Brian Hamilton: Veteran official shares love for games
Walk into Bob Albrecht’s office and it’s absolutely apparent that the sports world has played a large role in the Lake Wildwood resident’s life.
On the wall to the left of his desk are signed photographs of Mike Ditka, George Halas and Walter Payton, legends of the Chicago Bears football franchise for which Albrecht’s son, Ted, once played.
Baseballs and basketballs bearing the signatures of players famous (Joe DiMaggio, for one) and those not quite so (members of a high school team), line the shelves of sports memorabilia.
The walls are overwhelming for a sports fan taking care to study each face inside those frames. But then Bob points to a small black-and-white portrait from yesteryear of a basketball player wearing a crew cut and a familiar smile.
“That’s me,” he says with his booming bass voice and the sweet smoke of his cigar filling the room. “That’s me as a junior in high school, with my two-handed set shot.”
Basketball was Bob’s sport of choice growing up in Illinois. He actually lettered on the hardwood at the University of North Dakota and was about to join up with the varsity quad at the University of Illinois in his final season of eligibility when the U.S. Army came calling.
It was late in 1951 when that call came, just after he’d attended officer candidate school during the summer. The Korean conflict had him putting his athletic endeavors on the back burner, with a much more important role to play than anything he could offer the Illini on the basketball court.
And basketball was just one of the games he grew to love, after a successful run as high school coach – evident in the game ball from the 1957 Stephenson County Tournament that shows his Lena Lions topped Orangeville 51-48 for the title.
In addition to playing and coaching, Albrecht also had a second sports life as a baseball, basketball and football official. Being on the other side of the whistle was an eye-opening experience – as a former American League ump Nestor Chylak once said “They expect an umpire to be perfect on Opening Day and to improve as the season goes on.” – but it was a job that he continued to love each time out.
“I enjoyed officiating the most,” he said. “I guess the challenge to officiate the game fairly was the main reason. You want the game played by the rules, but I was never a ‘rule official.’ Those guys usually lacked common sense.
“The worst thing about all three (sports) though is blowouts. That’s an official’s nightmare, because then you get one team playing kids who haven’t played a lot and they make a lot of mistakes and you also have the losing team getting chippy and moaning.
“You know. You got a team losing 10-0 and they put a pitcher in there who can’t find the plate with a seeing-eye dog and a compass.”
To hear him tell it, Albrecht came to a officiate all three sports by chance.
He called his first basketball game when the scheduled officiating crew failed to show up for a frosh/soph game back in Illinois. He and the other varsity coach pulled on a pair of Converse All-Stars and a whistle and called the contest. His first check? A whole five dollars.
Next came football, but only because he once bought a pair of football shoes from a sporting goods guy who urged him to give the sport a shot. Though he’d never played the game, once he got his hands on the rule book “I studied that thing like the Bible.” Upon sending in his officiating test, he was later notified of his perfect score and received his Illinois officiating card.
Baseball was the third officiating hat he pulled across his brow, but it was one he wore for quite some time. He gave it a go after another sporting goods salesman gave him half price on a chest protector. He then grabbed the catcher’s mask and shin guards from the high school team he was coaching and starting calling balls and strikes soon thereafter.
After moving his family – which includes Mary, his wife of 56 years, and their six children – to California, Albrecht continued to coach and officiate throughout his teaching career. He eventually came to call games in the CIBA, which he said predated the Pac-8, which, of course, predated the Pac-10.
And, believe me, those games gave him many stories – some fit for print and others more suited for a chat over a cold one and stogie.
But at 78 years old, the details and anecdotes he shares are interesting and humorous enough to keep any sports fan worth his salt on a barstool for an hour or two. His memory is so sharp, he’s able to tell the story as though it had happened just last week.
The story I wanted to hear the most, however, was a memory he made last month in Maryland.
Albrecht was heading back east for a trip he’d originally planned in 2001. Being good buddies with Major League Baseball coach Tom Trebelhorn, one of the many talents he met while umpiring in the Northwest League – movie star Kurt Russell is another, Albrecht said he was going to get the chance to meet Cal Ripken, Jr. after an Orioles game. That was Ripken’s final season of a 21-year career.
But he never made the trip, which was scheduled for Sept. 11, 2001.
Fast forward to six years later, Albrecht and Mary planned the trip again to visit with Trebelhorn, tour Washington D.C. and take in an Orioles game or two. And while he was there, Albrecht, the former soldier, decided to pay a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“It’s a medical center, not a hospital,” Albrecht declares, as his eyes well with tears and his voice chokes up. “And they’re soldiers, not patients.”
One particular soldier he met made a huge impact on Albrecht. The young man was sitting in a wheelchair with his right arm heavily bandaged and two noticeable scars on his face. Albrecht talked baseball a bit with the soldier.
“The conversation with him was just kind of going no place,” Albrecht said. “I asked if he had any idea when he might be able to get out of there and he just shook his head. I wanted to shake his hand, but because his right hand was bandaged I couldn’t.
“So I reached down to his left hand, which he put up, and grasped it. He just looked at me and didn’t say anything. So I leaned down and kissed him on the forehead. Then I looked to the sergeant escorting me around and he had tears in his eyes, too.”
Though he handed out signed photographs of himself in his Northwest League umpire uniform, Albrecht didn’t go there to play the role of a celebrity sort. He said he went there primarily for one reason.
“I was an officer in the Army,” Albrecht said, his voice again cracking. “I wanted them to just be able to see somebody who could just give them something else to talk about other than war and politics.”
If those conversations were anything like the chat I had with such a great storyteller, there’s no doubt those soldiers were glad to Albrecht decided to go see them.
Which leaves just one thing to be said to our veteran umpire, official and referee:
Nice call, Bob.
Brian Hamilton is sports editor at The Union. His column appears Saturdays. Contact him via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 477-4240.
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