Interview With An (female) Umpire Part 1

Umpire/Musician Perry Lee BarberPLBarber

Here’s a direct linked summary of Ms. Barber right from her personal LinkedIn profile:

Twenty-nine seasons of umpiring all levels of baseball both professional and amateur, including major league spring training and Division I college baseball, with international umpiring experience in Japan and Taiwan and four years of umpiring and scheduling umpires for the independent Atlantic League; taught umpiring to public school students in the Bronx as part of an accredited program (“Sports Officiating Studies,” or “SOS”) funded by the New York City Department of Education; musician and songwriter, formerly a solo performer who opened shows for Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Hall & Oates, and others; published author of dozens of articles and profiles of other sports officials for “Referee Magazine”; internet blogger (“Dishing It… and Taking It Too.”).

So with her own words as an introduction, here is my interview with mucician/umpire, Perry Lee Barber…

1. I heard that you first became interested in baseball in an attempt to beat a friend at a trivia game. Could you please verify this and explain that event and how it shaped future events in your life?

I grew up in New York City with my identical twin sister Warren and our older brother Rocky. Warren and I went to an all-girls’ private school on the upper east side of Manhattan at which academics and getting into a good college, not sports, were the focus. I was always very athletic and enjoyed competitive sports – I played basketball in high school – but was never interested in professional sports as a spectator activity. I grew up in the fifties and sixties, and was a flower child in the Vietnam war era who organized anti-war rallies at school and put on little skits and plays at school with my sister, and when I went to college at Arizona State University in Tempe in 1971 I became involved in the campus anti-war movement and started performing at the Veterans’ Administration hospital in Phoenix, just me and my guitar singing my little anti-war protest songs to the wounded soldiers who would be wheeled in on gurneys to listen to me.

I left college after a couple of semesters and went back to New York to lead the life of an itinerant troubadour, and played solo in clubs and bars around Greenwich Village for a few years, then went on tour with some pretty famous bands as an opening act and wound up opening shows for Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Hall and Oates, and some country bands.

After that I went to work for Gladys Knight and the Pips in their management and booking offices in New York to learn about the business side of music, how and for whom a song makes money after it’s copyrighted and recorded, and became the music administrator for the catalogues of some pretty prolific composers like Eugene McDaniels (“A Hundred Pounds of Clay,”) and B.B.King. This was 1978, ’79, and I was just starting to fall in love with baseball. A friend named Barry Bell (who was Springsteen’s booking agent at the time and still is, thirty years later) was constantly challenging me to rock and roll trivia, at which I could hold my own, but when he started on baseball, I was lost.

I was already a Jeopardy! champion – I was on the show in 1972 when I was nineteen years old, one of the youngest contestants ever to win on the show, as back then there was no teen or college tournament – so people were constantly challenging me to trivia, and knowing nothing about baseball, a pretty popular trivia category, really bothered me. So I decided to educate myself, and went to a bookstore one day and picked out a few books from the baseball section and started reading. I read

You Know Me Al ” by Ring Lardner; Eight Men Out “, by Eliot Asinov; Five Seasons by Roger Angell; A False Spring by Pat Jordan; and Pitching In A Pinch by Christy Mathewson. By the time I stopped laughing over the hilarious Lardner stories, weeping over Asinov’s finely-crafted tale of the 1919 Black Sox, swooning over the poetry of Angell’s prose, nodding in recognition of my own yearnings and failings in the pages of Pat Jordan’s masterpiece, and marveling at the simple genius of one of baseball’s best all-time hurlers-turned-scribe, I was hooked.

Totally, irrevocably in love. I had always been a voracious reader, and the vast archive of baseball literature opened up a whole new world to me in which I immediately immersed myself. I read and read and read; during 1979, I must have read hundreds of books about baseball – and eventually I beat Barry at baseball trivia. But I still hadn’t gone to see an actual game, had no allegiance to any particular team, and couldn’t even have told you what a force play was. I knew who was on third when Fred Merkle didn’t touch second at the Polo Grounds in September, 1908 (Moose McCormick) but I had no idea why a fielder would throw to first with two outs when there was a runner on third going home on the play.

That’s how I fell in love with baseball. My interest in umpiring was inspired a year later by my mother Jaqueline, who mistakenly thought I wanted to be an umpire because she saw me reading a book about them and made the leap from that to assuming that must mean I wanted to be one. Which was very far from the truth, although I was curious about them as peripheral characters on the baseball stage, but had no aspirations of doing what they did. In 1980 I met National League umpire Ed Montague quite by accident, and was so struck by his demeanor and carriage that I immediately composed a song about him titled “The Umpire Stands Alone.” My mother had heard it, then saw me reading “The Men In Blue: Conversations with Umpires” by Larry Gerlach, and made the connection in her mind that I hadn’t yet made in mine. She left an ad on my pillow that she had cut out from the local paper where she was living in Palm Springs, California at the time (this is the late spring/early summer of 1981, the year the major leaguers went on strike from June until August) that a little league had placed, looking for umpires for their summer season. “Indio needs umpires – baseball opportunity ” it read. My first thought when I saw the ad was not, wow, this sounds great; it was more along the lines of, WTF??!!?? When I asked Jack about it the next morning, she said, “Well, you wrote a song about umpires and I saw you reading a book about them, so I thought it was something you were interested in.”

“You’ve seen me reading books about serial killers, too,” I demurred, still skeptical about my desire to respond to this strange invitation. It never occurred to my mother, as it didn’t to me, that umpiring was not the usual pursuit for a former debutante/quiz show queen who had attended private school and represented New York State at the International Debutante Ball and spent the last ten years playing guitar and singing bawdy blues ballads all over the country. It was just something mom thought would be fun for me, and the more I thought about it, the more the idea appealed to me, as at that point we were driving almost every night to see either the Dodgers or the Angels play and the thought of no baseball all summer long was terrifying me. See, unbeknownst to me my mother had always loved baseball, but because I had no interest in it until I was a fully grown adult, we had never connected on that level. But once I got into it and started staying with her in Palm Springs for extended periods of time – such is the flexibility of the frequently unemployed – we would drive off almost every night, like I said, to either Anaheim or LA to see the Angels and the Dodgers. Baseball provided a whole new way for my mother and me to relate to one another, and in the last decade or so of Jack’s life (she died of a rare disease called Wegener’s granulamitosis in 1994) it kept us connected in a very special and meaningful way.

Thoughts of the impending players’ strike filled me with gloom, so the idea of umpiring for the little league as a way of maintaining my attachment to the game in the absence of major league baseball seemed increasingly logical and attractive. I wound up calling the league, inflating my experience and credentials, of which I had neither, rather egregiously, and showing up for my first game with a bunch of snotty six-year-olds (“Is she going to umpire our game?” was the common reaction) wearing a pair of black pants, a blue shirt, and my heart on my sleeve. The league lent me one of those big outside balloon protectors and a pair of shinguards, and thus was my baptism by fire. I was so inept, I had no idea what I was doing, and I was assigned a partner who spoke mostly Spanish, so right away we had a few problems. I’d boned up on the rules as best I could before my first game, but I’d had trouble finding a rule book and only finally procured one the day before that was like a big illustrated kids’ book with cartoons, and asked my mother to come to the game with me and hold the rule book in case I needed her to look something up for me. I swear, something would happen and I’d yell, “Mom, quick, look up ‘foul ball’ for me!” Can you imagine? I was so bad, my mother almost got into a fist fight with a woman sitting in the stands who was less than thrilled with my performance, and people wrote letters to the local paper the next day about how terrible I was, didn’t know the strike zone, and let a game for six-year-olds go three hours, all of which was true. But something about the experience was so exhilarating and different from anything I’d ever experienced – and I’d stood onstage and been cheered wildly by thousands when I opened for Bruce Springsteen – that I knew I wanted to keep doing it, and that if I wanted to keep doing it I better get some training and get good at it, or my “baseball opportunity” would become the graveyard of my newborn career. All the criticism and vitriol and nay-saying, as unfamiliar as I was with it, didn’t deter me at all; it was actually quite liberating to be freed from the shackles of femininity and seductiveness and rely solely on my powers of intellect and discernment to help me take charge of a ballgame.

All the hostility directed towards me on the field served as a spur rather than a deterrent, and right away I started thinking about going to umpire school and wound up going to Harry Wendelstedt’s the next January of 1982. I made my twin sister Warren go with me so I wouldn’t be the only woman in the class of almost two hundred students. Warren was also my first regular partner; she came out to Indio from where she was living in Los Angeles and watched me work, then decided she wanted to do it too, so I got the league to assign us together for the rest of the summer. (Which wasn’t too hard; there weren’t that many other umpires leaping at the chance to be my partner.) What a dynamic duo we were! Our last game of the season, Leo Durocher was there to hand out the awards to the kids – he lived in Palm Springs and was friends with one of the coaches or something – and Warren and I kicked an infield fly call all to hell during the game and were waiting for Leo to come racing out and start kicking dirt on us, but he didn’t. Instead, he walked up to us afterwards and complimented us on a nice game, then gave each of us an autographed photo of him – in his 1951 New York Giants uniform, which I thought was adorable (I’m a NY Baseball Giants fanatic – Christy Mathewson is my all-time favorite player ever).

By the way, I didn’t mention that because I had grown up in New York, I didn’t learn to drive until 1980. My mother got tired of chauffeuring me around everywhere when I visited her in Palm Springs, so she hired an instructor to teach me to drive that summer. The next year when I started umpiring, I still didn’t own a car, so my mother would give me rides. I was twenty-eight years old, and my mother was driving me to my little league games.

2. Before then, music was your passion, correct? Can you give us an overview of your music career up to the point of that trivia game?

I touched on it above. I was mostly a composer and performer (from 1973 through 1983) rather than a recording artist, although I did sing back-up on a lot of unknown artists’ demos and recorded dozens of demos of my own tunes. I had songs recorded by Bette Midler and Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show too, but neither track came out on an album; both my songs were left in the vault somewhere, although the lead singer of Dr. Hook, Dennis Locorriere, put out a retrospective CD last year on which my tune, “Stuck on the Wrong Side of Love,” finally appeared – thirty-six years after they recorded it.

I was mostly a road musician, played rhythm guitar and sang background vocals for other bands, and played solo gigs, just me and my guitar, in every club, bar, boite, and saloon in New York and environs during the early seventies, then started going out on tour to play colleges with various bands, and just had a great life for about ten years singing and playing with some really excellent musicians. I was never very ambitious, I just loved having fun and being around energetic, creative people, and I loved every minute of my music career. I started winding it down in 1978/79 when I got a “real job” working in the offices of Gladys Knight and the Pips and decided I wanted to concentrate on the more academic, practical aspects of the music business.

Then baseball appeared on my horizon and everything else gradually faded into the background. By 1980, I was going to see almost every home game at Shea Stadium; back then it was easy getting a good seat there because the Mets were terrible, but there was something so endearing about their ineptitude that I just fell in love with them and adopted them. Umpiring still wasn’t on my radar at that point, although it soon would be. I stopped performing and writing pretty much, although I would still record my own demos and occasionally sing the National Anthem at ballparks and accompany myself on my guitar, but I didn’t play very much anymore until about five years ago when Clay Eals, the author of a biography of a friend of mine, the songwriter Steven Goodman, asked me to participate in a series of retrospective concerts to coincide with the release of his Goodman biography,

Facing the Music. So I started playing again, and it’s been very rewarding getting back into performing after all these years. I broke my left wrist in a stupid accident in August 2006 and couldn’t play at all for almost two years after that, but I’ve slowly been regaining my agility and dexterity, and even now three years later I’m still improving every day. It’s been frustrating, but I’m lucky I can play at all, so I’m not complaining.

3. What position (home plate, 1B/2B/3B) do you enjoy umpiring and why?

When I started umpiring in 1981, it was always, Give me the dish! It’s where the action is, it’s the position of utmost authority, it’s the crew chief spot, it’s the spot of respect and knowledge. Thirty years later, it’s more like, hell yeah, you can do the dish. Been there, done that. But umpires shouldn’t “specialize” in one position; we’re supposed to be equally adept and accurate at all of them. I just enjoy being out there, wherever it is. I like calling the whackers at first, the close steals at second, the tricky tag-ups at third, and being the boss, setting the tone and the pace back behind the dish. It’s all good.

4. What’s the highest level you have umpired in baseball?

The “highest level” I’ve umpired is major league ball, which I’ve been doing almost every year down in Florida during spring training since 1985. My dear friend and mentor Arthur Richman, who died this past March at age 83, put his balls on the line for me in 1985 when he was the traveling secretary for the Mets and nobody was hiring a woman umpire. He hired me to work some Mets intrasquads in St. Petersburg where they used to train, and since then I’ve umpired for many of the teams in the grapefruit league (Mets, Yankees, Phillies, Orioles, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers, Twins). Arthur moved to the Yankees in 1990 and hired me to umpire the first games at Legends Stadium in Tampa when it opened in 1996 and Derek Jeter was just an unknown rookie. Other than that, I’ve umpired Division I college ball, including the Cape Cod league and the Alaska League, major league exhibition games in Japan, the Atlantic League (the premier independent league in the country) quite a few Catholic High School city championships, and several international competitions. I’ve also taught umpiring as a subject to public school students in the Bronx in 1991 and ’92 under the sponsorship of the New York City Department of Education. The program was called “Sports Officiating Studies,” or SOS, and it was a great thing to be able to teach the kids the fundamentals of umpiring, then get them paying assignments with their local youth leagues. I loved it; it’s too bad the DOE cut the program after only two years.

5. What do you like to do in the off season or when not being an umpire?

My “off-season” usually encompasses no more than six or eight weeks, as there’s fall ball here in the northeast that sometimes goes pretty late into November. This past fall teams were playing almost until Thanksgiving, we had such a nice November. I skipped a tournament in Florida this past November that I’ve worked every year for the past twelve to work up here instead. I’m usually in Florida from January through early April, working a mixed bag of fantasy camp and adult leagues, then spring training and college games. This year I took a little time off during December to drive out west to visit my brother in Los Angeles and to go to Hong Kong next week for the Phoenix Women’s World Championships. I’ll be in Florida by the end of February for my annual spring cycle of pro and college games, then head back to New York in April for my Catholic high school and college seasons. And so it continues. Thirty years of this!

But if I had an off season, I’d probably spend it somewhere sunny and warm, just relaxing, reading my kindle and doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. Someday I want to go to Madagascar and see the lemurs in their natural habitat, and plant a mpingo tree in Tanzania. I’m very excited about umpiring in Hong Kong! Im taking a week after the tournament to go to India and explore the Taj Mahal and environs, which I’m really looking forward to.

6. Without using the same colorful language (my girls may read this), what have been some of the types of negative things you’ve had to endure as an umpire from either a player, coach or fan?

Coaches pulling their teams off the field before the game even started as soon as they saw me walk out to home plate (this happened the second game I ever worked, for a bunch of ten-year-olds in the little league out in California. I persuaded the coach, very loudly so all the parents could hear, to let the kids play and then complain about me afterwards); my own partners undermining me on the field, sometimes deliberately but sometimes without even realizing it, they were so stuck in their woman-as-appendage mode of antique thinking; coaches thinking they’re being charming at home plate meetings when mostly they’re being annoying; crude, mean-spirited comments from spectators (“Go home and make babies – if you can!” “Go back to softball!” – which I’ve never been in – and “Girls shouldn’t be out here!” are just some of the milder comments I’ve heard. And I still hear them sometimes, in this day and age). It’s mind-boggling sometimes how small-minded and ignorant some people are willing to reveal themselves as when they engage in this type of behavior. And what really bothers me is when a coach or manager takes an attitude towards me for no reason and then it infects the rest of a team like a virus. It doesn’t happen very often anymore, just every once in a while, and it’s as astounding and disappointing (yet still illuminating) a demonstration of human nature now as it ever was. But I strive to learn from every situation, and dealing with the occasional negativity is just as instructive as dealing with the rewards.

7. What big names (players, coaches or fans) have been the nicest to you while umpiring?

Sooooo many! Dave Johnson, who was managing the Mets when I started umpiring intrasquads for them in spring training in 1985; so many of the players, quite a few of whom, like Ron Darling, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, and Gary Carter, would make a point of offering me a kind comment or an encouraging word (and Gary would occasionally temper it with, “Hey Perry, you missed that one”); Buddy Harrelson, who wound up handing me the contracts for several fantasy camps in the mid-eighties, enabling me to assign hundreds of umpires to work games with the former pros at camps all over Florida, and then was instrumental in getting me hired for the Atlantic League a decade later; Bobby Valentine and Art Howe and Willy Randolph were all very nice to me, as is Jerry Manuel; so many former major leaguers I’ve met doing fantasy camps, including Bob Gibson, yes, that Bob Gibson who’d knock down his own mother if she dug in against him but is one of the truly nicest men I’ve ever met, and the late Pat Dobson, who took the time to teach me how to throw a baseball back to the pitcher and was just a lovely, happy guy, and Darold Knowles, whom I adored, and Rich Ashburn, whom I also adored and who was like a favorite uncle to me and my aunt down in Florida. My boss in the Atlantic League, Joe Klein, isn’t really a big name, but he is a prince among men, and like Arthur, put his balls on the line and went to the mat for me when it counted most, which I have always appreciated.
Sadaharu Oh, the all-time all-world home run king who was coaching for a team in the Japan League when I umpired some exhibition games over there in 1989 and with whom Warren and I (and Cher) share a birthday, May 20th, was very respectful. Joe Torre was very professional, and didn’t make a fuss when I showed up at Legends Stadium in 1996 for some pre-season exhibitions. Jimmy Reese, a longtime coach for the Angels after whom Nolan Ryan named his son, was also my friend and mentor; he was so nice to my mother and me, and would leave us great tickets right behind the Angels’ dugout anytime we wanted to see a game at Anaheim. He was nicknamed the Fungo King, and was the only batting practice pitcher I ever saw who would “pitch’ from behind the little screen by fungo-ing the baseball up to the plate instead of throwing it. He played back in the twenties, and was actually Babe Ruth’s roommate on the Yankees for a brief time. I met him at an Angels booster banquet in Palm Springs, and he sort of adopted me and was always so wonderful to my mom and me. We’d drive to Anaheim from Palm Springs for a weekend series, get there Friday night, stay in a cheap motel near the ballpark Friday and Saturday, see all the weekend games and drive back to Palm Springs late Sunday afternoon. We had such a great time, and Jimmy Reese looked out for us while we were having it.
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  1. Cecilia Tan

    January 31, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    Terrific interview! I had no idea Perry was so accomplished in other areas and her story of her first little league game had me in stitches. She’s a true ambassador for baseball and I hope to see her in the Hall of Fame someday.

    • Peter Schiller

      February 1, 2010 at 1:09 pm

      Hi Cecilia,

      Thank you for your kind words…we aim to please & it was absolutely my pleasure to interview Perry!

      I hope to get that chance to meet her some day!

  2. docksquad

    February 2, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    nice interview

  3. Theo

    February 2, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    From what I saw last season, we need any and all capable people interested in umpiring to get involved.

    Having a female official has worked in the NBA, I don’t see it being a problem in baseball.

  4. eallen(mr.factoid)

    February 2, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    Really good interview. Had some solid info that I had know idea about. Nice job!!

  5. Warren

    February 8, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Great interview will definately share with members of


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