SI Vault
Frank Deford
October 11, 1976
Whether they're called umpires, referees or judges, those who must decide if it was fair, foul, in, out, over or short are, officially speaking, unappreciated
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October 11, 1976

Nobody Loves The Ruling Class

Whether they're called umpires, referees or judges, those who must decide if it was fair, foul, in, out, over or short are, officially speaking, unappreciated

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What sort of men become officials? Who needs it? A study of professional basketball officiating by Henry A. Alker of Cornell University and William F. Straub and John Leary of Ithaca College found that the best officials (as rated by peers and coaches) have a personality profile much like the worst. Almost all officials tested showed a high degree of interpersonal "dominance" and "self-acceptance," and a low degree of "flexibility." Wrote the authors: "The person with high self-acceptance...can keep cool. And in a profession in which a major, if not the major, stress comes from others doubting the worth of one's judgments, self-acceptance is surely a basic asset. Dominance and self-acceptance have elsewhere...been identified as distinctive characteristics of creative individuals, not mediocrities."

A study of pro football officials by Dr. William J. Beausay, a psychologist and an executive director of the Academy for the Psychology of Sports, in Toledo, produced much the same results. Referees were found to be dominant, demanding and self-disciplined, as well as indifferent to pressure—aggressive without being especially competitive. Among American males, they rank only in the 11th percentile in subjectivity, only in the 19th percentile in sympathy, and in the 26th percentile for being "light-hearted." No wonder they're not very happy. "They feel bad," Dr. Beausay says, "because, like athletes, they want to be liked and people won't like them."

The umpire who made the famous call on Fred Merkle was Hank O'Day. The umpire behind the plate when Eddie Gaedel, Bill Veeck's midget, batted was Ed Hurley.


Of all officials, basketball referees are virtually the only ones who have become personalities. Football referees are all but anonymous, and while a boxing referee like Ruby Goldstein or a baseball umpire like Bill Klem may become recognized as a name, he rarely becomes established as an individual. Who is the most famous baseball umpire today? Ron Luciano? Probably. Not one fan in a thousand would know who Luciano was if he sat down next to him at a coffee counter. By contrast, any basketball fan would not only recognize Richie Powers or John Vanak or Jake O'Donnell, but would also have a fair knowledge of what the man was like personally from having seen him work on the court. Kids used to do imitations of Mendy Rudolph wiping his brow as surely as they did a Dr. J or an Earl the Pearl.

Rudolph came into prominence at a time when pro basketball had gained a national platform, but colorful characters like Pat Kennedy and Sid Borgia were celebrities long before Mendy ever drew a number in the air. And without doubt no referee anywhere has ever been so well received on and off the court as Charley Eckman. While it seems impossible to attach the word to such a coarse rascal as Eckman, the fact is that he is the one referee in all the world who has become darn near beloved.

At least this is true in his home precincts of Baltimore. Eckman has been honored with three testimonial dinners, and, he explains in his fashion, "They're thinking of giving me a fourth one of the bleeping things." He is the most popular, and unusual, sportscaster in town. Huge billboards displaying his rough countenance dot the choice locations. Eckman is the comforting spokesman for everything from automobiles to restaurants, banks, beer and power tools. He is the most celebrated after-dinner speaker in town. Says one Baltimorean, "If you listed the most famous people who were born here or worked here—Babe Ruth, the Duchess of Windsor, H. L. Mencken, Johnny Unitas, Spiro Agnew, Blaze Starr, John Wilkes Booth—more people in Baltimore would recognize who Cholly is. This has gotta be the nicest town in the world. You know any other would love a referee?"

Eckman has made it as a personality as he did as an official, simply by being himself. "Handling people is three-fourths of refereeing," he says. "All these yo-yos these days take it too seriously." Once, before a tense NIT final at Madison Square Garden, he showed up on the court in dark glasses. College kids would drop by after games they had lost and thank him for a nice fun game. Fred Zollner, president of the Detroit Pistons, made Eckman an NBA coach on the assumption that he knew the players as well as anybody else. "How you gonna get your team up, Coach?" the Boston press asked before a big game with the Celtics. "Raise the urinals," Cholly replied. He won a divisional championship his first season, but 2� years later Zollner told Eckman he was "going to make a change in your department."

"Fine," said Cholly. Later he said, "Then I realized I was the only so-and-so in my department." So he went back to calling them on the court—and then on the radio. "No TV," he says. "It's not loose enough. All this 'Do this, do that.' And there's too many fags in it, too." Eckman adlibs all his material, obliterates the English language and makes no bones of the fact that he spends most of his days at racetracks and most of his nights in saloons.

"Life's like basketball, better 'n a movie," Cholly said at the track the other day. "If you kick one, admit it and keep moving. Wherever you go, Leader, loosen 'em up right away. When I was reffing, the first thing I wanted was to let 'em all know I was going to be there all night, and they weren't going nowheres without me. Then we had some fun. Let's go first class and have some fun, Leader. First class. First class. I like just to sit down in them big seats in front of the plane and watch all them yo-yos go by back to that cave. My wife Wilma says, 'You used to work for a living.' But what's it cost to say hello, Leader, how ya doin', Coach? Loosen 'em up, Leader." He bought another Scotch and wheeled the four horse.

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