This week marks a landmark date in baseball history. On June 24, 1972, Bernice Shiner Gera became the first woman to umpire a professional baseball game. Gera, who was 41 at the time, worked the bases during a Class A New York-Penn League minor league game in Geneva, New York, between the hometown Rangers and the Auburn Phillies.
A baseball card from the 2010 Tri-Star Obak set (No. 75) commemorates Gera’s groundbreaking feat.
Gera’s trip to wearing the blue of an umpire was the culmination of a six-year court battle. In the case, New York State Division of Rights v. New York-Pennsylvania Professional Baseball League, the court ruled in 1972 that being a man is not a “bona fide occupational qualification” for umpires.
Despite the decision, and despite Gera’s time in umpiring school, she was not welcomed by the male umpiring fraternity. The night before her umpiring debut at Shuron Field, eight men cursed her and shattered a light in her motel room. As she rode to the game with her umpiring partner, she realized she was not going to be accepted.
“I tried to talk to him about the game plan, the playing field, the rules and everything,” Gera told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1985. “Umpires always do that before a game. But he turned to me and said, ‘I have nothing to discuss with you.’”
During her debut — the game was a sellout, thanks to the publicity generated by Gera’s legal battles — she got into three arguments.
In the fourth inning, with a runner on second base and one out, Auburn’s John Dawkins hit a line drive that was caught by Jim Pascarella, who threw to shortstop Brian Doyle and caught the runner off base.
However, Gera ruled him safe, but then changed her call, ending the inning and prompting a stormy exchange with Phillies manager Nolan Campbell.
“I just made a mistake,” Gera told Campbell, according to an Associated Press report the next day.
“That’s two mistakes you made,” Campbell retorted. “The first one was putting on your uniform.”
Predictably, Campbell was ejected.
“He started following me around and making a spectacle of himself,” Gera told the Sun-Sentinel. “And I’ll never forget what he yelled: ‘You should have stayed home in the kitchen peeling potatoes.’
“After that, I pointed (to the dugout). He knew what I meant.”
To add insult to injury, Gera’s umpiring partner put his arm around Campbell and walked him to the dugout.
“I knew they weren’t going to work with me,” Gera told the newspaper. “I couldn’t have worked under those conditions.”
Geneva manager Bill Haywood also got into the act, arguing a call after Gera signaled a runner out for oversliding second base during the same inning.
“She was out of position all night,” Haywood told The Associated Press. “This was a farce.”
The third argument was a call at first base that Phillies pitching coach Bob Tiefenauer, subbing at manager for the departed Campbell, disputed.
After the seven-inning game, Gera walked into Phillies’ general manager Joe McDonough’s office and said she was quitting. She had been scheduled to work the second game of that day’s doubleheader behind the plate, but she instead got in a car and left town.
“When I got in the car, I broke down,” Gera told the Sun-Sentinel.
Gera had made history, but even the media was less than kind. The jump headline for the AP story that ran in the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin read, “Bernice Was Running Scared.”
Critics blasted Gera for quitting after one game, noting her resignation closed the door for other women in baseball.
“How could I close a door that was never opened?” she said.
Still, Gera made history and has a baseball card to show for it. She died Sept. 23, 1992, in Pembroke Pines, Florida, of kidney cancer. Gera was 62.
“Bernice would always say, ‘I could beat them in the courts, but I can’t beat them on the field,’ ” Steve Gera, her husband, told The New York Times.