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Thursday, April 05, 2007
"The Inexorable Zero" and Female Umpires in Major League Baseball

Last week, 30-year old Ria Cortesio became the first female to umpire a major league exhibition baseball game since 1989, when Pam Postema--who would later sue, and settle out of court with, Major League Baseball and Triple A baseball for sex discrimination after Triple A baseball declined to renew her contract--became the first female to ump a big league exhibition game. Based on publicly-available accounts, Cortesio did a good job umpiring an afternoon match-up between the Chicago Cubs and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Cortesio is currently a Double-A umpire in the Southern League, where she has been for the last 5 years since starting her umpiring career at age 21, and like other minor league umpires, she was called upon to umpire one of the many spring training games on this year's schedule. No female has ever umpired a regular season big league game, just like no female has ever refereed an NFL game or officiated an NHL game (in contrast to the NBA, where two women, including Violet Palmer whom we've blogged about, are referees).

Over on Workplace Prof Blog, Ole Miss law professor Paul Secunda has an excellent post on the possible presence of sex discrimination in explaining why Major League Baseball has never hired a female umpire for a regular season game. He writes about the employment discrimination concept of "the inexorable zero," established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Teamsters v. United States, 431 U.S. 324 (1977). As Professor Secunda details,
[I]n pattern and practice group employment discrimination cases, courts rely on statistics to determine whether an employer has a standard operating procedure of discriminating against certain groups, like women. In such cases, when no women have been hired, as is the case with female major league umpires, "fine tuning of the statistics [do not] obscure the glaring absence of minority [employees].... [T]he company's inability to rebut the inference of discrimination came not from a misuse of statistics but from ‘the inexorable zero’"). See Teamsters, 431 U.S. 324, 342 n.23 (1977).
As a result, Professor Secunda writes, even without knowing how many females have applied and were rejected by MLB for umpiring jobs--which would normally be crucial data in a sex discrimination claim--MLB
[C]annot hide the fact that [it] has not hired ONE female major league baseball umpire in its entire existence . . . based on this Slate article and other articles on this topic I have read in the press, that there are at least SOME qualified females who could be MLB umpires in the relevant labor pool, I think the inference of discrimination is appropriate here.
The Slate article to which Professor Secunda refers discusses a successful lawsuit by a secretary named Bernie Gera, who in 1973 won a five-year-long lawsuit for the right to umpire a Single A game. Also, as I noted earlier, Pam Postema sued for sex discrimination after she was let go in 1991 (allegedly--according to Michelle Tsai of Slate--for too often throwing players out of games) and settled out of court.

In addition to possible legal claims, I wonder about broader social changes in how we treat women that might enable more women to obtain officiating jobs in the MLB and other pro sports leagues. Marquette law professor Scott Moss illuminates that point in his reply to Professor Secunda's post:
Another reason Paul's suspicion of gender discrimination seems valid is the blatant nature of baseball players' and officials' discrimination against the few women serving as sports reporters and baseball teams' front office officials. You hear comments like "women don't belong here" and harshly misorynistic attacks. So it's not a stretch to suspect that one reason there are so few female umpires is that same anti-women bias.

It's true that . . . probably few women apply or get the requisite training (e.g., a background in high school or college baseball). But "there aren't many women in this field at all" isn't just an alternative explanation to "they're keeping women out"; historically, fields with few women tend to feature more discrimination, precisely because women are seen as "outsiders" who "don't belong." A lot of the really bad cases of physical harassment, for example, tend to be about "the first women pipefitter at XYZ Corp." or "the first women firefighter in the City of XYZ," etc.

So is the absence of female officials in Major League Baseball and other pro sports leagues a reflection of discrimination by MLB and those other leagues, or is it a more cultural/social problem in how we treat and regard and women? Or is it something else?


One of the most consistent last-ditch "explanations" for keeping women out of certain jobs is some variation on the theme of the "physical demands" of the job. Seeing as how most male umps are fat-asses who probably have to stop for breath on the way out the the plate, I am just cringing waiting for the day that this old warhorse is trotted out again.

Hell, at least the NBA refs have to run for 48 minutes, and the women seem to do at least as well as Dick Bavetta in that regard.

Blogger Collin -- 4/05/2007 11:27 AM  

I've officiated more than a half-dozen sports in my lifetime and spent 37 years officiating basketball. I think the reason there are more women as basketball officials at the pro level is that more and more women are playing basketball. Most - not all but most - of the officials I have worked with over the years also played the sport they now officiate.

There are fewer women playing baseball than basketball; there are fewer women playing football than basketball. I believe this situation is an important part of why there are fewer women as umpires or football officials at the highest levels of the game.

I really don't think that "physical limitations" really apply to most officiating situations. On of the best basketball officials I ever worked with was a woman whose physical strength was very limited. But she could run and she knew the game and she was always in position and she did an outstanding job on the court - - even though she could not have beaten your average 12-year-old boy in a game of "one-on-one".

Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon -- 4/05/2007 2:29 PM  

The problem is that all umpires are hated. They have no fans and the best they can hope for is that no one even notices that they are there.

You add to the equation a female umpire, which the majority of baseball players would think underqualified, and it is a dangerous recipe. I suspect the charge that Postema was throwing too many people out of games was a result of the lack of respect players and managers showed her. The ejected players probably dropped some comments on her about her gender and she was probably justified in tossing them, but I'm sure this didn't engender any support for her around the league.

I would think, although I have no proof, that most of the umpires in the minor and major leagues played baseball in high school, which gives them a leg up in the understanding of the game and rules. It would seem to be an easier transition to the role of umpire from this background than a background lacking in on-field exposure to the sport.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 4/05/2007 2:32 PM  

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