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Who says “blue” must be male? Female baseball umpire Perry Barber wants more women making the calls.

May 12, 2010 – 8:16 AM

By Megan Wood

When umpire Perry Barber steps behind the catcher, fans often do a double-take when they glimpse the ponytail resting on the back of her uniform. Female umpires are not only rare, but practically unheard of.  Barber is one of only eight women to umpire professional baseball, officiating around 200 games a year for local, regional, state and professional leagues including spring training for Major League Baseball. After umpiring for over 25 years, Barber tells why there so few female umpires — and why calling balls and strikes is often viewed as something only a man can do.

FGN: When did you discover you wanted to be a professional baseball umpire?

PB: My early fascination with baseball had nothing to do with athletic competition and everything to do with being a trivia nut and former Jeopardy! champion who wanted to educate herself about baseball as a subject, not a game or sport. I needed to hold my own in trivia contests a friend constantly challenged me to.

I started going to as many Mets games as I could. At Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia this older couple sort of adopted me. They would let me sit with them right behind the Phillies’ dugout and take me back to the first aid room after games to meet their friends who worked there. The first aid room was adjacent to the umpires’ dressing room.

One time National League umpire #11 Ed Montague stopped in to say hello. The moment I shook his hand, it was like being struck by lightning, and I don’t mean in a romantic way, but something about him affected me so profoundly I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Until I met him, I was like everybody else and didn’t give much thought to the umpires as anything other than peripheral characters on the field, but that changed in an instant.

One night, I found a newspaper ad on my pillow that my mom had left for me. “Indio needs umpires,” it read. My first reaction was definitely not “Wow, I’m signing up tomorrow,” but confusion. When I asked why she had left it, she said, “Well, I thought it was something you’d like to do.”

So began my umpiring “career.” People were often hostile to me, but I attributed their vitriol more to the fact that I was untrained, meaning incompetent, than that I was female.

I never thought about the fact that I was a woman and women didn’t do that, or about the political implications inherent in my becoming an umpire, or anything except this is how I can stay connected to baseball and my mom… I loved baseball, and umpiring was my way of expressing that love and turning what had been a mostly cerebral attachment to the game into something tangible. If it hadn’t been for my mother, who knows if I ever would have found my way into a chest protector and shin guards. She made the connection I hadn’t; she connected the dots and saw something in me I didn’t see in myself.

FGN: Why did you decide to officiate baseball instead of softball?

PB: I didn’t “decide”; once my mom suggested that I umpire Little League baseball and I started doing it, softball just wasn’t an option. I’m glad softball exists as an alternative to baseball — even though from my perspective it also siphons off a lot of young girls who might otherwise be integrating baseball more fully — but I have no quarrel with any athletic endeavor that brings girls and women together to compete and play. I just don’t get the same charge from umpiring softball as I do from baseball. I’m baseball trained, and it’s my passion, so that’s what I stick to most of the time.

FGN: What is it like to step on a baseball field and umpire a men’s game?

PB: It’s a rush, an adrenaline charge, an affirmation of life and living and all things positive and hopeful. Just being out there on a ball field with other people running around sweating and frolicking about, it’s all so wonderful to me, even thirty years into my career. I think when I was a neophyte and unknown to many of the league and teams for which I umpired, the expectations others may have had of me might have been just a bit unrealistic (as in, they probably all thought I would stink!). But I never let anyone’s expectations deter me from pursuing my passion no matter what anyone said about how bad I was, or why was I doing this, or why didn’t I just get married and have children like a normal person and give up this umpiring thing. In other words, all the nay saying I heard (and still hear sometimes) about why I (or women in general) shouldn’t be out there with the guys. My interactions with coaches are always respectful on my part, although I can’t speak for them; I’m sure there are a few who have regarded my presence as in intrusion rather than as an asset, but that’s their problem, not mine.

FGN: How do fellow umpires and players treat you during the game? Do you feel more pressure because you are a woman umpiring men?

PB: I like to think I’m treated as an equal by my partners and fellow umpires, and for the most part, at this stage of my career, I honestly believe I am. There are probably some umpires (and players too) still opposed to sharing the field or the dressing room with a woman, but my attitude is always that I’ll be able to change their minds once they work with me and see I’m as capable as any other umpire. I don’t feel much pressure about being a woman or “representing” other women, although I may have when I first started.

FGN: Why are there so few women in umpiring? How can we encourage more?

PB: Women are not initiated into the baseball culture when they’re in utero the way boys are in this country. That’s one reason. Plus the few girls who do play baseball are often steered towards softball as an alternative. The same problem applies to umpiring baseball; there is no organized, sustained effort to recruit, train, and retain the services of women umpires.

Change will come as the result of a multi-pronged approach, including presenting umpiring as a career or a vocational option to girls and women.

For instance, we should be making a real, concerted, committed, and sustained effort to recruit, train and assign young girls to little leagues, youth leagues, high school and college games so they become a part of the culture when they’re young, the same way the boys do; and getting a lot of women to attend umpire school en masse so at least two or three get jobs in pro ball at the same time instead of just one at a time (the way it’s always happened up until now). That way there will be a support system for them, an infrastructure of sorority and women encouraging women, providing counsel and mentoring to each other.

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