It started with two very famous men, and a historic three-hour long conversation that would alter the course of baseball history in a very positive way. The date of that chat, August 28, 1945. The two men that sat down together to agree to change history: Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson.
April 15th will mark the 68th anniversary that Robinson integrated Major League Baseball. Under no circumstances should anyone ever have to go through even a small portion of what Robinson had to endure to integrate a sport, or anything else in society for that matter. Death threats, racial slurs, hotels not wanting Robinson to stay because he wasn’t white, when all he wanted to do was play the game he loved. Fortunately, despite the rough moments, Robinson prevailed, and it has turned out to be a shining moment in Major League History.
There is just one small problem. After 68 years, Major League Baseball isn’t quite fully integrated.
Friday, the NFL announced the hiring of its first full-time female official, Sarah Thomas. The NFL has used female officials in preseason games for the last few years, so the announcement didn’t catch too many people by surprise. The NBA has had three full-time female referees, with the first being Valerie Palmer, who has been with the league since 1997.
Unfortunately, Major League Baseball appears to be behind the times in this area. There have been a total of six women to umpire at the Minor League level in baseball’s 146 year history. Six.
Her name was Bernice Gera. On April 14, 1972 the Montreal Gazette called her a “New York City housewife.” But five years earlier, in 1967 she became the first woman to graduate from Umpire School, and be offered a job with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (now known as Minor League Baseball). Gera attended umpire school in West Palm Beach, and since the facilities were set up for men only, she stayed in a nearby hotel.
Gera, born in 1931, now attending umpire school as a 35-year-old wife, graduated at the top of her class. Little did she know, her road from the classroom to being hired professionally and calling balls and strikes as an umpire was about to take her up a very steep and rocky road.
Now came the time to submit applications to the League Presidents in hopes she would be offered a contract and hired on as a professional umpire. It took two years before she was finally accepted, possibly due to pressure. In 1969, Gera received a contract from the New York-Penn League. She had finally made it.
Unfortunately, 6 days after her contract was offered, Philip Piton, President of the NAPBL, voided the contract offered to Gera by the New York-Penn League stating that she did not meet the “necessary physical requirements.” Maybe some would say enough is enough and it’s time to move on to another profession, but not Gera. Her goal was to get on the ball field, and fulfill her dream of becoming a professional umpire. So, she decided to take the necessary steps to fight Piton and the NAPBL’s decision and appealed to the New York State Human Rights Commission, where she won. Naturally, the NAPBL appealed the decision, which they lost.
Finally, three years after her court battles began, and five years after she graduated from Umpire School in West Palm Beach, Gera’s contract with the New York-Penn League was finally honored. The very first game she umpired would be a doubleheader with the Geneva Rangers hosting the Auburn Phillies.
No one realized at the time that history was going to be made that day in Geneva.
During the first game of the doubleheader, Gera called an Auburn base runner safe on a play at second base, and then reversed her call to out. Let’s not forget, she’s a rookie, who not only is working her first game with all sorts of media attention, but is also only working this game because of a three-year legal battle. I’m sure, we can agree there was a little anxiety that day for Gera. Manager, Nolan Campbell came out to argue the call. During his argument he stated that Gera “should be in the kitchen, peeling potatoes.”
In between games, Gera retired. According to several published reports at the time, Gera was quoted as saying that her fellow umpires “refused to cooperate with her on the field.”
One could certainly speculate that it’s possible they had pressure from the NAPBL to not cooperate with Gera and make things difficult for her, there’s no way to know at this time. Unfortunately, Bernice Gera passed way from cancer in 1992. In her obituary, published in the New York Times, her husband, Steve Gera stated “Bernice would always say, ‘I could beat them in the courts, but I can’t beat them on the field.’”
Bernice Gera fought five years for her chance to be treated equally and to get on a ball field. In 1989 Gera gave this quote to Craig Davis of the Ft. Lauderdale News & Sun-Sentinel: “I was not out there fighting anybody`s cause. I didn`t do what I did because of women’s lib or anything like that,” Gera says. “I tried for 20 years to get a job in baseball; I just wanted to be affiliated with baseball. I was rejected by practically every team. I felt they were damn chauvinistic. They didn`t want a woman in the game, and that was it. They chose to fight me, and I chose to fight back.”
Gera was out there for her love of baseball. Plain and simple. Little did she know, her 1 game of professional umpiring would pave the way for a few more to try another day for their dream to one day umpire in the Major Leagues.
Climbing the Soapbox
The most famous of the six women who have umpired professionally is Pam Postema. Postema certainly wasn’t a Gera. She applied to the Al Somers Umpire School in 1976 and received a rejection letter stating they didn’t have the “proper facilities” for women, so she subsequently sent another application, only this time, along with a few of her friends, jumped in the car and drove to Al Somer’s home in Daytona Beach, FL and knocked on his door. He eventually agreed to accept her, and in 1977, she graduated.
Things would be different for Postema than they were for Gera. Postema was immediately offered a job in the Gulf Coast League, and no one came behind the League President to void the contract. She was on her way to her first full season.
History and baseball would be changing its ways for the better … right? Not quite so fast.
In her book, You’ve Got to Have Balls to Make It In This League, Postema describes in great detail the harassment she would endure throughout her 13-year career in the Minor Leagues. The harassment was from fellow umpires, players, managers, fans, umpire supervisors, and league officials. She stated that Hall of Fame Umpire Jocko Conlan asked Pacific Coast League President Bill Cutler “When are you going to get rid of that broad? Women have no place in our game! You ought to know that!”
Postema was moving up the ranks though. She started out in Rookie ball, and after six seasons, was promoted to Triple A. Everywhere she went, reporters wanted to interview her, but Postema didn’t want the attention. To her, it wasn’t about a female umpire coming to town, it was about her doing a job, and being the best she could be in hopes of making it to the Major Leagues. “I want to make it as an umpire, not as a woman,” she would say.
Postema was invited to work Major League Spring Training games in 1986 and again in 1988. At the time, National League Supervisor of Umpires, Ed Vargo stated “Pam’s not here because she’s a female, she’s here because she’s an umpire. We’re giving her a good look this spring.” But, in the spring of 1988, things would take an interesting, and chauvinistic change for Postema, all thanks to Astros pitcher Bob Knepper.
On March 14, 1988 Postema was behind the plate in a game that featured Knepper pitching for the Astros, and Doug Drabek pitching for the Pirates. After the game Knepper blasted Postema to a Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reporter:
“I just don’t think a woman should be an umpire. There are certain things a woman shouldn’t be and an umpire is one of them. It’s a physical thing. God created women to be feminine. I don’t think they should be competing with men. It has nothing to do with her ability. I don’t think women should be in any position of leadership. I don’t think they should be presidents or politicians. I think women were created not in an inferior position, but in a role of submission to men. You can be a woman umpire if you want, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. You can be a homosexual if you want, but that doesn’t mean that’s right either. It’s her choice what she wants to do with her life, and I’m not going to give her a hard time. I’ll respect her more because she’s a woman. I’m not going to condemn her. But, if God is unhappy with her, she’s going to have to deal with that later.”
Sadly, no one from Major League Baseball, or any of Postema’s bosses came out in support of her after Knepper’s comments. There was no fine or suspension. Nothing.
Postema, who made it up to Crew Chief in the Triple-A American Association, and worked two Spring Trainings, felt that her chances of making it to the Major Leagues died on September 1, 1989, when MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti was suddenly killed by a heart attack. She received a phone call after the 1989 season from Vargo asking her if she would be interested in a job as a Minor League Umpire Supervisor, which she turned down, because her dream was to umpire in the Major Leagues.
During her mid-season evaluation in 1989, Postema received a “very favorable” review from the Office of Umpire Development. However, after Giamatti passed away, and after she turned down Vargo’s job offer as an Umpire Supervisor, her year-end evaluation was found to be much less favorable. She had unexpectedly had been downgraded and had found herself released and unemployed.
She tasted life in the Majors via two Spring Trainings, but her dream was officially over. But why? Is MLB and the Umpires Association that much of a fraternity?
Again, in her book, Postema states this about being released: “Almost all of the people in the baseball community don’t want anyone interrupting their little male-dominated way of life. They want big, fat male umpires. I was raised to believe that right beats might every time. But, in baseball, the rules are different. In baseball, right gets dumped every time.”
Baseball’s behind the times
Major League Baseball does a lot of good things, for a lot of well-deserved groups, not only in North America, but around the world, and for that, they should be commended. One recent example would be the announcement just a few weeks ago, on March 17th, when MLB announced former Angels GM Tony Reagins would oversee Baseball’s Youth Program in hopes of getting more youth involved in the game.
But, with all the good that baseball is doing, and reaching out to grow the game, what are they doing to reach out to get women involved in the game?
According to Dusty Dellinger, Director of Professional Baseball Umpire Corp., no umpire school has sent a female to the Evaluation Course, where candidates are selected for Minor League jobs, from 2010 to present.
The latest female umpire was Ria Cortesio. She made it to the Double-A Southern League, and like Postema also worked some Spring Training games. Oddly, Cortesio, like Postema, was ranked high for her 2006 mid-season evaluation, and even was selected to work the All Stars Futures game and the MLB Home Run Derby in Pittsburgh, then at the end of the following season, her evaluation and rank plummeted and was released at the end of the 2007 season.
Baseball truly is a fraternity and a brotherhood, but we live in a society in which a woman can run for President, sit on the Supreme Court, fight on the front lines in combat, but can’t put on a chest protector and call balls and strikes in a Major League ballpark for a living. Baseball seems willing to every 10-15 years, allow a female into its minor league umpire fraternity, and give them a few years of a low salary and then randomly release them when they begin to move up the ranks.
MLB can’t learn a lot from the NBA or the NFL, but in this case, its past time for the MLB to take a page out of their books and get women involved in the game. Not just as a secretary, or as a staff member in the front office, but on the field, as an umpire. An umpire with a real, legitimate chance at making it to the Major Leagues, into the fraternity that those before her such as Gera, Postema and Cortesio paved.
Maybe Commissioner Manfred needs to sit down with Postema and Cortesio and have his own three-hour historic conversation, just the same as Rickey did with Robinson, and start a program to draw females who love the game of baseball and are serious about the profession of umpiring to Umpire School.