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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.
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.