Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Ladies Day

Sunday, Mother's Day, the Hall of Fame celebrated women in baseball by dedicating a new statue to commemorate the AAGPBL, by rededicate the refurbished Women in Baseball exhibit in the museum, and by hosting panel discussions.

Most of the surviving members of the AAGPBL were on hand for a morning session and hung around the rest of the day in or near the museum. Although I didn't make it to their meet-and-greet (too early!), it was a kick to see them there. I've seen so many films, books, and photos on the league that I recognized many of them, not necessarily by name, but I recognized faces, knew they were former players.

The exhibit is done in a Hollywood Deco style, reminiscent of the era the AAGPBL played, reminds me a bit of movie projectors with the green walls and brushed silver letters. I took only a quick look at the exhibit, but see that it is, in some ways, improved over the prior versions.

The reason I went to Cooperstown on Sunday was the afternoon panel discussions. The first one was women and Little League Baseball, the second contemporary women players. Ila Borders was scheduled to appear at the second, but she had to leave, which disappointment me, but her pinch hitter turned out to be someone I have been wanting to meet for a long time, Ria Cortesio. Actually, during the first session, Ria was seated in front of me and Julie Croteau was seated behind me, and for once I remembered to bring my camera!

The women and Little League, well, really girls in Little League, panel included the person who caused LL to institute a boys-only policy, the "Tubby Rule", and the person who caused LL to be forced to allow girls to play. Kathryn Johnson Massar, in the summer of 1950, cut off most of her hair, tucked the rest under her cap, and borrowed the nickname "Tubby" from the Little Lulu comics to try out for LL in Corning, NY. She played the entire season, with her coach, teammates and other players aware she was actually a girl. The following year, LL spelled out plainly that girls were not allowed to play, and that a charter could be taken away if a team included a girl.

That rule was still in place in 1972 when Maria Pepe tried out for LL in Hoboken, NJ. Other teams in the area objected, and rather than have 200 boys in the town be denied LL baseball, Maria left the team. However, NOW (National Organization for Women) went to bat for Maria, and all the other little girls who just wanted to play, and filed a lawsuit on their behalf. The court found in her favor and LL was required to allow girls to try out for baseball. LL grudgingly accepted the ruling, but also developed softball leagues, to steer girls away from baseball.

Maria Pepe, then and now

The third participant was Katie Brownell who exactly a year before had pitched a perfect Little League game, striking out all 18 batters over six innings. Katie is the only girl playing in her league. Seems not much has changed. Julie Croteau made the observation that Little League keeps track (at least publicly) of how many girls are playing in their softball leagues, but does not keep track of how many girls are participating in baseball, claiming they track only the number of players, not their genders. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I agree with premise that LL is hiding those numbers to disguise how many girls play baseball.

The second session, contemporary women in baseball, had a panel consisting of Julie Croteau, Robin Wallace, Ria Cortesio, Phil Niekro, and last minute addition Robin Roberts. (I think Roberts was included just because when there's a HOFer on the premises, he gets put before the public. He had no connection to the subject, as far as I could tell.)

Julie was the first woman to play on a men's college baseball team, first base. She later played for the short-lived Silver Bullets, a professional women's team sponsored by Coors (to promote their then-new product, Silver Bullet Light Beer), went on to coach a men's college team, as well as Team USA in the Women's World Cup of Baseball.

Julie Croteau

Robin Wallace also played on the men's team in college, played on Team USA in the 2004 World Cup, and currently plays baseball in a women's league in Boston.

Robin Wallace

Phil Niekro was the manager of the Silver Bullets (who folded once their sponsorship was discontinued) and provided a lot of laughs for the audience, an animated storyteller.

Ria Cortesio is the only women currently umpiring in organized baseball. Well, not actually at this very moment as the minor league umpires are on strike. That's how she was available to be here during the season. I've been following Ria's career since I first became aware of her, during her second season as an umpire. I'm convinced that the first woman to actively participate in a major league game will be as an umpire. (Major League Baseball already has a woman on the field, head groundskeeper for Detroit, Heather Nabozny.) The argument against women as players because of lack of upper body strength holds absolutely no water in the officiating department. (If girls grew up playing baseball as boys do, they would develop the upper body sufficiently to play competitively with men; you can't suddenly take up an activity as an adult and expect to have the same physical resources as those who have been practicing all their lives.)

Ria Cortesio

When I drove cross-country a few years ago to meet online friends for a game at Wrigley, I made a few stops along the way at minor league parks. Several of those teams played in the Mid-West League, the league Ria was then working for, and I hoped that I might get a chance to see her in action. I did, at the Kane County Cougars' game. (Kane County was the best crowd I have even seen at a ballpark, a great place to attend a game.) At the time, I was thrilled to see her work, thrilled that young girls, 10-12 year olds, were running down to the rail and exclaiming "the ump is a girl!" , a new possibility made real for them. Every season I check the umpire rosters to see where Ria is working, hoping she'll get promoted to the International League, or if she has to remain in Double-A, work for the Eastern League. To see her, unexpectedly, at the Hall Sunday was special. I was almost speechless, but I pulled myself together enough to introduce myself to Ria and have a short conversation.

All three of these women presented themselves as thoughtful, mature people who knew what their circumstances have meant, not only to themselves, but to other women and to generations of girls to come.