8 Trail-Blazing Female Firsts In Sports
Last week, ESPN announced that Jessica Mendoza would serve as one of their full-time Sunday Night Baseball analysts for the 2016 season. The former Olympic softball player made headlines last October as the first broadcaster of a nationally televised postseason game when she called the wild card contest between the Yankees and Astros.
Although athletics are anything but fully integrated, there are fewer and fewer glass ceilings left to be broken as pioneers like Mendoza get their due. Take a look at a few historic female firsts across the sporting spectrum.
1. HELENE HATHAWAY ROBISON BRITTON // FIRST FEMALE MLB TEAM OWNER
In 1912, Britton inherited a controlling interest in the St. Louis Cardinals from her uncle, who, along with her father, was responsible for the St. Louis Browns becoming the Cardinals. She took on the role of team president, as well, after divorcing the previous president, Schuyler P. Britton, in 1917. She is credited with being one of the first owners to host “Ladies Days” at the ballparks, but there is little record of how involved she was with the day-to-day operations of the franchise.
“Being a woman owner of a baseball club was difficult at first,” she is quoted as having said [PDF]. “It was also new to me, even though I had heard and talked baseball all my life. I loved it, though." Britton also said she regretted selling the team in 1918.
2. JOAN WHITNEY PAYSON // FIRST WOMAN TO FOUND AN MLB TEAM
With all due respect to Mrs. Britton, this is not quite as minor a distinction as it may seem. Payson's lifelong involvement in the game was personally motivated (even if funded by her family’s considerable wealth). In the 1950s, she started buying shares of the New York Giants. When the owners were debating on whether to move the team west in 1957, she and her ally M. Donald Grant led the charge to keep them in New York. After the Giants relocated to California, she was approached about purchasing a team for a possible third baseball league. Ultimately the proposed Continental League fizzled, but when New York was offered a National League expansion team, Payson ended up owning 80 percent of the stake.
The shareholders all gathered in her Manhattan apartment to name the team. And although Payson herself preferred the “Meadowlarks,” it was at this meeting that the Mets were born. For the rest of her life, Payson was both an active owner and a dedicated fan of the team. When she couldn’t be at games—which she watched from a box just behind first base—she carried a portable radio with her, even hiding it in her purse at high society events. She kept score so meticulously that she taught her chauffeur her specific technique so that he could fill out scorecards and airmail them to her when she couldn’t be at the game. Players loved her, especially when the Mets grew from the laughingstock of the NL in the early ‘60s to World Champions in ’69. And, just a few years before her death, she succeeded in bringing her favorite player from the Giants's New York era—Willie Mays—back to the city in a Mets uniform.
3. NANCY LIEBERMAN // FIRST WOMAN TO COACH A MEN'S PRO BASKETBALL TEAM
Lieberman has earned a lot of “firsts” in her long and illustrious basketball career. She was on the U.S. team for the Olympics’ first-ever Women's Basketball tournament at the 1976 Montreal games (for which she and the team took home silver medals). She became the first woman to play pro basketball with men when she joined the now-defunct United States Basketball League in 1986. And when she was hired as the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks’ D-League affiliate, the Texas Legends, in 2009, she not only became the first woman head coach of a men’s pro basketball team, she became the first woman to coach a men’s pro team in any sport.
"In 1986, my goal was not to be a girl playing in a men's league, it was to be a player in a men's league," she said at the time. "In 2010, I don't want to be a woman who is coaching men, I want to be a coach who is coaching."
From head coach she transitioned to assistant GM of the Texas Legends. Just this past summer, she broke into the NBA as the assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings—the second woman to serve as a full-time assistant coach in the league, after Becky Hammon broke through in 2014.
4. SARAH THOMAS // FIRST FULL-TIME FEMALE NFL REFEREE
Thomas, who was hired as part of referee Pete Morelli’s crew at the start of this season, has to have an asterisk next to her “first.” In 2012, Shannon Eastin became the first woman to officiate an NFL game—but her opportunity came when a failure to reach a collective bargaining agreement forced a lockout of the league’s regular referees and she was ousted from her role once the strike was over. Thomas, on the other hand, was discovered by an NFL scout after 16 years of officiating grade school, high school, and college football games.
"When I got started in this 17 years ago, I had no idea that there weren't any females officiating," Thomas said in 2013 when she was still among the 21 finalists in the NFL officiating development program. "I never set out to become the first female official in the NFL."
5. MICHELE ROBERTS // FIRST WOMAN TO LEAD A MAJOR PROFESSIONAL-SPORTS UNION
The former public defender and Washington D.C. litigator was elected executive director of the National Basketball Players Association in 2014 almost unanimously. And almost immediately, she began making waves for her frank criticisms of league business staples like the salary cap—which she calls “un-American.”
She’s loved basketball since her humble beginnings in a South Bronx housing project. But it’s her legal expertise that got her the job—Washingtonian magazine called her the “finest pure trial lawyer in Washington”—and the 400-plus players she represents are hoping she’ll be able to broker a deal more favorable to their interests than the one her predecessor struck to end the 2011 lockout. She’ll get a chance to prove herself when the current labor agreement expires in 2017, but until then, she’s making a name for herself as an outspoken trailblazer. When presenting her candidacy to the NBA players, she assured them that her "past is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.”
6. GAYLE SIERENS // FIRST WOMAN TO CALL PLAY-BY-PLAY IN THE NFL
After 38 years, today Gayle Sierens signs off at 6PM. Then, don't miss her special send off tonight at 7:30PM. pic.twitter.com/hOr0t70Jly
— Gene Ramirez (@WFLAGene) May 20, 2015
In 1987, NBC executive Michael Weisman offered Sierens, an anchor for the Tampa NBC affiliate, the chance to make history as the first woman to call play-by-play for an NFL game. It was pretty clearly a publicity stunt—Weisman had also experimented with an announcer-less game a few years prior, though he denied this move was for publicity, citing the timing didn't make sense for that—but Sierens rose to the challenge. She spent months training during the preseason with legendary broadcaster Marty Glickman in preparation for the big game, and although the December 27 showdown between the Seahawks and Chiefs was unmemorable on the field, Sierens excelled on the broadcast. Her performance earned an invite back to call six games the following season in 1988. But the same year as the big game, Sierens had gotten married and gotten pregnant. Plus, her Tampa day job didn’t appreciate major sporting assignments calling her away. So Sierens had to choose whether to stay on with Channel 8 in Florida or else pursue broadcasting with the NFL. She turned down the chance to do more play-by-play and went on to have a long career in Tampa and almost no regrets.
"What I do have," she said after retiring, "are what-ifs." Since that game in 1987, no other woman had called play-by-play for the NFL until a preseason game in 2015, but before Beth Mowins became the second female announcer, Sierens worried that she missed her chance to break open that barrier.
"I don't know why a woman hasn't been able to break into that. It’s sad for me. It's sad that it didn't happen sooner. I hope that my performance was good enough that it merited other women being given the chance. But maybe it wasn't. Maybe everybody thought it was fun and cute and a great idea, but that's not really how we want to hear our games. I don't know. I may never know the answer to that. But I surely hope that someone soon gets an opportunity."
7. MANON RHÉAUME // FIRST WOMAN TO PLAY IN AN NHL EXHIBITION GAME
Then-20-year-old Rhéaume didn’t care that her invite to an NHL training camp in 1992 was largely a publicity stunt to aid the brand new Tampa Bay Lightning. As the first woman to play for a Junior A men’s hockey game in Canada the year before, she knew she had real talent, and was eager for any opportunity to play at a higher level.
“A lot of people said that was just a publicity thing,” Rhéaume recalled last year. "But I had to wake up and face those shots every single day."
On September 23 she played one period as goalie in a preseason game against the St. Louis Blues, allowing two goals on nine shots. The following year, Tampa Bay invited her back for another exhibition game, this time against the Boston Bruins, in which she once again allowed two goals over one period.
She parlayed that experience into five years in the now-defunct International Hockey League, becoming the first woman to play in a regular season professional game along the way. These days, she’s consulting on a biopic about her career.
8. ROBIN HERMAN // FIRST FEMALE SPORTS REPORTER IN A LOCKER ROOM
— Jen (@NHLhistorygirl) August 21, 2015
The debate about women in male locker rooms still rages on to this day. But it all started 40 years ago when Robin Herman, a 23-year-old reporter for The New York Times who had already been part of women’s history as a graduate of Princeton’s first female class, finally convinced the NHL to let her and other female reporters into the locker room for post-game interviews. The first concessions came at the 1975 All-Star Game in Montreal. Herman and Montreal radio reporter Marcel St. Cyr stole the show when they entered the locker room following the game.
"I kept saying, 'I’m not the story; the game is the story,'" Herman recalled in 2010. "But of course that wasn’t the case. The game was boring. A girl in the locker room was a story."
The All-Star Game didn’t change Herman’s experience on the hockey beat overnight. Later that same season, she wrote an article for the Times [PDF] reflecting on having been turned away for interviews, even in the wake of that historic entry. Even the Rangers—one of the teams she’d interviewed in their locker rooms following the All-Star Game—had put the issue to a vote at the demand of the athletes' wives. They voted against female reporters in the locker room.