Perry Barber was on her way to umpire a game at Boston’s famed Fenway Park. That it was for a women’s fantasy camp and not a Red Sox contest didn’t lessen her excitement.
“Fantasy camp for umpires is umpiring school,” said Barber who has been patrolling the field for more than 30 years, in a phone interview last month. She attended six sessions at the famous Umpiring School (founded by the late National League arbiter Harry) from 1982-85 and again in 2005, and another program run by Zach Rebackoff in 1985. The average class size was about 150. Only the top 10 or 15 students advanced to pro careers. “The odds are not good,” she said.
“Back in the early ‘80s when I was first learning the craft, I had it in my mind after my second trip through that I could graduate high enough in the rankings to get a job in pro ball but that never happened,” she recalled. “Whether I was ever talented enough I have no idea. I don’t think I ever ranked higher than 40 in any of my classes, but again, ranking is a very subjective thing. Who knows? It was what it was.”
Could her placement have been the result of gender bias? “It may have [been],” she mused. “There was already a woman umpire in pro ball (Pam Postema in AAA, baseball’s highest minor league level). I think the powers that be…were perfectly satisfied with just one and that two may have been just a little too much for them to handle.”
A few months after the Brooklyn Dodgers made Jackie Robinson the first African-American in the Majors in 1947, they promoted Dan Bankhead, a black pitcher, to be his roommate. You might think those “powers that be” would do something similar for Postema.
“Jackie had powerful forces behind him who were very interested in making sure that integration was a successful experiment,” Barber pointed out. By comparison, “When Pam was umpiring…there was no infrastructure of support for her at all. She was just basically the token female so pro ball could point to her and say ‘Hey, we don’t discriminate; we’ve got a woman out there!’ But they didn’t want any more because to them it was an experiment that they had designed deliberately to fail. It was just kind of for show, if you ask me. Unfortunately for Pam.”
But that was some 30 years ago. Surely there’s been progress since then? After all, women officiate in pro basketball, football, and even cricket.
“In baseball, things are very, very slow to change,” said Barber. “Baseball traditionally has had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the next decade, century, and so on.” Robinson aside, she believes the national pastime has “never been a leader as far as social progress, it’s always been kind of a follower.”
Yet Barber is optimistic the situation will change soon.
“The old guard is almost all gone and the new guard is now in place and they have more forward thinking ideas about it. But still, even though the attitudes have changed, they have not yet gotten to the point where they understand that you can’t just sit around and wait for it to happen now. And that’s sort of been the state of affairs these last few years.
“It’s like a pall of inertia has settled over everything until [recently when] Major League Baseball and the umpiring supervisors have really gotten it together to look for and recruit and think about drawing women to the umpires schools in a new way, which they need to do. Part of the hold-up is that women have not been going [there]. The branding of umpiring as a profession has been very bleak. The presentation of umpiring as a profession very seldom dwells on the fun, challenging aspects, always more on the dreadful confrontational, no-fun aspects, which are very, very fleeting in the overall picture.”
Fun and challenging. Barber frequently used those words during the conversation. But books such as As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires by New York Times writer Bruce Weber paints a very different picture, one of a solitude and seriousness often associated with Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame.
“That’s kind of a myth,” she said. “Out on the field we have a saying: you’re only friend is your partner, which is true once a game is in progress but the rest of the time, we’re actually a bunch of educated, fun-loving people. Believe me, umpires make lots of friends on the road [who] all think they can get them tickets to Yankee Stadium on five minutes’ notice for some strange reason.”
As an unofficial ambassador, Barber considers one of her goals “is to make girls understand that they should want to do it because it’s fun,” although she admits it’s “not a great living,” especially on the amateur level. Low starting salaries and arduous slogs through the lower minor leagues are impediments, Barber agrees. “In that sense, it can be lonely and exhausting because you do a lot of driving to your towns and you don’t have a lot of time between series to stop and go out and socialize. When you are working, the schedule doesn’t really jive with anybody else’s on the planet, so umpires have to learn to create their own entertainments and diversions.”
On the positive side, “It instills a lot of really good important qualities, not just for girls but for everybody who gets out and does it. You learn to handle yourself.”
Professional baseball is comprised of hundreds of young men from dozens of countries. One recent criticism by those who brand themselves as old-school protectors of the game’s image is that a lot of those players don’t have a good old American respect for baseball. Barber doesn’t think these cultural differences carry over to encountering a woman behind the plate or at the bases.
“It might be sort of a culture shock. Given the opportunity, when people see [us] at work, most of them understand that we’re out there doing the best job we can like any other umpire and that we’re worthy of a certain degree of respect. At least I hope so.” On the other hand, “If somebody takes an attitude with me, I just deal with it on a case-by-case basis. Thankfully it doesn’t happen very often anymore.”
After 36 years and thousands of games – Barber estimated she has averaged 150-200 per year – has the novelty worn off? Does she ever ask herself, in the midst of another game on a hot afternoon, “What am I doing out here?”
“All the time!” she said, laughing.
To relax, Barber likes to read and watch Jeopardy. She was a contestant back in 1988 and noted there has been a seemingly disproportionate number of questions about baseball over the last few months which she called “delightful. Some employee must be sneaking them in there because they’re a devoted fan.” She also blogs at Perrybarber.typepad.com.
Despite all the difficulties, including a few injuries in recent years that that have curtailed her time on the field, Barber says she still enjoys it. “I’m challenged by it. I’m stimulated and inspired to send a message to other women that this is something that’s really fun and challenging and that you would be good at.”
Perry Barber “fell in love with baseball by reading about it.” Among her favorites:
You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner
Five Seasons, by Roger Angell
Eight Men Out, by Eliot Asinof
A False Spring, by Pat Jordan
The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires, by Larry R. Gerlach
Called Out but Safe, by Al Clark with Dan Schlossberg
Working the Plate: The Eric Gregg Story, by Eric Gregg with Marty Appel
As They See ‘Em, by Bruce Weber
Links to Perry Barber
youtube.com/watch?v=oluXuPMtDEg (Appearing on a panel about Women and Baseball at the Society for American Baseball Research Convention in 2013)
Ron Kaplan (ronkaplansbaseballbookshelf.com) is the author of 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before They Die (University of Nebraska Press) and The Jewish Olympics: The History of the Maccabiah Games (Skyhorse Publishing). He is currently working on a biography about Hank Greenberg in 1938.