Kathryn 'Tubby' Johnston in a league of her own

In the spring of 1950, Tommy Johnston did what lots of 11-year-old boys did in Corning, N.Y.: He signed up for local Little League tryouts. His big sister, Kathryn, 12, decided to accompany him. But before they left the house, Kathryn had one request of their mother.

"I had two long braids, and I asked my mother to cut them off," she said. "I put on a pair of slacks and one of my brother's T-shirts. Then I tucked my new short hair up into a ball cap." When they arrived at the diamond, Kathryn announced to her brother that she was going to try out for the baseball team as well and then quietly stepped into the record books as the first girl to play Little League.

"My brother Tommy was shocked and said I couldn't play because I was a girl. But I wasn't going to let that stop me. … I was stronger than him. He was a skinny little thing," Kathryn "Tubby" Johnston Massar said, laughing, in a recent phone interview. "But my father always took me out, and we would play baseball. He would throw the ball and I would bat. So I went out for the team." Now 73, and a resident of Yuba City, Calif., Johnston Massar recalls her Little League days in upstate New York as the most formative years of her childhood. But before learning the dynamics of boys' baseball, Johnston Massar first had to school herself in the craft of illusions.

Fearing that the Little League coaches wanted nothing to do with little girls, Johnston dressed up as a boy, walked over to the sign-up table and penned the name Tubby Johnston. "I loved the Little Lulu comic books, and my favorite character was a boy named Tubby," Johnston Massar said. "Besides, I was a short little kid and hadn't started to develop. The tryouts were on the south side of town and none of the kids there knew me, so that was helpful."

The coaches liked what they saw during tryouts and assigned "Tubby" to the Corning King's Dairy team as a lefty-throwing, righty-hitting first baseperson. "I still didn't want to tell the coaches I was a girl. I stayed disguised as a boy for almost a week, but I was awfully uncomfortable someone would find out and throw me off the team. So I finally confessed to the coach. He said, 'Well, if you're good enough to make the team, you're good enough to stay on the team.'"

Despite Tubby's proven ability as a ballplayer, not everyone approved of her presence. "There was no rule that a girl couldn't play Little League, but we certainly weren't welcome," she recalled. Parents often objected, as did coaches of opposing teams. "I think they were so upset because I was a good player and I think they thought I was showing up their sons," Johnston Massar said.

The news of Johnston's presence made its way back to Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pa., and at the end of 1951 (when Johnston turned 13 and was no longer eligible to play Little League, which had a 12-and-under cap at the time) the Tubby Rule was handed down. Girls were not allowed to play in Little League. It was an odd juxtaposition, since the popular American Girls Professional Baseball League -- the inspiration for the movie, "A League of Their Own" -- had already been in existence for nearly a decade.

The Tubby Rule stood until 1972, when Maria Pepe, a 12-year-old from Hoboken, N.J., sued Little League for the right to play. The case went to the New Jersey Supreme Court and was backed by the National Organization for Women. The verdict came back in favor of Pepe in 1974, and girls were officially allowed into Little League.

Today, there are 2.7 million children between the ages of 5 and 18 registered with Little League. While the organization does not keep track of female baseball players specifically, the number of girls in baseball is rising. So too is their talent. In April, 2009, 12-year-old pitcher Mackenzie Brown of Bayonne, N.J., made the record book as the first girl to throw a perfect game -- she retired all 18 boys in the lineup, striking out 12.

No matter how many records are broken and titles earned by present-day girls in baseball, every female Little League player shares Tubby Johnston's sentiments. "I was just a young girl who wanted to play baseball. I loved baseball, and I didn't think being a girl should keep you from playing," Johnston Massar said.

Tubby Johnston-turned-Kathryn Massar recently retired after 32 years as a triage nurse; she still cites her Little League experience as the cornerstone of both her career in medicine and her family values. "Any sport is a form of discipline and leadership and makes you a team player," attests Johnston Massar, whose story is being developed into a movie for Disney.

As for Tommy, the little brother once embarrassed by his sister's baseball tryout, "Well, he turned out to be really proud of me," she said. "A few weeks into Little League, he left his team and joined mine. We were a great shortstop-first base combo."