In baseball's male-dominated environment the only thing tougher than being an umpire is being a woman. And Pamela Postema of the Pacific Coast League is both.
She has been nicknamed the Umpress, but she has been called worse. A lot worse. Not long ago she had to physically restrain Portland catcher Mike Diaz as he howled profanities from the bullpen, spit in her face and called her a dyke. When she threw San Francisco Giants coach Herm Starrette out of a spring training game this year, he told her, "Go back to your needle and thread." When she ejected a 14-year-old bat boy for refusing to follow her orders—she wanted the kid to remove a chair from the field—Tony Kubek discussed the incident on the Game of the Week. One night she found a frying pan waiting for her at home plate.
When you're the only woman in blue, everyone in the ball park knows you're there, even if your men's gray polyester pants, light blue shirt, black belt and black shoes—all from J.C. Penney—do nothing for your figure. Behind the plate Postema can't hide even though her hair is cropped short and shaggy, a protector covers her chest and the pouches that contain fresh baseballs disguise her hips. No, there's no place to hide, but as the only woman umpire now in professional baseball and only the third in history, she has hung tough for eight hard years. Her goal, of course, is to be the first woman to make the majors.
Barney Deary, administrator of baseball umpire development, says Postema could make it as early as next year. Dick Butler, the American League supervisor of umpires, says "Her progress has been good. I'd like to take a look at her this season."
Postema, 30, is the first woman to be promoted past Class AA. Every time she advances to a new league, press conferences are arranged in each city. Fans hound her, players make nasty insinuations and her slipups become blunders worthy of national mention.
The attention started in 1977 at umpire school—where she finished 17th out of a class of 130—and hasn't let up since. This year is her second in the Triple A Pacific Coast League, following six seasons in the Gulf Coast, Florida State and Texas leagues. On the field her strike call is explosive and full. Off the field her opinions are guarded. She loves to talk about umpiring; she hates to talk about herself.
According to Pacific Coast League president Bill Cutler, Postema rates in the middle of his 15 umpires. Her strongest suit is calling balls and strikes; her weakest is anticipating plays on the base paths. "She has the talent to make it," says Cutler, who himself caught some flak when he hired Postema.
Cutler says the only concession he made to her gender was being a bit more careful assigning her to crews. "I put her with people I knew would be fair to her," he says. But there's no way of insulating her from abuse. Baseball fans can be brutal. "Everybody knows who she is and where she is. She can't possibly block it all out," says Craig Brittain, her crew chief. And then there are the critics on the field. The dugouts get on her, and some players have gotten downright raunchy. Brittain says, "Every time there's a sexual comment, she runs 'em." She has ejected eight loudmouths already this season.
The potshots came from all sides during a recent series in Salt Lake City between the local Gulls, a Seattle Mariners farm team, and the Hawaii Islanders, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate. "Come on, blue, tell me what was wrong with that pitch, you dumb hussy," yelled a man from the box seats. "Women don't belong in baseball. All they know how to do is clean off the bases," shouted a guy from general admission. After Brittain made a close call at home, one fan yelled, "Put Pam behind the plate, we like looking at her backside better." Another bellowed, "Hey Pam, how's the wife?"
Even women give her a hard time. After a close call on a slide at third base, one woman yelled, "You're a disgrace to the ERA." And she didn't mean earned run average.
Postema had to argue her way into the Al Somers Umpiring School in Daytona Beach, Fla. eight years ago. For six months she called, she wrote and she visited Somers until he accepted her. A newspaper article about the school gave her the idea of attending, though she'd never called a strike in her life.
Her father, Phil Postema, a farmer, says that his daughter has the right personality for umpiring—she's independent, stubborn and determined. "We had a talk when she was a little girl," he says. "I told her she could do anything she wanted as long as she did a good job at it."
Pam, the youngest of three children, grew up in Willard, an Ohio farming town of 5,000. There were no organized sports for girls in school, but she did star on the city fast-pitch softball team as a power-hitting catcher. Phil says she's a terrific athlete, "but she's all girl." The only drawback he sees to her umpiring is that it will take an especially understanding man to settle down with her.
When Postema donned blue for the first time in the Gulf Coast League in 1977, she was painfully green. "Oh, I was terrible," she says. "I made all the mistakes you can make my first couple of years. I don't think they thought I could do it, but they gave me a shot. Sometimes I didn't think I was ready to move up, but they promoted me anyway. They didn't think I'd last."
And Postema has learned how to control the rhythm of a game and how to avoid bedlam—"If they're hassling me from the bench, I pick out a face I know and dump him," she says. She's learned how to spell every dirty word there is while writing up ejection reports for the league office. "That's fun," she says.
She also has learned to be fast in the showers, especially in Salt Lake, where there's only one stall. "We teased her about taking too long," says her former crew chief, Dana DeMuth, "and she got her time down."
Physically, Postema has sustained bruises. Like all umpires she must stand up to chesting, though she says, "With me, it's breasting." A fastball to her right foot broke a bone during spring training this year, benching her for three weeks.
Butler plans to use her in exhibition games again next spring, and when the time comes for a promotion, he says, "She'll be looked at just like any good, eager umpire." If she does make it to the big leagues, some umps might not be ready for her. Brittain says he "hears things around the leagues, comments like, 'Don't go out of your way to help her.' A number of fellow umpires resent that a woman is out there. Parts of me feel that way, too. It's a male profession. If a woman hasn't played baseball, she shouldn't ump. But Pam is doing well. As long as she can back up her partners, that's all that matters."
After games Postema joins her crewmates for a few beers or a late supper. But she spends her days alone, sunbathing in her black and white bikini while reading magazines, including Ms. Or she plays racquetball and jogs. In the off-season she has driven a UPS truck, bused skiers in Colorado and umpired some more—in Arizona State games and for four months in Colombia.
For all her critics, there are a more than equal number of players and managers who think she'll make it. "She can work under pressure," says Gull pitcher Brian Snyder, who likes drawing her behind the plate the nights he works. "She's got a good pitcher's strike zone. She's not afraid to give the corners." Says Salt Lake manager Bobby Floyd, "If she can handle the minors, she can handle the majors."
Already Postema has lasted longer than her two female predecessors. In 1977, after two years of umpiring, Christine Wren quit for a better-paying job at, coincidentally, UPS. Wren is remembered for the occasion a manager in Eugene, Ore. got mad at a call she'd made, stormed the field, got right in her face and said, "Smile if you love me."
The first female umpire, Bernice Gera, had to go to court to fight her way into the Class A New York-Pennsylvania League. The case was settled in her favor in 1972, but she left her first game crying after seven innings. She never umped again. Gera got the courts to waive the minor leagues' size requirement—it had been 5'10", 160 pounds—which is fortunate for Postema, who's 5'8", 150.
Postema didn't know the story of Gera's foreshortened career until recently. When told, she asked, "Why would anyone work so long and hard and then quit?" Postema's willing to wait a while longer. "I'm not in any rush, but everyone has a deadline," she says. "You can never think you're not going to make it.
"The hours are good, I like to travel, and I feel like one of the guys. But the odds of making it are so slim. Unless you really love baseball, it isn't worth a year or two of your life. Don't get me wrong. I love baseball. I just don't know how I did it. And I don't know if I could do it again."
Postema is weak on the paths, strong behind the plate.
As an ump, Postema's an isle unto herself.