Charley Eckman marched through life like a one-man band, all brass. The angels in heaven must be holding their ears today. Such language, Mr. Eckman! Such stories, Mr. Eckman! Oh, but, Mr. Eckman, could you tell us again about the time . . .?
Which time? The time Charley refereed North Carolina and Duke in basketball, and Carolina went to its four-corner stall? It was 2-0 after 15 minutes. Everybody was yawning. Charley pulled a folding chair onto the court in the middle of play and sat himself down. "Hell," he said, "you ain't doing nothing, I ain't doing nothing."
Which time? The time he was coaching the old NBA Pistons and called timeout with seconds left in a tie game? Charley gathered his players around him, and a moment later they scored and won. Reporters asked, "What play did you send in?" "There's only two plays," Charley said. " 'South Pacific,' and Put the Ball in the Basket."
Which time? The time he went to the old boxing promoter Eli Hanover's grandson's bris? The next morning, on his radio sports show, Charley announced, "First time I ever saw a clipping without a 15-yard penalty."
Yeah, those angels, they're getting an earful today, which is what the rest of us got for 73 years, until yesterday, when Charley Eckman died of cancer. It was a long and nasty fight, and late in the going Charley sat in his Glen Burnie home, with his family bundled about him, and muttered, "Everything hurts, and what doesn't hurt, doesn't work."
For a long time, though, nobody worked like Eckman. He coached the Pistons to a couple of titles, and then got himself fired. He did sports on the radio for two decades, and on TV for a lot of seasons, and the only scripts he ever used were some notes he'd jot on matchbook covers a few moments before air time.
He refereed 3,500 college basketball games over 29 seasons, and when he called a foul, it sounded like a guy taking hostages: "Nobody move," he'd bellow. "I got you right here with a hip."
"My theory," he was saying a few months back, "was, let the kids play the game. I'd talk to 'em all the time. 'Quit holding him,' I'd say. Or, 'Nice play.' You know, let 'em know I was giving 'em some room. Believe me, there's enough pressure on these kids.
"I'm refereeing at Madison Square Garden one time, and Dick McGuire's playing and he can't hit a free throw all night. There's a timeout, I go over to the bench for some water, and here's this priest who goes up to McGuire. He says, 'Don't cross yourself before you make your foul shots.' McGuire says, 'Father, I've been doing it all my life.' The priest says, 'Yeah, but you missed eight in a row. You're making the religion look bad.'
"Everybody makes mistakes. When I'd call a foul, hell, I'd make it a federal case. Even if I kicked it, I made it look like I got it right.
One time I made a bad call on this kid from Clemson. He says, 'What'd I do?' I said, 'Just stand there for a minute, I'll think of something.' "
He was remembering some of this over lunch one day at Sabatino's Restaurant. Somebody mentioned William Donald Schaefer. They were classmates at City College. Did you graduate together? somebody asked.
"Nah," Charley laughed, "Schaefer graduated early, 'cause he copied off all the Jewish guys. I'd have done it, too, but I couldn't see that far."
Sitting a few seats from Eckman was John Vicchio, longtime roofer around town, who recalled playing a recreation league game more than half a century ago, where Charley refereed and called Vicchio for a foul. Eckman remembered it. He remembered everything.
"Sure, I remember," he told Vicchio. "Your man's laying on the floor. You're going, 'I didn't hit him.' I said, 'Oh, yeah? How'd he get down there, by bus? Ain't nobody here but me and you.' "
Around the table, everybody laughed. Everybody who wasn't sitting at Charley's table waited for an empty seat at his table.
"Bring on some ugly guys," Eckman shouted. "It makes me look better."
Only occasionally did he leave clues about the needs that drove him all his life. His father died when Charley was 12. He and his mother lived in a little apartment at 1244 North Ave. Charley remembered lying in bed at night, usually hungry, and smelling the aromas from the old Bond Bread bakery.
"One night," he remembered, "I sneak out of the house and grab a couple of buddies. I tell 'em, 'We gotta get that bread.' So we're leaning in the window. We got a rope with a knife on the end, and we're gonna spear that bread right off the conveyor belt. We got three loaves when this guy comes out, yelling, 'Hey, you kids, what's going on out there?'
"We're hungry," Eckman said.
"Well, you're honest, anyway," the guy said, and came out with two more loaves of bread.
"Not only that," Eckman said, "but he took us to a Boy Scout meeting the next week. I walk in there with 8 cents in my pocket. These kids are all dressed up in their uniforms. He says, 'You can have one, too. For $10.95.'
"For 10.95! He might as well ask for $10 million. I couldn't pay $10 to see the pope come back. Well, what the heck, them Scouts was probably spending their time making knots and watching squirrels. If I tied a knot, I'm liable to hang myself."
Ironically, in January, the Four Rivers District Boy Scouts of America gave him their Good Scout Award. Charley knew he was in bad shape, but he told the crowd, "Whether I die tomorrow, it doesn't matter. I've lived. What am I gonna do, stop and wave to people, and say, 'Wait a minute, I might go'? No, you just go on living."
He lived like few of us do. Lived with his inhibitions down and his volume turned all the way up. Call me a cab, Charley used to say. A cab? Call Charley Eckman an American original.