"Either I am a nut, or this is the greatest game in the world. It has to be to go on like this, all the things wrong with it." Most wrong, Eckman thinks, is the system of selecting referees, whereby a coach can blackball any referee assigned to his home game by the supervisor of officials. This is accepted in every section of the country and is based on approximately the same rationale that Al Capone used when he was sorting out the Cicero police department. It explains why so many officials, who only work close to home, become "homers"—subconsciously or otherwise.
Eckman started officiating at age 17 for $1.50 a game (and sometimes six games a day) at places like Cross Street Hall and Fourteen Holy Martyrs Church in Pig Town. Refereeing has never been his whole life, though, because it simply does not pay enough to sustain a man with a wife, three daughters and a son. (Barry, the oldest, will get his diploma this June from the University of Baltimore.) Eckman helps pay the bills with public relations work and as a much sought-after banquet speaker. In the past, his most famous other job came when NBA Referee Eckman was suddenly made NBA coach—of the Fort Wayne Pistons. During three full seasons he led the team to two divisional championships and was once named Coach of the Year. He has also played minor-league baseball, umpired minor-league baseball, scouted, dispatched buses, run a pool hall, been a recreation director, a tax investigator ("that's a beauty, ain't it?—referee, umpire and collect taxes in the same year?"), a columnist, a sports commentator, a deputy sheriff and a full-fledged judge of the Innurunnle Orphans' Court.
The last was a political plum from Maryland Governor Millard Tawes and was supposedly an interim appointment until Eckman would become Secretary of the Racing Commission—which he had been more or less supporting over the years, anyway, at the mutuel windows. When the commission job went to someone else, Eckman called the governor "a doublecrosser," and handed in his robes. As judge, though, Eckman had left his mark. He is, graciously by his own admission, "not a grammarian," but he was never at a loss when a lawyer was foolish enough to start using legal terminology that the Judge was not exactly up on. Judge Eckman simply recessed the court, retired to his chambers, called a lawyer friend who filled him in, and returned to his court. His most heralded verdict, in the tradition of Solomon, concerned a particular will ("Orphans' Court ain't orphans," explains Charley; "it is all about wills") being contested by three siblings: two sons who had done no more for their deceased father than take him for a drive occasionally, and one daughter, who had attended the old man faithfully. Arguments over, Judge Eckman banged his gavel. "You get it all," he told the daughter. "I object," screamed one of the sons. "The law says I should get one-third."
"All right," replied Judge Eckman coolly. "You will. You get one-third of what she don't want. Case closed."
Eckman's bluntness is no act. He is almost pathological on the subject of phonies. Most of them he lumps with the yo-yos. (A yo-yo is "a guy who goes up and down but don't go nowhere.") Eckman himself is honest, even when he knows his big mouth is going to get him into more trouble. For all his fame as an athletic celebrity—which most people in Innurunnle are hardly aware of—Eckman's closest friends remain old Pig Towners or Glen Burnie neighbors. But wherever it may be, he is either laughed at for all his brashness and noise or loved for it.
"Look, I'm in a liars' game," he says. "Ball goes out of bounds, you call blue or red and you can only be right or wrong. You make that decision, you bop it out so loud every yo-yo in the place can hear it, and if you do blow one—we all do sometimes—you grab that ball and you run down that court smiling, bop-de-bop-bop. And that just ain't in basketball. That's the way I am. I met my wife Wilma—Wilma, like in
—I met her on a Tuesday, married her on a Friday and had to borrow $7.50 from her to get her back to Baltimore, and we've been married 22 years. All my life people either loved me right away or they never did. All except the players. I don't b'lieve there is a player that don't like me."
Even the yo-yos know Cholly Eckman is a player's referee.