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Remembering Eckman

July 5, 2007
Loud, profane and always colorful, Eckman was a Baltimore original.

By Alan Goldstein
Where have they all gone, the colorful characters who gave Bawlmer its distinctive flavor for so many years?

Runyon-esque guys like voluble fight promoter Eli “I’d like to welcome my guests on the diocese” Hanover; child-like race track tout-and-balloon hustler “Mr. Diz,” who wore an overcoat in mid-summer; freelance bookie Al “I’ve only been arrested 53 times” Isella; poetry-spouting comptroller Hymie Pressman; politically incorrect councilman Mimi DiPietro; legendary sports columnist John Steadman, who once stood over Knute Rockne’s grave in South Bend, Ind., and recited his “Win One for the Gipper” speech verbatim; and eccentric mayor William Donald Schaefer of rubber-ducky and pothole fame, who now sits in an office waiting for the phone to ring.

And then, of course, there was the inimitable Charley Eckman, who passed away 12 years ago on July 3, 1995. It would have been more fitting if he waited another day and exited with a fireworks salute, but he had already managed to squeeze out a few more years in his rollicking life after being diagnosed with colon cancer. As he once told a visitor to his hospital bed, “I thought I was going the other night, but then I thought, ‘I don’t know where it is I’m supposed to go.’”

“Charley was a Baltimore icon, the last of a dying breed,” said Ron Matz, longtime WJZ reporter, who first got to know Eckman when they both worked the early-morning shift at WFBR in the early '70s.

“He’d show up at 5 a.m., smoking a big cigar,” Matz said. “He always had a bottle of booze stashed away in his desk. Almost everything he did on the air was ad-lib, except for a few thoughts he wrote down on a matchbox cover.

“He was a visionary in connecting to an audience, really a forerunner to what they do today on ESPN. There hasn’t been anyone like him since. He had a language [“Ecklish”] all his own, but he could relate to the old and young, blacks and whites, Christians and Jews. He touched so many lives. Charley was every man. He was what he was: the real deal.”

Eckman spent 23 years in broadcasting, but that was simply the final page on a job resume that reads longer than “War and Peace.” He spent most of his younger days as a basketball referee, officiating more than 3,500 college and pro games over 29 years before his legs gave out in 1967.

He then provided steady income for his wife Wilma and their four children by working such odd jobs as a racetrack official, baseball scout and Orphans Court judge before finding his rightful niche on radio, broadcasting Orioles, Colts and Blast games.

But the most improbable job Eckman ever held was his stunningly successful three-year tenure as head coach of the then-Fort Wayne Pistons, who moved to Detroit in 1957. As the late basketball historian Leonard Koppett noted after the free-spirited Eckman led Fort Wayne to the first of two consecutive Western Conference titles in 1955, “As far as other coaches are concerned, the appointment of Eckman to coach the Pistons was a bad joke. But the joke was on everyone else.”

As the unlikely story goes, the talent-rich 1953-54 Pistons -- boasting George Yardley, who became the first pro player to score more than 2,000 points in a season, plus Andy Phillip, Max Zaslofsky, Larry Foust and Frankie Brian -- had underachieved playing for strict disciplinarian Paul Birch. They were also still in semi-shock over the revelation that teammate Jack Molinas, a flashy forward, had been found guilty of point shaving.

Millionaire owner Fred Zollner knew it was time for a coaching change, but no one expected one so radical. He had first met Eckman in 1951 at a nightclub in Milwaukee. A couple of fans among the revelers were extolling Eckman’s talent as a referee. Charley shrugged off the praise and said, “I want to be a coach. I’ve got more basketball experience than most of the coaches in this league.” Three years later, Zollner summoned Charley to a meeting in Florida, where he owned an extravagant home in restricted Golden Beach. After borrowing $50 for airfare from a friendly grocer, Eckman was met by limousine and taken to the Kenilworth Hotel owned by Arthur Godfrey.

He later related the story of how he got hired to Fred Neil, who authored the book "It’s a Very Simple Game: The Life and Times of Charley Eckman."

“Zollner said, ‘I like your personality. I think you could be a coach.’

“I said, ‘Well I do, too.’

"He said, 'I don’t think the personnel has been handled right. You think you could win?'

"And I said, 'I could win the division with the talent you’ve got.’”

The deal was struck. Eckman would be paid the then-princely sum of $10,000 a season for two years, plus a promised $1,500 bonus for every playoff series the Pistons won.
“I ain’t ever seen that much money,” Charley said, hurrying to sign the contract before Zollner changed his mind.

Zollner was certain he had made the right decision. “I’m a non-conformist,” he said. “Charley Eckman was my No. 1 choice from the very beginning. He has developed a keen and analytical knowledge of players in this league after seven years as a referee, which will be invaluable in the coming seasons.”

But several of the Pistons were flabbergasted by Zollner’s decision.

“We were awestruck,” said Yardley, the perennial All-Star who died several years ago from Lou Gehrig’s disease. “Had Zollner lost his mind? Eckman was a good official, but knew nothing about coaching. We were successful because of the talent we had, but Eckman got the credit. It was a joke.”

Added All-Star Mel Hutchins, “On the floor, Charley never gave us any indication of what to do. There were no set plays. His one command was, ‘Just go in there and do something.’”

Eckman had no pretenses about his coaching prowess. “Basketball’s a simple game,” he always insisted. “There are really only two plays -- ‘South Pacific’ and ‘Put it in the Hole.’

“You don’t coach pros. You manage pros. They came out of college All-Americans. They know how to dribble. I had one play, an out-of-bounds play. The only time plays work is on the blackboard. I knew how to substitute and match up guys. I had my own way of doing things, because it’s all man-to-man, whether you’re in Hollywood or Broadway.”

After winning Coach of the Year honors and two straight conference crowns, Eckman even found an ally in Yardley, the Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Stanford.

“Charley was exactly what we needed,” said Yardley in Terry Pluto’s “Tall Tales.”

“Birch was a drill sergeant who liked guys who got in fights. But Charley treated us like human beings. He rolled the ball out and let us play. With all the talent we had, Charley decided he had a great job and went along for the ride.” But Eckman’s biggest booster was fellow Baltimorean Gene Shue, whom he acquired from New York in 1956 after two frustrating seasons with the Knicks.

“New York didn’t know what they had,” Eckman said. “I knew this kid from both Towson Catholic and Maryland. He was a little skinny for a pro, but a terrific shooter. The only problem was that he was a little homesick when he first got to Fort Wayne. So I gave him four days off in December so he could go home and marry his high school sweetheart.”

“That’s a true story,” laughed Shue, now living in Marina Del Ray, Calif., and scouting for the Philadelphia 76ers, one of several teams he later coached after his playing days ended with the Baltimore Bullets in 1964. “Charley thought of everything to keep his players happy. He was undoubtedly the most influential person in my playing career.”

Eckman’s carefree offensive style perfectly suited Shue’s game, which blossomed into All-Pro form. “It was loose, fast-break basketball, and I was a transition player who could hit the open jump shot," Shue said. "Basketball has basically always been a two-man game. Set a screen and then move to an open area. The Phoenix Suns today play the same way we did in Fort Wayne over 50 years ago. Charley really helped to get me off and running.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the same for Eckman, whose coaching career came to a screeching halt in 1957 after starting 9-16 the first season the franchise moved to Detroit. He could argue that losing Yardley to an injury and Phillip and Hutchins by trades had stretched the roster thin. But Zollner quickly lost patience, seeking a quick start in the team’s new digs.

As the classic tale of Eckman’s exit from the coaching fraternity is often told, he received a long-distance call from Zollner, vacationing in Florida. Zollner said, “Charley, we have to make a change in your department.” 

Eckman said, “Sure, Fred, who are we getting rid of?”

Only then did he realize he was the only man in his department.

Looking back, he could take pride in the fact that only Boston Celtics coaching legend Red Auerbach had won more games in the three-plus years Eckman, as the first and only referee to become head coach, had with the Pistons. But it was time to replace the sideline business suit with the more familiar stripes of a referee.

His long and colorful career as a whistle-tooter had begun rather humbly in Baltimore at the age of 16, refereeing games at the Cross Street Hall and Fourteen Holy Martyrs Roman Catholic Church five and six times a night for 50 cents a game while still attending City College.

With his gift for gab, Eckman might have aspired to become a politician like his City College classmate Schaefer, but quickly realized he wasn't a star student.

"The difference between Schaefer and me," Eckman often cracked, "was he had better eyesight and could copy off the smart Jewish kid sitting in front of us."

And after a brief stint as an 18-year-old infielder and teammate of future Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm for Mooresville in the Class D Carolina State League, Charley acknowledged he had a better chance of earning a living as a referee than hitting a 90-mph fastball. He quickly rose through the ranks and officiated hundreds of games at local colleges.

"It seemed every time I turned around, he was officiating one of our games," said Jim Lacy, the Loyola College great of the late '40s who became Baltimore’s fire commissioner. "He was a genuine character and could run backward faster than most of the players could run forward. The fans at Loyola loved him. He talked to all the players and spectators, but still managed to control the game. As far as I'm concerned, he was the best referee I ever saw.

"Plus, when the game ended, he'd join everyone for a beer at McGee's Tavern on York Road. He'd often tell me I was good enough to play in the pros, but the money just wasn't there in those days.”

Bucky Kimmett, who starred about the same time for the then-Towson State Teachers, remembers how Eckman enjoyed "coaching" while still refereeing a game. "During the game, he'd walk up to my teammate, Bobby Watson, and say, 'Hey, Watson, stop wasting time. Pass the ball to Kimmett. He knows what to do with it,'" Kimmett said.

Eckman, with his be-bopping, crowd-pleasing style, soon became a highly sought-after official by the ACC, the ECAC (now the Big East), the Ivy League and at Madison Square Garden's hoops mecca. One season, the peripatetic Eckman worked a staggering 148 college games.

He admittedly had a unique philosophy on the role of a basketball referee.

"If you have some common sense, good judgment and a big voice, then you can referee," he said. "If you get along with the players up front, you won't have any problems. Coaches never bothered me. We'd talk the same native tongue. You've got to know the rules, but rules are made to be broken, and you interpret them. You tell 'em, 'That's the way I saw it, nd to hell with the rules.'" 

And no one really knew what he might do anywhere, anytime. Take the time Dean Smith decided to work his patented "Four Corners" stall against Duke. No one scored for agonizing minutes. During a break in the non-action, Eckman carried a chair onto the court and seated himself at mid-court. When play resumed, he turned to Tar Heel point guard Larry Brown and said, "Let me know when you guys are ready to play basketball."

Even when his back-breaking basketball schedule ended in late spring, Eckman sought new ways to provide more income for his ever-patient wife, his son Barry and three daughters, Linda, Anita and Janet. Today, only Janet resides in Maryland. Her siblings and mother all live in North Carolina.

Janet still has humorous memories of how her free-spirited father frightened off the prospective beaus of his teenaged daughters. "He'd embarrass us to tears," she said. "He'd greet our boyfriends in his underwear or pajamas. But that didn't seem to bother them a bit. He'd start telling sports stories or ask them to join him for a beer, and we'd have a hard time getting out the door."

When she was a junior in high school, Janet got her driver's license and soon joined her father on trips down Tobacco Road.

"I couldn't believe how the fans reacted to him," she said. "I'd go to a game at Wake Forest and when they'd introduce my father as one of the referees, the fans would applaud louder than for their home team. People respected him for making the game fun."

Janet loves re-telling the lightning courtship of her parents in North Carolina, a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor. After finishing his minor league season, Charley met a comely waitress on a Tuesday and left her a quarter tip. He asked the then-Wilma Howard to join him at the movie show the following night and proposed on Friday. They crossed the state line to York, S.C., to get hitched by a justice of the peace. Today, Janet wonders why they wasted so much time at the movies.

She would later join her father on trips to Charles Town racetrack, where he seemed to know everyone -- horse walkers, jockeys, stewards and track executives.

"He liked the hired hands best of all,” she said. “If he forgot their name, he called them ‘Coach’ or ‘Leader,’ but he always favored the underdog."

One of Eckman's favorite jobs during the offseason was serving as a baseball scout for the Braves and Phillies. He developed a keen eye for talent after accompanying Papa Joe Cambria, who signed a number of Cubans before Jackie Robinson officially broke the color barrier.

In 1953, Eckman was intrigued by a slender outfielder playing for Southern High named Al Kaline, who appeared to possess all the qualities of a major leaguer. "I really pushed for the Phillies to sign him, but I was their only scout that saw him as a can't-miss prospect," Eckman once said. "Finally, the Phillies said they'd give their OK if he signed for less than $6,000, which would have required them to keep him on the big-league roster."

Kaline, who would become the youngest American League batting champion and a Hall of Famer, picked up the story on a recent visit to Baltimore.

"I knew Charley, but didn't see him at that many of my baseball games,” he said. “A lot of people thought I was better at basketball, and I got an offer from Duke. But my senior year at Southern, I got invited to the Hearst All-Star game in New York. I hit a double and home run to win the MVP award. Charlie Gehringer, who was then the Tigers' general manager, watched that game and told his scout, Ed Katalinas, to sign me right away for $6,000. That's how I wound up with Detroit." 

However, Eckman might have enjoyed the last laugh. Phillies' owner Bob Carpenter gave him a $5,000 a year pay raise for recognizing genuine talent.

With bursitis in his shoulder, sore legs, a slight limp, a history of blood clots and severe jet lag, Eckman at 45 finally stowed his referee's whistle away in the late '60s, saying he "felt like a $2,000 claimer at Charles Town."

Baltimore never looked better, and he was ready to launch a new career in broadcasting, a field that seemed like a perfect match for his down-to-earth, irreverent personality that could readily identify with the fans in the bleachers.

The first to recognize these traits was Neil, then program manager at WCBM. "We had Charley come into the studio, handed him some wire copy for him to read, and he was sensational. True to character he was loud, brash and funny. He was a natural. A star born," Neil said.

Perhaps Neil's biggest coup was pairing Eckman with kindred spirit Artie Donovan, the Hall of Fame Colts tackle with a born gift for laughter. Together, they were better than Abbott and Costello, often switching roles.

"I loved Charley from the first time I saw him over 50 years ago working in the old Garden in New York," said Donovan, a Bronx native. "My gang would sit way up in the balcony at the college doubleheaders. But the first guy I noticed was Eckman, who was putting on a better show than the players. I said, 'Who is that loudmouth referee?' He was nuts."

Their radio show produced such positive numbers, the odd couple soon found themselves on television. They would take sides in picking the NFL "Game of the Week," with the loser forced to perform a comedic stunt. Donovan lost one week and was required to capture a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. 

"We went out to this farm in Howard County," said Donovan. "All of the sudden, a bunch of wild turkeys surrounded me and Charley, and one pecked me real hard on the top of my head. I never ran so fast, and I think Charley broke the hurdles record clearing the fence."

Eckman's popularity as a broadcaster continued to soar, and he was hired away by WFBR in 1970.

"Charley was special," said Harry Shriver, who served as the station's longtime general manager. "He could stop traffic on Charles Street. People loved him. All the cab drivers would spot him and ask him for a hot tip at Pimlico. On the air, he still sounded like he was calling a foul in a basketball game.

"Sometimes you had to tune him down a bit. There were times I wanted to strangle him. He was a loose cannon. But he knew how and when to control his vocabulary, and the sponsors couldn't have been happier. He was probably the hottest advertising property in Maryland."

Over time, Eckman had the privilege of working Orioles games with Chuck Thompson and Bill O'Donnell, and his frantic "Get out of here!" call of a game-winning homer by Doug DeCinces remains a treasured memory of O's fans.

But if cornered, Eckman would have probably admitted his lengthy relationship with the Baltimore Blast indoor soccer team as his most rewarding broadcasting experience. His assignment was natural, serving as the color man for play-by-play announcer Art Sinclair. 

"Charley sort of became the show for the team, on the air and on the road," said Drew Forrester, the then-Blast general manager who is now a talk show host on WNST. "Charley did the Blast games from 1981 to 1990 and came back in 1992 to do the Spirits. But I knew Charley from growing up in the same Glen Burnie neighborhood. As a kid, I even shoveled his sidewalk a few times. … Going out to dinner with Charley on the road was unforgettable. You'd get a three-hour lecture on life and sports, but it was always a treat."

No one appreciated Eckman's ties with the Blast more than coach Kenny Cooper, who was a character in his own right. "Charley was really instrumental in bringing me to Baltimore," said Cooper, now living in Dallas and overseeing the highly-promising soccer career of his son, Kenny Jr. "He was like a father figure to me. We had similar backgrounds, him growing up in Baltimore and me in Liverpool, two blue-collar towns. He made me and my family feel like part of his own. He was responsible more than anyone for selling the indoor soccer game to the fans, and I think hooking up with the Blast gave him a new lease on life."

Cooper readily acknowledges that Eckman's extensive basketball background helped mold his soccer strategy.

"Basically, basketball and indoor soccer have a lot in common with the passing and cutting and Charley knew the game because Baltimore was once a hotbed for soccer, with a lot of imported players," Cooper said. "Originally, fans were pessimistic, but Charley could sell anything in his hometown. He was like a walking billboard that read, ‘Eckman of Baltimore.’"

Cooper remembers making a friendly bet with Eckman, who boasted of knowing somebody in every town the Blast performed. "Charley knew everybody -- politicians, athletes, waitresses, bellhops. But on our 74th road trip I thought I finally had him, flying home from Phoenix. We boarded the plane when the pilot popped out of the cabin for a final check. And damn if he didn't greet Charley with a big hug."

Charley began his battle with cancer in 1991, and in his open, colorful vernacular, cracked, "I had to call two cabs to escape that time."

But in 1994, a year before he died, he received an unexpected $19,348 windfall from the National Basketball Association for being a pioneer referee.

Arnie Heft, another Baltimore native, who often partnered with Eckman in the early days, had fought a long battle with the league to establish a pension fund for the then-six surviving old-time officials -- himself, Eckman, head referee Pat Kennedy, Sid Borgia, Sid Fox and Joe Serafin. 

Heft remembers how effusively he was thanked for his labor by Eckman and his wife.

"It was a real rough time for her, but Wilma was really appreciative of the check," he said. "I believe she used it to help buy her home in North Carolina."

The final buzzer finally blew for Eckman on July 3, 1995. But he had already written his own epitaph: "Life's like basketball, better than a movie," he said. "If you kick one, admit it and keep on moving. When I was reffing, the first thing I wanted them to know [was that] I was going to be there all night, and they were going to nowhere without me. Then we had some fun."

More than fun, Charley. A lifetime of laughs and great memories. Call a limo. No, call two limos. You deserved it.  

Photos courtesy of Linda Eckman Watts

Issue 2.27: July 5, 2007