When the phone rang, I figured it would be my sister Becky, ticked off. I was right. "Can you believe that garbage?" she wailed. "They fired her!"
The day before, Pam Postema, the Triple A umpire who seemingly had a shot at being the first female major league ump, had been released. The umpiring establishment has an up-or-out policy, and Postema was out.
"If Pam didn't make it, no woman can," Becky fumed. "She was good, she was big, and she paid her dues. They've been jerking her around the whole time. She never had a chance." Becky ended her diatribe against the major league authorities with the ultimate insult: "It was a gutless call."
Becky knows when a call has guts. For the last nine years, she has umpired college, high school and American Legion games in Albuquerque, where she lives, enduring—for $20 to $40 a game—the same sexist snubs, catcalls and curses that Postema has. But my sister harbors no big league ambitions; she umpires because she loves it.
Our family realized very early that Becky wasn't going to grow up to be June Cleaver. When barely out of diapers, she was a hot-tempered, mulishly obstinate tomboy. When I started playing our area's version of Little League baseball at six, four-year-old Becky demanded a cap like mine. When my parents foolishly presented her with a beanie-style hat with a wimpy vestigial bill, she hurled it to the floor in disgust, howling, "It don't got no point on it!"
My dad was the coach of our team, the Speedway (Ind.) Eagles, and to my great annoyance, he caved in to Becky's pleas to be batgirl. (This was the early '50s, when the idea of a girl actually playing organized baseball was about as outlandish as a woman being nominated vice-president.) She wore a team T-shirt and sat on the bench with us. My parents' scrapbook has a yellowed team photograph in which Becky, six years old and maybe three feet tall, proudly stands front and center with her mitt, a scowl on her face, her cap pulled down over her eyes.
Although she drove me nuts tagging along to neighborhood sandlot games, I had to admit she was a pretty good ballplayer. ("Best arm in the third grade," recalled a male classmate of hers 20 years later.) She also played backyard football, making up for her lack of size with—what else?—bullheaded aggressiveness. Once when she was perhaps 10 years old, she clamped herself onto the leg of a big 15-year-old kid and was dragged some 30 yards into the end zone.
She was also an unbridled sports fan. Assigned to write a high school English theme about "the person in the world I most admire," she handed in an essay extolling the many virtues of Dick Butkus. Her Butkus period lasted almost a year, as I recall, during which she emblazoned the number 50 on various items of clothing.
In 1966, Becky went off to the University of Idaho, and she transferred to Stanford two years later. After finishing college, Becky quickly parlayed her Stanford history degree into a job as a waitress in Alaska. In the ensuing 20 years, she has earned her living at a number of offbeat trades, among them unloading airplanes, leading horse-pack trips, driving 18-wheelers and crushing glass at a recycling center. Last summer, camping alone for four weeks at 12,000 feet in northern New Mexico, she herded sheep for $150 a week. Her income is probably in the lowest percentile for Stanford graduates, but it is sufficient to maintain a tin-roofed cottage under a big elm tree in Albuquerque, to feed a horse and a burro, and to buy a six-pack now and then.
Through it all, Becky's interest in sports never waned. In Idaho in 1972, she helped organize the First Annual Janis Joplin Memorial Invitational Women's Basketball Tournament. (You didn't know Janis Joplin played hoops? Fair jump shot, weak D, awesome half-time show.) There, too, she joined a women's Softball league and started umpiring games, essentially winging it, to pick up a few extra bucks. She found she liked wearing the blue uniform, and she set her sights on the real thing: men's baseball. In 1981 she sold her horse trailer for $700 and headed off to Bill Kinnamon's Umpire School in San Bernardino, Calif.
She was, of course, the only woman in her class. On the first day, bat-wielding instructors screamed insults at the students. When she botched a positioning drill, 275-pound National League ump John McSherry bellowed sarcastically, "Hey, Becky, you got some binoculars? You sure need 'em to make the call from there!" The next day, when another instructor yelled at her, she responded—unwisely, but typically—by giving him the finger. In the ensuing uproar, she burst into tears and fled from the field.
But she didn't quit, as several of the men did. Segregated in separate barracks, she was lonely and miserable. The verbal abuse—a school strategy to prepare students for the Earl Weavers of the world—continued. But the boot-camp psychology worked. She subsequently kept her temper under control, toughened her hide, and soon came to idolize McSherry.
By the end of the six-week course, she knew the infield-fly and obstruction rules inside out and had developed a pretty decent third-strike call. The class graduation picture is still on her bulletin board; she's the one without a tie.
Despite her Kinnamon diploma, Becky had to fight every inch of the way to get game assignments back in Albuquerque. When she first walked into the city's public school administrative office, she was promptly directed to the softball office. It took four years to win over the man in charge of hiring umpires for high school games. But her persistence paid off. By last year, she had worked her way up to Western Athletic Conference college games in the 10,510-seat Albuquerque Sports Stadium, home of the Triple A Albuquerque Dukes—the same field where she had watched Postema perform.
Along the way, she has suffered countless tired sexist jokes from fans and players alike. She has been spat upon and cursed in both English and Spanish. In the heat of one rhubarb, a college coach yelled an especially repugnant gender-specific insult. "I ran him," she remembers fondly. (For the uninitiated, "run" means to eject.)
Although Becky has occasionally visited me in New York—always during McSherry's stints at Shea Stadium—somehow, it wasn't until earlier this year that I got to Albuquerque during the baseball season to watch her work a game. It was New Mexico versus New Mexico State at New Mexico, on a clear, warm Sunday afternoon in February. Best of all, she had the plate.
My first shock was seeing Becky all dressed up in a clean, pressed blue suit. Calling out the coaches for the pregame meeting, she was all business; even her posture projected confidence and control. Only the blond ponytail poking out under the hat hinted that a woman was the ump.
Right away, I liked her strike call; a shrill "Stee-rike!" followed by a snappy right arm in the air, elbow cocked just right. In the top of the second, I saw her called-third-strike motion, an umpire's personal trademark. As the leadoff batter watched a two-strike curveball slice low over the outside corner, she stood up, boomed out "Stri-three!" and punched her right arm forward while jerking the left elbow back—a technique the umps call the bow and arrow. It was a good sell; the batter walked to the dugout without a whimper.
It felt very odd to see my little sister—the tomboy brat who had hassled me all those years when we were kids—out there in charge of 18 big, tough kids and a couple of intense coaches. In the top of the fifth, she called interference on a New Mexico State batter who tried to protect the base stealer a bit too enthusiastically—a call that brought the Aggie coach storming out of the dugout. I cringed, waiting for Becky's temper to explode. But she stayed cool and soothed the irate coach, sending him trotting back to the dugout, apparently satisfied.
In the bottom of the fifth, with New Mexico a run down, a Lobo batter hit a single to center with a man on second. The runner hesitated coming around third, then sprinted for home and dove headlong to the plate just as the throw arrived. Becky paused a moment to make sure the catcher had the ball, and then she wound up and called the runner out with a sharp downward thrust of her fist. The crowd groaned and the New Mexico coach jogged out to discuss the matter, but everybody seemed to accept that the call was a good one.
The rest of the game went smoothly. New Mexico finally winning in extra innings. As we drove home in her pickup truck, a weary Becky glowed with satisfaction. "Man, that was great!" she exulted. "There's no better feeling than calling a good, tough game."
Except maybe realizing that your little sister has found her calling at last.
David Noland is a writer living in Mountainville, N. Y.