Entrance into baseball's OLD-BOY club isn't easy, unless you know the password. "Coming in!" screams the general manager of the St. Catharines (Ont.) Blue Jays. The password is a shout instead of a whisper to alert the players to take cover before the general manager comes storming into the clubhouse. The G.M. walks briskly past the locker room and directly into the coaches' office. A determined manager at odds with a stubborn groundskeeper is the G.M.'s crisis of the moment. The forecast calls for rain, and it seems that there are only four bags of Turface for the infield. Turface, smurface. The manager insists the team must take infield practice. The groundskeeper protests, refusing to lift a rake if the team sets foot on the infield. The G.M. says the team can warm up in the outfield. Turface preserved, manager placated, groundskeeper appeased.
Minutes later the G.M. is sitting in the dugout watching batting practice with the manager. They have known each other since the manager was an outfielder for the big league club in Toronto. They talk about tonight's game, mostly about the imminent rain, and banter a bit about the team's unconventional front office. "So how many general managers in baseball have radiant red hair?" the manager, J.J. Cannon, says. "And how many can you put your arm around during the national anthem?"
Not one comes to mind, of course, other than the one who has just elbowed Cannon in the side. Her name is Ellen Harrigan-Charles. From June to September, the months of the short-season Class A New York-Penn League, from morning till midnight, you can find her at Community Park in St. Catharines, a blue-collar city on Ontario's Niagara Peninsula.
In the world of baseball, hiring a female general manager is a fairly radical move. Even more revolutionary is the fact that Harrigan-Charles presides over the only all-female front office in professional sports.
November 2, 1992
Harrigan-Charles earned membership in the old-boy club because she paid her dues. Hired 11 years ago by parent-club Toronto as a junior secretary, she was promoted through the ranks and assumed her current position in 1990. A short time later, Harrigan-Charles brought in assistant general manager Marilyn Finn, who had been the promotions director of a local AM/FM station and cohost of a hard-rock morning show, and secretary Eleanor Bowman, whose son was the clubhouse manager, to form the all-female team.
Everyone in the minor leagues wants to make it to the Show, and Harrigan-Charles's aspirations match those of her players. "Knowing her from past years, I can say she's definitely a major league prospect," says Cannon. "A general manager? I don't know. I don't see why not as long as her baseball knowledge continues to grow." The question is posed to Toronto assistant general manager Gord Ash. "A number of men who are general managers don't have playing experience and have done very well," says Ash. "What it takes to be a general manager at the major league level is determination and hard work and the ability to learn, and that is not defined by sex."
"I want to get into the big leagues because that's the dream, right?" says Harrigan-Charles, who is 30. "But I don't want to be bumped up because I'm a woman, but because I have the tools."
St. Catharines' break from male tradition makes perfect sense to Cannon. "The Blue Jays are a very family-oriented team. Every family needs a mother," says Cannon. Harrigan-Charles gets real-life practice taking care of her 2½-year-old son, Justin, and her husband, Hilroy Charles, a baggage handler at the Toronto airport. Cannon contends that the G.M. both acts as a sort of team den mother and "makes the guys feel at home, especially with the language she uses. She has a mouth like a whip."
Says Ash, who is also Harrigan-Charles's former boss, "She has a clubhouse sense of humor." When asked to provide a pertinent anecdote, Ash declines. "I can't. They're all X-rated." All in good fun, of course.
Even though Harrigan-Charles is one of the guys, her players come to her for advice about the girls. "I look at them as my little brothers," she says. "A lot of times they just ask me questions about dating." And at times she plays the part of the nettlesome older sister. When she teases pitcher Adam Meinershagen about being named Hottest Player of the Month, the 19-year-old simply rolls his eyes.
Besides the familial roles of mom and big sister, on any given day during the season Harrigan-Charles assumes the roles of therapist, confidante and cutup. The club's top pitcher wanders into the office to discuss his previous night's performance. Because of an earlier night's horrendous outing he has convinced himself that he has ruined all chances of making it to the bigs. Sometimes the word prospect is difficult to live up to. But Harrigan-Charles puts it in perspective. She reaches for the Toronto media guide and says to the pitcher, "Here, look at this. Look at Juan Guzman. Look at his minor league record: ——, right? And look what he's doing now." Point made.
When players are asked if it bothers them that their team is run by women, most of them shrug their shoulders and express the same sentiment: "Why should it?" Take Ned Darley, a 21-year-old pitcher from Manning, S.C. "Baseball is such a macho thing," says Darley. "There's nine men on the field, 20 men on the bench. Men coaches, men umpires. But when it comes to running a team, baseball knowledge is not only obtained by a man. Women can learn just as much."
But in baseball, as in life, not everyone is so enlightened. In her 11 years in the game Harrigan-Charles has encountered her share of Neanderthals, young and old. There was the time in Toronto when an office intern slapped her on the butt. She picked him up and threw him against the wall. Six-foot-tall, red-haired Irish women are known to possess amazing strength when provoked. Or the time in the St. Catharines clubhouse when a player sauntered up to her without a towel on, just to see her reaction. "I looked him in the eye, answered his question and pretended as if nothing happened," she says. Where she has encountered sexism and racism—her husband is black—she has confronted it in the same confident and determined manner.
The Niagara Falls Rapids are in town for a late August game, and the forecast is rain. Harrigan-Charles is worried about the loss of another gate—four home games have already been canceled because of weather. By 6 p.m. Finn is busy organizing the 30 high school kids who run the ticket office, concession stands and souvenir booths. Greeting fans at the gate is the resident keyboard artist and anthem singer, Jon, who prefers, like Cher, to be known by his first name only. While Jon croons Neil Diamond's Song, Sung Blue, the official scorer, Ann Rudge, heads to the Rapids' dugout to get the night's lineup. A female scorer? Unconventional, remember?
At 7 p.m. Jon sings both national anthems. Community Park has a capacity of 3,000, but tonight it seems the mosquitoes have outdrawn the announced crowd of 823 fans. One reason for the sparse attendance is the team's record: The Blue Jays have languished under .500 for most of the second half of the season.
In the seventh inning Harrigan-Charles and Finn sit down for the first time all night. They have been busy supervising the concessions; flipping burgers; offering an elderly fan a ride home after the game; settling a "domestic," which was a shouting match between a husband and wife; throwing miscreants who were sitting on the scoreboard in centerfield out of the park; sampling a new flavor of ice cream; and offering a fan a can of bug spray to repel the mosquitoes. The rain holds off, after all. The Blue Jays are ahead all evening until the Rapids stage a comeback in the eighth. Behind the pitching of Darley, who pitches seven innings and retires 17 batters in succession, the Jays win 4-3 in 12 innings.
The rain arrives the next day, washing out the away game at Niagara Falls. So Harrigan-Charles decides to take in a game at Toronto's SkyDome, a place immune to the whims of the Canadian summer. Brutal is the word for the evening, as in "Good golly, what a brutal game." In the fourth inning, with the Toronto Jays losing to the Milwaukee Brewers 13-1, Harrigan-Charles announces that it would be a good time to take her visitor on a promised tour of SkyDome.
On the field level she runs into soon-to-be-rocked pitcher David Wells and gets an update on his wife and infant son. In the executive offices she is greeted by shouts of "Hey, Big Red!" as she came to be known during her early years with the organization. The game is winding down when Harrigan-Charles returns to her seat. It is the bottom of the ninth, and the score is 22-2. During the course of the evening the Blue Jays have gone through six pitchers, Wells being the final casualty.
"Brutal," she says. Then she smiles. "Too bad they don't have Ned Darley."
Or Harrigan-Charles. At least, not yet.