Playing baseball in 1976 made girl a better person

Taking it like a girl

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In 1976, Martha Irvine (center front) became the first girl to play baseball in her northern Michigan hometown. It was four years after the passage of Title IX, and Irvine now says the experience helped shape her as an adult.  CADILLAC ALL SPORTS ASSOCIATION/ASSOCIATED PRESS
CADILLAC ALL SPORTS ASSOCIATION/ASSOCIATED PRESS
In 1976, Martha Irvine (center front) became the first girl to play baseball in her northern Michigan hometown. It was four years after the passage of Title IX, and Irvine now says the experience helped shape her as an adult.

The note atop the stack of blank baseball league applications was clear –
“Boys Only.”

I wasn’t happy about that. It just didn’t seem fair.

Mrs. Johnson, my elementary school’s secretary, must have agreed.

When I asked for one of the applications, she looked to see if anyone was around and quietly slipped one to me – a tiny act of rebellion that would change my summer and, in some ways, the person I would become.

I took the paper home and, with my parents’ blessing, completed and returned it.

This was back in 1976, just four years after the passage of Title IX, the federal amendment that opened up sports opportunities to girls and women.

At the time, though, I had absolutely no clue what that was, or how it might help me.

I was 11. I just wanted to play baseball. And because, at the time, the sports association in my small, northern Michigan hometown had no offerings for girls my age, they let me.

THREE YEARS EARLIER, a girl in Ypsil­anti, Mich., had broken the barrier in Little League. And now it was my turn.

There was only one problem: While I had little doubt I should be allowed to play, I really didn’t know how to. My only experience was a few pickup games with my brother and his friends in the field next to our house. They used a bat and tennis ball and usually hit it so far nobody really fielded the ball anyway. I was usually just their stand-in runner.

So panic quickly set in when I realized that I’d potentially signed myself up for weeks of teasing and humiliation.

My dad and brother didn’t let that happen. Before the season started, they spent evenings and weekends in the backyard, teaching me how to throw, field and bat.

If I had anything to say about it, no one was going to accuse me of “throwing like a girl” – something you heard all the time on playgrounds back then.

WHEN I SHOWED UP for my first practice, my stomach was jittery. A few of my teammates’ eyes widened. There was a bit of grumbling, but it didn’t last long.

The tone was set by my coach, an easygoing sort named Bruce Baker who often wore a floppy fishing hat instead of a baseball cap.

I was always trying to prove that I belonged. He was always reminding me to relax and have fun.

And good thing, because we were northern Michigan’s version of the “Bad News Bears,” the team in the movie that had just come out that spring. We lost game after game – and I endured the taunts from the crowd and the opposing teams.

I played second base and outfield, mostly. People in the stands laughed. It was proof, they said, that I shouldn’t be on the field. Later, when a hard grounder took an awkward bounce and hit me in the shoulder, they laughed some more.

Mostly, it was parents, not kids.

EVEN SO, I was determined to stick it out, though I also was secretly thankful when a second girl joined the league, taking some of the heat off me.

Another thing made it easier. The boys on my team decided I was OK. Maybe, just maybe, they even liked having me around.

Little by little, as the weeks passed, they shouted their own words of encouragement. They had my back and I had theirs – and for the first time, I realized what it was like to be part of a team.

We might’ve been in last place – but we gave it our all.

And when that first win finally did come, we ran together to the concession stand to claim our paper cups full of celebratory soda pop and enjoy a brief, sweet moment of triumph.

For me, it wasn’t so much the win that mattered. I was just one of them. I finally, truly belonged – and I was having fun, just as coach had wanted.

THE NEXT YEAR, girls softball for my age group was added to the summertime sports roster. Many considered it a victory – though, honestly, I didn’t really see it that way at the time.

I liked baseball. I missed my team.

Looking back now, though, I think about how getting the chance to play changed me, as I’m sure it did many girls after Title IX came along. The law forced people to rethink their attitudes.

It was lucky timing for me – and with the support of my family, Mrs. Johnson, Coach Baker and my teammates – gave me the chance to test what my parents always preached.

They’d told me to stand up for what you believed. And that summer, they let me do it.

There is a confidence that comes from that, an inner strength.

It made me a better ballplayer, too.


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