For many young women, the path to a career in professional sports might evolve in unexpected ways. In the case of Perry Barber, it was the love and support of her mother that spurred her on to make the leap from being a baseball fan to actually becoming one of the few proficient and highly accomplished professional female umpires. Not all young women will be fortunate to have that kind of support and encouragement from family members.
However, there are a number of organizations in the Atlanta area that nurture young women and encourage them to become active in sports programs. One of these organizations is the Women’s Sports Foundation. This organization operates the GoGirlGo Network, which is a national network of programs designed to provide girls, especially those from resource poor communities, opportunities to become active in sports as a way to gain confidence and become future leaders. The GoGirlGo Network has a local Atlanta chapter and offers monetary grants to community organizations that combine athletic programs with special components designed by GoGirlGo! curriculum and taught by qualified adults.
These types of programs that combine sports with strong academic components are excellent opportunities for girls to begin to delve into the world of professional sports careers. However, anyone who intends to be a professional umpire like Perry Barber should be prepared to learn the game inside and out. As Perry discovered when she first started her career as a professional umpire, being a fan of the game was very different from the demands of being an umpire.
SHERRIE: What was the most frightening aspect of choosing to be a professional umpire?
PERRY BARBER: Frightening? Frightened? Moi? Working a big, important game can give me a case of the butterflies – any umpire who says he or she doesn’t get a little nervous before a big game is being disingenuous – but I learned early on to work with those butterflies and not let them take charge of what I do on the ball field, to take charge of them so I am master of my emotions rather than allowing my emotions to master me. That’s always when umpires and ballplayers get into trouble, when they lose control of their emotions and allow their emotions to dictate their actions instead of thinking clearly and logically and using their intelligence instead of their fear or distress to control what they do or how they respond to a given stimulus.
I didn’t start umpiring to make a statement or set an example or change history; I started doing it because I found it was something I enjoyed and was determined to become proficient at so I could contribute to and play an active participatory role in the game I loved so much. So when you use the word “frightening,” I have to laugh! There was never anything truly “frightening” about the prospect or the reality of working professional baseball games to me; it just never entered my consciousness to be scared. Sad and depressed sometimes, because of the unfair treatment, the glacial progress (regression is actually more like it) women have made in the umpiring arena during the last thirty years, the denigration I got even from some of my own colleagues (but not too many, thankfully) and the bleak prospects of actually ever “making it” as an umpire, whether in professional or amateur baseball, but “frightened?” Being scared just wasn’t part of the picture for me, ever.
My mother Jaqueline was the one who suggested to me that I start umpiring; she put an idea in my head that hadn’t been there before, and who knows? If it hadn’t been for her prescience, her maternal love and understanding of what would make her daughter happy, her ability to see in me what I could not see in myself, I wonder if I would be where I am now, answering questions about my umpiring career that a writer will publish somewhere for other people to read and think about. The fact is, Jack saw me reading a book about umpires (The Men In Blue: Conversations With Umpires by Professor Larry Gerlach) and made the leap from that to assuming it must mean I wanted to be an umpire, which at the time was very far from the truth. (“Mom, you’ve seen me reading books about serial killers too!”) was my response when she told me what had impelled her to suggest I call up this local little league near where she was living in Palm Springs, California and ask for a summer job as an umpire.)
From the first game I worked when people were yelling at me that I was terrible, I didn’t belong, why didn’t I go home, I was ruining the game for everyone, etc., I found the experience somehow fascinating rather than demeaning or infuriating. It was like a puzzle I wanted to solve; it was so different than anything I’d ever experienced, because most of my life people had told me I was wonderful and talented! and I’d never done anything I didn’t do well, so being face-to-face with all this vitriol and anger was a completely eye-opening experience. Right away I adopted the attitude that people weren’t yelling at me and saying I was horrible because I was a girl: they were doing it because I was incompetent. I wanted to do a good job as an umpire, but I had no training, very little familiarity with the rules, and had just assumed like so many, that because I was a fan and watched from the stands (for all of two seasons at that point!) that I’d be able to get out there and umpire with no problem.
I figured out that it was something I liked doing for some weird reason, and if I wanted to keep doing it I better learn to do it properly, otherwise my “career” would be very brief. The day after my first game, I sent away for brochures from the two umpire schools and signed up to go to Wendelstedt the following January of 1982. I also dragged my twin with me so I wouldn’t be the only girl in the class of two hundred men, most of whom I’m sure thought we were there looking to snag a boyfriend or husband. (Yes, leave it to the guys to assume that a woman would go looking for a husband at umpire school, knowing the kind of wretched pay and lifestyle they’ll be enduring for the next ten years….).
Back then, tuition for school was $625, and it included the hotel, instruction from major league umpires, and a partial meal plan. These days, tuition is about three thousand dollars, and incidentals take it closer to four grand, so going to umpire school is an expensive proposition on its face, and that’s not even taking into account the fact that students have to leave work for five or six weeks, and some of them even have to give up their jobs because their employers won’t give them six weeks off to go to umpire school.
It’s a huge gamble with very little prospect of it paying off, ever, and even if and when it does, it still takes about eight years average before a pro umpire is considered as a Triple AAA replacement or “vacation” umpire, one of the lucky ones who rotate up and down from Triple AAA to the big leagues when the major league umpires go on vacation (they all get three weeks off during the regular season) or when they get hurt and need someone to fill in for them. That’s when the pay scale and the benefits start to approach human subsistence levels; until then, being a minor league umpire is not exactly the path to financial freedom.