When I worked with the New York Rangers’ publicity department in 1954-55, women were not allowed in the press box at Madison Square Garden. It said so on every press ticket given to reporters: “Ladies not allowed in press box.”
Brazen? By contemporary standards, yes, but that’s the way it was. In 1971, my wife Shirley was assigned to cover an NHL game between the Rangers and Toronto. The Rangers refused to allow her in the press box. But she refused to accept the ban and fought to have it rescinded. She soon penned an article that appeared in the March 1971 edition of Hockey Illustrated. She wasn’t going to let it go.
Her decision to bring her case to the New York City Human Rights Commission was the right one, because the commission was created for situations such as this. After the case was heard, Shirley won. The Rangers were ordered to grant Shirley the “little green ticket” which granted her entrance into the previously all-male press box. “The moment was here,” Shirley wrote in Hockey Illustrated. “The ticket symbolized the end of the struggle. I was to be the first woman in the Garden press box in 48 years.”
As much as I was pleased Shirley won, I also look back at the “cost” in friendships lost along the way. I had been president of the New York Hockey Writers’ Association and was surrounded by members of the now Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA).
I was stunned when close friends Mel Woody of the Newark News and Hal Bock of The Associated Press opposed Shirley’s bid for a press-box seat. Likewise, I was no less dismayed when my closest buddy Gerald Eskenazi of The New York Times walked the fence, never providing support. Only a young Neil Often, then writing for the New York Post, went on record backing my wife’s bid. “I was called a ‘crybaby,’ a ‘troublemaker,’ a ‘phony’ and a ‘publicity hound,’ just to name a few of the mildest expletives,” Shirley wrote at the time. “But I had won the battle.”
The moment of truth occurred Oct. 4, 1971, when she received her press pass. Now she had to sit among her enemies. Neither of us knew what to expect. They were, as Shirley put it, “featureless, motionless, plastic faces” watching the Rangers beat the Bruins.
But Shirley and I knew her night’s work was not complete. At game’s end, she made her way to the coach’s room where Rangers boss Emile ‘The Cat’ Francis talked to media. Even though it was the NYHWA which had barred Shirley, the writers were backed by Rangers management, its public relations department and, most of all, Francis. “It was a tough moment,” Shirley wrote, “and I was positive (Francis) would pretend I didn’t exist. Instead, it was, ‘Hi ya, Shirley,’ Francis said in the pleasantest of tones. ‘How’s it going? How have you been?’ ”
To his credit, Francis was a gentleman and a gracious loser. The same could not be said for the newspapermen who had fiercely fought Shirley’s admission. Or, as one put it when Francis’ press scrum was over, pointing out Shirley: “Who’s that, one of the player’s wives?”
Both Shirley and I agreed that, while one war had been won, another would continue for years. Friendships we once had enjoyed with the likes of Woody, Bock and Eskenazi were over and done with, forever.
Not that their behavior affected Shirley’s career. She continued writing hockey and was the force behind The Hockey Encyclopedia, the first stats-minded book printed. She continued to cover the Rangers and the NHL and authored Everybody’s Hockey Book, a landmark publication. Shirley followed the game until her death in 2014.
Over the years, I’ve been asked why more wasn’t made of this trailblazing event at the time. Answer: Shirley never was a publicity hound, and her quiet reaction was Exhibit A. Also, none of the newsmen involved would write the facts because they were, as it turned out, enemies first and journalists second. Shirley never expected accolades for her revolutionary accomplishment in the hockey realm. She didn’t think anything of it – other than it was the right thing to do.
This story appears in the November 5, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.