A Little League Of Her Own: The First Girl In Little League Baseball

Mar 30, 2018
Originally published on March 30, 2018 2:04 pm

There's no crying in baseball. But for Kay Johnston, there's crying when you can't play.

In the spring of 1950, in upstate New York, 13-year-old Kay Johnston wanted nothing more than to play Little League baseball. But in those days, that was out of the question. Girls weren't encouraged to swing bats and throw balls.

Kay Johnston Massar, 81, sat down with her husband, Cy Massar, 84, at StoryCorps to tell him about the time she, quite literally, changed the rules of the game.

"One day, my mother was braiding my hair," Kay says. "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," she tells Cy. "And I said to my mother, 'I'm just as good as him. I wish I could play.' "

Her mother's response, she says, was "Why don't you just go and try out?"

"And I said, 'OK, well, cut off my braids.' And she did."

Kay ran to her brother's room, got a pair of his slacks, put on a baseball cap and signed up as Tubby Johnston.

The alias was from a character in one of her favorite childhood comics, Little Lulu.

Tubby made the team. "Were you surprised that they called you?" Cy asks.

"No, I wasn't surprised at all," she says. "I knew I was good, and I had fooled them so far."

Still, Kay was scared that her cover would be blown, and she'd get pulled off the team. So after several practices, she went to the coach — and came clean.

"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."

Kay says the kids on her own team treated her well, even after they found out their fellow King's Dairy player was a girl.

"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," recalls Kay. "They could see that I was a better player than some of their sons."

After the season ended, Kay's father went to a meeting with some Little League officials. He came home that day with disappointing news.

"He said, 'Well, no girls, under any circumstances, will be playing Little League baseball.' "

That year, Little League officials penned a new rule. "And it's known as 'The Tubby Rule,' because I was the reason why they put that rule in."

Kay remembers telling her father, " '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.' "

"What gave you the courage to do what you did?" Cy asks.

"You know, I have to tell you, when I went out pretending to be a boy, I had no idea I was setting some sort of a record," she says. "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 until the day I die."

The Tubby Rule, which officially banned girls from Little League, was abolished in 1974 — almost 25 years after Kay played as a boy.

On Sept. 27, 2006, at the age of 70, Massar very nearly made good on the prediction she shared with her father more than half a century earlier. She walked out onto the field at Yankee Stadium — the House That Ruth Built — and threw out the ceremonial first pitch. The ball bounced. But she had a blast.

She's also thrown a first pitch for the Oakland A's.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., honors Massar in a permanent exhibit, "Diamond Dreams," celebrating the history of women in the sport.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Mia Warren and Jud Esty-Kendall.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. It is time for StoryCorps on this Friday. And today, a story about a little girl who went by the name of Tubby. In the spring of 1950, Kay Johnston was 13, living in upstate New York. She wanted nothing more than to play Little League Baseball. But in those days, that was absolutely out of the question. Kay recently sat down with her husband, Cy, at StoryCorps.

KAY JOHNSTON MASSAR: 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, and 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, OK, 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: When you found out you made the team, were you surprised that they called you?

K. MASSAR: 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 a absolutely thrilling time.

C. MASSAR: The kids on your team you played with - how did they treat you?

K. MASSAR: 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 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.

C. MASSAR: What gave you the courage to do what you did?

K. MASSAR: 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'll probably love baseball till the day I die.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY & DAVID WINGO SONG, "SEND OFF")

GREENE: Kay Johnston Massar speaking to her husband, Cy, at StoryCorps in San Francisco. The Tubby Rule, which banned girls from Little League, was abolished in 1974. And we can tell you - at the age of 70, Kay fulfilled that childhood dream. She threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. Her conversation will be archived at the Library of Congress and featured on the StoryCorps podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.