans might get upset when they see umpires allow a fielder this leeway, but it is a ruling generally accepted without protest by players and managers. Nobody wants to see a player get hurt for no reason, especially one making millions of dollars.

Espinoza decided to test this theory of sympathy for the irritatingly rich by stamping his foot on the ground expectantly as he snared the ball and whipped it to Steve Sax at first base. The only problem for me was that the spot he tapped was not all that close to second base. As a matter of fact, it was so far off the bag there was no way I could justify calling the runner out. I would look ridiculous if I did, and invite an argument. So I called safe, and wound up with an argument. Only it wasn’t mine!

A photograph memorializing that episode appeared in the local newspaper the next day. In it, I am dwarfed by pitcher Tim Leary, infielder Steve Sax, and base coach Joe Sparks. My back is to the camera as the three Yankees loom over me, and I remember taking a couple of deep breaths to steady myself as they ganged up and moved in on their prey.

But wait! They wanted to question me about Umont’s call, not mine. I did what any umpire in this situation should do. I told them to go away and leave me alone. “Forget it, guys,” I halted them, raising my hands palm side out as if emitting a force field. “I’m not going to talk to you about that play because I didn’t make the call,” I said firmly. “And since Frank Umont, the umpire over there who did, was in the major leagues for twenty years, I doubt he’ll want to discuss it with you either.” Umont was auditing this exchange with interest, barely concealing his mirth at the sight of me defending his decision to the menacing Yankee posse.

“I’ll talk to him,” I nodded towards Espinoza surveying our little tableau nearby. “The rest of you, go away.” Glumly, the trio dispersed. Like mischievous children, they were testing me to see how far they could get, but I was in no mood to be lenient. What I needed was to establish my boundaries and let them know exactly what I expected from them so there would be no future confusion.

Espinoza strolled over and eyed me without expression. “You don’t give me that call?” he asked, all innocent. “We don’t get too many umpires who make that call like that.”

“Oyé me, Alvaro,” I sighed, his newest ally. “I’m under the microscope out here. If you want me to call the runner out on that play, you have to help me. At least make it look legitimate so I can call him out and not look like an idiot. You don’t want me to look like an idiot, do you?”

Espinoza, no idiot himself, shook his head. I wouldn’t necessarily try this approach in a high school game. A fourteen- or fifteen-year-old might say yes; they’re little snots at that age. But the Yankee shortstop was all pro. “From now on, you have to actually touch the base for me,” I admonished him. “Entiendé? That way, neither of us will look like we’re trying to get away with something.”

Espinoza listened without comment and nodded. “Okay,” he said, and that was that. With one out and the bases loaded, the next batter grounded to him again. This time he stepped on the bag as deftly as a dancer before throwing to first for a thrilling double play that ended the half inning and had everybody cheering lustily. I breathed a sigh of relief at such a satisfactory dénouement, and jogged to the outfield. I had withdrawn my head unharmed from the mouth of the lion to emerge smelling like a rose, and the perfume of success was intoxicating.

I stood off by myself in short left center field while the next pitcher was warming up, and spied one of the ball boys running towards me from the first base dugout where Steinbrenner had enthroned himself. He raced across the outfield clutching a cup in his outstretched hand, his little legs churning as he struggled to balance it without letting a single drop of liquid spill, and I gratefully anticipated a tall sip of cool water as my reward for a job well done. (At least so far!)

The boy slowed as he approached me and shyly held out the cup. He appeared to be very young. “Mr. Steinbrenner says he thinks you made a good call on that play at second base, and he’s sending you this coke as a token of his appreci…appreciation,” he stammered adorably. I regarded the lad with amusement.

“Please tell Mr. Steinbrenner I said thank you, but I don’t drink soda during games. It’s bad for me and only makes me thirstier,” I advised him. “Take it back and tell him a nice cup of water would be great, but I really don’t want this.” No more than eight years old, he suddenly had the glassy-eyed look of someone who has just been condemned to death. His rosy little lower lip started to tremble, and I heard a sob catch in his throat as he envisioned the unspeakable horror that awaited him when he returned the despot’s offering and told him it had been spurned.

I thought better of my ingratitude, for the sake of the child. “Tell you what,” I said, taking the cup from him. I leaned my head back and slung the liquid in it over my shoulder and behind me so it appeared to the faraway spectators that I was drinking. I touched the cup to my mouth as I straightened up and licked my lips for effect. “Mmmm, good,” I said, smiling at the little tyke to ease his pain. “Just tell him I said thank you, and next time I’d prefer water.” I gave the empty cup back to him and sent him on his way. Umpiring is not just calling safe and out, after all. It’s protecting the youth of the world from the boogeyman, too.

After the game I changed into my street clothes and went searching for Arthur to give him a hug and thank him for getting me the gig with Joe and Frank. I found him in his office, where frequently he is so busy taking care of Yankees minutiae while a game is in progress that he doesn’t actually get to see much of what goes on. He smiled at me, relaxed, so I knew he had gotten good reports. “Dolly, there’s another intrasquad tomorrow. Will you be back? Do you need any money?” I giggled. Arthur always asks everybody if they need money.

“No, Arthur, the equipment manager already paid us, but if I do I’ll let you know,” I said. “And yes, I’ll be back a couple more times. I’m working the plate tomorrow.”

No sooner were the words out of my mouth than the phone on his desk rang. He picked it up. “Oh. Hi, Marty,” he said. Whoa. Could that possibly be Marty Springstead, American League supervisor of umpires? Arthur’s brow furrowed as he listened. “Yes, she did,” he said approvingly. Wow. Apparently word had already reached the higher-ups in the umpiring hierarchy. I could hear the pride in his voice as he spoke, and it made me feel like a million bucks. He turned to smile at me, but the delight in his expression was erased as his eyes narrowed and his lips pursed.

“But Marty,” he fumed, “everybody says she did a great job. What? Why not? We’ve already asked her to come back tomorrow…. Frank Umont and another guy… Marty, what’s the problem? You’re putting me in a bind here, Marty…” I listened to the mounting annoyance in his voice with trepidation. Just a moment earlier I had been on top of the world, and already it was spinning out of control from under me.

Arthur wasn’t going to let Springstead push him around without a fight. He didn’t work for the American League, he worked for the New York Yankees, and couldn’t understand any more than I did why the AL supervisor was being so intractable. “What do you mean, we have to use minor league guys?” he railed. “Since when? They can work any time. The dolly only has this game and a couple more.” I wasn’t the least bit insulted by his referring to me as ‘the dolly’; that was just Arthur. “Marty, why don’t you leave it alone?” he pleaded. “Even George says she did good. Marty, please. Give me a break, Marty…”

It was almost funny. Marty Springstead, head honcho of all American League umpires, was banning me from a Yankees game. How totally unreal was that? Intrasquads are traditionally “off-schedule” contests for which teams hire whomever they want. He had no business telling Arthur to take me off the game, but that hardly mattered. See, things like this have been happening as long as I’ve been umpiring. Since the beginning of time, actually. Like others before him, Springstead was clearly stricken by the benign torment of my estrogen, driven mad by its honeyed sting. And I wasn’t even in the same room with him! Against the grim reach of this terrible contagion, Arthur staunchly held his ground. At last he hung up, defeated. He shook his head, scowling unhappily. “Dolly, I’m so sorry…”

“Don’t worry, Arthur,” I consoled him. “You did your best, and you got me the one game. What about Umont and Stirone?” The look on his face said it all. Knowing Springstead’s interdiction extended to my partners gave me no comfort, for I understood he was punishing them collaterally just to camouflage his intolerance. This way he could quite plausibly insist he didn’t want “amateur” umpires working Yankee games, the ultimate slap in the face to Umont, and leave it at that. The heartless calculation of this rationale made my stomach churn. How was I going to break the bad news to Joe and Frank? For their generosity to me, they would now be forced to suffer. I wouldn’t blame either of them for despising me forever, especially Frank. Under my watch, he had been fired twice. All my compassion and care had not protected him. In his case at least, forever turned out to be little more than a year. The obituaries said he died the following spring from causes unknown, but I know what at least one of them was.


Perry Barber Interview (The Meat: Part 2)

March 18, 2009
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.

Perry Barber Interview (The Meat: Part 1)

March 17, 2009
Wright would hit this one out of the park. I want to see that from Perry’s point of view here.

On to the second installment of the interview. The first day was just a warm-up to get to know Perry, but today, we start to get into what makes her tick. The issue of gender and gender discrimination is a difficult one for our society. As you have seen/will see, I try to stay away from throwing out too many opinions on such issues. This is mostly because I don’t want to talk about (for instance) being a woman in baseball because I am neither a woman (the last time I checked) or in baseball (unfortunately), so I have nothing to really add. I’d rather tell you what happened and let you decide/debate whether it’s right or wrong. Perry Barber, however, has experienced life as a woman in a man’s world, and in today’s part of the interview, she begins to tell us about those experiences.

4) What is the best part about being a woman in baseball?

Forget the “woman in baseball” part – I’m living the dream just being “in baseball.” I never forget how lucky I am to be able to devote myself to umpiring rather than worrying about making a living, having the freedom (no kids, no spouse, not even a cat right now) to do what I do, and to come down to Florida in the winter and travel all over the world just having fun and making friends. Yes, umpires do have friends! (And they all think we can get them tickets to Yankee Stadium at a moment’s notice, for some strange reason.)

5) What is the worst part?

Expecting people to understand that a nine-inning baseball game is not always a tidy two-hour affair, and that plans I’ve made may have to be postponed or canceled because a doubleheader goes seven-and-a-half hours instead of the expected five. Rain can change everything (for days at a stretch – teams have to get those make-ups in!) and I’ve learned to be flexible, but it’s tough on people I make plans with who have a certain expectation of actually seeing me when we’ve made previous arrangements. This used to drive my ex-husband crazy, one of the reasons he’s my ex. Other than that, and the decidedly miniscule pay scales for non-major league amateur umpires (we get a per-game fee rather than a salary for college, high school, and adult league games,) there isn’t much of a downside for me. If you’re looking for an answer such as “the way I’m treated by my partners and supervisors,” I can’t help you! Although there’s usually at least one neanderthal, throw-back asshole in any milieu, for the most part I’ve been met with support and partnership by most of the umpires I’ve ever worked with, and been able to overcome most of the disdain and disbelief with which I may have been viewed initially as soon as I actually worked a game and changed a few minds. Another “worst part” is the growing frustration and impatience I feel with baseball’s totally inadequate response to the advent of women umpires in the last thirty-seven years. We are not recruited, trained, or promoted the same way the guys are, and this is completely due to the inertia and lack of care (as in, they don’t give a shit) of the men in positions to promote and nurture umpires’ careers. Also, a total lack of understanding on their part that the paradigm has to change, that they have to make an actual effort to find, train, evaluate, and mentor women as energetically as they do the guys. Instead, there is still this absurd, unarticulated resistance to the idea that a woman is as capable or durable as a man behind the plate and on the bases, and so our numbers have stagnated rather than grown. I touched on this issue the first time I wrote you after your post about Elaine Weddington of the Boston Red Sox. I said: Merely making a show of welcoming women’s participation is not enough; baseball cannot claim to truly embrace the idea of women as equals without taking active steps to encourage them to join the party. Simply saying “Look, we don’t discriminate – [we’ve had SIX women umpires (in the whole history of organized baseball since 1846)]!” cannot camouflage baseball’s ingrained indifference to real equality, which was won as slowly by and for blacks and hispanics as it eventually will be by and for women. In baseball, change comes sluggishly and incrementally Thirty-seven years is too damn long. I’m tired of waiting for things to change, and I’m tired of being polite about waiting and hoping they will. They aren’t and they won’t, so I’m turning cheerfully subversive activist to make sure it happens before I die.

6) How are or are you perceived/treated any differently by the fans/coaches/other umpires than your male counterparts?

By coaches and fans, initially, probably a lot differently. Can you imagine – I’ve been doing this for twenty-nine years, and I still get “Wow! You’re my first female umpire!” all the time. (Or sometimes, “Oh shit, you’re my first female umpire.” Seriously.) Being petite and looking like butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth doesn’t exactly imbue me with machismo either, but I walk onto every field trying to project that I own the place and know exactly what I’m doing. First impressions really are half the battle in umpiring, especially for me, so I insist on clean, pressed uniforms that fit (I have to alter all my shirts, cut off the arms and the sides, then sew them back together, and used to have to find grey pants in the boys’ department of JC Penney,) shined shoes, and a business-like attitude. I like crisp, to-the-point home plate meetings, and no-nonsense management of a game while it’s in progress, with a minimum of interruptions and ejections. I regard my role as that of facilitator, not dictator. I become the conduit through which all things baseball flow, and my game management skills (of which calling balls and strikes, safes and outs, fairs and fouls, are but a fraction) are a critical and largely unsung part of what I and every other umpire does out there.

By other umpires: hmmm. Like I said, there’s always one asshole in every crowd, and I know there are some who would prefer not to work with me, not because I am incompetent, but either because they regard me as a threat (meaning, my work ethic and expertise would highlight their own lack of hustle and skill) or because they perceive being partnered with me as a diminishment of their own status. An inconvenience to be tolerated, because to do otherwise would be sooo politically incorrect. Peculiar. Only three weeks ago during the Big Ten/Big East tournament I assigned down here, an umpire I’ve worked with for ten years who would die for me told me he was at the urinal with a couple of other umpires and heard them saying “Geez, how’d you like to have to work with those broads?” (I hired another woman to work the tournament with me – I LIKE offering other women opportunities I had to fight for.) Clearly contemptuous of our participation, as if we were there just to cause trouble and embarrass them. I’ll never understand that attitude in a million years, but I regard such deficiencies as other people’s problem, not mine. I always hope for total acceptance, and more often than not, wind up getting it (or something close.) Even from the skeptics.

Perry Barber Interview (The Beginning)

March 16, 2009
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.