Women in Blue: The Day The Umpires Made History

Perry Barber serving as the home plate umpire on February 26, 2008 (via Perry Barber).

On February 26, 2008, umpire Perry Barber arrived at what is now First Data Field in Port St. Lucie, Florida. She got out of her car and greeted the rest of her crew for a New York Mets spring training exhibition game. She watched as they looked around, taking stock of who they would be working with that day.

Barber had been charged with assembling the crew for this game between the Mets and the University of Michigan. And she called in people she knew were up for the job: Ila Valcarcel, Mona Osborne and Theresa Cox Fairlady. Together, the four of them became the first all-female crew to umpire a game featuring a  major league team. Barber hadn’t told any of them that they were about to make history before they arrived to call the game. “It was a surprise for all of us. It was a nice surprise,” Valcarcel told me over the phone last week. “I was like okay, we can do this. We got this, this is cool.”

Asked by phone why she decided to bring a four-woman umpire crew onto the field that day, Barber says, “I knew we could and it had never been done so I figured why not? We were ready and I thought the world was ready but it was probably still a little before it’s time.”

It’s been 10 years since those women became part of baseball history. In the time since that game, there hasn’t been another an all-female crew at a game featuring a major league team. There has still never been an all-female crew at an official major league spring training game (“Because this was an MLB vs. non-MLB game, it is considered an exhibition game and did not count against spring training stats and standings,” Cory Schwartz, VP of Stats for MLB.com told me). A woman has yet to umpire in the majors. Eight women have umpired in affiliated leagues (Fairlady is one of them), and there are currently two women umpiring in the minors — the most there has ever been at one time.

Over the years,  a good number of women have gotten the chance to call spring training games, though only the women who have worked in professional baseball count towards the official records. Barber, Osborne, Valcarcel and others have worked games at major league spring training facilities, too. It makes one wonder how many women’s stories have been lost to history because they don’t count toward official numbers. Pam Postema, who worked 13 years in the minor leagues and got to Triple-A, called her first in 1988. She is considered the first woman to umpire a major league spring training game. Ria Cortesio followed in 2007. And last week, both of the women currently working in minor league ball  — Emma Charlesworth-Seiler and Jen Pawol — worked their first major league exhibition games.

Barber is now 64 and has been umpiring for 37 years. She has worked at most levels of the game, from the Cape Cod League to collegiate ball to high school games to the Atlantic League. In 2008, she was working a lot, calling 150-200 games a year. Barber had been umpiring intrasquad games for the Mets since 1985. She says she got that job when she was a student at the Wendelstedt Umpire School in Port St. Lucie. “I had cold-called [the Mets Fantasy Camp] and said I was an umpire school student and I wanted to come umpire Mets games. Instead of hanging up and laughing at me like [they’d done at the] Dodgers camp, they said, ‘Come on over.’”

While she was working the fantasy camp, a man introduced himself as the person in charge of hiring umpires for the intrasquad games. He would turn out to be Arthur Richman, an executive who worked in the Mets front office from 1980-1988. “I worked those games because the intra-squads are not usually scheduled by MLB; the teams are responsible for getting local umpires,” explains Barber. “I wandered into that gig because Mr. Richman was nice enough to ask and I forged relationships with people in the front office, so they kept hiring me and enlisted me to hire other umps for intrasquad.”

That’s how she first brought Osborne to work at the Mets facility. Osborne, now 62, has been officiating baseball games for 23 years. She got involved in umpiring while her kids were playing Little League. “I was at the field a lot and I remember standing between two of the fields, and watching the baseball game,” she says. “All the sudden I said, ‘you know what, I think I want to do that,’ meaning umpire.” Osbourne went on to work collegiate ball but found her calling working at the high school level. In 2004, she became the first woman to work a high school state championship game in Florida.

Valcarcel had worked games for USA Baseball with Barber. She’d also umpired spring training games at Dodgertown, and for the Detroit Tigers. Osborne and Valcarcel worked the Baseball World Cup in Japan in 2008. Fairlady had also worked for USA Baseball. She’d umpired in the minors from 1989-1991; upon her dismissal from Single-A ball, she joined Postema’s gender discrimination lawsuit. The suit was settled out of court in 1993.

When a crew was needed for a game at the Mets facility, Barber would sometimes get a call from the equipment manager telling her they needed two umpires or four umpires. The call came one day in 2008 that they needed four umpires for a game against Michigan. “I was sort of thinking, ‘Why not get a crew of women?’” says Barber. “So I called Mona and Ila and Theresa but I didn’t tell any of them that I’d called the others. None of them knew; I didn’t want them to know.”

(via Perry Barber)

She wanted it to be a surprise, and it was. Not just for the umpires, but for the players, the managers, the fans, and everyone else at the ballpark that day. Willie Randolph was managing for the Mets; Rich Maloney was coaching the Wolverines. “Both Willie and Rich seemed very accepting, if a bit amused when we first walked out there because I’m sure nobody told them,” Barber says. Neither Randolph nor Maloney responded to requests for comment for this story.

“They were very receptive,” Valcarcel says. “David Wright thought Perry and I were sisters. We didn’t have any problems with coaches or managers or any of the fans. Everybody was surprised that it was all females — which, that’s not a surprise that they’d be surprised.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Once the novelty wore off, it became just another game for everyone involved. Osborne was at first, Fairlady at second, Valcarcel at third, and Barber was behind the plate. “Everyone didn’t treat us any different and that’s key to me,” says Osbourne. “It’s a ballgame and it’s just great to see the talent.”

The day was perfect for baseball. Barber remembers that it had the best kind of baseball weather — 75 degrees and partly cloudy. The starting lineup for the Mets had Jose Reyes at shortstop, Brady Clark in center field, David Wright at third base, Carlos Delgado at first base, Moises Alou out in left, Ryan Church in right, Ruben Gotay playing second, Brian Schneider catching, and Marlon Anderson playing DH.

The Mets opened the game with a bang — in the home half of the first, Wright hit a two-run shot off Michigan pitcher Eric Katzman that also scored Reyes, putting the Mets up 2-0. In the top of the second, Adam Abraham tripled off Mets starter Jason Vargas. Abraham came around to score on an RBI groundout by Kevin Sislo. The Mets failed to capitalize on a bases-loaded opportunity in the bottom half of the inning; it stayed 2-1 Mets after two. Michigan tied the game in the third, and it remained that way until the eighth, when Michigan’s Derek VanBuskirk smashed a two-out, two-run homer off Ryan Cullen, putting Michigan up 4-2. In the bottom of the ninth, down to their final out, the Mets tied the game on a Michel Abreu two-out, two-run homer. The game ended in a tie since there were no more pitchers left.

(via Ila Valcarcel)

Following the game, some of the Mets players were interviewed by the Palm Beach Post. A headline in the paper the next day read, “Players say umps’ calls on par with other pros.” The story notes that “The players towered over them. A few fans snickered.” But any pushback they may have received went unnoticed by the crew. They were there to do a job, and they did it.

“They were phenomenal. Very consistent with their calls,” Wright told the Palm Beach Post. “It doesn’t matter — race, gender — if you can call balls and strikes and get the majority of the calls right, you’re always welcome.”

Today, Barber, Valcarcel and Osborne are still involved in the game (Fairlady did not return a request for comment for this story). Osborne is the training coordinator for the East Coast Umpire Association, responsible for assigning all the baseball games in West Palm Beach cCounty, where she lives. Barber still travels the world, calling games wherever and whenever she can, and mentoring other women who are entering the field.

In early 2009, Valcarcel suffered a concussion that took her off the field. “I took a headshot that knocked me out when I was standing up and I started having vision migraines after that,” she says. “I can’t go behind the plate; if I take another shot it could kill me. It’s not worth it.” Now 55, she mentors up-and-coming umpires and works as an umpire supervisor for Perfect Game.

A decade later, it’s still a day none of them will ever forget. “When we went out of the umpire room and we walked through that tunnel and onto the field at that moment, I knew we were making history. And it was one of the greatest feelings ever that I have ever had walking onto a ballfield,” says Valcarcel. “This was bigger than me, it was huge. It was bigger than any of us and more than we even knew… I was really awed to be able to be a part of it.”

While it’s a feat that has yet to be repeated, baseball is slowly making strides to bringing more women into umpiring. Wendelstedt Umpire School told me last month that it’s aiming to be the academy that sends the first woman to the majors, something Barber believes it never would have said even five years ago. Pawol and Charlesworth-Seiler are already on their way there, and can now say that they, too, have umpired a major league exhibition game — almost 10 years to the day after this all-female crew did. Charlesworth-Seiler was at first base for the Twins vs. University of Minnesota; Pawol was behind the plate for the Detroit Tigers vs. Florida Southern. Maybe next time, they’ll even be assigned to work one together.

References and Resources

Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, whose work has been featured in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, espnW, and VICE Sports, among others. She is a recovered alcoholic, and baseball enthusiast living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.
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6 years ago

Cool story! Thank you Britni.