She fought through the courts for years for the right to umpire a professional baseball game.And after she won that fight and took the field for her first game, June 24, 1972, Bernice Gera retired.Now, 35 years later, she remains one of just five women ever to don the blue
She fought through the courts for years for the right to umpire a professional baseball game.
And after she won that fight and took the field for her first game, June 24, 1972, Bernice Gera retired.
Now, 35 years later, she remains one of just five women ever to don the blue uniform and take the field as part of an umpiring crew in affiliated baseball.
But Gera did not set out to be a pioneer or trailblazer. She was just a girl from Pennsylvania who loved baseball.
She moved to Queens, N.Y., at the age of 12, and was working in New York as a secretary when she decided, somewhat on the spur of the moment, to enroll in one of the affiliated umpiring schools in Florida.
Despite being the lone woman at the school, relegated to separate facilities from her male classmates, Gera graduated in 1969 and officially received a contract from the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (NAPBL, now known as Minor League Baseball) to work in the Class A Short-Season New York-Penn League.
However, just days before she was slated to start her new career in Auburn, N.Y., Gera received a telegram from then-NAPBL president Philip Piton informing her that her contract was "disapproved and invalid."
Thus began Gera's trip through the legal system, a system that consistently backed her fight. The New York State Human Rights Commission, the first place Gera went with her suit, ruled in her favor, but the NAPBL appealed the ruling. The appellate court upheld Gera's favorable ruling twice upon appeal.
Finally, three years later, the NAPBL gave in and awarded her the contract with the New York-Penn League. Her first game was the opener of a doubleheader as the Geneva (N.Y.) Rangers hosted the Auburn Phillies.
Her lone game was not without controversy, either. In the fourth inning, she initially ruled an Auburn baserunner safe on a play and then reversed her call. This opened the door for Auburn manager Nolan Campbell not only to challenge her decision, but to say that she "should be in the kitchen, peeling potatoes," which not surprisingly earned him an early trip to the clubhouse.
Following that game, Gera abruptly retired because, according to published reports from the time, her fellow umpires "refused to cooperate with her on the field."
"Bernice would always say, 'I could beat them in the courts, but I can't beat them on the field,' " Steve Gera, her husband, was quoted as saying in her obituary in The New York Times.
The end of her umpiring career did not end Bernice Gera's affiliation with professional baseball, however, nor did it dim her love of the sport. She moved on to a job in the community relations and promotions department of the New York Mets, where she worked for many years before she and Steve retired to Florida.
When Gera passed away in 1992 at the age of 61 from kidney cancer, she left a legacy that has been pursued by surprisingly few women.
Only one, Pam Postema, has climbed as high as Triple-A, spending six years in the Pacific Coast League before being released following the 1989 season. Postema, who worked her way through the Minors from 1977-1989 including Major League Spring Training in 1988 and 1989, filed a federal sex discrimination lawsuit against baseball, which was settled out of court.
Which leaves the very capable Ria Cortesio as the brightest hope to follow in Gera's footsteps all the way to the top.
Cortesio, 30, is currently in her ninth pro season and her fifth in the Double-A Southern League. Under the current umpire rankings, she is the top-ranked ump at her level. She was among the Minor League umpires selected to work the 2006 Futures Game and Major League Home Run Derby in Pittsburgh last year, and also worked 2007 Spring Training in Arizona.
She is also the only woman currently umpiring in the Minor Leagues.
And while she never met the legendary Gera, Cortesio knows how much she and other aspiring umpires owe to her perseverance. And, sadly, she can personally relate to Gera's decision to throw in the towel after that one game, due to what she believed would be insurmountable issues with her fellow crew members.
"I would imagine that after such a prolonged battle, her intention would have been to work more than one game. But I also know first-hand that you can't work when your own partner is throwing you under the bus," said Cortesio, who added that this is not a problem with her two current partners. "I don't think she felt she had a choice. It was an unfortunate ending for her pro career, but in the moment I think it was probably her only choice."
Cortesio has had the opportunity to spend time with Postema, the central link on the Gera-Postema-Cortesio chain, and another person whom she greatly admires.
"Pam is a legend," Cortesio said. "There is not a week that goes by that someone, a manager or player, doesn't mention that they had had her as an umpire for one of their games, and they all say she was the best umpire on balls and strikes."
Cortesio hopes that Postema's excellence at her job gave Gera some solace.
"I hope seeing Pam work brought her some sort of satisfaction and peace," she said. "For her to fight for three years for this, she must have had such a drive and such a dream to go through that kind of hell."
Now, in a day and age where the gender barrier seems to have fallen in almost every public arena, it seems somehow stunning that there is just one woman umpire in professional baseball.
Ironically, Cortesio said, the inevitable taunts, attacks and problems have rarely if ever come from the players themselves who have, as a whole, been accepting of the woman in blue.
And if Chicago Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee's reaction to her presence at Cactus League Spring Training this year is any indication, that acceptance should continue once that gender integration reaches the big leagues.
"It's awesome. I think it's about time," Lee said at the time. "Female eyes are as good as male eyes. Why can't they be umpires?"
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com.