The game-show audience in the Hollywood studio cheers on cue as a group of B-list celebrities—Charo is in the house!—gathers to participate in a revival of I've Got a Secret on the Oxygen Network. During the taping, on July 18, 2001, the host, Stephanie Miller, starts the fun rolling by saying, "Let's welcome my first guest, Kathryn Massar from Yuba City, California!" Applause erupts as Massar, a 5'1½" sprite in a snappy black ensemble, takes her seat next to Miller. Miller says, "Tell me your secret." As Massar whispers to her, the TV audience at home is shown the answer on the screen: I WAS THE FIRST GIRL IN AMERICA TO PLAY LITTLE LEAGUE.
This is an article from the June 20, 2011 issue
The game is on. Each panelist has less than a minute to guess Massar's identity. The clock runs out on actor Jason Kravits (guest stints on Grey's Anatomy and Friends), but he establishes that Massar did "something physical" as a child in the 1950s. The next turn goes to actress Teri Garr. "Baseball?" she asks, and Massar nods yes. With good humor, Garr rambles through a list of options—"first little girl bat girl ... bat boy?"—until she stumbles on the answer. Band music plays, the audience hoots, and the panelists bow to Garr's keen deductive skills. Mystery solved. Go to commercial.
With the camera light off, Massar leaves the set, passing cables, curtains and Weird Al Yankovic waiting as the next contestant. (Hidden past: He once repossessed accordions.) She leaves the Oxygen back lot with her secret disclosed—but only part of it. There is a hole in her tale that was not detected by a media machine eager to mythologize its heroes. As a child Massar was often told by her mother, Rose, that a lie has many lives. But this little fib was harmless, right? It was a white lie or, at most, a sin of omission, wasn't it? She rationalized her decision as the lie grew legs, taking her on a journey she had never imagined.
For more than a decade Kathryn (Kay) Johnston Massar reveled in the glory of being the First. History showers confetti on firsts, whether it's an astronaut on the moon (Neil Armstrong) or a barrel rider over Niagara Falls (Annie Taylor). But to mount this pedestal, Massar had to bump aside another first. In 1972, 12-year-old Maria Pepe pitched three games for the Hoboken (N.J.) Young Democrats before Little League officials forced her to quit, triggering a court battle and national headlines over a girl's right to play with the boys. In the spring of 1974 Maria won, though by then she was too old to play. She was acclaimed as the first girl to officially play Little League.
Massar heard the roar. "My sister, Mary, said, 'But you were the first, Kay,'" she says. In June 1974 she wrote Little League vice president Robert H. Stirrat and sent him newspaper clippings from The Corning Leader in Corning, N.Y., that detailed her 1950 season with the Kings Dairy team. In his reply Stirrat acknowledged Massar as the first, but her accomplishment wasn't announced publicly. Twenty-five years later, when Massar noticed the media celebrating the anniversary of Pepe's court victory, she contacted Little League again. Officials found her original 1974 letter in a filing cabinet.
Little League media relations director Lance Van Auken, who was working on the book Play Ball! The Story of Little League, folded Massar's tale into a chapter. The book's release in April 2001 changed everything for her. Her life had been fulfilling—she had worked as a trauma nurse for 30 years and raised three children as the wife of an Air Force officer—but in her new role as the First, that life became a dizzying series of magical postcard moments.
GREETINGS FROM DISNEYLAND!
March 16, 2002. My head is spinning. Disney wants to buy the rights to my life story. They sent champagne and flowers to my home. And now we're off to dinner at producer Dexter Fedor's home in the Hollywood Hills. Disney put us up in a suite at the Grand Californian hotel—the room could sleep 10!—and a limo is coming to take us to the studio tomorrow. They want me to sign for $85,000. Ron Howard's group is also interested, but they're taking too long, so I'm going with Disney.
GREETINGS FROM COOPERSTOWN!
May 14, 2006. The Hall of Fame is opening the Women in Baseball exhibit, and I'm so honored to be part of it. I spent the day with the real women from A League of Their Own. I met that wonderful Maria Pepe, and we got along great. The Hall used my favorite picture—me in my gray flannel Kings Dairy uniform. What a thrill.
GREETINGS FROM YANKEE STADIUM!
Sept. 27, 2006. This is my dream come true. Not everyone is asked to throw out a first pitch in the House That Ruth Built. Presidents, Yogi Berra, stars of all kinds ... and now I'm on the field. I stood in front of the mound, took a step toward the plate and whirled the ball, lefty style. It was a bouncer, but Jorge Posada scooped it up and gave me a hug. I was overwhelmed.
But early on, barely a month after the I've Got a Secret taping, there was also this moment.
GREETINGS FROM WILLIAMSPORT!
Aug. 23, 2001. I'm being honored by Little League in my first big appearance. I'm all set to throw out the first pitch for the semifinal game between Oceanside and the Bronx. The star pitcher for the Bronx is Danny Almonte. Gosh, he's big. He's in all the headlines. People think he might be 14 instead of 12. Not the best time for me to come clean.
The Almonte scandal made Massar hyperaware of her lie. The lanky lefthanded pitcher led the Rolando Paulino All-Stars to the semifinals of the 2001 Little League World Series, but shortly after the tournament ended an SI investigation revealed that Almonte was indeed 14, which nullified all his team's wins. While Massar was in Williamsport, Pa., conducting interviews with The New York Times and ESPN that year, she received a call from her brother, Tom. As Massar recounts, "He told me, 'Kay, you gotta step back and get out of the limelight. Look what they're doing with Danny Almonte. What do you think they're going to do with you?' Well, I didn't step back, as you can see."
Instead, Massar went all-in for 10 years. Being the First became her identity. "My son Mark thinks it's consumed me," she says. "I didn't want to invalidate everything, have it all taken away." In every media account, including an SI feature on the 30th anniversary of Title IX in July 2002, Massar was listed as being either 11 or 12 during her 1950 season. The truth: She was 14.
"No one ever asked," says the still youthful-looking Massar—who will turn 75 next week—as she sips coffee at the kitchen table of her Yuba City home. "Well, that's not true, either." In July 2001 a reporter for Yuba City's Appeal-Democrat asked Massar for her age. "I said, 'A lady never tells,' and handed him my military I.D.," she says. The card had the wrong birth year on it: 1938, not '36. "I'd lied about my age when I was around 27 and we were stationed in Puerto Rico," says Massar. "I've always lied about my age. At first I deceived the media out of vanity. Then, after the Danny Almonte thing, I deceived them out of fear."
If her secret were discovered, would she still be the First? Or the First*? What had been an innocent act of pluck as a child in 1950—age didn't enter her mind when she tried out for Kings Dairy—became a ruse as an adult. She never mentioned that she had been 14 in 1950 when she wrote Little League in 1974 or spoke with Van Auken in 1999 to challenge the media depiction of Pepe as the first female Little Leaguer. When reached at her home in Hoboken, N.J., Pepe declined to comment about Massar's age revelation, but she asked, How was Massar's true age discovered?
The memoir publishing industry has been under siege since James Frey sat across from an angry Oprah Winfrey on Jan. 26, 2006. "I feel really duped," Winfrey scolded Frey after parts of his overcoming-addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces, promoted by Oprah's Book Club, turned out to be fiction. But a false narrative never entered the mind of literary agent John Mason in September 2010 when Massar's Little League adventure was brought to his attention by Lynn Hughes, a documentary filmmaker and a longtime friend of Massar's family. Mason had two daughters and one thought: Wow, what a story, what a book. Massar had already been working for a year with noted children's book author Heather Lang. For an adult book Mason found Robert Cowser, an English professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and author of the critically acclaimed Dream Season, a chronicle of his semipro football experience.
Both Cowser and Lang fine-tuned their respective book proposals with phone calls and e-mails to Massar. The proposals were in the mail to publishers by this March. On April 15, in a conference call among Lang, Mason and Massar, minor discrepancies between the adult and children's versions were discussed. "I started telling Kay how important it was to have accuracy in the book," recalls Lang. "Kay then mentioned she was concerned about her age." Massar didn't explain herself, and the conversation moved on, but Lang had noticed an awkward pause in Massar's voice. A thought popped into Lang's head: Just how old had Kay been in Little League? So Lang asked her. Massar answered: 14. "I was speechless," Lang says.
Mason too was stunned. "I was concerned editors would feel we were trying to pull a fast one if Kay had knowingly left out some important information," he says. "I was not interested in misleading anyone."
Cowser walked away from the project. It would have been too time-consuming to re-report the book with the issue of age as an important element in the narrative, and Cowser says, "I was a little gun-shy. I'm very sensitive to the fake memoir issue. I don't think it's insignificant that she was 14." At that age Massar had an edge in maturity—including decision making and baseball intellect—over other Little Leaguers. She was diminutive, though, which raises another question: Would she have made the team at age 12, when she was even smaller?
"I had discussions with Kay about her life, and she wasn't into the minutiae," says Cowser. "In hindsight, maybe there was a reason. She would be less responsible for misrepresentations if she didn't say anything. I think Kay just wanted her story to be told and was probably afraid of the consequences of the truth."
What happens next depends on how Massar's deception is interpreted. Was it a harmless white lie or a calculated reach for attention? Does the answer change anything if the essence of her story is still true? Lang says, "I've asked myself, Would I still have wanted to tell her story even if I'd known she was 14? And the answer is yes because, no matter what her age, she showed great courage in what she did."
In 1950, when anti-Communist fervor was at its height and women were happy homemakers in every appliance ad, it was safest to color inside the lines. "That wasn't Kay," says her fraternal twin, Mary Johnston Burr. "She was always getting spanked by the nuns." As a child of devout Catholics growing up in Corning, where the whistle at the Corning Glass Works blew twice a day, Kay lived in her family's small duplex, with an icebox that sat on the porch until they could afford a refrigerator. The twins slept on a pullout couch in the living room, an uncle occupied one bedroom and Kay's father, mother and little brother slept in the other bedroom. During the summer the sound of Mel Allen's voice crackled through the radio while Kay's father sat in his favorite chair listening to Yankees games. Kay would pull up a chair from the kitchen table and sit close to him. "When I was younger, around five or six, I'd jump in Dad's lap so that my brother, Tom, wouldn't be able to do so," says Massar. "Tom was his favorite—the only boy. I had such an interest in baseball because I wanted my dad to love me as much as he loved Tom."
Malcolm Johnston was a handsome man who took on many careers—he tried acting, served in World War II, opened a photography studio and worked at the glass works. "Dad was charming," says Massar. "He could talk to anyone about anything." In the late 1940s he landed a job at a funeral home, which also owned a radio station. He began announcing local games from press boxes. "Many times I was in the press box with him," says Massar. "I wanted to be wherever he was." She developed a passion for baseball, playing catch with Malcolm and Tom, and evolved into a headstrong girl.
"She got away with murder," says Burr, who lives in St. Louis. "She was a wonderful sister, but I could never get away with what she did." Burr recalls Kay as willful—for better and worse. If she heard children making fun of their neighborhood pal, Maureen, she would be furious. "Kay would swing at them," says Burr. "Once she bit a boy to the bone to let him know it wasn't nice to make fun of Maureen." Kay relished her role as protector. She carried Tom home when he was cold, and she pulled a floundering Mary from a pool. "I was bobbing up and down," says Burr, laughing. "From then on, Kay would say to me, 'I saved your life.'"
Kay's hero instincts were belied by a bad temper. When the twins were washing dishes one evening they disagreed over their respective workloads. Who got the last plate? Kay whirled around and pushed Mary through a closed window. "She fell through the window and onto the porch," says Massar. "What can I say except that at least the glass was very thin and she was not injured." Kay was the dominant twin, to say the least. "She had no fear," says Burr. "She loved our father and wanted his respect. There's nothing she wouldn't do for that."
If she could just be a ballplayer... . In early June 1950, 12-year-old Tom was trying out for Little League, which was limited to boys aged nine to 12. "I thought, I'm a better player than Tom is," says Massar. In the classifieds Rose found an ad for Little League tryouts on the other side of town for a team named Kings Dairy. "No one knew me over there," says Massar, "but Tom told me, 'You're a girl; you can't try out.'"
Massar hatched a gender-bending plan: She would try out as a boy. She asked Rose to cut off her waist-length braids, which were decorated with ribbons. "Mother knew better than to say no to Kay," says Burr. With a couple of scissor chops, two braids of thick brown hair landed on the linoleum floor. Kay raced into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Not bad, not bad at all. Now she needed a boy's name. The twins spent summer days sitting on the cool tile floor of a local sweet shop, reading comic books, laughing out loud at the high jinks of Little Lulu and her pal Tubby. Rose said, Why not name yourself Tubby? It was settled.
A day later Kay showed up at tryouts wearing Tom's clothes and a pair of Keds, having tucked what remained of her hair under her cap. She signed in as Tubby Johnston. She made the team as a lefthanded-throwing, righthanded-hitting first baseman. Her parents were on a tight budget, but her father bought her a first baseman's glove. She put the mitt on her pillow at night, falling asleep to the smell of the leather. "I was so happy," says Massar. "I wasn't thinking, I'm breaking a barrier; I was just playing the sport I loved." Tom Johnston, now a retired Navy captain, declined to offer insight into his sister's baseball ambitions for SI. "He thinks it's my story," explains Massar, "but he probably didn't like the way I played."
Her style was a mix of gamesmanship and aggression. She would occasionally trip players as they rounded first; if sliding into home, she came in feet high. The Kings Dairy coach appreciated Tubby's hard-nosed style. About two weeks into the season Kay felt comfortable enough to pull him aside in the dugout and spill her secret: Coach, I'm a girl. "He didn't care, because I was good," says Massar. She says she also told him she had just turned 14. According to Massar, his response was, "There are no rules for girls." When The Corning Leader caught wind of the girl on first, the paper published a story that awoke both sides of the conservative town, which was sliced in half by the Chemung River. Tubby became not only a drawing card—attendance climbed for the novelty act—but also a target of ridicule. As Massar recalls, "I was called It and Freak, but I didn't care. I was playing baseball."
The season ended, and in 1951 Little League instituted a rule it had never had to ponder before: no girls allowed.
A mockup of a poster for the unmade movie Who's on First sits on Massar's kitchen counter. The backdrop is a quaint baseball stadium—a mini-Fenway—with a little girl in a baseball cap in the center of the poster, while in the foreground a man in suspenders and a fedora, with a microphone in his hand, stands and cheers. "That's Dad," Massar says. The poster is a relic from a six-year odyssey with Disney that ended two years ago when the film was shelved and her option was not renewed. "The studio passed on it when the management changed," says Dexter Fedor, an executive at Nike's Hurley brand of sports apparel who was the producer of the Tubby Johnston film project at Disney. The decision crushed Massar.
But there is reel life and real life. At Disney, Massar was sucked into the blurring of those worlds, with facts omitted and details altered, leaving one to wonder just who owned her truth. In the screenplay, the Johnstons of Corning are portrayed as a family living on the poor side of the river, the mother longing for affluence and the father craving the big time and getting a once-in-a-lifetime audition to be an announcer for the Yankees. Little Kay, disguised as a boy, becomes a star, and the small town wraps its arms around the girl in the cap. "Well, it gets to the end with Dad flubbing his audition with the Yankees," says Massar. A rift develops between the father who fails and the daughter who succeeds. The movie ends with Massar at bat, two outs in the last inning, her team down by one run. Her despondent father is nowhere to be found. But then she hears him. His voice. He has parted the crowd and taken the microphone in the press box. He announces her name. He's back in her life. "It ends when I swing and drive a long fly to centerfield ... and it's caught," says Massar. "I told Disney, 'No, I want it to be a home run to win the game,' and they said, 'Yeah, but Kay, the point is you brought your family back together.' 'I know, but I want it to be a home run.'"
The story line of Who's on First was ginned up—her father never tried out for Mel Allen's job—but the essentials were true to life. "Kay had other offers to bring her life story to the screen," says Fedor. "I pledged to her that if we are lucky enough to get it made, when she goes into the theater to see the movie she'll recognize the town and events and herself. Yes, there will be composite characters, but the spine of the story will represent her life at the time."
It's a family film, after all, designed for uplift. There's no mention of Rose's starving herself during her pregnancy with the twins in order not to show her baby bump. "She wasn't married to Dad yet," says Massar. And there's no mention of her father's drinking habits. "He could be harsh," says Burr.
Authenticity is a mere suggestion in Hollywood. In book publishing it's a necessity. "Maybe at first Kay wasn't recognizing the difference," says Mason, her literary agent. Although Massar says Disney knew her true age, she is depicted as a 12-year-old girl in the movie. In fact, Massar says Fedor advised her against correcting the public record. "I didn't think her age was relevant," he says. "She didn't do anything malicious."
What's Massar's motive in coming clean now? She wants a book deal and realizes it has to begin and end with the truth. "History demands it," she says. "My fear in hiding it was that I would be taken out of the Hall of Fame, like I never existed."
Massar had an important call to make on May 31. The last time she had seen Tom Shieber, the head curator of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, was at the opening of the Women in Baseball exhibit in 2006. Beneath her Kings Dairy photo are the words, IN 1950, 12-YEAR-OLD KATHRYN "TUBBY" JOHNSTON.... Massar asked, How would Shieber feel about a correction?
Baseball is a bit of a con game, if you consider some of the Hall's inductees and exhibits. There is the elm bark that pitcher Burleigh Grimes chewed on to increase his saliva output for spitballs from 1916 to '36. And you have to ask, Did Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry grease the skids for his induction by larding the ball with Vaseline? How many corked bats or stolen signs or performance-enhancing drugs aided certain inductees? Shieber is not unfamiliar with acts of deception. He put Massar at ease. He says, "I was surprised at what she had to say, but I told her she had joined a long list of other players with age issues—like Satchel Paige, who was oft-quoted saying, 'Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter.'"
Shieber had a solution to Massar's age conundrum. In the exhibit she is not mentioned as the first girl Little Leaguer, making the remedy simple. "We're going to change the label and take off the age," says Shieber. "We won't [substitute] 14, because it's too hard to explain in a small space."
Massar was relieved. In reparations mode, she also contacted Van Auken. "I was surprised," says Van Auken, "but Kay still did something remarkable. In 1950, a girl played Little League baseball."
Does that make Massar the First or the First*? That will be part of the discussion as she pushes onward, hoping to revive the movie and the book. "What's interesting is that the early feedback from publishers on the book proposal—and this was before the age issue—was that there's not enough complexity in the second half of Kay's life," says Cowser. "But, now, well, you have your second half."
In the Disney version of Massar's life, it's her father who is searching for fame. What would he think of his daughter's pursuit of it? "He died awhile back, before any of this," says Massar.
In Malcolm Johnston's obituary, he was reported to be 61. "His real age was 71," Massar says. She wasn't the only one with a secret.