Behind every big event in our culture, there are individuals who work in relative anonymity. Although you may notice them—they are not your focus. In sports, the officials fill such a role. They monitor what happens between the lines and ensure that rules are applied fairly. They often face participants and fans who disagree with them but just try to play the game without them. Good luck.
One of those relatively faceless officials was John Black. This isn’t to say John isn’t noticeable—his chiseled features reflect a man with a confident and masterful grasp of the rules of the sport he is presiding over, whether with a whistle or an indicator. His consistency and integrity made for one of the best in the business. Agree or disagree, Black was trusted.
That may be a major reason why Black lasted for over 50 years as an official, overseeing football, basketball, and baseball games. He loved each of them but baseball held a special place.
John has been a major force in athletics locally for virtually all his life. Born in Portland, John was raised in Salem, learning about hard work by picking beans and berries in the fields on the edge of town. John is a bit reluctant to say how hard he worked during those summers—admitting that his dad complained it cost more to make his daily lunch than he ever made in the fields.
A 1970 graduate of North Salem High, Black was a three-sport athlete (football, basketball, baseball)—with particular emphasis on baseball, fostered by the instruction of longtime Viking baseball coach Don Schaefer. John later moved on to Oregon College of Education (now Western Oregon University) in Monmouth, where he obtained his Bachelor of Education degree and played second base for the Wolves.
After beginning his teaching career at Waldo Junior High, Black moved to Englewood Elementary School, where he served as the PE instructor for a quarter century. John says he enjoyed being a teacher, and wouldn’t change a thing about his experience.
Black’s lasting impact on athletics came after he retired his own jerseys, and took up a whistle and an umpire's mask. For over five decades, John was a highly respected official on fields and on courts. He traveled all over the state, not making a great deal of money, but loving what he did. He even had his now-adult daughters – Alicia and Megan - along for the ride for his contests—and he could count on them to be voices of support in a sometimes hostile environment.
John also worked with family during his time doing basketball. He and younger brother Mike worked several games together, causing confusion for certain media members when they would purposely misidentify themselves as the opposite brother, just for fun.
John’s long-standing reputation for calling a fair game no matter the team, no matter the school, no matter the situation earned him a number of coveted officiating gigs. He was a part of officiating crews in football, baseball and basketball that worked numerous title games at the statewide level. Additionally, as an umpire for American Legion baseball, Black worked four national championship tournaments—one each in Oregon and Washington, and two in North Carolina. Quite the heady experiences, but Black remained ever humble.
Black gave up his football and basketball officiating duties before ending his officiating career as a baseball umpire in May of 2022, a playoff game at North Marion High School in Aurora—about 25 minutes north of Salem. He specifically requested that game because he wanted to go out as an official on what he felt was the best maintained facility in all of Oregon.
Black’s decision to retire his umpiring gear was one he made with little hesitation. He says the game has changed strategically over time, now emphasizing big hitting as opposed to an approach emphasizing a wider range of skills such as bunting, baserunning, strong pitching, and great defense.
John’s memories of his time as an umpire will always be recalled with fondness because of the friendships he forged over time traveling and working with other professionals.
These days, there is a shortage of officials and umpires—and Black says it has changed the game because there is less opportunity for camaraderie amongst long-serving officials, with more of an emphasis on the pursuit of new people to fill the job.
John Black is part of a group of officials who are starting to fade from the games they supervise, but Black still has faith that a new batch of men and women will arise to help supervise the sports so many of us have enjoyed over the decades.
Let’s all hope that these new officials can fill the size 8 1/2 shoes of John Black—a highly-regarded Beacon in our community, a man who just continued giving back to high school athletics.