New York City, NY

Pioneering Umpire Bernice Gera: For the Love of the Game

IBWAA

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=4degfw_0gLsC1BI00
A historical marker tells the story of baseball pioneer Bernice Gera.RK Lawton, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0

By Bill Pruden

Fifty years ago today, on June 24, 1972, the day after President Richard M. Nixon signed the groundbreaking Title IX into law, an extended legal battle ended in Geneva, New York as Bernice Gera became the first woman to umpire a professional baseball game.  

Born on June 15, 1931, Pennsylvania native Bernice Shiner had grown up playing sandlot baseball—where she earned a reputation as the girl who could outhit the boys—and she was a member of her high school softball team. Following graduation and desirous of staying involved with the game she loved, Shiner sought jobs with Major League Baseball teams but her efforts were unsuccessful. She soon married Steve Gera, a freelance photographer, and worked as a secretary while the couple lived in Jackson Heights, NY.  

Her love for the game remained strong. She would regularly share that passion with local disadvantaged children, taking groups of kids to see the New York Mets or buying gloves for a group with whom she would then head to a local park to hit balls to the enthusiastic youngsters. She also honed her skills at the local amusement parks. In fact, so talented was Gera that she was banned from the pitching booth at Coney Island after winning hundreds of stuffed animals – winnings that the child of divorce, a woman who had lived with numerous relatives growing up, donated to a shelter for unwanted children.  

Suddenly at 35, that passion and desire to be involved with the game was transformed into a determination to be an umpire, a path that Bernice hoped would allow her to fulfill her dream. She had done some umpiring in local leagues when she was younger and since it was less high profile, she thought it might be less of a distraction, and might even attract some additional fans. It was, she hoped, a combination that would make it an opportunity more open to a female.

With the support of her husband, she took the plunge.  However, she quickly discovered that the road to being an umpire would include its own share of obstacles. Indeed, her applications to umpire schools were met by rejection after rejection, and the one school that accepted "Bernie Gera" quickly rescinded the offer upon learning that “Bernie” was, in fact, Bernice. Finally, in 1967, she was able to enroll in Jim Finley's Umpire School in Tampa, Florida. Given that she was the first woman in the program there was no available housing and while she spent most of the six-week course living in a local motel, she was basically shunned by her fellow students. But she persevered, received good reports on her performances, and graduated with honors. 

Gera began umpiring in semi-pro leagues before receiving a contract from the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (NAPBL) to work in the Class A Short-Season New York-Penn League. However, shortly before she was to begin work, she received a telegram from the president of the NAPBL informing her that her contract was “disapproved and invalid.” The organization asserted that she did not meet the physical requirements of the job, arguing specifically that she was too old, too short, and did not weigh enough to withstand the grind of umpiring. Her previous experience as an umpire for the National Baseball Congress in Bridgeton, NJ was dismissed.  

But the fire that had been building since she patrolled the outfield back on the sandlots in Ernest, Pennsylvania, the love of a game that had led her to spend six lonely weeks in a Florida motel was not so easily extinguished. In March 1969, Bernice Gera filed a sex discrimination suit with the New York Human Rights Commission, alleging that she was denied a position as an umpire because of her sex. In a telling sign of the attitudes of the time, the League’s president defended the decision by saying that her application had been rejected because of the foul language she would have to face on the field and the fact that the league did not have a sufficient number of single-sex dressing rooms to accommodate her.  

While the litigation would drag on, finally in January 1972, by a 5-2 vote of the New York Court of Appeals, Gera won her suit against the NAPBL. In April of that same year, she was given a contract to work in the New York Penn League, at that time a short-season A league. Bernice Gera made her debut on June 24, 1972, in the first game of a doubleheader between the Philadelphia Phillies minor league club, the Auburn Phillies, and the Texas Rangers' affiliate, the Geneva Senators. 

After the national attention that her lawsuit had garnered, the game itself was in many ways anti-climactic. At the same time, both the game, as well as her experience, highlighted just how big had been the challenge Gera had faced.  Indeed, notwithstanding the legal stamp of approval that her effort had received, the chill in the pre-game umpires meeting made clear that she was not welcomed, and when she reversed an initial call on an attempted double play, she was left feeling isolated and alone. That feeling was only reinforced when the call was challenged vehemently by Phillies manager Nolan Campbell, who not only questioned the decision, but told her that she “should be in the kitchen, peeling potatoes.” To the surprise of few, the outburst earned the outspoken manager an ejection.

Feeling alone and abandoned, in the aftermath of the first game Bernice Gera walked into the office of Senators manager Joe McDonough and resigned.  Although slated to umpire behind home plate in the second game, the accumulated abuse stemming from the lawsuit and the clear message of antipathy and the lack of support from her peers left her feeling that she would never be accepted and that there was no place for her in the game—at least not in that capacity. As her husband later recounted, “Bernice would always say, ‘I could beat them in the courts, but I can't beat them on the field.’” 

As she walked away from umpiring Gera was adamant that her efforts had not, as some alleged, been a publicity stunt, nor had she wanted to be a pioneer.  And to those who criticized her for abandoning the effort, who said that her action would close the door to others, she resignedly asked how you could close a door that was never truly open. All she had wanted was to be a part of a game she loved. But she recognized all too quickly that the feeling was not reciprocated, at least not in that context. All she had been looking for was a way to be a part of a game she loved. In fact, she was subsequently able to stay connected to the game through a position in the public relations department of the Mets.   

Bernice Gera, professional baseball’s first female umpire died of kidney cancer in 1992 in Pembroke Pines, Florida at the age of 61. In the end, as disappointing as her own experience had been, she could take some comfort in the fact that she had cracked open the door a little, and while no woman has yet umpired in the Major Leagues, the increasing numbers in the minors can all trace their paths back to the pioneering efforts of Bernice Gera.  

Bill Pruden is a high school history and government teacher who has been a baseball fan for six decades. He has been writing about baseball--primarily through SABR sponsored platforms, but also in some historical works--for about a decade.  His email address is: courtwatchernc@aol.com.

Comments / 0

Published by

The Internet Baseball Writers Association of America represents hundreds of writers and content creators wherever baseball is played all over the world, ranging from hobbyists to professionals and everywhere in between. Learn more at ibwaa.com or follow @ibwaa on Twitter.

New York, NY
1833 followers

More from IBWAA

Comments / 0