- It's been 40 years since Melissa Ludtke won one of the most crucial lawsuits in the history of sports media. Her legacy will endure.
Baseball is “emblematic of the highest standards of integrity and morality in professional sports … Standards of conduct and the attitudes and behavior of people in the ‘big leagues’ often serve as role models for millions of children.” That was Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1978, as recounted the following year by Roger Angell in The New Yorker. Taken at face value, his statement is fairly innocuous; it might as well have been the result of a random platitude generator, built from thousands of similarly sweeping sentences about the virtues of the game. But Kuhn’s intent was as specific as his statement was broad. He was explaining, to a federal judge, his reason for excluding female reporters from teams’ clubhouses. If baseball were to give women the same access as men, he told the court—well, so much for those high standards of integrity and morality.
The case was Ludtke v. Kuhn. On one side, the most powerful man in baseball. On the other, 27-year-old Sports Illustrated writer Melissa Ludtke, who had been barred from the New York Yankees clubhouse while covering the previous year’s World Series. In response, SI’s parent company, Time, Inc., had sued. Forty years ago this week, the court ruled in Ludtke’s favor.
The decision was a watershed moment for women in sports media. Legally, the change was immediate. But culturally, there was still more work ahead—work that is, in some sense, still being done today.
“My early expectation when I was young was exactly that—a youthful kind of optimism and hope that things would instantly change. Of course, they didn’t. They didn’t instantly change for women covering sports, and they didn’t instantly change for women even just working at Sports Illustrated,” Ludtke says, the morning after the anniversary of the decision, reached by phone at her home in Massachusetts. “I began to understand as time went by that it was going to be a longer process. And by that, I mean—going into court and affirming a right, what has to happen after that is a buy-in. A societal buy-in of cultural change.”
Until Judge Constance Baker Motley’s decision on September 25, 1978, writing a game story often meant patiently waiting outside the clubhouse while male colleagues were allowed free rein to speak to players. The NBA and NHL had already opened up at this point; most teams in those leagues would allow female reporters access to the locker room. Baseball, however, was more resistant. Just getting in to the press box had still been an issue for women in the 1970s, let alone into the clubhouse.
In 1972, National Observer’s Diane Shah attempted to cover a game at Fenway Park and was told that, while she would be allowed in for the game itself, she would not be able to take part in the media’s pre-game meal in the dining area attached to the press box. Instead, she was directed to a table on the roof of the stadium, where she could sit by herself next to a sign that read “Ladies’ Pavilion.” As for actually doing her work? In a team meeting earlier that day, players had been warned that a woman reporter would be coming, and they’d need to watch themselves. Without clubhouse availability, her access to the team was already limited, and after that meeting, no players would speak to her, anyway.
This was the environment that birthed Ludtke v. Kuhn, just a few years later. Most teams had little interest in working with women, and most male reporters had little interest in changing the status quo. There were a few men who would be willing to share a quote or detail with a female colleague, or to ask a question on her behalf. But there were far more who were invested in shutting her out.
Ludtke hadn’t felt welcome in the press box, even before filing the lawsuit. After? Sports columnists across the country mocked her, questioned her credentials, accused her of wanting clubhouse access only to see players naked. Leigh Montville of the Boston Globe questioned: “Is she serious? … Did she ever spit in a baseball glove? … Was her life absolutely dominated by sports when she was a kid?” Red Smith of the New York Times said that she should consider herself a “lucky girl” for getting to skip the chaos of clubhouse reporting. Even months after the court’s decision was finalized, Jerome Holtzman of the Chicago Sun-Times felt comfortable giving the following quote to the New Yorker: “I suppose the fact that this was an all-male world was what made it so exciting to me at first. And now that it’s being invaded and eroded it’s much less attractive… The press box used to be a male preserve—that was its charm. I’d rather not have a woman as a seatmate at a World Series game. It wouldn’t be as much fun.” (The magazine preceded that passage by noting that Holtzman was married, with four daughters.) What Ludtke actually did and said didn’t seem to matter much; the depiction of her as the scheming representative of an invasive species, aiming to take out baseball’s bastion of male camaraderie, was already set.
“You were going to be characterized either as this out-there women’s libber—pushy broad, aggressive—all those adjectives that we know so well when we just do what we do. And then there’s that other side… be quiet, be nice, be more demure, certainly not be pushy, certainly not be argumentative, certainly not state your opinion,” Ludtke says. “There’s really no middle ground that’s comfortable, and the constant rocking between those two… that’s very tiring and very difficult, and it’s particularly difficult when people want to push you in one direction or the other, or reprimand you for moving in one direction or the other.”
The experience was exhausting, she says. In addition to the standard daily load of her job, these questions of perception and identity followed her everywhere—an extra weight that she knew she couldn’t fully shrug off, and many of her fellow sportswriters wouldn’t let her forget it.
“The idea was, I think, that if they could just wear me down, if they could just make me feel like this wasn’t the place I really wanted to be, then I would go away,” Ludtke says. “And if I went away, then maybe other women wouldn’t follow.”
Ludtke, of course, didn’t go away. And other women did follow—lots of them. There are women in roles now that she hadn’t even dreamed of at the time, she says, such as working in the broadcast booth or being the main sports columnist at a major newspaper. Now, decades later, it can feel like settled history, noteworthy on its anniversary and otherwise easy to dismiss. Because of Ludtke, I have never had to worry about equal access or been made to feel so explicitly uncomfortable and unwelcome. Yet women remain a tiny minority in the industry, are often exposed to more intense vitriol on social media, and have their accomplishments defined or classified by their femininity as an alternative “other.” Born a decade and a half after Ludtke v. Kuhn, I have never had to know such prejudice or struggle, and for that, I am forever grateful. But I do know the stinging loneliness of being the only woman in the clubhouse, and the weight of the accompanying self-consciousness. I can only hope that a young woman hired four decades from now as a baseball writer for Sports Illustrated—as was Ludtke, and as was I—will not have to be so familiar with it.
On the day that the decision came down, Ludtke was thrilled, but above all, she was tired. Instead of going out to celebrate, she went home, cooked herself dinner and ate, as she nearly always did, while listening to the evening news with Walter Cronkite. She wasn’t expecting to hear anything special. But at the end of the broadcast, Cronkite mentioned Ludtke v. Kuhn, and at that point, she was struck by the enormity of what she had done.
Her first thought was of her mother. Ludtke was close with her father, but he was a football man, from the Midwest. Her love of baseball came from her mother, who’d grown up obsessed with the Boston Red Sox. “It wasn’t a love of the game that was father to daughter, which was always the script, always the narrative that we heard, that a love of sports came from one’s father,” Ludtke says now. As a girl, every year, Ludtke’s mother would write to the club requesting copies of the black-and-white player portraits taken after Spring Training. She’d tack them up all around her room, so that she could sit on her bed at night and listen to the game on the radio, surrounded by the players, while she filled out a scorecard that she would preserve in a scrapbook. Her mother took down and saved the players’ pictures, year after year, and passed them all down to Ludtke, who still has them today.
“What did I think about at that moment? It seems really silly, but I thought about the thumbtack holes in those pictures,” Ludtke says. “Because that was a connecting thread, from me to her and to what this would mean for whoever would come after me.”
For many of those who came after her, it would mean an awful lot. The space left behind by just one thumbtack, after all, makes it infinitely easier for all those that follow.