The forty-year anniversary of the enactment of Title IX of the Education Amendment Act is upon us, but today, June 24th, also marks the forty-year anniversary of an act of steadfast courage that forever altered the landscape of professional baseball and cracked open its stained grass window far enough for us to be able to glimpse the future somewhere within the dark shadows of its murky and discriminatory past.
Image courtesy of the Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York
June 24th, 1972: Bernice Gera prepares to take the field in Geneva, New York as professional baseball's first woman umpire in the modern era. Her appearance that night at Shuron Park, home of the Geneva Senators, would be the culmination of five years' worth of soul-sapping lawsuits filed against baseball seeking entry into the ranks of professional umpires for the ambitious, baseball-loving Gera. Finally getting a contract and a genuine assignment that could not be invalidated by the misguided misogynists who ruled the baseball universe at that time would be another battle entirely, one from which she would emerge ultimately undefeated but not entirely unscathed.
For your edification, I now present a brief timeline of professional women umpires - and I do mean brief. Very, very brief. Before Bernice Gera, there was Amanda Clement. Miss Amanda was an athlete of great renown who put herself through college umpiring high-caliber baseball out in the midwest at the turn of the twentieth century. She was invited by Ban Johnson to join the umpiring staff of the fledgling American League in 1903, but turned the offer down to remain close to her South Dakota home in order to teach and coach youngsters in the healthful ways of outdoor activities and athletic competition, which she did all the days of her long and remarkable life. Amanda's image is displayed at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in the Diamond Dreams: Women in Baseball exhibit on the museum's second floor. More than half a century later, after a dark period during the 1950s and '60s when multiple rulings handed down by major league baseball commissioner Ford Frick, in collusion with other minor league principals, would effectively banish women from the field in any capacity for decades, Bernice Gera would file her lawsuits and navigate multiple legal decisions impacting her right to umpire professionally, finally earning the privilege that long-ago summer of 1972. She may have been a professional umpire according to the law, but her own partner during that first and only game, Doug Hartmayer, failed to get the visiting manager away from her - a basic protocol among crewmates - when he charged out of the dugout and verbally attacked her after she changed a call she'd made at second base. As Gera stated later, "I could beat them in the courts, but I couldn't beat them on the field." So she walked off the field after that first game and never returned, choosing instead to be satisfied with having opened the door for the women - and the men - who would follow in her plate shoes. What Bernice Gera did by filing her lawsuit was compel the courts to strike down the height and weight restrictions that had prevented not just women, but a lot of men too, from joining the ranks of professional umpires.
After Bernice, the list of pro women umpires is short and decidely unsweet, at least for me. Christine Wren fought the powers-that-be and umpired out in the northwest for three brief seasons, 1975-'77, making it to Double AA and then, seeing the writing on the wall, hanging up her plate gear for other less frustrating pursuits.
Pam Postema got promoted into pro ball out of umpire school in 1977. She advanced as far as Triple AAA before being given her walking papers in 1989 after thirteen years of providing camouflage for baseball's dubious insistence that it "welcomes" women's participation.
Theresa Fairlady followed Postema, but didn't make it out of the Arizona Rookie League before being released after only two seasons.
Ria Cortesio went to umpire school and got a job in 1999, progressing to Double AA and then getting her pink slip in 2007 after the completion of her ninth season in pro ball.
For two seasons during Ria's tenure, another woman, Shanna Kook, umpired in the low minors, but Shanna and Ria never worked together and were never in the same league at the same time.
Since 2007, there have been no women - zero, zip, zilch, nada, none - umpiring at any level of professional baseball, and there are currently no women, not one, in the pipeline that is the only conduit now leading to jobs in pro ball. (For those of you who wonder why I haven't included either myself or Kate Sargeant in this shrieking, estrogen-crazed horde of half a dozen, it's because neither she nor I has ever been on the staff of a legitimate minor league. All the pro umpiring I do is either during spring training, where I'm hired on a per-game basis directly by the clubs, or in the independent leagues, such as the Atlantic League, that operate outside the purview of the organized baseball loop.)
So there you have it. Six women in forty years, eight if you count Kate and me. That's about one woman every half decade or more, about as many of us as baseball is capable of handling, apparently. We're just such a bother! And it's because of Bernice Gera's bravery and tenacity, her refusal to yield to the forces marshalled against her, that those few of us have managed to penetrate the sacrosanct barriers of the professional ballfield. Without her unflinching efforts, who knows how much longer it would have taken or how much more daunting it might have been for any of us to walk out on the field beside our partners and feel that we really do belong, that we really have earned the right to be there. The amended law technically came first by the slimmest margin of twenty-four hours, but what Bernice Gera did forty years ago today ranks as high up as Title IX, at least in my book, in helping to advance the cause of truly equal opportunity in sports, as well as in life.