“I simply wanted to play the game that I loved.” ~ Kay “Tubby” Johnston Massar, the first girl to play Little League baseball, 1950.
Watch this stupid scene from an otherwise pretty good movie.
“There’s no crying in baseball.”
It’s a big lie and, if you have ever loved baseball … and loved a team … you’ve cried. If nothing else, you’ve sniffled a little (swallowed hard and wiped your nose on your shirt), which you might say is not crying, but, trust me, it is.
If you’ve never cried at least once when your team has let you down (see: Orioles, Cubs), or cried with joy when your team wins a World Series (see: Red Sox, Yankees, etc etc), or with despair when your team ruined your evening by squandering a perfectly adequate – and rare – five-hit, two-run performance by your struggling starter and then losing to one of the worst teams in baseball (see: Orioles, again), you really don’t love baseball, so stop saying you do.
(Some of the greatest to ever play the game have cried. And, there is no shame in that.)
So, when Kay Johnston Massar told me that when she was a young girl growing up in Corning, New York she cried as she watched her brother go off to play Little League, I understood.
If you love a game as much as she did – and still does – you would cry, too, if you were left behind.
But, this is not a story about crying.
Massar’s mother saw a notice in the paper that there was another Little League tryout coming up.
It was 1950, though, and girls did not play Little League baseball. Leastways, no one had ever done it before.
So, Massar had her mom cut off her braids, pushed what was left of her hair up under a ball cap, took her sister’s bike, and pedaled off to tryouts.
Her father had taught her to play and love the game. She played sandlot games with her brother Tom and his friends. She was good.
“I’m going to make the team,” she promised her mom. “I bet you will,” her mom replied.
Before she left, her mom suggested she change her name so no one would know she was a girl. Kay became “Tubby”, after the loyal best friend in the Little Lulu comics.
Tubby’s story might have faded away, except for one important thing.
She made the team.
“Tubby” Johnston was the first girl to play Little League baseball.
Some of you and your googling will try to tell me I’m wrong. You’ll say Maria Pepe was the first. No. Although her lawsuit in the early 1970s opened the door for all girls to play. Some of you will argue for Janine Cinseruli. No. Although she was the first girl to play a full season post-lawsuit in 1974.
Some of you will say, “Girls don’t play baseball.” Now, you’re just being disruptive. (Here. Read this. Then you can come back and read the rest of this post.)
Back to Tubby Johnston.
“When I tried out for Little League baseball I was not trying to be a beacon for women’s rights,” Massar says. “I simply wanted to play the game that I loved.”
Corning, New York wasn’t just any Little League town in 1950 either. Corning had made it to the semifinals of the Little League World Series in 1949 and the quarter-finals in 1948.
Not every kid who tried out got to play in Corning. Corning was tough. You had to earn your way in.
Tubby Johnston was tough too. And, she earned her way in.
Soon after being assigned to play first base for the King’s Dairy team, she told her coach the truth – he had a 14-year-old girl on his Little League squad.
The coach decided that there were no written rules at the time that specifically prohibited a girl from playing. And, if Tubby was good enough to make the team, she was good enough to play.
She played first base all season – she could hit, she could field. (When she finally got a proper first baseman’s glove of her own she slept with it. “I loved the smell of the leather,” she told me.)
When her teammates were told that Tubby, their first baseman, was actually a girl named Kay, they accepted her, she says. “They said, ‘Well, she plays as well as we do.’” And, then she adds, “Actually, I was better.”
But, they never did call her Kay. She was always “Tubby.”
Adults, on the other hand, could be cruel.
When the news broke that a girl was playing Little League in Corning, the fans turned out to watch. Many cheered, but many adults would jeer at her from the stands, call her names, or come right up to her and tell her she was a “freak” for playing baseball with boys.
“I didn’t let it bother me, I didn’t want to raise a commotion or squeal about it,” Massar says. “I didn’t want to get kicked off the team.”
(I told you she was tough.)
King’s Dairy was a prestigious team, highly prized by Little Leaguers, not only because they won a lot, but because after games the coach would take the kids to the dairy store and treat them to banana splits and milkshakes.
That 1950 season was Tubby’s first and last in Little League. After the season, Little League passed the “Tubby Rule” which stated in full:
“Girls Are Not Eligible Under Any Conditions.”
The rule stood until it was overturned in the courts in 1974.
By then, however, most girls were playing softball. That trend pretty much continues. Last year, just one girl played at the Little League Baseball World Series – Eliska Stejskalova, from the Czech Republic, who played for the Europe-Africa Team.
(In 2005, Katie Brownell, the only girl playing Little League baseball in Oakfield, NY, pitched a perfect six-inning Little League game – 18 up, 18 down. All strike outs.)
After Little League, Massar played a few years of softball herself, before getting on with things, becoming a nurse, getting married, having a family.
She was a tough softball player, too. Once, while sliding into second, she dislocated her shoulder. While coaches were trying to hustle her off to the hospital she was busy arguing with the umpire that she should have been called safe.
And, she almost got herself into a football game. Not long after her Little League season, she dressed in her brother’s football uniform one day when he was sick, put on his helmet, and tried to take his spot on the field. A fellow player ratted her out to the coach, however. “The coach ran out on the field shouting ‘Stop, Kay! Stop, Kay!’ or I would have been the first girl to play football, too.”
She still loves baseball. Her father was a lifelong Yankees fan, and she carries on the pinstripe tradition. (Derek Jeter is her #1. And, yes, she’s heartbroken that Robinson Cano, “the best second baseman in the game,” has left the Yanks for the Mariners.)
Today, she lives in Yuba City, California and gets to local college games and to an occasional Oakland A’s game each season.
“My dream as a child was to play first base for the Yankees, but I am still waiting to be called up,” Massar said and then asked, “Do you think that it is too late?”
Massar is 78 this year. She was joking.
She threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium in 2006. (“I one-hopped it to [Jorge] Posada,” she admits.)
And, at an Oakland A’s game in 2010.
Come on, San Francisco Giants! Massar is near you. Why not let her throw one out at AT&T Park this season?
Massar has been honored at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York and at the Little League Museum in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
She is featured in a new film commemorating the 75th anniversary of Little League which will air on PBS in June.
Oh, and hey, just one more thing.
Sports Illustrated has written about Massar a couple times, most recently in 2011. In that article, the writer suggested that Massar would trip runners as they rounded first base.
Massar would like to clear that up.
She was tough, but she didn’t routinely trip players. She wasn’t a cheater.
But, she did trip one.
“He pushed me down because I was a girl. So, the next time around I tripped him.”
That “kid” is now in his 70s, and he saw the Sports Illustrated story. He tracked down a mutual schoolfriend. “He said, ‘Tell her I’m sorry,’” Massar said, “So I finally got an apology.”
“I got to do a great thing. I got to play the game I loved.”
(Thank you to Kay Johnston Massar, who still loves baseball.)