Hey, fellas, wanna play some ball?
On a sultry night in 1980, Sports Illustrated sent a rookie writer to cover a New York Pro Summer League game at a high school gym in Manhattan. Why would the preeminent sports magazine of the time care about a couple of teams called Ka-Har-Lyn and the Gailyn Packers? Well, one of the Packers' guards was Nancy Lieberman. She was testing her game against NBA players -- fringe (Al Skinner), former (Harthorne Wingo), even famous (Nate Archibald) -- and the recent Old Dominion graduate was holding her own.
At one point, with a nice inside move, Lieberman drew a foul from Skinner, the future Rhode Island and Boston College coach. The result, as expressed somewhat grandiosely by SI's correspondent (that would be me), was "two small free throws for woman, two giant free throws for womankind."
Forgive the hyperbole. The sentiment remains a recurring theme of female sports: Women occasionally have to compete against men to gain their respect. If some people see such exhibitions as demeaning, others see them as offering new meaning to "showmanship." As it happens, the Quest for Attention often goes hand in hand with the Quest for Equality.
You felt this was a symbolic match that was going to be used against women and to humiliate them if Billie Jean lost. ... And for her to take that on, to put herself under that pressure, is the true meaning of heroism."” -- Gloria Steinem, journalist and feminist leader, on the Battle of the Sexes
That's why Selena Roberts' book on the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973 is titled "A Necessary Spectacle." No less an authority than Gloria Steinem is quoted in its pages as saying, "You felt this was a symbolic match that was going to be used against women and to humiliate them if Billie Jean lost. ... And for her to take that on, to put herself under that pressure, is the true meaning of heroism."
Lieberman's entry in that summer league didn't create quite the splash that King's victory did, but it made its share of ripples. Once the story appeared in SI, Jane Pauley interviewed Lieberman on "The Today Show," which then led to an invitation from Lakers general manager Jerry West for Lieberman to play for his club's summer league team, coached by Pat Riley, a Lakers assistant at the time. "Pat likes to tell people I was the first point guard he coached in the pros," says Lieberman, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996 and is now the assistant GM of the Dallas Mavericks' D-League team, the Texas Legends. "It's nice being remembered as a pioneer."
Some pioneers, however, have been lost to time. Let us not forget Alicia Meynell, an English horsewoman who challenged and defeated a male jockey in a two-mile race in 1805. Or Mary Marshall, who beat Peter Van Ness in a New York City walking match in 1876. Or Bertha Benz, who snuck out of the house to road-test husband Karl's new automobile in 1888. Or Hessie Donahue, who knocked out former boxing champ John L. Sullivan in 1892 after he accidentally hit her during their vaudeville act. Or Lizzie Arlington, who played pro baseball for the Philadelphia Reserves in 1898. Or May Kaarlus, a 16-year-old, ambidextrous billiards wunderkind who dazzled her male counterparts in a 1901 exhibition. Or ...
You get the idea. Women testing their mettle against men is nothing new. In fact, it dates to ancient times. (Kyniska, a Spartan princess, won an Olympic chariot race in 396 B.C., although she was barred from collecting the prize herself.) Space does not permit us to name all the females who have ventured onto male turf, but what follows is a Hall of Fame collection of eye-opening, jaw-dropping, consciousness-raising challenges well worth remembering as we celebrate Title IX.
The Games of Hera
When the Olympic Games were first held, in Greece in 776 B.C., men were so intent on keeping the fun to themselves that women were forbidden even from watching, under penalty of being thrown from the cliffs of Mount Typaion. In response, the quadrennial Games of Hera, dedicated to the wife of Zeus, were organized for female athletes.
The games started out as foot races among virgins of different age groups, held in the same stadium as the men's events, at distances shortened by one-sixth. Winners received a crown of olive branches and a share of the cow or ox sacrificed to Hera. Statues were inscribed with their names.
It is indecent that the spectators should be exposed to the risk of seeing the body of a woman being smashed before their very eyes. Her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks.” -- Pierre de Coubertin, the father
of the modern Olympics, on the
prospect of women running in the Games
We know about the games largely because of a Greek named Pausanias, who wrote about them in the second century A.D. Like many subsequent male sportswriters, Pausanias took a special interest in what the women -- mostly Spartans -- wore. According to him, their tunics came down to the knees, but covered only the left shoulder and left breast. Their hair flowed freely down their backs.
Fast forward to the first modern Olympics, also held in Greece, in 1896. A woman named Stamata Revithi wanted to compete in the marathon -- and in fact ventured to the village of Marathon, where the race began and where she was welcomed and housed by the mayor. But the local priest refused to bless her before the race, and the organizing committee rejected her request to compete. Revithi ran the course anyway, on her own the next day, arriving in Athens in 5½ hours. Officials turned her away at the stadium entrance.
Some accounts also mention a woman known as Melpomene, a name borrowed from the muse of singing, who completed the race in 4½ hours. (The winning time of Spyridon Louis was 2:58:50.) It may be that Revithi and Melpomene were one and the same but, whatever the case, Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, was sure he did not like the idea of women running in his Games. "It is indecent that the spectators should be exposed to the risk of seeing the body of a woman being smashed before their very eyes," he said. "Her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks."
The idea of a woman competing in the World Skating Championships in 1902 was so improbable that the event's rules didn't even include a specific gender prohibition. And then came Florence Madeline Syers, one of 15 children born to a London family. An accomplished swimmer, equestrienne and skater, Madge met Edgar Syers in 1899 and quickly became his partner on and off the ice, even though he was 18 years her senior. He encouraged her to abandon the rather stiff British skating style in favor of a more fluid, European approach, and the newlyweds finished second in an international pairs event in 1900.
With Edgar's blessing, Madge entered the otherwise all-male 1902 world championships, then shocked everyone by finishing second to Sweden's Ulrich Salchow, he of the eponymous jump. Salchow, in fact, was so impressed by her performance that he offered Syers his gold. According to one account, "Rumour, nay more than rumour -- a good deal of expert opinion -- thought she should have won."
Naturally, the International Skating Union quickly moved to bar women from its competitions, citing 1) the difficulty of judging the feet of a competitor in a dress; 2) the potential of a judge becoming attached to a participant; and 3) the impossibility of comparing men to women. Skating authorities closer to home foresaw no such problems, however, and Madge won the first British singles championship in 1903. She successfully defended her title the next year, defeating none other than her husband.
When London hosted the 1908 Summer Olympics (in October), figure skating made its debut. Madge easily took the gold in ladies' singles, and she and Edgar snagged a bronze in pairs. Madge, though, was soon forced to retire because of ill health. She passed away in 1917 at age 35. Edgar never skated again.
Freestyle is a stroke, but it also describes the spirit of Gertrude Ederle. On Aug. 6, 1926, at 7:05 a.m., the 19-year-old daughter of a Manhattan butcher ventured into the water at Cap Gris-Nez, Pas-de-Calais, France. Trailing her were two tugboats. One ferried a team that included her trainer, Thomas Burgess, who had previously completed the journey she was about to undertake, and her father, Henry, who promised her a roadster if she succeeded. The other vessel was packed with soon-to-be-nauseated journalists.
Already an Olympic gold medalist, "Trudy" was trying to be the first woman to swim across the English Channel, and unlike the five men who came before her, each having successfully breaststroked the 21 miles between France and England, she was going to do the crawl. She had attempted the swim a year earlier, but had been pulled out of the water against her will. This time, she wore a revolutionary two-piece bathing suit designed by her older sister Margaret. She also slathered herself in sheep grease for warmth and protection against jellyfish, and kept her goggles tight to her face with candle wax. Ederle started out singing "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," to set her stroke rhythm; before long, though, Burgess advised her to save her breath.
During the 12th hour at sea, unfavorable winds began to worry Burgess. "Gertie, you must come out!" he shouted. Ederle raised her head from the water and replied, "What for?"
Campfires lit the English coast of the channel, and once Ederle saw those, there was no stopping her. She reached shore at 9:35 p.m., touching down in Kingsdown, Kent, and, as she later described it, "When I walked out of the water, I began thinking, 'Oh my God, have I really done it?' When my feet hit the sand, oh, that was a wonderful moment." A British passport official approached and jokingly asked for her papers.
By one reckoning, the winds and currents had forced Ederle to swim 14 extra miles, and yet her time, 14:31, was two hours better than the standing best. Back in New York, she was given the biggest ticker tape parade in history. Irving Berlin wrote a song for her, President Calvin Coolidge invited her to the White House, and vaudeville and Hollywood beckoned.
Alas, Ederle's manager frittered away her money, and her fiance ditched her when he discovered that her hearing, already weakened by a childhood bout of measles, had been further damaged by all her time in the water. Ederle suffered a nervous breakdown and a spinal injury that left her in constant pain.
Rather than bemoan her fate, though, she made use of it. The last page of the Aug. 3, 1959, issue of Sports Illustrated is a captioned photo of Ederle teaching the children of New York's Lexington School for the Deaf how to swim. "They feel I'm one of them," she was quoted as saying, "and they trust me." To the end, she went the distance, dying in a New Jersey nursing home at 98.
Living next to a future Hall of Famer helped Jackie Mitchell achieve a fame of her own. The neighborhood was in Memphis; the neighbor, Dazzy Vance, a star pitcher for the Brooklyn Robins. Vance saw talent in Mitchell, the daughter of the eye doctor who lived next door, and he taught the little left-hander his favorite pitch, a curveball that could drop off a table.
After playing for a women's team in Chattanooga, Tenn., and attending a baseball school in Atlanta, Mitchell caught the attention of Joe Engel, a former major league pitcher who ran the Chattanooga Lookouts. On March 28, 1931, Engel offered the 17-year-old Mitchell a contract, with an eye toward an upcoming exhibition against the Yankees, who were traveling north from their spring training home in Florida.
This is how the Chattanooga News described Mitchell on March 31: "She uses an odd, side-armed delivery, and puts both speed and curve on the ball. Her greatest asset, however, is control. She can place the ball where she pleases, and her knack at guessing the weakness of a batter is uncanny." The story continued, "She believes that with careful training, she may soon be the first woman to pitch in the big leagues."
The game with the Yanks was scheduled for April Fool's Day, but rain forced a postponement. So it was on April 2, before a crowd of 4,000 in a new ballpark, with a run already in and a man on first, when Mitchell was brought in to face ... Babe Ruth.
She missed high with her first pitch, then got the Babe to swing and miss at her next two. He let the fourth go by, but it caught the corner of the plate. Strike three. According to one account, "Ruth kicked the dirt, called the umpire a few dirty names, gave his bat a wild heave, and stomped out to the Yanks' dugout."
The next batter was Lou Gehrig. He swung and missed at three straight pitches. After a standing ovation that lasted several minutes, Mitchell walked Tony Lazzeri, then she was relieved. The New York Times later opined, "Perhaps Miss Jackie hasn't quite enough on the ball yet to bewilder Ruth and Gehrig in a serious game. But there are no such sluggers in the Southern Association, and she may win laurels this season which cannot be ascribed to mere gallantry. The prospect grows gloomier for misogynists."
Unfortunately, one of those misogynists was baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who voided her contract and declared women unfit for his game. Mitchell played a few years with the barnstorming House of David team, but eventually that proved too humiliating -- she sometimes had to wear a beard and pitch from a donkey -- and she retired from baseball to work for her father, an optometrist. Too bad it was the only other chance she got to help fix the shortsighted.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Legend has it that she got her nickname from slugging baseballs as a kid. The truth, though, is much more mundane: Mildred Ella Didrikson was called "Baby" by her Norwegian-Texan family right from the day she was born, in 1911.
There is no need to embellish her accomplishments. She led her AAU basketball team to the 1931 national championship; won gold medals in the javelin and 80-meter hurdles at the 1932 Summer Olympics, as well as taking silver in the high jump; and dominated women's golf for nearly 20 years.
Arguably the greatest female athlete ever, Babe regularly challenged men, playing with and against them in basketball, baseball and golf. In fact, she met her husband, wrestler George Zaharias, when they were paired at the 1938 Los Angeles Open. He complained at first that he "didn't want to play with no girl," but she won him over with her shot-making and wit. They both missed the cut, and were married 11 months later.
In 1945, Babe did make the cut, at the Los Angeles Open; she did it again at the Phoenix and Tucson opens. If the object of those forays into the men's game was to gain attention, she clearly succeeded. Then again, Babe didn't need to win over the greatest sportswriter of the age. Right after the 1932 Olympics, she found herself playing golf at L.A.'s Brentwood Country Club with Grantland Rice and one of his renowned colleagues, Paul Gallico. According to Don Van Natta, author of Babe's biography, "Wonder Girl," she wowed both men with her booming drives and lovely short game. On the par-3 17th hole, she challenged Gallico to a foot race from tee to green, and he accepted. Despite wearing a long dress, Babe toyed with Gallico, who collapsed upon finishing behind her. The race so rattled him that he four-putted the hole, giving the match to Rice and Didrikson.
"She is the longest hitter women's golf has ever seen," Rice wrote. "If Miss Didrikson would take up golf seriously, there is no doubt in the mind ... she would be a world beater in no time."
The second baseman for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 was Henry Aaron. The second baseman for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953 was Marcenia Stone. And therein lies the tale of the most accomplished female player in the history of organized baseball.
She was born in 1921, and she earned the nickname "Toni" -- a kind of shorthand for "tomboy" -- on the sandlots of St. Paul, Minn. As the story goes, she was so obsessed with baseball that her parents asked the parish priest to come by their house and try to dissuade her. Father Keith ended up encouraging her to join his Catholic Midget League team. A former major league catcher and manager, Gabby Street, was so taken by Stone's ability that he found her a spot in his baseball school and bought her a pair of spikes. By the time she was 15, Stone was playing for the Twin City Colored Giants in the men's meatpacking league.
She was, of course, an excellent candidate for the All-American Girls Baseball League, except for one problem: The AAGBL, like the major leagues, had a color barrier. Stone moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1940s to care for a sick sister, and -- after subtracting 10 years from her actual age -- ended up joining the San Francisco Sea Lions of the West Coast Negro League. Unhappy with her pay, she didn't last long there, jumping ship to sign with the Black Pelicans.
By then, Jackie Robinson had become the first African-American big leaguer. And while that was one of the pivotal milestones of integration, it also marked the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues. Looking for a gate attraction for his suddenly moribund Clowns, owner Syd Pollack signed Stone for the 1953 season. (Aaron had left the year before.) In other words, the breaking of the major league color barrier led to the breaking of the Negro Leagues' gender barrier.
Like Robinson, Stone wasn't exactly met with open arms. Teammates tried to handcuff her on double-play relays, and opponents tried to spike her. The atmosphere on the road was so hostile that she took to staying in brothels, where she was welcomed as a different kind of working girl.
Despite the hardships, Stone held her own, batting .243 in 50 games. On Easter Sunday of that 1953 season, she faced the legendary Satchel Paige. As Stone later remembered it, "When he wound up -- he had those big old feet -- all you could see was his shoe. I stood there shaking, but I got a hit. Right over second base. Happiest moment in my life."
Over the winter, she was traded to the Kansas City Monarchs, Robinson's old team, but she got little playing time and decided to retire. Returning to the West Coast, Stone became a nurse and took care of her husband, who was 40 years her senior but lived to be 103. A few years before she passed away in 1996, she was honored in St. Paul with a Toni Stone Day; a field at Griggs Street and Marshall Avenue was named after her. They still play baseball there.
Billie Jean King
At 29, she had already won five Wimbledon and three U.S. Open singles titles. She would go on to start a pro women's tour, a women's sports magazine and a women's sports foundation. But nothing Billie Jean Moffett King did had quite the impact of her humiliation of a 55-year-old man.
That man was Bobby Riggs, the 1939 Wimbledon champ turned tennis hustler. On Mother's Day 1973, he beat King's chief rival, Margaret Court, 6-2, 6-1, in an exhibition in Ramona, Calif., and used the victory to assume the mantle of America's leading male chauvinist. King, who had earlier declined to play Riggs, realized she had a gender to defend. So she accepted the challenge, and then, together with her husband, Larry, turned the event into the biggest showcase in tennis history.
Promoted as The Battle of the Sexes, the best-of-five match on Sept. 20, 1973, was nationally televised in prime time on ABC. It attracted 30,942 spectators to the Houston Astrodome and an estimated 90 million viewers worldwide. King and Riggs were each guaranteed $150,000, with a $100,000 bonus for the winner -- hardly loose change in those days. But the cost of the night was even higher in King's mind. "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match," she later said. "It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self-esteem."
The two combatants willingly bought into the circus: King entered the stadium like Cleopatra, carried aloft in a chair borne by four bare-chested hunks, while Riggs arrived in a rickshaw pulled by scantily clad models he called "Bobby's Bosom Buddies." He presented King with a giant lollipop; she gave him a piglet.
The match, in the playing, was no match at all. Having consulted with Court, King knew how to beat Riggs. Using a strategy that London's Sunday Times called "the drop shot and volley heard round the world," she ran Riggs ragged. Many pre-match prognosticators had thought King, being a woman and all, would succumb to the pressure. But it was Riggs who double-faulted on key points. The result was a 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 thrashing that proved King was faster, stronger and smarter than her foe.
Grace Lichtenstein of The New York Times described King's moment of victory this way: "She flung her racquet high toward the girded roof of the Astrodome and then collapsed, tears in her eyes, in her husband's arms. Mrs. Billie Jean King had just beaten the lady-killer of women's tennis and all of a sudden, she was a champion, a woman and a little girl at the same time."
The most famous words in auto racing belong to Tony Hulman, the patron saint of the Indianapolis 500. But in 1977, Hulman made a slight alteration to his iconic command. For the 61st running of the race, on May 29, Hulman announced to the drivers and the crowd of 250,000, "In company with the first lady ever to qualify for Indianapolis -- gentlemen, start your engines."
The first lady was Janet Guthrie, an extraordinary woman even before that day. The daughter of a Miami-based airline pilot, she got her own pilot's license at 17, then competed against her boyfriend to see who could fly higher. Looking toward a career in aeronautical engineering, she graduated from the University of Michigan in 1960 with a degree in physics. While working as a research and development engineer at Republic Aviation in Farmingdale, N.Y., she applied to NASA's first scientist-astronaut program and made the first cut.
Guthrie discovered the joys of auto racing after she bought a Jaguar XK 120 coupe and started competing in the street races known as gymkhanas. By 1972 she had decided to devote herself to the sport full-time, and promptly made a name for herself at the 12 Hours of Sebring. In 1976, Indy team owner Rolla Vollstedt went looking for a female driver to garner a little extra attention for his team, "and the name that always came up was Janet's." He asked her to test one of his cars. Unfortunately, it wasn't fast enough to run at the Brickyard.
Humpy Wheeler, owner of Charlotte Motor Speedway, had an idea similar to Vollstedt's. Much to the chagrin of NASCAR president Bill France, Wheeler invited Guthrie to qualify for the 1976 Charlotte World 600. She drew favorable attention to the race -- and favorable reviews for finishing 15th.
Let history note that the No. 68 Chevrolet that started 39th at the 1977 Daytona 500 was driven by a woman, Guthrie; owned by a woman, Lynda Ferreri; and sponsored by Kelly Girl. The car finished 12th, earning Guthrie the race's Rookie of the Year honor.
Three months later, she qualified 26th at Indy in a Vollstedt car, which had a Lightning chassis and an Offenhauser engine. But mechanical troubles set in after only 16 laps, and the No. 27 car limped home in 29th place, far behind winner A.J. Foyt.
The next year, Guthrie took matters into her own hands, forming a team herself. With Texaco Star as the primary sponsor of her car (Wildcat chassis, DGS engine), she started 15th. More to the point, she finished ninth, ahead of Indy icons Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford and Rick Mears. Even more remarkable, she accomplished the feat with a broken wrist, incurred in a charity tennis tournament a few days earlier.
Guthrie's last major race was the 1980 Daytona 500; she finished a respectable 11th. "I didn't retire," she says. "I ran out of money."
Not only did she bring skill and determination to motor sports, she brought poetry to it, as well. Sometimes, she prayed to the goddess Athena before a race. And in her autobiography, "A Life At Full Throttle," she described one Indy turn as "balanced ever so delicately on the edge, like a ballerina holding an arabesque on one toe." Top that, A.J. Foyt.
As hard as Gertie and Billie Jean and Janet tried, they couldn't abolish sexism. And so, when it was confirmed in 2003 that the best female golfer in the world, Annika Sorenstam, had accepted a sponsor's exemption to play in the PGA Tour's Bank of America Colonial tournament in Fort Worth, Texas, a few of the male golfers expressed displeasure. Most notably, Vijay Singh, No. 7 in the world, told the Associated Press, "It's just different for ladies to play on the men's tour. It's like letting the Williams sisters play against a man, and they're far better athletes." He then added that he'd refuse to play with Sorenstam should he be paired with her. "She doesn't belong out here," he said.
Not every tour pro felt that way. As Phil Mickelson said, "Guys who are having a tough time with this are thinking this is the men's tour. It's not. It's the best tour, for the best players in the world."
The last woman to play in a PGA event was Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Like her, Sorenstam was both Scandinavian and an all-around athlete, adept at tennis, skiing and football. Plus, she dominated the LPGA the way Babe had, having won five majors and five Player of the Year awards before she ever teed off at Colonial.
Sorenstam was less interested in breaking the grass ceiling than she was in testing her own game, but the subtext of her participation couldn't be ignored. Feminist Martha Burk had just led a protest at the Masters against Augusta National's male-only membership policy. For all of Sorenstam's accomplishments, it was her mere entry in the Colonial that finally made her a household name.
The massive gallery that watched Sorenstam tee off on No. 10 on May 23 was definitely not there to root for her playing partners, Aaron Barber and Dean Wilson. Both, however, said they were honored to be in her group, and they took it upon themselves to make her feel comfortable. Once she got over her jitters, Sorenstam played well, shooting a 1-over 71 that could have easily been a 67 had she made a few putts.
The next day, though, Sorenstam shot a 74 and missed the cut by four strokes. The warm cheers of the crowd after she sunk her last putt, and the release of the pressure that had followed her around the course, brought her to tears. She had finished better than 13 male golfers and won over quite a few critics. Said pro Dan Forsman, "I guess some of them will say, 'I told you so.' Others will say she had a heck of a tournament. ... Others will say she's just nothing but class. And frankly, I'm in that camp."
Years later, after she had retired with 10 major titles and eight Player of the Year awards, Sorenstam was asked to reflect on the 2003 Colonial. "I cherished the opportunity and tried to make the most of it," she said. "Hopefully, people will think that I represented myself, the LPGA and women athletes in general fairly well."
That's the thing about these challenges. The women didn't undertake them to conquer men; they played to bring the two sides closer together. "You know what I treasure about my life in sports?" says Nancy Lieberman. "I treasure the friendships I've made over the years. Every day I send out a little inspirational message to my friends. Joe Girardi is on that list, and Larry Fitzgerald and Jason Garrett and Tom Thibodeaux. It's a long list."
One day recently, Lieberman found and shared the following quote: "It's impossible to defeat an ignorant person by argument."
Yes, sometimes you have to show them.