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You can't play 'cuz you're a girl

Published July 07. 2012 09:01AM

Growing up, I was just like every other kid on the block. I thrived on being outdoors, playing kick the can and playing baseball in the street.

One day we saw a notice saying the recreation commission was organizing a summer baseball league for 9 to 12 year olds. The day of registration, I showed up at Bunker Hill with my other neighborhood buddies.

The recreation director looked at me and said," You can't play." My neighborhood friends assured him I could. They should know. We played enough pick-up games in the street. I could bat, catch and run with ease.

Then the director said words we would never hear today: "You can't play," he said, "'cuz you're a girl."

The league was only for boys, he explained.

Before this story makes sense to you, perhaps you have to understand what little league meant back then. We didn't even call it Little League. It was simply the summer baseball program.

There were no uniforms, no trophies, no coaches for every team. It wasn't even a "league", per se, as we are used to. Back then it was just a bunch of kids wanting to spend summer mornings playing baseball.

Oh, here's a big difference between then and now: No parents came to games. They didn't even drive their kids to Bunker Hill where the games were played. Instead, we hiked up the hill. There was never a parent in sight.

When I was told I couldn't play ball with the boys, I asked where I could find the girls league.

"There isn't one," the recreation director said. "Girls can't play."

The director was a really nice guy and he didn't like being put in the position where he had to turn a kid away. So he thought fast and told me he would give me the position of "official score keeper."

I would be in charge of doing the batting lineups, keeping score, determining a hit from an error, and doing a short weekly write-up for the local newspaper.

I showed up every morning, as faithful as the most dedicated player. I've always believed that a lot of good can come from every situation. That was certainly true of my "official scorekeeper summer."

While I didn't get to bat and run bases, I did get a lot of benefits that became more meaningful in years to come. First of all, I became "buddies" with boys from all parts of town. We stayed friends throughout our school years.

Writing my three-sentence sports stories for the local paper and hand delivering them to the sports desk probably played a hand in my journalism career.

Six years after that summer, the teacher who deputized me as his assistant did the same thing in high school. When he needed an assistant for the high school athletic program, he appointed me to work in the athletic office. Others asked where I "got my pull" to get the job. They didn't know I earned it one summer a long time ago.

In the 1950s, our small high school had many sports for boys. Girls had two choices: Cheerleading or sitting in the stands as a spectator.

We did have a girl's intramural basketball program where we got to run around a little. Very little.

At that time, the rules said girls could only play on half the court. We couldn't be expected to be able to run the full court. After all, we were girls. If we were meant to be athletes, we would have been born as boys.

Then along came something called Title IX. That law said that any school district receiving federal funds had to give girls the same opportunities as boys, including sports.

Amid a lot of controversy, a women's sports revolution was born. That was 40 years ago. Today, girls can't even conceive of a time when they weren't allowed to play.

My 11-year-old granddaughter Sophie plays just about every sport. Her brothers didn't turn out to be athletes. But she is.

Now, she's playing basketball in an all-city league, having fun while she's trying to improve her skills.

There she is, a scrawny girl with arms the size of thin sticks. But the summer league is teaching her to use those arms aggressively as she gets better at defense.

There are only four girls in the league but they are treated especially well by the coach and the other players. We suspect the players treat the girls with respect because the coach insists on it.

My sports-minded granddaughter especially likes that tough inner-city league because it's helping her to be a better player.

In Sophie's town, it's extremely competitive to get a starting spot on a team, even at her tender age. There are so many gifted, natural athletes on the teams so Sophie has to hustle to earn a starting spot.

I'm happy that her biggest problem is playing defense, not fighting for the chance to play in the first place.

If I ask Sophie and her friends to tell me about the 40th anniversary of Title IX, they would think it's the women's sportswear company having a sale. They sure don't know how that federal law gave them more opportunity. Thankfully, no female today has to hear, "You can't play 'cuz you're a girl."

Happy 40th anniversary, Title IX.

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