A first: a four-female umpiring crew. At a Mets exhibition game, 2008. Perry Barber at the plate; her crewmates, left to right, Ila Valcarcel, Theresa Fairlady, Mona Osborne.

 

She was a pretty, blonde, petite, well-bred, soft-spoken singer/songwriter, reared to be “charming, witty, a good companion and a good conversationalist.”

That training, though, gets you nowhere on the baseball field. Perry Barber, 58, found that out the day she umpired her first Little League game more than three decades ago. She was awful—“so awful,” she admits, “that people watching the game were ready to crucify me.” Still, this ex-debutante, who came out, in the old-fashioned sense of the phrase, at the Plaza and the Waldorf Astoria, was shocked at the noxious response to her wretched calls. “Letters were written to the local paper,” she laments. One of the headlines was Umpire Doesn’t Know the Strike Zone.

           “It was true, all true,” she says, laughing. “Still, I thought, ‘Wow, people usually think I’m fabulous; they love me. These people think I’m awful and they hate me.’ I was performing a public service . . . why were they so rude to me?” It was a puzzle she wanted to solve.

Barber, a native New Yorker, has called games during a 32-year career—more than twice as long as any other professional woman umpire. That is her triumph, for she was told at 28, fresh out of umpire school, that she was already “too old” for pro baseball. Umpiring has been her passion since her late twenties, when baseball books seduced her into the game, and she means to continue umping as long as her strength and her legs hold up—and goddess help any bureaucrat who tries to keep her out of the game.

           They’ve tried. She’s endured as much antagonism from administrators behind the scenes as she has verbal abuse on the field, she says. Her heroine, Bernice Gera, broke through baseball’s gender barrier in 1972. But after winning a long legal fight to force minor league baseball to jettison the height and weight requirements for umpires, Gera quit after just one game. She walked off the field New York, citing the fact that she’d attracted resentment from the other umps as one reason for her abrupt departure.

“She was reviled and treated so unfairly that I don’t blame her,” says Barber. “But she had accomplished her mission. She paved the way for the rest of us, so we all—not just women, but a lot of men, too—owe her a great deal of thanks.”

It’s been tough for female umps since then. (One of Gera’s successors, the talented Pam Postema   , who rose to the Triple AAA ranks, once found a frying pan on home plate.)  Gera and Postema are two of only six women who have umpired in the minor leagues; none has made the majors, and there are no women, zero, currently umpiring at any level of pro baseball.

 

At umpire school in 1982, the Barber twins Perry (left) and Warren with umps Randy Marsh (left) and Harry Wendelstedt. To make sure she wasn't the only female in ump school, Perry asked her sister along. Photo by Perry Barber.

“The Outlaw Seventh”

Those six don’t include Barber, who calls herself an outlaw. “I’m not technically in that circle of six because I’ve never been on the umpiring staff of a minor league,” she says. “I’ve been to umpire school six times, but never finished in the top 10 percent, from which all rookie umpires are hired. But I’ve called 150 to 200 games almost every season for 32 years—more than 5,000 games!

Larking around with Tom Seaver at Mets Fantasy Camp, Port St. Lucie, 1990

“I’ve worked Yankees and Mets spring training; major-league exhibitions in Japan (they were crazy about me there, for some reason); amateur tournaments all over the world; and I spent four seasons in the Atlantic League, the best independent league in the country, before I moved on.” (She’d been butting heads with the commissioner of the league, saw the writing on the wall, and handed in her resignation.)

Barber regularly works “fantasy camps,” held in major-league parks, where fans pay to be coached and managed by, and play a game with, the stars of yesteryear. Capers like Tom Seaver’s embrace in the picture at right would get him thrown out of a real game, she declares. “I’d have ejected the perp, and I’m sure he would have been suspended and fined heavily.

“Any given year I’ll go from a crazy adult league game on Long Island to the Cape Cod League, the country’s premier summer college circuit, to international competition in Taiwan, to a Catholic high school championship game in Queens. It’s unbeatable experience—and in this game,  experience is everything.”

So far this spring, Barber has called more than 60 games, including her 27th stint at Mets spring training and a tournament in Hong Kong, and she has a full slate of umpiring jobs for what remains of the college and high school seasons and on into the summer.

Struck by the Thunderbolt

It was literature that brought this singer/songwriter into baseball: She was a Jeopardy! champion who didn’t know enough about sports, so at 26 she decided to read up on the national pastime. By brilliant luck she pulled Roger Angell, Ring Lardner, and Eight Men Out from the library shelf. Dipping into Lardner on a plane, she was hit by the thunderbolt. She didn’t even go to a game for a solid year; she just read every book on baseball she could get her hands on.

By the age of 27 she had become a total baseball junkie, following the “adorably lousy” Mets around the country. A year later, starved for baseball by the players’ strike of 1981, she volunteered to umpire that Little League game.

The opposition she has endured has led to exhilaration: She has discovered an inner toughness rarely required of her at the Hewitt School (or anywhere else until she stepped onto a baseball field). “The Umpire Stands Alone,” one of her songs goes, and she likes it that way. (Her CD, Belle of the Ballfield, is on loan to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.) Perry, who says she is “married to baseball,” enjoys the “on-the-road” type of solitude, often mistaken for loneliness or tedium, that characterizes the umpiring lifestyle.

It’s a pleasure to hear an umpire discuss baseball in a voice with musical cadence. The joy of the game, she muses, is that “it’s a marriage of opposites. On one hand there’s the grace and poetry of the written word about baseball, and the grace, poetry, and spectacle of a baseball game. But it’s also down and dirty—playing in the dirt, risking serious injury, dealing with hot tempers and attitudes stoked by who knows what hormone or chemical . . . all sorts of things come into play that make it the opposite of graceful and beautiful. And I love it.

Mets spring training, 2012. (Photo: Perry Barber. Published with permission, Mets.com.)

“The specialness of baseball lies in the very thing that turns people away from it—its pace. Most of the time it’s very stately. There are moments of extreme activity where things happen very quickly, and then all is calm and quiet for a couple of moments, and then it’ll start up again. Those quiet moments are full of psychology; people who aren’t into introspection would rather watch football. To me, what’s absorbing is the inner battle between the pitcher figuring out what sequence of pitches to throw to the batter and the batter trying to read the way the pitcher is gripping the ball.”

Pitchers? “They’re Nuts!”

She’s delightful on the lore of the game—the grounds for ejection; “magic words” a player can’t say; her opinion of pitchers (“they’re nuts”) and what it takes to be an umpire (“I have to exercise a lot of self-control to conduct myself the way I want to out there. I have to figure out how to lower the level of testosterone so something potentially harmful doesn’t develop.”) In the video below, taped in 2008, when Barber was a redhead, she explains what it means to be a “pitcher’s umpire” and why umpires try to avoid tossing catchers out of the game.

“You look at a big, macho baseball player cross-eyed and he gets all sensitive,” she says. “Then he expects the umpire to make it right, to advocate on his behalf. He’ll say to me, ‘You’ve got to go out there and tell him he can’t do that!’”

Hers has been a satisfying life. “The more women who learn about the rewards of officiating, which include meeting all kinds of interesting people,” Barber says,  “the better and more inclusive the sports landscape will become.” She looks toward “the day when the phrase ‘woman umpire’ will be as redundant as ‘woman doctor’ or ‘female astrophysicist.’”