|Thursday, August 23
First girl in LLWS to be honored
SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- "Tubby" Johnston missed out on the Little League World Series as a player. The team didn't make it far enough, and Tubby was out of town when the coach tried to set up an exhibition game.
"I don't remember how far we went. I know we didn't make all-stars," Tubby said. "But I do remember I was in Rochester, N.Y., visiting my aunt after our season was over with. My mother called me and said, 'Your coach called and said that they wanted you to participate in an exhibition game at the Little League World Series, but I told them you probably wouldn't be interested because you're in Rochester.' "
"Tubby" was actually Kathryn Johnston, a 12-year-old girl who played for the King's Dairy team in Corning, N.Y., in the summer of 1950.
Little League honored Johnston -- now Kathryn Massar -- on Thursday by selecting her to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the World Series U.S. semifinal game Thursday night.
A gifted athlete used to playing ball with the boys, Kathryn cut her hair short, tucked it under her cap, and went with her 11-year-old brother, Tommy, to tryouts. Afraid a girl wouldn't be allowed to try out, she took the name "Tubby," a male character from the "Little Lulu" comic strips.
"When we heard that Little League tryouts were coming to Corning, I wanted to try out," said Kathryn, who now lives in Yuba City, Calif., about 45 miles north of Sacramento. "But my brother said, 'You can't, you're a girl.' I said, 'That's not going to stop me.' "
Tommy didn't tell, and both made the team, with "Tubby" playing first base and batting third and Tommy playing short stop and batting fourth.
It wasn't until two weeks into the season that Kathryn let her coach in on the secret.
"I played for a couple of weeks, then I told the coach I needed to talk to him about something, and I told him the that I was a girl and not a boy," she said. "He said, 'You're darn good, and we're going to keep you on the team,' and the team was fine with it."
Not everyone liked the idea. An article in The Leader of Corning revealed Kathryn's identity. Attendance at her games increased as people came for the novelty of seeing a girl play baseball. But some objected to her presence -- and to her rough play.
"I was always a little aggressive," Kathryn says with a smile. "There was one time someone was running around first base and I tripped him. And then when I slid into home plate, I knocked the catcher over. I was a little rough."
There was little anyone could do, though. Kathryn obviously was good enough to play, and at the time there was no rule prohibiting girls from playing Little League.
That didn't take long to remedy. Little League added a rule to the books in 1951 that barred further participation by girls. By then, Kathryn was too old to play Little League and had been recruited by a fast-pitch softball team in nearby Elmira.
Lance Van Auken, a Little League spokesman and co-author with his wife, Robin, of the book "Play Ball: The Story of Little League," said there was no direct evidence that Little League passed the rule because of Kathryn. But Little League officials were aware of her, and the timing probably was more than coincidence, he said.
It wasn't until 1974, after losing a lawsuit in New Jersey, that Little League officially allowed girls to play again. When the courts allowed 12-year-old Maria Pepe to play in Hoboken, N.J., she was touted in the media as the first girl ever to play Little League baseball.
That caught the attention of Kathryn's sister, Mary Burr, who persuaded Kathryn to set the record straight. Kathryn sent a letter to Little League and a newspaper clipping from The Leader. Although there are rumors of girls who played about the same time as Kathryn, the newspaper article makes her the first recorded female player.
Since then, hundreds of girls have played Little League baseball and thousands have played in Little League's mostly female softball leagues. Eight girls have reached the Little League World Series, including Tatiana Maltseva, a catcher for Russia and the only girl in this year's series. "I think it's wonderful -- I think it's great," Kathryn said. "If you're good enough to make a Little League team, then you should be allowed to play. I wish I could do it all over again."