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.