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.

The Pioneer

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.

5 Responses

  1. Kevin

    One thing you did not mention or provide was the number of women applying to the umpire training or schools. Are there many? If so, are they being descriminated against based on their gender, because if so it is a larger problem for MLB than just putting a female in an umpire’s uniform.

    This piece reeks of bandwagon jumping on the recent trend of “social justice,” that all parties or groups who even have an inkling that they are “aggrieved” must be coddled to and given instant credibility due to the issue du jour.

    Baseball itself is a meritocracy, in that if a player or coach is good enough they will be upwardly mobile in their career. If they aren’t good enough they will inevitably look for other opportunities in their lives, because the fact is that they just don’t have it. If not enough women are attempting to become umpires, and the ones that are lack the necessary ability or qualifications, what is the problem that none are in the major leagues? Is it just because the NFL hired one that MLB must join in? You can’t force people to do things or be things that they are not. If a female umpire is mired in the minor leagues, chances are that is where she–and her male counterparts–belong because they aren’t good enough for the majors. No use compromising the game to make a statement.

    It would have also been better for your argument if your examples were not 30-40 years in the past, as it delegitimizes your argument about the current product. The one you did use from 2006 was interesting, but you infer as though her gender was the reason that her scores plummeted. Is that what you were implying, because that’s how it seems, and that would be completely unethical. If you’re going to make a critique of the modern game, give me up to date examples that fit the argument, not a misogynistic and homophobic quote from a middling pitcher that was spoken 30 years ago and conjecture on your part in regard to another umpire falling off the depth chart.

    Reply
    • Derek Crawford

      First off, let me just say that I hope you and Bob Knepper enjoyed Easter dinner today. Secondly, I do actually appreciate your opinions, although I do disagree with them. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that it would be right to make up examples to fit someone’s reading tastes just to make it more recent, so I must provide the examples that are out there. As I stated, there have been 6 women who have made it to a professional field. I discussed the 3 who have had the most effect.

      Realizing we live in a world where people believe that everyone should, and in most cases do, get a trophy just for participating, I don’t actually subscribe to that line of thinking, and I don’t believe a woman should don a mask and call balls and strikes just because she is a woman. However, when you deny a woman an opportunity because she doesn’t meet the “physical requirements”, well that’s just absurd. There is no heavy lifting involved. You need to know the rules backwards and forward, and how to apply them in every possible situation, and have great eyesight.

      I am an imperfect man, living in a world that is perfect at playing “Monday morning Quarterback”, and I will agree, that there are points that I could have, and looking back, should have done a better job at making. I am an umpire, and by no stretch do I pretend to mislead to have anyone think that I am on the level of a Minor League or Major League umpire, because I am not. I was fortunate enough to be good enough to be selected to work my states Senior Olympics (50 yrs and older) twice over the last few years. I believe that the best of the best should be on the ball field. Regardless of their gender.

      I started working on this 5 weeks ago, and reached out to both umpire schools, as well as the PBUC regarding female attendees and asked a few questions. However, only Dusty Dellinger, the Director of the PBUC, was kind enough to get back with me, and that information is in the piece. No females were sent from the umpire schools to the Evaluation Course at the PBUC in recent years. Does that mean there were no female attendees at the school? Or none qualified to move on to the PBUC? I made several attempts to find that out but I was unsuccessful.

      I want no one to be “coddled.” I understand that personally you do not know me, but if you did, you would quickly find out that I’m far from that person. I don’t want a woman to be on the ball field as an ump because she’s a woman. I want the best of the best to be on the ball field. But, if you look at what we have now, Angel Hernandez, Joe West, to name a few, MLB can improve in the umpire area. And, I feel that there would be some very qualified woman out there who would do a great job, if given a fair chance to succeed.

      Oh – and by the way … The Bob Knepper & Easter dinner comment was light hearted. Thanks for the reply & I do appreciate your opinion.

      Reply
  2. Perry

    Women haven’t been applying to either of the two pro umpire schools because of several factors, one of them being the “branding” problem. Umpiring isn’t routinely presented to women and girls as a career opportunity or an avocational one, and even when it is, it’s accompanied by horror stories about what awaits any woman intrepid enough to bear the expense of going to umpire school and living the life of an intruder in hostile territory for the next decade or two. That has to change if the schools are to draw women to the five-week-long course every year from which all rookie minor league umpires are selected. When umpiring is presented to potential candidates, including women, as a challenging, stimulating, and ultimately rewarding career choice, the schools will see a change in the composition of the student roster. That’s where change has to begin, at the “grassroots” level, in order for women to rise to the top of the umpiring profession. There is no “social justice” in searching out potentially qualified candidates to go to umpire school, only a desire to find, train, and promote the best students with the greatest aptitude for the craft, and there’s no rational reason why women should not be included among that pool of candidates. The fact that they still aren’t, and that the instructors at the two schools do not yet view this as a problem that can be fixed with a few simple tweaks, speaks volumes more to the fact that this inertia on the part of the schools is one of the impediments keeping women umpires off the professional baseball diamond than it does to any reluctance on the part of women to join the ranks of pro umpires. If women knew how much fun and mind-blowingly interesting umpiring actually is, they would flock to the schools. Instead, what they’ve mostly heard for the last four decades is how dreadful and dreary an experience it was for the six women who already tried. So kudos to the author of this article for having the insight to realize that our absence from the baseball landscape is the result of a longstanding attitude that is rapidly dissipating, and that our presence will be the result of a change in the branding, sincere efforts to search out and find qualified female candidates to go to pro umpire school, and at long last, promotions to the top tiers of umpiring as a result of honest evaluations and just a tiny bit of support, both of which have been lacking for women umpires for far too long. As for “compromising the game” by hiring women, that’s an outdated canard that deserves to be skewered and put to rest.

    In the interests of full disclosure, I have attended one of the two accredited pro umpire schools five times during the past thirty-three years, so have a pretty good handle on what’s missing in the puzzle of why there are still no women major league umpires forty-three years after Bernice Gera finally earned the right to umpire professionally, thereby opening the door for other women – and men too – to follow in her plate shoes. As the author so perspicaciously points out, a lot of male umpires who would not have met the height and weight restrictions that she got the courts to throw out owe her a huge debt of gratitude too. But opening the door is not enough; it has to stay open so women can enter the pipeline leading to jobs as major league umpires on a level playing field with the men. That’s not asking for special consideration or exemption from any standards, just for fair evaluations and promotions based on, as Kevin says, merit and talent. Thanks to the author for shining a much-needed (and greatly appreciated) light on the dark side of the diamond!

    Reply
  3. Derek Crawford

    Kevin, First off, let me just say that I hope you and Bob Knepper enjoyed Easter dinner today. Secondly, I do actually appreciate your opinions, although I do disagree with them. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that it would be right to make up examples to fit someone’s reading tastes just to make it more recent, so I must provide the examples that are out there. As I stated, there have been 6 women who have made it to a professional field. I discussed the 3 who have had the most effect.

    Realizing we live in a world where people believe that everyone should, and in most cases do, get a trophy just for participating, I don’t actually subscribe to that line of thinking, and I don’t believe a woman should don a mask and call balls and strikes just because she is a woman. However, when you deny a woman an opportunity because she doesn’t meet the “physical requirements”, well that’s just absurd. There is no heavy lifting involved. You need to know the rules backwards and forward, and how to apply them in every possible situation, and have great eyesight.

    I am an imperfect man, living in a world that is perfect at playing “Monday morning Quarterback”, and I will agree, that there are points that I could have, and looking back, should have done a better job at making. I am an umpire, and by no stretch do I pretend to mislead to have anyone think that I am on the level of a Minor League or Major League umpire, because I am not. I was fortunate enough to be good enough to be selected to work my states Senior Olympics (50 yrs and older) twice over the last few years. I believe that the best of the best should be on the ball field. Regardless of their gender.

    I started working on this 5 weeks ago, and reached out to both umpire schools, as well as the PBUC regarding female attendees and asked a few questions. However, only Dusty Dellinger, the Director of the PBUC, was kind enough to get back with me, and that information is in the piece. No females were sent from the umpire schools to the Evaluation Course at the PBUC in recent years. Does that mean there were no female attendees at the school? Or none qualified to move on to the PBUC? I made several attempts to find that out but I was unsuccessful.

    I want no one to be “coddled.” I understand that personally you do not know me, but if you did, you would quickly find out that I’m far from that person. I don’t want a woman to be on the ball field as an ump because she’s a woman. I want the best of the best to be on the ball field. But, if you look at what we have now, Angel Hernandez, Joe West, to name a few, MLB can improve in the umpire area. And, I feel that there would be some very qualified woman out there who would do a great job, if given a fair chance to succeed.

    Oh – and by the way … The Bob Knepper & Easter dinner comment was light hearted. Thanks for the reply & I do appreciate your opinion.

    Reply
  4. Derek Crawford

    Perry, Thank you for your reply & your kind words! It is truly an honor to have you read this article and for you to give your thoughts. Thank you for shedding light on what it is like to attend umpire school.

    Reply

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