Ria Cortesio, a woman umpire, called Thursday’s spring training game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs in Mesa, Ariz.—the first time in almost 20 years that a female umpire made it to a major league exhibition game. Why doesn’t baseball have more female umpires?
Little League baseball is still a boys’ game. Young girls tend to play softball or another sport, so they rarely join baseball teams in high school or college. And since many prospective umpires are former baseball players, there’s an especially small pool of women who have a passion for umpiring. Each year, just a handful of women enroll at one of the country’s two umpire schools. No wonder there have been just six women umpires in the history of minor league baseball, and none in the major leagues.
To become an umpire, men and women alike must fork over $2,000 to $3,000 in tuition and spend a few weeks working on their stance, calls, strike zone, field positioning, and voice control. (After that, getting to the major leagues is a long shot no matter what gender you are.) Only the top 50 students in the country—out of a total of about 300—get sent to an evaluation camp run by the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp., the organization in charge of hiring for the minor leagues. There, the would-be umps compete for about a dozen spots on the lowest rung of baseball, the rookie league. PBUC observers grade umpires on their ability to call accurate pitches, handle the strike zone, and control the game.
Once in the rookie league, advancement is glacial and paychecks minuscule. Jobs open only if someone at the next level, Class A, is promoted or leaves altogether. Someone who can’t move up—from rookie to A, Double-A, then Triple-A—eventually gets fired. Cortesio’s chance to call a spring training game means that MLB officials think highly of her—and that she’s accrued seniority. (After four years in Double-A, she’s fifth in line to move into Triple-A this season.)
Women have had a shot at professional umpiring only since 1972, when a secretary named Bernie Gera won a five-year-long lawsuit for the right to ump. The New York State Human Rights Commission finally ruled in her favor, and she was hired at the Class-A level. When she reversed a call during her first game, Nolan Campbell, the manager of the Auburn Phillies, yelled that she had made two mistakes: “The first was you put on that uniform and came out here as an umpire. Your second mistake was you left the kitchen.” When the game ended, Gera resigned.
The most successful female umpire was Pam Postema, who spent 13 years in the minor leagues, including seven in Triple-A. She almost broke into the majors—calling two years of spring training games at her peak—but she was dropped in 1989, supposedly for ejecting too many players. She later sued the major leagues, the Triple-A Alliance, and the Baseball Umpire Development Program for sex discrimination. In her book You’ve Got to Have Balls to Make It in This League, she says there’s no worse crime in baseball than being a woman. (The NBA has been more open to female authority: Dee Kantner and Violet Palmer joined as referees in 1997.)
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Explainer thanks Jean Ardell, author of Breaking Into Baseball, Jim Ferguson of Minor League Baseball, Rod Nelson of the Society for American Baseball Research, and Mike Teevan of Major League Baseball.