Charley Eckman won't yield to toughest foe

April 19, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

Being confined to the house weighs heavily on Charley Eckman, who, to use one of his most inimitable phrases, would rather be "romping and stomping." Cancer is a difficult foe, as he knew it would be, but he keeps dealing with the problem and won't back down.

"They don't give you a gold medal when you get it," was the way he relayed the news to friends after the doctor informed him of the diagnosis two years ago.

Always looking for a laugh, in any and all situations, he said, "Maybe I'll kill it off with Scotch whiskey before the Scotch whiskey kills me."

Now Eckman is tough, both mentally and physically. But none of us realized the true depth of his courage, the tenacity that burns deep within, until the current crisis. To quit isn't any part of the Eckman persona. In these trying times, he keeps pushing onward and never complains.

"My knees are weak," is perhaps his only negative report.

"Other than that I'd meet you for lunch at the Club 4100 in beautiful downtown Brooklyn, which is located right next to beautiful downtown Brooklyn Park," Eckman said. "Manny and his brother are right guys. Tell them they make the best Greek salad I've ever eaten."

Loyal friends keep calling and wife Wilma, three daughters and a son cater to his every desire. Roland Hemond, the Orioles general manager, checks in several times a week from spring training.

"He has a lot to do but keeps in touch," Eckman says. "Roland is a winner. When I was refereeing in the old National Basketball Association and worked in Providence, he was one of my ball boys.

"Pete Angelos would have made a serious blunder if he had fired Roland and put in either one of the stiffs they were talking about. Roland doesn't romance the press, which means he's not a phony. He's built for the long haul. Sincere, honest, a right guy. You only need to know the most respected people in baseball to find out what they think of Roland.

"Believe me, the Orioles never had a better general manager and I go all the way back to when George Weiss was GM of the Orioles."

Jim Lacy, whose games Eckman often officiated at Loyola College, insists basketball never had a more colorful referee. "I guess Pat Kennedy was the first of the showmen, but Charley was right with him as a crowd-pleaser and, I believe, more on top of the play," Lacy said. "Charley could really run, as fast as any of the players in the game. He covered the court."

The Rt. Rev. Monsignor Martin Schwalenberg has been a companion and confidant. Although not of the Catholic religion, Eckman goes so far as to say, " 'Schwaly,' which is what I call him, is what a priest should be. He has been my friend for about 100 years.

"If you need help, call in Schwaly. Black, white, Protestant, Catholic or Jew. He helps everybody. He was once a military chaplain; he knows the score. I remember him before he went to the seminary. He played a lot of soccer in Patterson Park and was so mean, I think he'd kick his mother to get the ball."

Eckman has made frequent trips to the hospital for treatment. One Saturday afternoon, when he wasn't feeling his best, an entourage showed up from WJZ, including Richard Sher, Michael Olesker, Ron Matz and Marty Bass. Almost as if on cue, Eckman was back at the top of his game. It was as if he was hosting the show.

The room was vibrant as Charley talked of basketball, baseball, soccer and horse racing, then about bookmakers, cab drivers, policemen, betting horses, being a bat boy for the Albany Senators, lifting a loaf of bread out of Bond Bakery and, get this, the time he almost joined the Boy Scouts.

"I lived on East North Avenue in those days, not far from old Bond Bakery, and some troop leader got me to go to a Scout meeting way out West North Avenue," Eckman recalled.

"He talked about camping in the woods and sleeping under the stars and getting merit badges. Then he said a scout uniform would cost $10.95. But I only heard him say the '95' part. I could come up with the '95', but $10 was something my widowed mother couldn't afford. Times were tough back then."

So Charley and the Boy Scouts quickly parted company until this past January when he lent his name and presence to a fund-raiser in Anne Arundel County.

Eckman made his reputation in basketball and, later, as a sportscaster who shot from the hip, or, more appropriately, right from off the top of his head, because he didn't need a script.

"I'm pleased at all the Jewish prayers, all the Catholic prayers and all the Protestant prayers that are being said for me," he said from his Glen Burnie home. "I know they've had to help. The proof of that is I'm still here.

"John Mooney, the general manager at Pimlico, prays for me, too, besides keeping me informed about the horses. Joe DeFrancis, the Pimlico owner, is a decent person. I just wish he'd give Mooney more authority because Mooney knows everything there is to know about running a racetrack and he's a right guy, too."

Charley Eckman, one of a kind (the world could hardly cope with a duplicate copy), shows more courage with the heat on than any one man is supposed to have. His family idolizes him; friends revere him and he knows it. The battle he's fighting has been long and precarious but Eckman isn't about to bow out since he was always ready to make the tough call.

He fits his own version of the best compliment he knows how to give: A right guy.

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