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."
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.