Sports personality Charley Eckman dies

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Charley Eckman has called his last cab.

The former sportscaster, referee, National Basketball Association coach and raconteur whose trademark "call a cab" and tell-it-like-it-is views endeared him to Baltimore sports fans for 40 years, died yesterday of cancer at his Glen Burnie home. He was 73.

Mr. Eckman was known for his rubbery-faced, cigar-waving, iconoclastic antics delivered in a raspy-voiced style that sometimes was short on correct grammatical usage. He was credited with using an expression so often that it quickly became a cliche.

He coined his "call a cab" line to dismiss subjects he thought should be dismissed. If he found them really unworthy, he would bellow, "No, make that two cabs."

After his cancer surgery some years ago, he declared: "I had the cancer removed. I had to call two cabs for that cancer."

Richard Sher, a WJZ-TV broadcaster and former sports director of WCBM, worked with Mr. Eckman in 1967. "His voice was shrill and gravelly and without question identifiable -- and if you ever had any doubt, you knew who it was when you heard, 'You can't beat them cherries' or 'Ain't no way, Jose,' " Mr. Sher said.

"He was successful because of the strength of his personality," said Fred Neil, public information officer for the division of rehabilitation services at the state Department of Education, who as news director at WCBM hired Mr. Eckman in 1965.

"We were auditioning him for a talk and ripped off some wire copy for him to read, and he was sensational," said Mr. Neil, who has been working on a biography of the colorful sportscaster. The book, "It's A Very Simple Game, Charley Eckman Whistle Blower and More," is to be published next year.

"He was an entertainer who never forgot what he was there to do," Mr. Neil said.

Harry Shriver, radio executive and former president and general manager of WFBR who hired him from WCBM in 1970, recalled, "I went after Charley because he was special.

"He was one of those certified Baltimore characters like Mr. Diz, Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin and Harley Brinsfield -- and we no longer have them to brighten our city. He was a character and was so well-known that he could stop traffic and draw a crowd on Charles Street."

Mr. Shriver likened Mr. Eckman's on-air style to "that of a basketball referee -- which was what he used to be -- and he talked on the radio like he was calling fouls at the Arena."

Before retiring from WFBR in 1987, he was known for eschewing radio scripts and depending on his own knowledge. Often ad-libbing, he sometimes forgot the name of his sponsors. He had to promise one bank president that in the future he would refer to the bank's money as money rather than "scratch."

"He used to do ads for Joe Louie's Chinese restaurant in Anne Arundel County and instantly immortalized its shrimp toast, a house specialty, which he pronounced as 'shrimpie toast,' " said Mr. Shriver, laughing.

Known as a man who liked to enjoy a beer or two with genial companions, Mr. Eckman brought this feeling, all ad-libbed, to radio beer commercials.

"How about it, coach? You thirsty? Well, you sure know what to do about it, dont'cha? Get on over there to your favOHrite waterin' hole for a nice, big, frosty glass of everyone's favOHrite beer. National Bo. Mmmm-mmmm!," he intoned on the radio in the early 1970s.

His brash style and sometimes insensitive comments brought some censure through the years, such as the time he remarked that the Japanese winner of the Boston Marathon "must have thought he was bein' chased by an atom bomb," or his description of rock 'n' roll as "that goddam boom-boom stuff."

In semiretirement, he could occasionally be heard on WCBM or as a guest on a Home Team Sports talk show. He also was a panelist on WJZ-TV's "Square Off" and announced games for the Baltimore Blast.

Known as "The Coach," Charles Markwood Eckman was born in a Stricker Street rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore, the only son of a meat cutter who was gassed during World War I. His father died when he was a youngster and he was forced to go to work to help support his widowed mother.

As a youth, he worked as a bat boy for the Albany Senators of the International League when they visited old Oriole Park.

"My first paying job was when I was 12 years old and I got hired on a Bugle Coat & Apron Co. delivery and pickup truck," he said in a 1987 Evening Sun interview. "I had 19,000 pimples on my face, made $7 a week and was so happy it couldn't be put into words."

By the time he was 16 he was refereeing amateur basketball games five and six nights a week for 50 cents a game at places such as Cross Street Hall and Fourteen Holy Martyrs Roman Catholic Church while attending City College, where he graduated in 1939.

"He was a dynamic individual who had a varied career, but was always fun to be with," said his City College classmate William Donald Schaefer, the former governor, who appointed him state sport consultant. "There is no one word to describe Charley. He never changed. He acted the same way when we were at City College, talking loud and telling stories. . . . They don't make them like that anymore."

Marvin Mandel, another former governor and also a classmate, said, "He was a very unique individual who was everybody's friend. And when I say unique, I mean just that. That's what Charley was -- unique -- and he was the same way back at City College."

He was drafted by the Army in 1942 and later transferred to the Army Air Corps. But he washed out of pilot training and spent the remaining war years in Yuma, Ariz., working as a physical training instructor and refereeing basketball games in his spare time.

After returning to Baltimore, he worked briefly for Westinghouse, Martin Aircraft Co. and Crown, Cork & Seal before becoming an umpire with the old Tri-State Baseball League. He quit after three weeks, describing the experience as "a grubby life," and in 1947 he was hired because of his flamboyant, arm-waving refereeing style by the Basketball Association of America, forerunner of today's National Basketball Association.

He officiated at the first NBA All-Star game in Boston in 1951 and by 1954 was one of the country's top referees when he was

hired by industrialist Fred Zollner to coach the then-Fort Wayne Pistons. He won two Western Division titles, tied for a third and was named Coach of the Year his first season. He was the only man ever to referee and later coach in an NBA all-star game. He was fired in 1959.

"When I got fired, Fred Zollner told me, 'We're making a change in your department.' I said to myself, 'Who's in my department?' I realized, it was only me. I had no assistants, no notebooks, not even any plays," he later said of the experience.

He returned home and lost his bid for a seat in the House of Delegates. He was appointed judge of the Anne Arundel County Orphans' Court by Gov. J. Millard Tawes.

"Orphans' Court ain't about orphans, it's about wills," said Mr. Eckman.

Refereeing more than 100 games in 1967, he decided to retire after experiencing leg problems. "Basketball ain't no fun anymore," he told a Newsweek reporter at the time. "The game's too rough, especially in college. They're playin' for blood. The pros ain't no better."

"The crowds were entertained by his antics, and entertaining the crowd was part of his schtick -- he was a good official who always kept control of the games he was refing. I saw him ref high school, college and pro games and he was always the same. One of his favorite sayings was 'He's a right guy,' and that's what Charlie was," said Vince Bagli, recently retired WBAL-TV sports editor.

Mr. Eckman had lived since 1948 in Glen Burnie, where he settled with his wife, the former Wilma Howard, who was a 20-year-old waitress when she met her future husband while working in a restaurant in Mooresville, N.C.

"I was busy working when the boss ask me to serve a customer his dessert. It was a chocolate sundae. I'll never forget it. He introduced himself later at the cash register and asked me out, and we got married three days later. We went over the state line to get married and then took a day coach to Baltimore because we couldn't afford a Pullman berth," Mrs. Eckman said.

Mr. Shriver recalled, "He loved the races, but I never won a thing off of his tips."

When a listener called his radio show inquiring if a horse had won the third race at Pimlico, his reply showed no mercy. "Ain't no way, sweetheart. Whatzamatter, honey, your old man have a fin on King Flame?"

Longtime friend and coach Kenny Cooper said: ""He was like Will Rogers, he never met a person he didn't like. He lives and dies for the city of Baltimore and the state. I've been blessed by knowing him. He has lived his life to the fullest and now he had nothing left in the gas tank."

"He had a heart of gold. He never turned down anyone who asked him to lecture or speak to a group and he didn't care if he even got paid," said Mr. Sher.

Despite repeated hospitalizations, Mr. Eckman maintained his sense of humor for visitors at his home. "Look, I'm not afraid of dying. I've had a terrific life. I can't do much more. How many non-Catholics have their top monsignor in the world, Marty Schwallenberg, praying for them?" he said recently.

Funeral services will be at 10 a.m. Thursday at Harundale Presbyterian Church, Eastway and Guilford Road, Harundale.

In addition to his wife of 53 years, Mr. Eckman's survivors are a son, Barry Eckman of Glen Burnie; three daughters, Linda Lou Watts of Millersville, Anita Gail Parsley of Glen Burnie and Janet Marie Eckman of Severna Park; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

Memorial contributions may be made to Hospice of the Chesapeake, 8424 Veterans Highway, Millersville 21108.

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