The Stained Grass Window
Editor's note: This is an excerpt from "The SABR Book of Umpires and Umpiring" (2017), edited by Larry R. Gerlach and Bill Nowlin.
"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." — T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding, from Four Quartets
If it hadn’t been for my mother Jaqueline’s suggestion that I apply for a job as a Little League umpire when I was 28 years old, my life would be a lot different right now. To this day I wonder if umpiring is something I ever would have considered doing on my own. Sports officiating is not routinely presented to girls or women in the United States as an activity we might actually be good at or enjoy, and baseball, our beloved national pastime, lags far behind other sports, and other countries, in confirming what empirical evidence has already proved: that women can and do make excellent umpires.
Jack, as my mother liked to be called, cut out a notice one day from the Desert Sun, the local paper in Palm Springs, California, where she’d moved from New York after my twin sister and I graduated from high school. I was enjoying an extended visit with her in the late spring of 1981, riding shotgun in her ’66 Chevy Malibu convertible almost every night while she would drive 200 miles round trip to take me to see either the Dodgers in LA or the Angels in Anaheim. I had fallen in love with baseball only a couple of years earlier, so we were bonding in a new and significant way as mother and daughter, but I couldn’t figure out her motive for wanting me to see the notice that blared "Indio Needs Umpires!" at me in bold type from the ad she’d cut out of the newspaper and left on my pillow that fateful night. Little League season starts soon, it cooed alliteratively. I loved baseball with a passion by then, but my first thought upon seeing it was not, “What a great idea! I’ll call first thing tomorrow.” It was more along the lines of, “Why on earth did she leave that there for me?”
My identical twin sister, Warren, and I were products of an all-girls private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, former debutantes, and unlike our brainy Stanford graduate older brother Rocky, college dropouts. Since leaving Arizona State University in 1972 after two uninspired semesters, I’d become a traveling troubadour, playing guitar and singing self-penned songs of romantic quandary and betrayal in the bars and boîtes around New York. A decade later, I was an obscure musician/songwriter clinging to the vestiges of a fading career highlighted by gigs as the opening act for Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Hall and Oates, and other rock luminaries. When money was tight I would apply to be a contestant on TV quiz shows, and in that way financed the more impecunious episodes in my life with cash and parting gifts earned on Jeopardy!, Tic Tac Dough, The $128,000 Question, and The Challengers, hosted by Dick Clark. Between the complimentary cases of Rice-a-Roni and Bon Ami scouring powder, I think I won enough food and cleaning supplies to last me a lifetime.
Basically, as a young adult I did everything I possibly could to avoid getting a real job. In 1978 practical considerations and an appealing offer from my friend Gloria Bell persuaded me to take a part-time position in the New York management offices of Gladys Knight & the Pips and B.B. King. My bosses let me set my own schedule, and granted me time off to stay with Jack after her husband, Norman Davies, died in 1979. That was the year I fell head over heels in love with baseball by reading about its history and lore in books after having been completely uninterested in it my entire life. By the spring of 1981 I was such a devotée that I took a two-month sabbatical to go on a baseball road trip out in California with my sister, who was living in Los Angeles by then, and Jack. I was a working stiff enjoying the game from the stands like millions of spectators, and gave no thought to donning a chest protector, shin guards, or face mask. But luckily for me, someone else did.
In early June of 1981, the threat of a major-league players’ strike had been looming malevolently on the horizon for weeks. Although I viewed the impending work stoppage with a certain degree of fatalism, as the inevitable outcome of another of my doomed affairs, in truth I was devastated by the notion of not being able to go see the Dodgers or the Angels with my mother and sister. It had become our near-nightly ritual during my hiatus from the reality of work back in New York, and I dreaded losing the connection that baseball had so recently sparked among the three of us. I’d been in love with the game for only a couple of years, and the prospect of a divorce so soon after the first blush of romance was breaking my heart.
The morning after I found the notice from the paper on my pillow, I asked Jack why she’d left it there, and she reminded me that I’d written a song about umpires. This was true, but I’d composed an entire suite of songs about baseball, and "The Umpire Stands Alone" was just one of several I’d recorded and played for her. I shrugged, still mystified.
“I saw you reading a book about umpires,” she added, a bit enigmatically, I thought, since she’d also seen me reading books about serial killers.
The one to which she alluded was The Men in Blue: Conversations With Umpires by Larry Gerlach, which I had indeed read, but only after exhausting the Palm Springs Public Library of every other baseball-related book in the stacks. I had no idea then of the world-rocking, path-altering role that book would play in my life. It was Jack, not I, who connected the dots from my song to a book to a completely innocuous ad placed by a little league seeking umpires; Jack who understood the ad’s significance as soon as she spotted it. She pointed me in the direction she sensed I would eventually wander anyway, as if umpiring had been my idea, my discovery, when right from the start it was hers. That was her gift to me, one she offered without judgment and with infinite love. She saw in me what I did not see in myself, set aside her own misgivings, then pushed me unceremoniously out of the nest, off the pedestal, straight onto the diamond. A ruder awakening, a former debutante never had.
The more I’d thought about Jack’s suggestion, the more umpiring seemed a way for me to stay connected to baseball during the strike, so I’d called the number listed in the ad, amplified my nonexistent credentials, presented myself at the league office, and much to my surprise, got handed a beat-up old face mask, a pair of used shin guards, and an ancient balloon-style chest protector. I was then hustled off to confront my destiny with no training to speak of, very little idea about where to go or what to do on certain plays, barely even knowing what a force play was, or a foul ball. I could tell you who was on third in 1908 when Fred Merkle of the New York Giants ran to the clubhouse at the Polo Grounds instead of second base and was called out, famously nullifying Moose McCormick’s winning run in the mishegoss that came to be known unjustly as "Merkle’s Boner," but I had only a vague understanding of why an infielder would throw the ball to first base with two outs when a runner from third was heading home.
There I stood just a week later, on a dusty, nondescript diamond in Indio, California, surrounded by a band of unhappy 10-year-old boys, their even unhappier coaches, and a fidgety mob of fussy, disgruntled parents. My first game, needless to say, was a complete catastrophe. I was unprepared for the hostility emanating from the coaches and parents, and the eye-rolling, sneering derision aimed at me was a total shock. All my life I’d been petted and praised, convinced I was witty, charming, and irresistible, but this was far beyond my experience. The coaches got in my face, the parents screamed at me, and the kids took their cues from the adults. My mother, who had driven me to the game, witnessed the whole debacle in stoic silence. That’s right, I was 28 years old and my mother drove me to my first Little League game. I’d learned to drive only the year before and didn’t have a car since I’d never needed one in New York, so Jack, the architect of my new career, chauffeured me to my inaugural assignment and sat stalwartly in the stands while the menacing scrum of parents around her frothed and foamed with fury at my calls. My initial foray into umpiring proved so disastrous that the next day, the Desert Sun published several letters to the editor pleading for mercy, begging to please never let that woman ruin another game for anyone ever again.
I interpreted these comments not as an indication of any particular sexism or misogyny on the part of my detractors, but as an accurate, if somewhat harsh, assessment of my ineptitude. I actually felt the criticism was warranted because I knew I hadn’t done a very good job. I didn’t know the rules, had no clue about game management or how to deal with obtuse coaches, and though my intentions were noble, I had fallen far short of even a minimal proficiency out there. Yet somehow the ill treatment I received because of my poor performance did not deter me from wanting another chance to do better. All that bad behavior was a puzzle I wanted to solve; the mysteries of the darker side of human nature fascinated rather than frightened me.
Right away — the very next day, in fact — I sent out inquiries to the two professional umpire schools in Florida, and decided to attend the Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School the next January of 1982. My twin sister, Warren, and I were the only women in the class of more than 150 male students that year. I’d conscripted her as my partner in Indio the summer before when it became apparent that not a whole lot of other umpires were exactly leaping at the chance to work with me. To provide me with a partner, any partner, the assignor threw caution to the winds and hired Warren at my request. Somehow the two of us managed to survive the season together, and I convinced her to go to umpire school with me the following January. Later on she would put herself through nursing school, earn a degree, get married, and raise two wonderful sons, but back then we were both still searching for something to satisfy the longing we’d felt ever since our father inexplicably vanished in 1959. We were 6 years old when he took a small watercraft out on the ocean off the coast of Atlantic City by himself and was never seen or heard from again. Neither of us had ever really gotten over the hurt and confusion caused by his sudden disappearance, but umpiring, strange as it sounds, helped us heal.
It was also strange that we would seek validation and happiness in an arena where positive feedback is rare, but that’s one of baseball’s beautiful paradoxes. Being an identical twin is the ultimate paradox: we are unique in all the world, yet we are one of two, part of a pair, our uniqueness dependent upon our sameness. Umpiring is paradoxical too: It requires us to have the heart of a warrior but to refrain from engaging in warfare. We’re on the front lines, exposed and alone except for our partners, yet are expected to do our job so expertly that our presence goes completely unnoticed. Umpiring is a constant challenge for me even now, 35 years after my first little league game. Through observation and practice, I’ve learned that it’s not about throwing my weight around, showing people who’s boss, proving my balls are bigger than someone else’s, or anything like that. It’s about participating in a game I love, making sure everyone involved has a safe and welcoming place to play or watch, and providing a useful service as capably and courteously as I can.
Umpiring has never been easy for me, the way it is for someone born with natural ability or with a size and carriage that confer instant respect. I’ve had to work hard and deflect a lot of negativity to achieve whatever level of proficiency I’ve attained. A lot of things I learned to just let roll off my back like water. Earl Weaver used to stare at me as if I were a Martian when he’d see me every year at the Orioles fantasy camp in Sarasota. I would greet him with a pleasantry, and he would say the same thing every time: “Oh, you’re still doing this?” As if umpiring were a little hobby of which I would soon grow weary and then slink back to doing regular woman-type things. When I started getting NCAA college assignments, I’d stop by the security gate at the campus entrances to announce myself, standard protocol for umpires. I can’t tell you how many times I’d be given directions to the softball field instead of the baseball diamond in spite of my specific, repeated insistence that I was there to umpire the men’s baseball game. A bizarre irony tinged the rare occasions I was offered any real respect, like the time I sang the National Anthem at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore before an Orioles game in 1986. I’d been invited to perform by someone in the front office who liked the job I’d done assigning and umpiring the fantasy camp in Florida enough that he asked me to join the campers on the field in Baltimore the day they were to be introduced to the crowd as part of the total camp package. I mentioned that I was an experienced Anthem singer, which was true, and he was nice enough to approve me as the singer for the reunion game. I was given the choice of performing by home plate, close to the fans behind the backstop, from which vantage point I would be subject to the dreaded feedback, that weird delayed-echo effect that gives so many Anthem singers such problems staying on key and in cadence; or to perform way out in the outfield underneath the giant electronic scoreboard, from where my image would be projected on the big screen and there would be no feedback.
I chose the outfield. So there I stood that sultry summer night, underneath the scoreboard where I couldn’t see it looming above and behind me, all dressed up in a sapphire blue silk dress and sparkly high-heeled sandals as I accompanied myself on my treasured 1953 Martin 00-18 acoustic guitar, singing my patriotic little baseball-loving heart out. Things went well, I thought. A few weeks later I got a nice note in the mail from one of the campers with a photograph enclosed, a picture he had taken of me from where he stood on the field way back by home plate with his teammates. When I looked at the photo, I couldn’t believe it. I was a tiny blue shadow silhouetted against the distant scoreboard, my image displayed in gigantic detail, flowing silk dress, sparkly sandals, and all. The scoreboard operator had thought to provide a caption, so this is what 50,000 fans saw up in huge, flashing lights while I was humming and strumming away:
BALTIMORE ORIOLES THANK TONIGHT'S ANTHEM SINGER
PERRY LEE BARBER
HE WAS THE CHIEF UMPIRE
FOR THE ORIOLES FANTASY CAMP LAST JANUARY
Having a sense of humor and perspective has helped me maintain my equilibrium whenever I could have just as easily flown into a rage or spiraled into a depression about the unfairness of it all. I’ve learned to work with and get the most out of the tools I have, not the ones I wish I had but don’t. To compensate for my petite stature, I’ve taught myself to walk tall and make human nature work for me so things turn out the way I want, not the way someone else does. This is an invaluable but invisible skill that most people don’t see when they watch the umpires. Umpiring expertise is not just accuracy on the balls and strikes, safes and outs, fairs and fouls. It’s much more than that, a lot of it undetectable by the naked eye, like keeping the pace of the game flowing smoothly over the blips and bumps that can intrude upon an intense, well-played contest and turn it into a nightmarish, draining experience. It’s a thousand little things that go unnoticed and unappreciated, but that are at the heart and soul of what make a good umpire and a great partner. Not all great umpires make great partners, by the way. I always strive to be both.
During the decades I’ve been umpiring, fortune has been both cruel and kind to me. No woman has yet worked a major-league game during the regular season, but I call major-league ball every year during spring training down in Florida. In 2008, extremely obscure major-league history was made when Theresa Fairlady, Mona Osborne, Ila Valcarcel, and I became the first four-woman crew to umpire a New York Mets spring-training game. I’ve umpired major-league exhibitions in Japan too, and gone to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Guam for international baseball tournaments. I umpired four years in the Atlantic League, one of the best independent circuits in the country. I’m the first and so far only woman to umpire in either the Cape Cod League or the Alaska League, a distinction I view with as much regret as I do pride since it means I’m still the only woman umpire in far too many of the leagues or associations I represent. Things are a lot better now than they were when I started, though. Women are playing, coaching, and umpiring baseball all over the globe these days, and I’ve been partners with dozens of excellent women umpires in my travels overseas and here at home. Our numbers are growing, but we still have a long way to go to keep the stained grass window of professional baseball cracked open wide enough for women to get through on a regular basis and start climbing the ladder that leads to jobs as major-league umpires. That means drawing women to the two professional umpire schools in Florida, 10 or 20 in each class so several, not just one at a time, wind up earning jobs as minor-league umpires every year.
There is no fast track to the major leagues for an umpire. Six to eight minor-league seasons are the minimum necessary to gain enough experience to even be considered as a vacation umpire who fills in when the major-league umps take their union-authorized four weeks off during the regular season. The first woman or women to join the major-league umpiring staff will have to be resolute and durable enough to absorb the special punishments reserved for mold-breakers and history-makers, but I have no doubt anymore that it will happen, and in my lifetime. Thirty-five years ago, the prospects of a woman becoming a major-league umpire were bleak, and statistically speaking, nothing much has changed in all that time. There was one woman umpire in pro ball back then, and as of 2016 there is still only one. That’s right, one. Our numbers have completely stagnated rather than risen.
There’s no rational justification for this anymore, particularly since the NBA and now the NFL both employ women referees at the top echelons of their respective sports. Baseball has a lot of catching up to do, but there are positive signs, a growing awareness of the logic in expanding the annual pool of umpiring candidates to regularly include women, as well as of the marketing possibilities inherent in appealing to us as more than mere consumers. The institutional resistance that used to be such a huge impediment to our entry into the ranks of pro umpires has dissipated, but the messaging and branding have to change too if pro umpiring wants to attract women. Umpiring is not about being yelled at or publicly shamed; those are very brief, inconsequential elements of the big picture. It’s about discovering the kind of person you are while working in the greatest office on the planet, beneath a sapphire blue sky, atop emerald green grass, on a diamond. It’s the bling, baby! It’s about giving back to the game and the community, about growing as a partner and a person whether you umpire little-league or major-league baseball.
I won’t rest until there are enough women out there once I leave the field for the last time to feel confident we’re moving forward instead of stagnating, or worse, slipping backward toward a time when women really weren’t welcome on the diamond. It’s not the bad attitudes we have to combat these days so much as a kind of inertia. “The One” or “The Ones” aren’t just magically going to appear, all polished, poised, and ready to vault to the top of the umpiring firmament. A little time, effort, and a multi-pronged approach will be necessary to find, recruit, and train the women who possess the aptitude and skills to sparkle on the diamond. A few tweaks to the existing framework of minor-league umpire evaluations and promotions, and all it will take after that is sufficiently steadfast support from their supervisors and partners to help them progress upward through the ranks.
When I started umpiring in 1981, my focus was mostly on me, on my survival and upward mobility in a business that does not treat its distaff practitioners delicately. Now, it’s about setting up a mechanism that will funnel women into the pipeline leading to jobs as minor- and major-league umpires on a regular basis, and helping other women grow and flourish through umpiring. Until the day one or more of us stand at home plate in a major-league ballpark and take the lineup cards from the managers for the first time, I’ll be doing what I can to render "woman umpire” as redundant as "woman doctor" or "female astrophysicist,” and to ensure that our participation in professional baseball is regarded not as a problem, but as a productive partnership. It will be at least eight years from the time a woman graduates from umpire school until she makes it to the major leagues, but make it she will. When she does, I’ll be thinking of my sister, who was my first steady partner, and of my mother, watching over her daughter as she umpired her first baseball game on a dusty, windswept, nondescript little diamond in the desert such a long time ago. The best thing is, it feels like I’m really only now getting started. So much is still possible.
PERRY BARBER has been a professional umpire since 1981, umpiring more than 6,300 games to date. She has umpired at all levels of the game, including Major League Baseball's spring training. Her umpiring has taken her around the world to places such as Japan, Guam, Hong Kong, and the Caribbean. In addition to her own umpiring, Barber has been a tireless advocate for giving other women opportunities to play and umpire. She also conducts umpire clinics, speaks about umpiring and women’s baseball, and serves as a board member for the International Women’s Baseball Center and an advisor for Baseball for All. She was selected as the inaugural recipient of the Dorothy Seymour Mills Lifetime Achievement Award by SABR's Women in Baseball Committee in 2018.