Things fall apart; the center cannot hold," wrote William Butler Yeats years ago in language that now describes the state of Little League baseball. All over the country little girls have risen up to sue for the right to play in the Little League, and in New Jersey, where the Superior Court last month ruled that young ladies must be accepted, the initial reaction has been downright manic.
When that state's Appellate Division upheld the Division on Civil Rights order that the league end its bias against girls, the majority of league teams across New Jersey voted to suspend play rather than admit sugar and spice into the lineups. There have been abrasive debates, anonymous phone calls, a march on the capitol at Trenton, packed galleries in the legislature and protest petitions with 50,000 signatures. Assemblyman Christopher Jackman introduced a bill to allow the Little League to play without girls for a year regardless of the court ruling. He warned that if girls played they might get "hurt in their vital parts," but the bill was beaten 39-38. Debate in the Assembly was so grim that no one laughed when Assemblyman Gertrude Berman called the question of girls playing "a broad, broad issue."
When Judge George Gelman, himself a former Little League manager, ruled that Frances Pescatore, an 11-year-old shortstop, must be allowed to play, and then heard counsel for the Ridgefield Boys Athletic Organization announce that, therefore, the RBAO would take its ball and go home, also denying 251 boys a chance to play, the judge was flabbergasted. "I don't understand," he said from the bench. "What's the big deal?"
The baring of these ripe emotions over a children's game has astounded even feminists. Judith Weis, a biologist and local official of the National Organization for Women (NOW) that filed the New Jersey suit, speaks with as much wonder as indignation. "My God," she says, "this particular issue is as fraught with emotional backlash as any I've ever seen. We're seeing the same hostility and fanaticism on behalf of segregated baseball as from the right-to-lifers."
April 21, 1974
In past years the Little League has been able to fend off the feminists. Last year, for example, a federal judge in Detroit dismissed a suit by Carolyn King on the grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction. Miss King is appealing. Whatever the outcome of that federal case, she did score a breakthrough of sorts last season when the Ypsilanti City Council voted to throw Little League teams off municipal fields unless she could play. The Ypsilanti Little League agreed, and Miss King played the whole season. In retaliation, the national Little League revoked the local charter.
But the cases now are being argued on far wider grounds. The Jersey verdict was that the Little League is a place of public accommodation, as much as a train or a carnival is a "place." This decision gives girls everywhere an opening, and suits are popping up all over. In Connecticut alone, the parents of girls in Wallingford, Fairfield and West Haven are taking or contemplating legal action. In Wilmington, Del. five little girls are plaintiffs in a suit against the Midway Little League, charging unconstitutional discrimination on the basis of sex. Interestingly, the Midway Little League last year recommended that national headquarters in Williamsport, Pa. allow girls to play, but because of economic benefits, such as cut-rate equipment and insurance, Midway has not broken away from the national organization.
The most prominent plaintiff in the Wilmington suit is 9-year-old Kimberly Michele Green, daughter of Dallas Green, the former Phillie pitcher who now directs the club's scouting and farm system. Kimberly began going to spring training with her father soon after she learned to walk, and a sportswriter remembers her as always chasing after baseballs. "I mean if a girl has the skill, she should play," says Kimberly, and her father adds that Little League should be "a fun thing. I'm afraid they've put competition at the level where they've taken the fun out of baseball."
In a perverse sort of way, the spate of lawsuits by girls prompted by their desire to play the game is something of a tribute to baseball. It has never seemed a raw, violent masculine exercise like football or boxing, yet the very fact that baseball is a more subtle game than these makes it all the dearer to those who can distinguish its charms. Strangers to baseball (through geography or sex) tend to become quickly bored and befuddled when they are exposed to the game; by contrast a newcomer can get caught up at once in the simple linear drill of football, basketball or hockey. Just as important, baseball is almost invariably a love that comes early in life, if it is to come at all.
One of the incongruities of the current situation is that baseball, in boyhood, is replaced by girls. In a very funny and perceptive book entitled The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book, Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris write: "And then one year it was all suddenly over.... Somehow baseball did not seem so important to us anymore.... We were all looking forward anxiously to high school, to record hops and class rings and making out. Nobody wanted to match pennies for Rocky Nelson. Everybody seemed to have more important things to do."
So swiftly do girls steal boys from their first love that American men still use the argot of the diamond to express themselves romantically. It begins, simply enough, with the pitch, but the man who is rejected by a woman has struck out—although, probably, he will protest that she threw me a curve ball. Most revealing is the very precise universal language of teen-age boys to communicate, in the most familiar way they know, their sexual probing. Getting to second base for the first time is an enshrined male adolescent achievement as momentous as obtaining a driver's license or a beer over the bar.
The women may think they are only infiltrating an institution that a female Civil Rights examiner in Jersey characterized "as American as the hot dog and apple pie." But baseball is a great deal more than that—and that's what the uproar is all about. The women aren't just monkeying with men's baseball, but with men's childhood.
Although the hysteria of New Jersey is not to be found in Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pa., the response there is pained and wide-eyed, with the increasing understanding that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, unless it be a woman scorned and going to court. The Little League, which represents two million male players in 31 countries on a tight $800,000 budget, could be emasculated financially by a plethora of court actions, win or lose. Mercifully, the Little League may be saved from throwing good money after bad by Congresswoman Martha Griffiths (D.-Mich.), who has initiated action to get the league's federal charter—a sort of exalted corporate knighthood—amended, changing "boys" to "boys and girls" wherever the term appears.
At least Little Leaguers may soon find company in their misery. Recently in Texas a young girl announced she would initiate proceedings against the Cub Scouts (considered easy pickings by feminists, since they accept surplus federal property), and before much longer the YMCA and Big Brother might also have unwanted days in court.
If the courts accept the New Jersey judgment that the Little League is a public accommodation, the league will try to prove that the differences between little girls and boys are so marked that it is only safe and proper to exclude girls. That is a tall order, because girls of 10 to 12 are a little bigger, on the average, than their male counterparts. Moreover, other physical evidence is conflicting and even if the Little League could prove a clear masculine superiority, there is such a vast physical range among boys as to make the matter almost moot. A boy of eight can qualify for the Little League, but Williamsport's own tests show that most of its best players, chronologically 12, are much "older" in physical development, as much as 16 or 17. Aside from arguing on behalf of the superiority of the male physique, the Little League has taken a Puritanical stance somewhat to the right of Anthony Comstock. The New Jersey judges characterized one such appeal to modesty as "border[ing] on the frivolous," but the Little League persists in volunteering as a protector of little girls' morals as well as their "vital parts."
Dr. Creighton Hale, the Little League president, an otherwise rational man who has contributed a number of vital safety inventions to athletics, solemnly declares, "It just wouldn't be proper for coaches to pat girls on the rear end the way they naturally do boys. And suppose a girl gets hurt on the leg? Why that's just not going to go over—some grown man rubbing a little girl's leg."
Scandalous as this possibility is, New Jersey officials were more horrified that vital parts might inadvertently be touched during, say, a close play at second base. And little girls might actually hear an obscenity. And what would happen to the hard and fast rule that catchers must wear cups and managers must hold catchers' cup inspection? And breast cancer. The Little League has been nearly obsessive in its concern that girls who get hit in the chest with a ball will suffer from breast cancer, despite the fact that a number of doctors say there is no medical evidence to support this contention.
But the real dispute is neither physical nor cosmetic nor medical. The real dispute is social: what identity do we perceive for the sexes in America? Little League psychologists maintain that sex mixing early in life is dangerous because it leads to "role blurring." In Williamsport they distribute with special relish a recent newspaper column by Dr. Joyce Brothers which publicizes the notion that "children need time with members of their own sex to find themselves...through group strength." And that is the crux of it all. Feminists believe exactly the reverse: that role blurring is not bad, it is what we need in America.
Ridgefield, N.J., where the first female in America will play Little League under force of law, is due west of Manhattan, and from some places in town the Empire State Building can be seen, looming over the ridge out of the smog like some creature rising from Tokyo Bay in a Japanese monster movie. But Ridgefield is no retreat for expense-account swells. Frances Pescatore's mother works, and her father is active in the union. Ridgefield is a union town, polyglot and industrial. It is often said that the limousine liberals in New York understand nothing west of the Hudson River, and Ridgefield is, virtually, where west of the Hudson begins. It is as American as Barbie doll and Little League.
Frances is cuddly cute, off-blonde, saucer-eyed, average size and right-handed all the way. She has always played baseball, with an older brother or with her chum Rocco Umbrino next door. She even plays tackle football with them. "It's so cool," she says. "They don't even treat me like a girl." For the last couple of years she has tried to join Rocco in the Little League, and this March she finally went to court with a classic affidavit: "I am 11 years old, and therefore three years of my career have been wasted."
Ray Platoni lives only a few blocks away from Frances. A middle-aged bachelor, a chemist, he spends most of his spare time running the Ridgefield Boys Athletic Organization. Despite being crippled by polio as an infant, he has umpired more than a thousand games and has been a Little League volunteer worker since 1954. No one seems more sincere and devoted than Ray Platoni.
The courts, the state legislature, the governor and even the RBAO women's auxiliary have all ruled for bisexual baseball, but Platoni does not seem embittered in defeat—just baffled, disoriented. Like a lot of middle-aged people in all the Ridgefields of America, he cannot understand how the assured, unchallenged verities of a lifetime can be so swiftly, arbitrarily changed.
For men like Ray Platoni, things have gotten inexplicably out of all control. "Can't people understand?" he asked plaintively at supper one night. "We've had boys getting broken noses, smashed teeth. Boys can get along real fine in that way, but girls are disfigured for life. And you feel like you're wasting your time with girls. They get to be 13 or 14 and they become amorous and lose interest.
"Now, we have nothing against little girls, but we set this program up for the boys all the way down the line. If we have to accept one girl it will degrade the whole program." He looked up, his gaze far off. "What is it, what is it when a group of free men, supposedly free men, can't help the boys of their town? What has happened then?" He shrugged helplessly.
Soon he finished eating and put on his jacket. "I'll be down at the clubhouse if anybody wants me, Mom," he said.
A week later, Platoni and his majority on the RBAO board capitulated and decided they would run an integrated baseball program after all. It was either that or forfeit the work of a lifetime. And besides, as some people in town said, if the men gave up running the Little League they would have to give up their clubhouse with it, and where else could they hold the big Friday night stag poker game and get away from their old ladies one night a week?
In victory, the feminists talk grandly, glibly, of eugenics and of becoming, a few generations from now, the athletic equals of men. But now they are not even close, and each time women establish in law that separate but equal cannot be accepted in sports, they risk losing what modest programs they have.
Female physical education teachers fear the demise of girls' teams—and their jobs as well. The New York City girls' power volleyball program is threatened by a judgment that men can enter it. Male college and high school students have gone out for girls' field hockey and swimming teams, and last week in Dumont, N.J. boys were turned away from the girls' softball league because of their sex. How can the Division on Civil Rights in New Jersey tolerate all-female softball any more than all-male hardball? The Little League's Pony Tail softball program could be, Dr. Hale says, the largest in the world within five years, but application of the Jersey ruling would wipe it out as being unconstitutional. "More girls can play softball than ever play baseball," he says. "The girls are getting the short end of the stick as it is. The great irony in this whole thing is that the people who for so long attacked the Little League as being bad for boys, too competitive for them, are now precisely the ones who are anxious for girls to share this awful traumatic experience."
Carol Forbes, a law student and mother from Virginia who helped force integration upon the Soapbox Derby and has been the prime mover in helping Congresswoman Griffiths try to amend the Little League charter, says, "In the end, these verdicts will mean more people playing more games. And you've got to get the little girls playing with the little boys. Sports is vital in determining aggressiveness and competitiveness in life, and of course the men want to buy us off with separate but equal. We will not accept that. The failure to compete with men in sports infiltrates every facet of our lives. And if they don't let us compete with them, there are a couple things we can do. We can breed back down the line—no breeding anymore with the Andy Robustellis. Just the Nureyevs. That way we will just eliminate the larger, tougher male genetic lines. And, of course, since the sex of a fetus can be determined so early now, we can just stop having boy babies.
"You can see, sweetie," Ms. Forbes says, very gently and very ladylike, "we do have options."
So do the boys. At the Midway try-outs in Wilmington, 10-year-old Michael Oybkhan objected to girls playing. "When I try to pitch, I'll probably hit 'em," he warned.
"No, I pitch lousy."