Women Belong at Home (and First and Second and Third)

women in baseball

Women are everywhere in Major League Baseball.  For over a century, women have been owners or partial owners of both minor and major league teams.  Ever since 1977, when journalist Melissa Ludtke sued the MLB for denying access to the Yankees clubhouse because of gender, women have been making great strides in baseball reporting.  The most respected MLB architect is Janet Marie Smith, who is responsible for the recent renovations at Dodger Stadium.  Her hands beautifully shaped Oriole Park at Camden Yards and her renovation work saved Fenway from demolition. 

More recently, women have been baseball executives, coaches, trainers, nutritionists, social media personnel, hawkers, vendors, even mascots and events staff.  Women make up more than 30% of the MLB fandom, a number that grows every year.  Women are everywhere in Major League Baseball. 

Except on the field.

It’s not quite the same in other major US sports. Pro basketball, soccer, and football have female officials break through the gender barrier.  The NBA had Violet Palmer and Dee Kanter in 1997.  MLS fans saw Nancy Lay and Sandra Hunt start work in the 1999 season, and in 2015 Sarah Thomas began refereeing for the NFL. Yet the closest a woman has come to umpiring in Major League Baseball has been a handful of spring training games.  Why is that?  As you might expect with any male-dominated field, the answer is based mostly in two categories: sexism and lack of resources.  And while there’s still work to do in today’s post-MeToo era, those conditions are rapidly changing and the future of women in baseball looks brighter than ever, especially for women who want to be umpires. 

To start, a bit of historical context:

The first woman to officiate for the MLB at any level was Bernice Gera, who filed a sex discrimination lawsuit in 1969 and fought over two and a half years in the court system before she was granted the chance to umpire in a Class A minor league game.  The complete lack of support from her fellow umpires and the disdain of baseball in general had her resigning after one game. “Umpires must work as a team,” said Gera, “but I went on the field alone.”

Pam Postema was the next woman to turn pro, working in the Minor Leagues for thirteen years, until in 1989 the Triple-A Alliance cancelled her contract seemingly without reason.  She filed a sex discrimination suit in Federal Court, listing numerous incidents of sexual harassment and abuse.  Pitcher Bob Knepper said that Postema working as an umpire in the majors “would be an affront to God.”  Throughout all of this abuse, Postema maintained a precise strike zone and excellent judgement on the field.  The MLB ended up settling out of court.

Currently, even the rule book is against women.  In 2006, the baseball rules committee voted for an amendment to Rule 2.00 in the Definition of Terms.  It reads: “Any reference in these Official Baseball Rules to ‘he,’ ‘him,’ or ‘his’ shall be deemed to be a reference to ‘she,’ ‘her,’ or ‘hers,’ as the case may be, when the person is female.”  In the 2019 rules, the addendum was on p. 155, well after all of the rules have presumably been read.  It’s a small and almost pointless concession that deliberately erases even the idea of women in baseball at all, let alone the women who have already been there and are currently working at the major league level as coaches, trainers, and other support staff.

Since Postema, there’s only been a handful of women working as umpires in the minor and independent leagues.  When Double-A umpire Ria Cortesio was released from her contract in 2007, journalists and fellow umpires alike said it was due to sexism and that the umpires in AAA deliberately refused to retire until Cortesio fell in the rankings so she wouldn’t be promoted.

When the careers of female umpires either start or end with serious sexual discrimination, maybe the issue isn’t that there’s not enough women signing up, maybe it’s that they’re being deliberately held back and their talent dismissed. 

It’s hard not to dwell on these stories and get discouraged, to look at what professional umpire Perry Barber calls the Stained Grass Window and wonder if a woman can ever break through.  But it is possible.  It’s almost imperative.  And it’s definitely past time. Without dismissing the struggles of the women who came before, it’s time to change the narrative surrounding women and umpiring.

Now is the perfect time to push. 

With baseball more focused than ever on treating players with equity, on being fair with working conditions and wages, now is the time for women to step up and let the world know that they are ready to make the call.  And the more you look, the more women you see with their noses pressed right up on the glass.

And what a view it is.  Imagine standing behind home plate for a perfect game.  Being feet from a close tag at second.  Watching a ball leave the stadium on a walkoff from the third base line.  Yes, umpires remain impartial, but they love the game and are an integral part of it.  Dedication, passion, quick thinking, mental toughness – that’s what you need to become a good umpire. Women absolutely fit that mold, even if it’s hard to see it reflected in the baseball world.

Despite the lack of representation in promotional website photos, women do attend umpire schools.  Current MiLB umpire Emma Charlesworth-Seiler is an instructor at the MiLB Umpire Academy and has been for the past two years.  In 2018, the Wendelstedt Umpire School said they were trying to “encourage the training, evaluation, and placement of female umpires into professional baseball.” 

There’s also hope on the equipment front.  In Barber’s experience, almost every woman she’s worked with has had to cut up and resew her shirts and pants or alter her chest plate or mask to have them fit correctly.  Some retailers have started to realize that by not being size-inclusive, they’re not just leaving out smaller women but also the youth and teenage umpires that are the very future of their customer base.  The popularity of baseball in Japan and Korea, where traditional menswear contains a much wider spectrum of size, has started to open up the market for those needing alternative choices.  Clothing and protective equipment is becoming both more affordable and more accessible to all body types.

But the most encouraging sign has to be MLB clubhouses themselves.  Since at least 2013, any major league clubhouse that goes though renovations must include areas for female umpires.  This means that the Dodgers, Giants, Phillies, Cubs, Braves, and Rangers all have at least some sort of area waiting for women to make the leap, with other clubhouses possible as well.  It’s unclear what these provisions may include, since umpire locker rooms are notoriously closed to all but the umps themselves and organizations have not been vocal about installing them, but the provisions are there. 

So if the stage is quietly being set for women to umpire, why aren’t any of them in lead roles?

Where are the women?

Part of it comes from a simple lack of visibility.  The best umpires are the ones you don’t notice, so when women like Jen Pawol or Perry Barber or Emma Charlesworth-Seiler are on the field, calling attention to their gender conflicts with their goal to be the ultimate umpire.  But that’s on the field.  Off the field, there can absolutely be more of an effort to recognize the excellent work they do, starting with fair and reasonable job assignments and promotions.

There’s also a perception that an umpire needs a large physical presence to prevent fights from breaking out. In truth, the best umpires never let the game reach a boiling point – that’s what separates the good umpires from the bad.  But even the best umps are overrun sometimes and when punches are thrown, it’s not an umpire’s job to end it.  Once a player charges the mound and the benches clear and the bullpen comes running in, umpires sit back and take names down for penalty assignments without getting involved.  And besides, if a player or manager needs to be physically restrained by a 250+ pound person because of their rage, then the problem doesn’t really lie with the umpire’s size or gender, does it?

So what can the MiLB do about getting more women into umpire school?  The answer is the most baseball of ways: they need to scout and recruit women.  Open recruiting absolutely works.  Barber said that during her time in umpire school, they were actively seeking out and recruiting minority men to attend.  With the recent promotion of the first Black and Mexican-born crew chiefs, the MLB is finally starting to see the results of that effort, albeit at an excruciatingly slow rate. 

She also mentioned that the directors of both umpire schools have shown a sincere desire to recruit women, so if you’ve ever thought about what it might be like to call a professional baseball game, now is your time.

In a way, it’s a sort of calling.  And while this particular article focuses on women, much like the clergy or public service, the call can and should be heard by people from all walks of life regardless of sex, gender, race, geography, or socioeconomic background.  You don’t have to have any umpiring experience at all to get started, just a love of the game and the ability to lead.  It won’t be easy, and even the best umpires spend years in the minors before being called up to the Show.  But it happens, and it could happen for you.

Ok, you want to be an umpire. 

What do you need to do?  What does the path to the majors look like for an umpire?

Your first step is to just get some equipment and give it a try.  There are several online retailers that carry equipment, but if you’re on the smaller side, you might want to start at Ump-Attire.com.  Despite the coterie of men that adorn their landing page, they do carry pants in a waist size as small as 28” and smaller shirts.

Next, you need to get into the game.  Most start by working a local youth or Little League season.  Many cities offer free or very inexpensive training for umpires because local baseball is starved for umpires.  If you want to work a plate, your community will absolutely have a place for you to do it.  If you want to start smaller, you can volunteer for a church or rec center leagues or call games at your family reunion – whatever you need to do to get behind the plate or in the field making calls, do it.

Next, get the attention of the MLB by attending one of the free Umpire Camps offered by the MLB itself.  This year’s camps have been disrupted by COVID (ya know, like literally everything else) but keep an eye out for the 2021 season.  They usually have at least three different camps in three different locations.  These single-day sessions are major recruiting grounds for umpire schools and it’s entirely possible to leave at the end of the day with a scholarship to attend the school free of charge.

When you decide to attend an actual Umpire School, you have two choices: the MiLB Umpire Training Academy and Wendelstedt Umpire School, both of which are in Florida and usually start mid-January every year.  Both have current and former MLB and MiLB umpires on staff.  Tuition varies by school and the sort of accommodations and meal plans you choose, but unless you get a scholarship, you should expect to spend around $6,000+ out of pocket by the end of the session.  If you make it through training and place high enough, you’ll likely be put into a rotation in one of the independent leagues like the Frontier League or Atlantic League.  Impress there and you’ll move on to Low A ball and so on, much like a player’s journey. You’ll get to travel, make a little money, and stand on the diamond every single night.

When it actually comes to doing the job, whether you want to do local ball or if you have your eyes on the majors, Barber’s advice is the same: Your first year will be the hardest.  The taunts will be the loudest and the calls the most difficult to make.  The worst criticisms will come at the beginning of your career because, well, you probably won’t be all that good at umpiring for your first year.  That’s ok.  You’re going to get better. You just have to stick with it.

With Alyssa Nakken’s recent appointment to the Giants coaching staff, women are literally on the sidelines, toes on the chalk, poised and ready to take the field.  Umpiring is that next barrier, the next stained grass window to smash.  Somewhere out there is a woman in a face mask and chest plate who’s ready to throw one hell of a punch out.

For more on what can be done about Gender Equality in Baseball, see Tavi’s article about The New UnOfficial Rules of Baseball.

Photo by Mark Duffel on Unsplash.

women in baseball


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