A life in sports enshrined as Charley Eckman Lane

May 18, 1994|By Consella A. Lee | Consella A. Lee,Sun Staff Writer

Charley Eckman shook a hand and bellowed a hello to someone who had come to honor him in that booming tuba of a voice that never hesitated to dress down a fan who rubbed him wrong.

Mr. Eckman, who coached the old Fort Wayne Pistons to two National Basketball Association titles and refereed countless NCAA and NBA games before he became a fixture in Baltimore sports broadcasting, added another honor to his personal record book yesterday.

The entrance to Sawmill Creek Park on Dorsey Road in Glen Burnie was renamed Charley Eckman Lane. The Eckman family cruised up that lane yesterday in a white, 38-foot stretch limousine with a mirrored-ceiling and an 18-foot circular couch.

Behind them came nearly 100 friends and politicians, whose cars filled every parking space in the park and along its driveway.

"He's a great mixer. He always was. He tells it like it is," said Norbert "Mal" Malchester, who has known Mr. Eckman since the two played against each other on local baseball teams in the 1940s.

Mr. Eckman, 72, a fiery man given to colorful language, has successfully battled cancer for the last 2 1/2 years. On stage at the park yesterday, he said, "I'm not a-scared of dying because I've had one helluva life. I can't do much more."

Not many would argue with him.

After winning two NBA titles at Fort Wayne, he became their first coach in 1958 to be fired -- because he didn't deliver a third. He refereed more than 3,500 basketball games. He has scouted baseball players for the Milwaukee Brewers and the Philadelphia Phillies, coached Little League and is in two halls of fame, including the Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame.

Mr. Eckman almost died a few months ago, but then a good incentive to keep living arrived in the mail.

It was a check from the NBA for $19,348 with a letter telling him to expect four more. The NBA is sending the checks in lieu of pensions to the five referees still living from the league of the 1950s, when multimillion-dollar salaries were unheard of. But $50 a game and $5 for meals wasn't bad, said Mr. Eckman, who vowed to live as long as the checks keep coming. "I don't want (them) cheating me. That's all," he said.

During World War II, Mr. Eckman served as a bombardier in the Army Air Corps.

"When I saw [them] coming my way, I dropped those bombs and went the other way, singing. 'Hello dolly, here comes Charley,' " he recalled.

He told of once taking a "wise guy," to task for daring to heckle him while he was refereeing his first college game in 1948 at Madison Square Garden.

"What did you pay to get in here?" Mr. Eckman asked the man.

"Twenty dollars," the fan replied.

"And you're giving me the heat?" Mr. Eckman retorted. "I'm getting $100 to be here. Now who's the dummy?"

"He got up and walked out the Garden," said Mr. Eckman. "I finished him up. I straightened him up. No more problems.

"I loved to referee. I loved to hear that crowd. I loved to hear them," said the old referee, who enjoys a cigarette and a shot of Chivas Regal. His health has forced him to cut back on the Scotch, he said.

Mr. Malchester said his friend has always been fiery, competitive and loud. "You can always tell when Charley's around," said Mr. Malchester.

Mr. Eckman's wife, Wilma, swears her husband "calms down at home."

"He enjoys the paper. He enjoys TV," she said. "He enjoys his family."

They met in Mooresville, N.C., on a Tuesday 52 years ago. She was a waitress. He had come to town to play a baseball game. By that Friday, they were hitched and he bought her back to Baltimore on the train. Over the years, they have raised four children.

Their three daughters were at the park yesterday. Their son was in Germany, on vacation.

On the drive to her parents' home yesterday, Janet Eckman passed by the sign bearing her father's name.

"I thought, 'My God, for the rest of my life I will see that sign.' It just brought tears," she said.

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