Howell was one of the U.S. referees who toured China with a U.S. team in 1974. "The Chinese played hard," he says, "but when it was over, they were our friends. It was great. Their motto was 'Friendship first, competition second.' I've become, I guess, disillusioned with sports in the United States."
A year ago, under the urging of Bill Russell, the NBA general managers voted 18-0 for a plan that would have each team contribute money toward sending 10 would-be officials to college every year. The young men would receive officiating instruction during the summer. Some would be cut from the plan if their grades or officiating abilities were not up to par, but at least a few would be able to move into the NBA after graduation.
"Everybody in all sports is always on the officials, but none has a program for developing them," Russell says. "If we spent the same money, percentage-wise, on officials that we do on players, we could develop competent refs, make it where it becomes an honorable profession."
The plan would cost each club less than $5,000 a year. Since it was unanimously approved by the general managers, not one move has been made to implement it.
Some NHL referees did not begin using whistles until the 1930s. Before that, they tinkled bells at offenders.
The honor roll: Umpire Billy McLean was attacked in the Polo Grounds, 1884. Jack Sheridan was beaten unconscious, Milwaukee, 1894. Phil Powers protected himself with a drawn revolver until police arrived, Philadelphia, 1888. Billy Evans had his skull fractured by a thrown bottle in a Detroit- St. Louis game in 1907. Some years later, he was severely thrashed by Ty Cobb in a fight under the grandstand. Tim Hurst once threw a beer mug back at a fan, injured a spectator and was fined $25. John Gaffney could not umpire a Buffalo-New York game in 1884, because one of the players had slugged him the day before in his hotel. In 1938, Charlie Moran was hit by a thrown ball that broke his dental plate. A Western League player named Jim Mertlick was fined $25 for biting Umpire Estie Wells during an argument. Brick Owens was the only umpire Babe Ruth ever punched. In his autobiography, Standing the Gaff, Steamboat Johnson, a famous minor league ump, estimated that during his career 4,000 bottles were thrown at him, with 20 finding the mark.
On the other hand, few messed with Umpire George Magerkurth. Magerkurth—6'3", 250 pounds, known as Meathead; "he had the expression of a stern baby...a remarkable resemblance to President Hoover"—fought professionally, played pro football and was the end man in a minstrel show in Moline, Ill. On June 9, 1925, Magerkurth bopped Billy Webb, manager of Buffalo's International League team, for employing abusive language. After the game, the two men fought, and both were arrested. On April 25, 1927, Magerkurth, then umpiring in the American Association, visited the room of Irv Griffin, the Milwaukee first baseman, and demanded an apology for a name he'd been called. When Griffin was not sufficiently contrite, Magerkurth sent him to the hospital with a dislocated shoulder, which kept Griffin out of baseball for a month. Magerkurth was fined $25 and sentenced to 30 days in jail. The sentence was suspended. On July 16, 1939, when Magerkurth was umpiring in the National League, Billy Jurges of the Giants spit in his face and tried to punch him. Magerkurth slugged Jurges good. Both men drew 10-day suspensions and were fined $150 apiece.
NBA refs earn from $18,000 to $45,000. The 22 men who work full time (82 games) also get $800 a month in expenses for food and hotels. There are also three part-timers who work at least 40 games. The turnover rate is high.