In 1974 Melissa Ludtke, a lifelong baseball fan, began her career reporting on America's pastime for Sports Illustrated.
A few years later, she would be part of changing baseball for every female reporter covering the game.
At a time when women were battling for equal rights socially, politically and professionally, Ludtke had a part in the big picture. Everything was changing, and baseball had to as well. But in a male-dominated industry, the fight for that change went deeper than just legal precedence.
In 1977, Ludtke's editors at Sports Illustrated learned that she was not begin given the same access to the clubhouse and players, as her male colleagues. That led to a lawsuit filed by Sports Illustrated publisher Time Inc., and, finally, in 1978 a federal law was passed that stated men and women should have equal access to the clubhouse.
But the events that led to that moment weren't angry verbal battles and threats to sue. No, that wasn't the way Melissa Ludtke conducted herself. She didn't draw the spotlight to herself. Instead, she chose to face the difficulties with a game-face, a can-do attitude, and did her job to the best of her ability. When it came time to fight the legal battle, she understood what was on the line.
In a lengthy conversation, some of which was off the record, she discussed the case, her part in it, and the struggles she faced as a woman in baseball in the late 1970's.
After graduating from Wellesley College, Ludtke took the job with Sports Illustrated, covering a sport she'd watched all her life. Her enthusiasm to learn and be part of baseball journalism was met with unexpected resistance.
"At Sports Illustrated, we did have a lot of women on the staff. Most of them were researchers, rather than reporters or writers or editors, but at the office, I wasn't working only among men."
"There were emotional hurdles that I was dealing with, internally, and on my own. Then there were the dynamics at the ballpark. And then there were the dynamics at my office. The first was more personal, I grew up as a girl loving baseball. and I never imagined that girls weren't supposed to love baseball. When I followed my dream, and ended up working for Sports Illustrated, and started going up into the press box, and in the park interviewing players, I was surprised by my usually being the only [woman] there. I had to absorb that."
As she began to get into the business of reporting on the New York Yankees and Mets, she became increasingly aware of the attitudes that permeated the press box. Knowing baseball is one thing, but covering the game is a much different animal. The help of others matters when you're a rookie reporter. Ludtke quickly learned, that she was very much on her own.
"It hit me that most of [the men] didn't really want to engage very much."
"I've come to understand in later years, that it wasn't because of the person I was, but because of the gender I was. It wasn't maybe threatening to them personally, but it was threatening to the institution they had known."
"It was like I'd gone into one of their [all-male] dining clubs on Fifth Avenue."
"Not all of them, but a lot of them, just didn't want to talk to me or engage or help. It was challenging. Already I was very uncertain, because this was my first reporting assignment."
"I've come to understand the history of this. I didn't know when I started that just two years before, there were women told they couldn't go on the field or in the press box. I didn't know that."
"There were wonderful exceptions. Some of those men were just amazing to me as friends, and are to this day."
The women's movement was busy battling various injustices, and baseball would become an unwilling participant in that battle. Women wanted to go to work, be respected like men, and receive equal pay, ideas that were still unacceptable to many Americans.
Ludtke remembers the activity of activism all around her, especially living in New York.
"I was twenty-seven and there was a lot going on at that time. There had been a lot of activity at publications, such as Newsweek and the New York Times. A lot of women in those institutions said, 'Excuse me. But some of the practices we're seeing here are discriminatory.'"
We don't often don't talk about the psychological sacrifices women make to cover baseball. Doing our work to the best of our ability is the greatest defense against any sexist doubts. But in those days, those sacrifices were far greater. With few women around, Ludtke had to find a way to survive and thrive.
"I began to feel like I almost had to leave what was everything I had brought with me from girlhood, and who I was as a woman. I almost had to leave that behind, and try as best I could to be like the men. That doesn't mean that I had to dress like them or carry on in ways that they did, but it was very clear to me that if I was going to be able to function in this environment, I had to learn how to talk baseball as men talked baseball. I listened to how they asked questions. I took it on as me learning how they were doing this job."
"I began to take on some of their characteristics. I could spout statistics and anecdotes. I would spend a lot of time after games, late at night, in bars around tables, sharing stories. I never drank very much, but I understood that had to be kind of part of it, if I wanted to do it."
"Inside, that meant that I had to give up a sense of femininity and this other part of me, that was very much there. There I was spending almost every available moment of my life, eight months of the year, at a ballpark, with men who, for the most part, didn't want to be around me."
As Ludtke continued doing her job in the face of those challenges, something started to unfold. How the lawsuit came about might not be as you imagine. It was not a sonic boom, like so many sports scandals involving women in sports media. The lawsuit was really the final straw in what had been a series of frustrating moments.
"Here's the thing. I never actually decided it was difficult and that I was going to sue."
"I actually had the lead feature story in Sports Illustrated in 1978, and it took me an inordinate amount of time. [A story on catchers and umpires relating to one another behind the plate]. To do that, I had to talk to almost every catcher in the major leagues. And what would often happen was I would approach a catcher I wanted to talk to during batting practice, and a number of times, they'd say yes, and I would be waiting and waiting, then they would come off the field and just walk right by and into the locker room. And there went my chance, because I couldn't go in and talk to them."
"I would try to send a male reporter in to talk to them. That meant that I just spent the entire night trying to get a player, who I couldn't talk to."
"I didn't complain. I didn't whine. I didn't go back to my editor and say 'I need help with this'. I just kept going up. Because I knew that if I complained, I would either lose my job or lose the respect of the players."
"The irony was that during the off-season, I was covering the NBA, and I was in locker rooms. But I never asked if they saw the dichotomy. You have to play the game by the rules, until you can't abide by them anymore."
"The lawsuit came about because of my request. Leading up to the World Series in 1977, I had been given backdoor access to the locker room by [then Yankees manager] Billy Martin. That didn't mean I went into the locker room, but I was in his office at least. I was able to at least be that far in, and I thought that was pretty good. The last two home games of that season, I was even given a pass."
"I approached [former Dodgers coach and manager] Tommy Lasorda, the day before the World Series, and told him that Billy let me in his office and asked him how he felt about it, and asked, 'Will this work? Can I go in and cover your locker room?' I don't know what the policy is. He then put me in contact with Tommy John, who was the player rep for that team at the time. Tommy John took a vote of all the players, and the players voted a majority in favor of it, which he told me the next day right before the World Series started."
"What I want to have you understand, was that it wasn't just me demanding. I was doing my job, getting to know people, letting them see the work I did, see how I handled myself, all of those things are much more difficult in some way."
Ludtke left Sports Illustrated around January 1979, and moved on to pursue other areas of journalism. She did, however, continue to cover sports events throughout her career, most notably the 1984 Olympics.
But the experience was one that she remembers as a tremendous and gratifying learning experience, not just in gender politics, but in being part of the SI staff.
She's also come to a time in her life when telling the story of what she went through felt right, and is writing what she says is not so much a memoir, but a way to reflect on a key moment for women in baseball.
"It's always important to understand history. It tells you something about what's come before you. And helps you understand why you're confronting what you're confronting."
"I'm just beginning a theme in chapter two of my book, talking about those walks I made, down the dugout tunnel, and how I'd emerge out of the dugout, firmly placed on the grass, and I'd never have even thought of wearing high heels. For many reasons. You didn't want to look too much like a woman at the time."
For women in baseball today, many of the same attitudes prevail. Women are more protected, certainly by law, but that doesn't keep incidents from arising, or sexist thinking from being openly displayed.
But Ludtke forged a path, no matter how unintentionally, by being the consummate professional. Her actions were her weapon. Even today, that course of action is still the best one.
"I chose to do it in a way that built up my credentials and showed people that I knew what I was doing. Rather than demand."
"But just going out and complaining about them is not going to get you anywhere. Go out and prove yourself."
When the line is crossed and women know they need to speak up, hopefully, they gather courage from Ludtke's experience. When the time came to force a change, baseball had no choice but to allow women their fair place in the game.
Ludtke is impressed with the countless women now covering the game.
"I'm so inspired by young women today, that are out there doing what you're doing."
Women that enter the clubhouse and have equal access today, owe a great debt of gratitude to Melissa Ludtke. Following her example of hard work, preparation and bearing down and being fearless, are lessons as valuable today, as they were when she lay the groundwork thirty-five years ago.