StoryCorps 527: Tubby Rules
Michael Garofalo (MG): Major League Baseball season kicked off this week, and over the next seven months some dreams will come true, some hopes will be dashed, and maybe, just maybe, a player might do something worthy of the Hall of Fame.
All this happens in the BIG leagues, but what about Little League? Is there something a kid could do that could land them in Cooperstown?
Kay Johnston Massar (KJM): You know, I have to tell you, when I went out I had no idea that I was setting some sort of a record; that was the furthest thing from my mind. I just wanted to play the game.
MG: That’s a Hall of Fame player you’ve probably never heard of – a woman named Kay Johnston Massar, whose nickname as a kid was Tubby – and she was the first girl to ever play on a Little League team.
She did that in 1950, and we’ll hear from her. But we also sat down with some girls who play Little League today, to talk about Tubby’s story.
MG: Have you ever thought about who was the first girl to play in Little League?
Jane Littleton (JL): Yes.
MG: You have thought about that?
JL: Yeah, I don’t know who though.
MG: And to hear about what it’s like playing baseball as a girl today.
Reilly McCaffery (RM): Um, I’ve never had another girl on my team. There are girls on other teams but I – there aren’t usually any girls.
MG: It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m Michael Garofalo. We’ll be right back.
MG: Welcome back. In this episode, to mark the start of baseball season, we’ve got the story of the first girl to ever play Little League.
Kay Johnston Massar grew up at a time when it was unheard of for a girl to play hardball with boys. So, in 1950, she disguised herself as a boy and tried out for a team in her hometown of Corning, New York. She made the team, and made history.
At a StoryCorps booth, she recalled that summer with her husband, Cy.
KJM: One day, my mother was braiding my hair. We were sitting at the kitchen table and my brother walked out the door with his baseball bat – he was going to practice. I started crying and I said to my mother, “I’m just as good as him. I wish I could play.” So she said, ”Why don’t you just go and try out?” And I said, “Okay, well cut off my braids.” And she did. So I ran into my brother’s room, got a pair of his slacks, put on a baseball cap and signed up as Tubby Johnston.
Cy Massar (CM): When you found out you made the team, were you surprised that they called you?
KJM: No… I wasn’t surprised at all. I knew I was good and I had fooled them so far. But I was scared, of course, that they might find out and tell me I couldn’t play. So after several practices, I talked to the coach. His reaction was, “You’re such a good player and we’re going to use you at first base.” I played the entire season. It was an absolutely thrilling time.
CM: The kids on the team you played with, how did they treat you?
KJM: When they found out I was a girl, the team treated me fine. It was the other players that would push me down or call me names and the parents initially booed when I went out to play. They could see that I was a better player than some of their sons.
After the season was over with, my dad went to a meeting with some Little League officials. And, um, when he came home, I said, “How did the meeting go, Dad?” And he said, “Well, no girls, under any circumstances, will be playing Little League baseball.” And it’s known as the Tubby rule because I was the reason why they put that rule in.
But I said to him, “You know Dad, someday I’m going to play first base on the New York Yankees.” And he just gave me a big hug and he said, “I know you will, Kit Kat.”
CM: What gave you the courage to do what you did?
KJM: You know, I have to tell you, when I went out pretending to be a boy I had no idea that I was setting some sort of a record. That was the furthest thing from my mind. I just wanted to play the game. I played Little League just that one year but I will probably love baseball till the day I die.
MG: That was Kay Johnston Massar speaking with her husband, Cy, in San Francisco.
“Tubby’s Rule” banned girls from Little League baseball for almost 25 years.
When we first heard this conversation, we thought, “Do kids playing today know about this? Would they even be curious about it?”
So we reached out to some local little league organizations in Brooklyn, where StoryCorps headquarters is, and we asked them if they had any players who were girls who might be interested in hearing this story. That’s how we met Jane, who’s 11 – she’s an outfielder for the Brooklyn Bulldogs – and Reilly, who’s 13 and a catcher for the Giants.
They came into our studio and we talked baseball and got their reaction to story, and, well, we liked these kids so much, we wanted you to meet them, too. First, here’s my conversation with Jane, who arrived for her interview wearing her uniform.
MG: How many years have you been playing?
Jane Littleton (JL): Uh, six years, since I was like really, really little.
JL: I just started throwing like a tennis ball with my brother. And then we went to like a little baby baseball camp and then we figured out we really liked it.
MG: How old is your brother?
JL: Uh, my brother is a year older than me. He’s 12.
MG: Ok. And do you guys play on the same team?
JL: He’s on an older team but we practice together.
MG: Who’s better?
MG: You are [laughs]
MG: Are there girls on your teams?
JL: No, not on my team.
MG: Really? You’re the only girl?
MG: When you travel around and you play against other teams do you ever play against other girls?
JL: I haven’t played against a single girl yet.
MG: Are you serious?
MG: How do you feel about that?
JL: Uh, it’s a little weird because of course I kinda feel a little bit alone ‘cause I’m playing on this team with like a bunch of boys.
MG: How do your teammates treat you? Do they treat you any differently do you think?
JL: Uh, no not really, like they treat me like as if I was another guy because I field the same and hit the same.
MG: Right. What about when you travel or you play against other teams? Does anyone ever give you a hard time?
JL: Yeah. It was like two years ago, I was hitting and this guy he said oh it’s a girl move in. So like the entire infield moved in. And then I hit one way over his head.
JL: And he could’ve caught it if he had stayed back. But he hadn’t.
MG: So you beat the shift?
MG: I also sat down with 13-year-old Reilly McCaffery. She’s older and in a different league, so she doesn’t play against Jane, but like Jane, she’s very serious about the game. Both kids work out and practice indoors all winter long.
Reilly McCaffery (RM): This season will be my fifth season playing baseball, like, little league baseball.
MG: What position do you play?
RM: I am a catcher.
MG: Do you like playing catcher?
RM: Yeah, it’s my favorite position. What’s your favorite position?
MG: Well, I played second base.
RM: Yeah, second base is pretty fun but catcher is just better.
RM: I feel like, um, there’s so little catchers now. Like everybody just wants to be a pitcher. They feel like it’s a star – and sometimes it is – but I feel like catcher is just a better position. You get to do so much more.
MG: Well, but they say catchers are the smartest people on the field, right?
RM: Um hmm.
MG: And who ends up being a manager?
MG: It’s usually catchers, yeah.
MG: Do you play with other girls on your teams?
RM: Um, I’ve never had another girl on my team. There are girls on other teams but I – there aren’t usually any girls.
MG: Why do you think that is?
RM: Um, I feel like a lot of girls just play softball because baseball mostly is just boys and girls feel like, ‘oh I’d rather just go on a team with other girls.’ So they just play softball. So, yeah.
MG: So, is it pretty cool with your teammates? They treat you well?
MG: They don’t treat you differently because you’re a girl?
RM: No, they treat me the same.
MG: And what about on other teams? Does anybody ever give you a hard time?
RM: Mmmm. Not really but sometimes they think I’m a boy. [laughs]
MG: Oh really?
MG: How do you know?
RM: Wait, what?
MG: How do you know? Do they say “he”?
RM: Oh! Oh yeah! Sometimes when I’m on second base, like if I’ve already stolen a base, they’re like, oh yeah, they, like, say to the catcher or pitcher, oh yeah watch out the boy – he might steal again.
MG: [laughs] Do you correct them?
RM: No. Too far away. And I don’t really care.
MG: I played Tubby’s story for Jane and Reilly, and this is what they had to say about it. First, Jane.
JL: That was pretty cool. That she like dedicated a lot to play cause she really wanted to play she cut off like her hair, that’s pretty cool.
MG: What do you think about what happened when she would play?
JL: That… that was unfair. She was as good as the boys. Why were they booing? That’s what I think.
MG: Do you ever encounter something like what she said where people get mad that you’re better than a boy?
JL: No, not yet.
MG: Not yet? But you will? [Laughs]
JL: Yeah, probably. [laughs]
MG: I also told Jane about Tubby’s Rule, and how girls were banned from Little League baseball until the mid-1970s.
MG: What do you think about that?
JL: Uh… I’m kinda mad.
JL: Cause like, it just seems really unfair, ‘cause it’s a game, like, it’s like Monopoly – everyone can play Monopoly.
MG: And I have to say, as somebody who probably takes baseball a bit too seriously, that answer gave me pause. I mean, Jane’s right – it is just a game.
Next, I asked Reilly what she thought of the story.
RM: Wow, that was like very motivating. I feel like she was very brave to go out and do that because like she was the first one to actually do that and yeah.
MG: Can you put yourself in her place? Can you imagine what that was like?
RM: Not really, I mean, that would be very scary pretending to be a boy and then going and doing the tryout. And also it would be very hard telling the coach that you were actually a girl because she had no idea how he would actually react to that. Like, he could’ve just thrown her off the team.
MG: What do you think you learned from the story?
RM: Well, I learned that even if you’re not allowed to do something you should give it a try because then you might actually make a big difference.
MG: Huh. Like as a girl who plays Little League today, if you got to meet Tubby, what would you want to ask her or tell her?
RM: Um I’d want to ask her how, um, did she feel when, um, girls were finally able to play baseball, like, how she’d feel about that. And did she feel like she was a big part in that.
MG: Maybe we can call her up and ask her and we’ll tell you what she said.
RM: Yeah, sounds great.
[SOUND OF PHONE RINGING]
KJM: This is Kay.
Well I felt wonderful that they had changed the rule. I know I had something to do with it because I was the reason why they put the rule in! But once that rule was changed I thought, “This is great for women and girls.” I just loved – I had a passion for baseball. I still love baseball. So, you know, don’t let somebody tell you you can’t do something. You just go ahead and you keep practicing, you keep doing what it is you want to do until you accomplish your goal.
MG: Jane and Reilly wanted to know what happened with Kay after that fateful summer. So I told them how her picture now hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, where she’s recognized as breaking the gender barrier in Little League baseball. I also told them that, while she never got to play first base for the Yankees, she did get to throw out a first pitch at Yankee Stadium in 2006.
Oh, and speaking of the Yankees…
MG: I hear you’re a Yankees fan.
MG: Big time?
JL: Big time.
MG: So, I’m going to tell you something and I don’t know how you’re going to react… but I’m a Red Sox fan.
JL: [sound of disgust]
MG: Uh-huh. Yep.
JL: See that’s a shame.
MG: So, it’s probably a good thing I had years of taunting from Yankees fans before speaking with Jane and Reilly. It sort of prepared me for the lip they gave me. Here’s how Reilly reacted to learning I was a Boston fan.
MG: You like the Yankees?
RM: Yes, yeah.
MG: You were wearing a Yankees cap when you came in.
RM: Yeah, they’re my favorite team.
MG: Yeah? Have you been to any games?
RM: Yankees games?
RM: Yeah I’ve been to a ton of Yankees games. And also um a lot of Mets games. I’ve been to Fenway Park. I’ve seen a lot of baseball games.
MG: You mentioned Fenway Park…
MG: I want to tell you something and I don’t know how you’re going to react. But I’m a Red Sox fan.
RM: [guffaws] Well… I don’t… I don’t… I hate the Red Sox.
MG: I thought you’d say that. But don’t you have a Red Sox connection in your family?
RM: Yeah, my mom’s from Boston and my grandma and my grandpa are Boston Red Sox fans.
MG: So, do you ever talk to them about baseball?
RM: Mmm. Sometimes.
MG: Or is it just to keep the peace you just don’t even…
RM: Keep the peace. [laughs]
MG: These kids are real baseball people. But even today, more than 60 years after Tubby took the field, there are barriers they’re going to face as they get older simply because they’re girls. And while it’s not impossible that Jane or Reilly could be the first woman to play in the big leagues, it would be a long, hard road. They both know that, and it’s heartening that it doesn’t seem to phase them very much. Let’s go back to my conversation with Jane one last time.
MG: If you could play baseball for the rest of your life, would you do it?
MG: Like in high school and college and professionally even?
MG: You would do it?
MG: Well I hope that – I hope that you make it.
JL: Thank you.
MG: That’s all for this episode. Kay Johnston Massar’s story was produced by Jud Esty-Kendall and Kerrie Hillman. This episode of the podcast was produced by David Herman and me.
Find out what music we used on our website StoryCorps-dot-org, and don’t forget to rate or review us wherever you download the show.
And, if you ever hear someone on this podcast and you want to leave a message for them – we’ve got a voicemail where you can do that – 301 744 TALK that’s 301 744 T-A-L-K.
Until next time, I’m Michael Garofalo. Thanks for listening.