Ford ‘honored, humbled’ by TSSAA Hall of Fame selection

Dale Ford (left) with the late Graham Spurrier. Ford umpired in two World Series and three MLB All-Star Games.

By Trey Williams

Dale Ford isn’t big on four-letter words. He heard enough of those from the likes of Billy Martin and Earl Weaver while umpiring Major League Baseball from 1974-99.

But it’s now safe to say that he’s had a hall of a retirement.

Ford, a 1960 alumnus of Sulphur Springs, was selected last week for the TSSAA Hall of Fame. He’s essentially been calling high school games since he quit umpiring in the majors.

“It’s certainly an honor and very humbling, but I didn’t do any of that to be inducted in a Hall of Fame or anything,” Ford said Sunday. “I just did it because it thought it was what needed to be done. I came home and I saw me that they needed help umpiring.”

Ford worked in two World Series, three All-Star Games and a number of playoff series. He was also a Division I college basketball official in the offseason and served three terms in the Tennessee House of Representatives after leaving MLB.

Ford grew up “dirt poor” with seven brothers and five sisters. Having six older siblings and six younger siblings made for quite the middle child syndrome.

“You just took it for granted you were gonna wear your brother’s hand-me-downs,” Ford said. “Well, when I got six or seven years old I was bigger than my brother that was two years older than me. I couldn’t wear his hand-me-downs. I had to wear my sister’s. That warped me a little bit, I’m thinking.”

Ford wore his first referee’s uniform when he was 15. Sulphur Springs coach Jerry “Shorty” Broyles was short a ref for an elementary basketball game.

“He gave me five bucks a game or whatever,” Ford said. “Lord, I was rich there for a while. I’s getting two games a week, you know. And then it came to baseball season, same thing happened. He was also the elementary baseball coach and he let me work those games. So I had a little head start on most people, really.”

In the mid-90s Ford thanked Broyles, who died in 2008, with a two-week trip to Spring Training.

“We played golf every day for two weeks and it didn’t cost him a dime,” Ford said. “I paid him back for his kindness he showed to me and my family during high school. I took him in every clubhouse, every dugout. He looked like a kid in a candy shop.”

Ford’s other Spring Training guests included East Tennessee State basketball coach Alan LeForce and ETSU booster Richard Pectol. They were with him when Michael Jordan began his short-lived baseball career. Ford had officiated some of Jordan’s North Carolina games.

“I walked in the clubhouse,” Ford said, “and got a couple of baseballs and took Alan and Pectol in there and said, ‘Hey Michael, this is my local college basketball coach and this is my lawyer.’ He said, ‘Man, what are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I work here. I don’t know why they want your autograph, but they do.’”

Ford was behind home plate when Boston’s Bill Buckner made the error in Game 6 against the Mets in the 1986 World Series, and when Tom Glavine beat former Atlanta teammate Steve Avery in Fenway Park during Avery’s first year at Boston during the inaugural season of interleague play (‘97).

He officiated basketball games at Kentucky when Tennessee High alum Derrick Hord played and former Tennessee High coach Bobby Chambers was an assistant under Joe B. Hall. He called Indiana games when Bobby Knight coached – he had previously met Knight with Sparky Anderson at Spring Training – and officiated NCAA Tournament games. Ford didn’t recall butting heads with Knight, but wasn’t crazy about Knight critic Dale Brown, who coached LSU.

“I always thought Dale Brown was pretty much a back-stabber,” Ford said. “He wanted to yell at you on the floor. If you yelled back he’d call the league office on you.

“Norm Sloan (North Carolina State/Florida) was a tough ole rascal, but Norm was fair. Dale Brown wasn’t fair. Norm Sloan, I can’t quote you what he’d say in the paper, but if you got in an argument today, tomorrow it was all over with. … And that’s the way most of the big-league managers were, everybody except Earl Weaver and Billy Martin, of course.”

Ford once ejected Weaver during the National Anthem. Weaver had gone out to first base four times, he said, to argue with him the night before, and picked up the following day where he’d left off while a large woman sang the national anthem.

Ford and many others called Weaver “Rooney” because his diminutive stature favored actor Mickey Rooney. They were at home plate exchanging lineup cards during the anthem.

“Rooney was talking out of the right corner of his mouth while she sang,” Ford said. “He says, ‘Dale, how many plays are you gonna screw up tonight?’ And I talk out of the left corner of my mouth, and say, ‘Rooney, it don’t matter, because you ain’t gonna be around to see it. As soon as this fat lady’s done, you are, too.’ …

“She finally got through and he looked up at me with his big ole blue eyes, I’ll never forget it as long as I live, and he said, ‘Are you serious?’ in that rough voice. I said, ‘I’m serious as a heart attack.’ So he left. The only time in my life he didn’t try to yell and scream. …

“Weaver was easy. I got him 14 times. I got Bobby Cox five times when he’s in Toronto. I helped him get his record (for ejections). He’d make a sailor blush with some of the stuff he said.”

Ford was in Baltimore when Yankees manager Billy Martin had his arm broken by Erwin native Eddie Whitson. Ford said he was briefly at the Cross Keys Inn bar where the brawl began.

Ford read the recent “Glory Days” on ETSU alum and former Super Bowl referee Jack Vest.

“When Jack Vest died he was wearing a pair of athletic officiating shoes I’d given him,” Ford said. “He was (a dandy). Jack France was a great official. He was as good as I’ve seen – football and basketball both. I knew those guys like Hunter Jackson, Tommy Miller – really good officials.”

Current MLB umpire Will Little credits Ford’s influence for his career.

“The games that got me really ignited into umpiring were with Dale Ford working the Southern Collegiate Baseball League,” Little said. “Once I worked some of those games with Dale, I fell in love with it.”

Ford said it was quickly apparent that Little was a natural.

Ford said Joel Pierce was the assignor when he began calling TSSAA games. He’s enjoyed dealing with Pierce and his successor, Adam Knobloch.

Umpiring has been rewarding, but organizing fundraisers for fire victims and others down on their luck has been incredibly gratifying for Ford and his wife, Joyce. He said they’ve done 319 of ‘em. One generated $21,000. Others have brought in as much as $7,000-10,000.

“It’s my way of giving back,” said Ford, who has proudly cooked barbecue, steak and gravy and spaghetti with meatballs (“I stole the meatball recipe in California”) through the years. He said he’d like to do one more benefit dinner to make it an even 320.

Ford will be inducted during a ceremony in Murfreesboro on Saturday, April 15.

“I’m looking forward to the induction,” he said. “I enjoy umpiring and I’ve worked pretty hard at it.”


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