Umpire Jim Pemberton mans the base paths during a game between Canoga Park… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
John Pemberton reaches into his back pocket, pulls out a small broom, bends low and sweeps the dirt left and then right, manicuring the white strip of rubber in the middle of the pitcher's circle.
Upright again, he lifts the bill of his dark blue cap and tilts his head for a final inspection. Satisfied, he breaks into a trot and hustles over to first base.
For nearly half a century, Pemberton, 77, has operated in the organized mayhem of high school, college and professional sports. He is a game official, nimbly avoiding collisions with 300-pound football players hellbent on slamming into one another during the fall and winter, then presiding over softball games played by teenage girls with ribbons in their ponytails during the spring.
"Some of these girls," he says admiringly, "can throw that ball through a brick wall."
For Pemberton, there is little difference between officiating a game in front of more than 100,000 in a packed stadium on New Year's Day and working before a dozen fans in the sun-scorched bleachers on a hot spring afternoon. Officiating offers exercise — "It keeps the blood circulating," Pemberton says — and gratification.
"I take pride in doing the best job I can," he says. "I don't take it lightly."
He is among thousands of officials who help make high school sports possible in California, annually overseeing tens of thousands of games and events involving boys' and girls' teams among the California Interscholastic Federation's 1,500 member schools.
"We can't operate without them," says Thom Simmons, spokesman for the CIF's Southern Section, which encompasses most of the Southland.
Assignments in all sports are made by local or regional officiating associations, which certify that officials have been trained in rules, safety and other issues. There are no age limits, but officials for high school competitions cannot be high school students.
For all competitions other than multiple-event swimming and track-and-field meets, officials earn less than $100. Softball umpires such as Pemberton earn $68.
"No one is making a living off this," says Ron Nocetti, associate executive director of the CIF.
Some officials hope to ascend through the high school and college ranks to the pros. But most, Nocetti says, just want to give back, help kids and make part-time money doing something they enjoy.
Pemberton, a retired schoolteacher, clearly relishes interaction with players, coaches and fans.
Before a March game between Canoga Park and Reseda high schools, he sits in the Canoga Park dugout inspecting equipment.
"Hey," he ribs senior Holly Johnson, "you've been here for six years now."
"What?" Johnson answers, giggling, "This is my fourth."
In his only bow to age, Pemberton works the bases instead of behind the plate, but he stays on the move throughout the game, running from behind first base to the middle of the field on balls hit to the outfield and positioning himself perfectly for a close play at third base.
Meanwhile, he keeps a running dialogue with players and coaches.
"He's a chatterbox," Johnson says. "And it's awesome."
Johnson played first base as a freshman, meaning she was in prime position to hear Pemberton's game-long monologues about sports and other topics.
"Where do you come up with this stuff?" she'd ask.
"Well," Pemberton would reply, "when you've lived as long as I have . . ."
Born in 1935, Pemberton grew up in the San Fernando Valley, spending most of his formative years with his grandparents. He loved sports but was unable to play competitively at Van Nuys High because he needed to work to supplement his family's income. He spent afternoons outside the door at the General Motors Van Nuys assembly plant, selling afternoon newspapers for a nickel apiece.
"I drove the P.E. teacher crazy," he says, "because he was the track coach and I was the fastest kid in school."
At Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Pemberton finally went out for football and played receiver. He moved on to the University of Idaho and was listed as a halfback in 1959 and 1960. A class about officiating sparked a new interest, and he began refereeing beer-fueled fraternity football games.
"For a few of those kids it was more than a Super Bowl," he says.
After college, Pemberton returned to the Valley and sold advertising for a year before becoming a teacher at a junior high in Canoga Park. To supplement his income, he started officiating youth and high school football games.
"I realized with three boys and a wife that didn't work, it was tough to put food on the table," he says.
Pemberton worked his way up through the junior college and small college ranks before then-USC coach John Robinson recommended him to the Pacific 10 Conference.