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Red Cards and Zebra Stripes: 15 Books about Referees, Umpires, and Other Sports Officials

Two things about the books on this list. One, the titles are great. From Planet of the Umps to You’ve Got to Have Balls to Make It in This League (and no fewer than two books titled Let’s Get It On), you’d almost think the authors’ careers had included countless hours of downtime in locker rooms thinking about what to call their books.

Two: they don’t pull their punches. Sure, officials get the last say on the field, on the court, on the ice, and in the ring. But professionalism keeps most of them from badmouthing the athletes they’ve been judging, and no doubt many officials’ tongues have been bitten bloody while athletes, coaches, managers, and fans rip on the ref after every controversial call.

Now it’s their turn.

Books about referees, umpires, and other sports officials are few enough and far between that I had to dig deep into the archives to fill this list. If you’ve got more recent examples, don’t hesitate to blow the whistle!

 

Football

Inside the Meat Grinder: An NFL Official’s Life in the Trenches, by Chad Brown and Alan Eisenstock

NFL players rarely go on to become NFL officials, but that’s exactly what happened to Brown, who followed seven seasons with the Steelers and Oilers with work as a collegiate and pro football referee. Laced with the profanity players use on the field, this offers a unique perspective.

Last Call: Memoirs of an NFL Referee, by Jerry Markbreit and Alan Steinberg

The self-deprecating Markbreit refereed for more than 40 years, from intramural to high school to college to the NFL, where he eventually worked four Super Bowls. The mentor of the younger Brown, above, he was involved in some infamous calls, such as the “Holy Roller” (or “Immaculate Deception”) in a 1978 game, which gave the Raiders a controversial win over the Chargers. Cue the death threats.

 

Baseball

As They See ’Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires, by Bruce Weber

Weber, a New York Times reporter, offers an early inside look at the men behind the masks. Via exhaustive, sometimes participatory research (in addition to interviewing dozens of umps, players, managers, and league officials, Weber attended an MLB-approved umpire school and strapped on the gear himself), he reveals the intense demands of an often disrespected profession.

Center Field on Fire: An Umpire’s Life with Pine Tar Bats, Spitballs, and Corked Personalities, by Dave Phillips and Rob Rains

A professional umpire for 32 years, many of them in the major leagues, Phillips played the roles of diplomat, detective, mediator, hero, and villain. From tossing Gaylord Perry for throwing spitballs to having a corked bat stolen from his locker in an operation that rivaled Ocean’s Eleven, his memoir is chock-full of details. He even worked the disastrous Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park!

Everything Happens in Chillicothe: A Summer in the Frontier League with Max McLeary, the One-Eyed Umpire, by Mike Shannon

Baseball isn’t just a metaphor for life—it’s a game, damn it! In the Frontier League, the Siberia of organized baseball, one-eyed, middle-aged McLeary officiates the game for no better reason than he gets to hang out with the guys and hoist some cold ones after the game. Shannon, editor of Spitball magazine and author of several other baseball books, chronicles the 2000 season with humor and insight.

Planet of the Umps: A Baseball Life from behind the Plate, by Ken Kaiser and David Fisher

Veteran umpire Kaiser tells the story of his career in the minors and the big leagues in a series of loosely organized anecdotes where the butt of the joke rotates between umps, players, managers, and even the occasional fan. Among the better stories are the time he changed the rules on Michael Jordan (remember when he played baseball?) and what happened when Kaiser’s umping partner left his glass eye on a training table. (What is it with these one-eyed umpires?)

They Called Me God: The Best Umpire Who Ever Lived, by Doug Harvey and Peter Golenbock

Baseball Hall of Famer Harvey officiated 4,673 games between 1962 and 1992. His memoir mirrors his style behind the plate: my-way-or-the-highway. Paired with best-selling coauthor Golenbock (The Bronx Zoo, 1979), Harvey guides readers through his long career (which included a stint as a basketball referee), with dozens of star-studded anecdotes. Even though he never changed his mind, Harvey prided himself on being a good listener, a trait that’s helpful here.

You’ve Got to Have Balls to Make It in This League: My Life as an Umpire, by Pam Postema and Gene Wojciechowski

For an antidote to the boys-will-be-boys humor of many umpiring books, check out Postema’s story: She toiled in the minors for 13 years, hoping to make it to the majors, but never got her shot. She blames sexism, pure and simple, saying MLB wasn’t ready for a female umpire. Her bitterness seems understandable, given the aggressively male environment where she plied her trade.

 

Basketball

The Whistleblower: Rooting for the Ref in the High-Stakes World of College Basketball, by Bob Katz

In this take on the largely overlooked world of Division I officiating, veteran sports journalist Katz focuses on Ed Hightower, a 30-year veteran with an inspiring personal story. College officials study tape like coaches and must handle pressure, hostile crowds, and intimidating coaches to make dispassionate calls that will be disputed by one and all. But Katz succeeds in the impossible: making us root for referees.

 

Soccer

The Man in the Middle, by Howard Webb

Webb, a policeman as well as a ref, journeyed from the backwaters of English soccer to the absolute heights of the game—refereeing the 2010 World Cup final—although an ill-tempered match tainted this honor by forcing him to produce a record 14 yellow cards. In this frank memoir, he discusses the pressures of managing the modern game and why he loved it so much.

The Rules of the Game, by Pierluigi Collina

Acknowledged by many as the best referee the world of soccer has ever seen, the distinctive Italian official describes difficult decisions and the influence of crowd and players while walking readers through some of his many significant games. Perhaps not as colorful and outspoken as some readers would like, his insight and authority are unquestioned.

Seeing Red, by Graham Poll

One of the best-known English referees of his time, Poll’s career was marred by a high-profile mistake when, during a 2006 World Cup game between Croatia and Austria, he failed to send off a Croatian player after a second yellow card. (The third time was the charm.) Controversial and opinionated, Poll pulls back the curtain to share the behind-the-scenes details fans crave.

 

Hockey

The Final Call: Hockey Stories from a Legend in Stripes Paperback, by Kerry Fraser

The legendary, well-respected Fraser spent 30 years in the NHL and worked almost 2,000 games in that time. The focus here is on the 72 games of his final season until he dropped his last puck in 2010, and the memories triggered by each city, from death threats (in Boston it was rumored he would be shot on the ice) to separating large, furious men (Fraser himself is diminutive), to hockey politics.

 

Boxing & MMA

Let’s Get It On! The Making of MMA and Its Ultimate Referee, by “Big” John McCarthy and Loretta Hunt

McCarthy, a former cop (we’re sensing a theme here), possessed a unique blend of size, self-confidence, and unapologetic authority that came in handy during the early days of UFC. In fact, he played a large role in the sport’s future by writing its initial rules and regulations in an effort to ensure its legitimacy and safety. With lots of personal anecdotes, this is an engaging memoir.

Let’s Get It On: Tough Talk from Boxing’s Top Ref and Nevada’s Most Outspoken Judge, by Mills Lane

Sure, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield are tough, but try being the short, bald guy who stopped the fight after Tyson bit off part of Holyfield’s ear. A former Marine and Nevada district judge as well as one of the best-known boxing refs, Lane’s views are black-and-white both inside and outside the ring. No fan of the sycophants and hustlers who congregate outside the ropes, you might say he pulls no punches (ow!) in this entertaining, even inspirational memoir.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of six books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Phantom Tower (2018). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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