SHE WANTED TO be the next Mickey Mantle, and no one told 8-year-old Christine Wren she couldn’t. Born in Seattle, raised in Spokane, Wren had outsized major-league dreams. And like so many other young baseball players growing up in the 1950s, Wren pictured herself one day roaming center field for the New York Yankees — just like Mantle, her idol.
“My grandma told me, ‘You can do anything you want to do when you grow up,’ ” recalls Wren, now 72 and retired in Spokane. “My mom said, ‘Yeah; she’s right.’ I took that and ran with it. I didn’t pay attention to anything other people said. I was a pretty good ballplayer.”
The Backstory: Calling foul on gender stereotypes in baseball
In an era before 1972’s Title IX introduced gender equality in sports, golf and tennis were typically the only organized activities for girls. Wren wasn’t interested in those. As intramural offerings, she dabbled in volleyball, basketball, racquetball and handball. But baseball … baseball was her baby, and she relished all those long afternoons of street ball with the neighborhood kids, never minding that she was the only girl out there. She belonged.
“We had a lot of fun. Playing with the boys didn’t bother me at all,” says Wren, the oldest of four girls, all of whom were born over a span of 49 months and three days. “I had way more fun (playing baseball) than playing with my sisters.”
As a teenager, Wren played fast-pitch softball for a semipro team in Yakima, the Webb Cats, considered at the time one of the best teams on the West Coast. Wren was usually the catcher. No; she would not go on to succeed Mantle as the Yankees’ center fielder. But Wren did discover another calling within the game, and in 1975, she became the first full-time female umpire in minor-league baseball.
If she couldn’t get to Yankee Stadium as a player, she became determined to forge a new path to the major leagues.
THE HISTORY OF female umpires is brief. Just eight women have worked as umpires professionally in the minor leagues. That list doesn’t include Amanda Clement, who is recognized by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) as likely the first female umpire; she worked semipro games in the early 1900s.
“Here we are 115 years later, and we have not progressed much further,” says Leslie Heaphy, a history professor at Kent State University and chair of SABR’s Women in Baseball Committee since 1995. “In fact, you could say we have not gone anywhere.”
The National Basketball Association had its first female referees in 1997. The National Football League hired its first female game official in 2015. Baseball has never had a female umpire a game at the major-league level.
“The simple answer is you go straight to — it’s pure sexism,” Heaphy says. “I don’t care what people say; that’s a significant part of it. But some of it, sadly, is just the way the umpire structure is set up, in terms of how (umpires in general) are promoted. … But the sexist side of things doesn’t help. You’ve got one side of people still of the mind that women just don’t understand baseball and can’t possibly get it. And it’s like, excuse me? But it’s still very much all those things, even in 2020.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said his goal is to eventually make half of the referees in the NBA women.
“It’s an area, frankly, where I’ve acknowledged that I’m not sure how it was that it remained so male-dominated for so long,” Silver said last year, according to The New York Times. “Because it’s an area of the game where physically, certainly, there’s no benefit to being a man, as opposed to a woman, when it comes to refereeing.”
A breakthrough for women in baseball began in the late 1960s, when Bernice Gera sued the National Association of Baseball Leagues (which operated under the umbrella of MLB) for the right to umpire. After a five-year legal battle, Gera won the case. She umpired one Class A game in 1972 and promptly quit before the second game of a doubleheader. She was said to be exhausted from the legal battle, and it seemed clear to her the baseball establishment wasn’t going to set her up for success on the field.
That was the context in which Wren began her pursuit in 1975. Two years later, Pam Postema was the second woman assigned a full-time job in the minors; in the ’80s, Postema would become the best-known female umpire, thanks to her appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated (“The Lady Is An Ump”). Postema was fired in 1989 after reaching Class AAA — one rung below the majors, the closest any woman has come to reaching baseball’s highest level — and after that, she wrote a book about her experiences, titled, “You’ve Got To Have Balls To Make It In This League.” She settled out of court a sexual-discrimination lawsuit she filed against MLB.
Perry Barber is likely the most outspoken advocate for female umpires today. Barber has been an umpire at various levels of amateur, professional and independent leagues throughout the world since 1981, working closely on crews with men and women.
“We were regarded as first a joke, then a threat, and then we graduated to being a mere inconvenience,” Barber says. “I couldn’t get anyone to understand how great it was for women to do and how great we are at it.”
WREN HAD SPENT a few years studying education at Eastern Washington University, then moved back to Seattle in her early 20s. She worked odd jobs during the day — she was a general laborer at an auto body shop for a while, and later a security guard — and at night worked as many amateur games as she could. In addition to baseball, she officiated basketball and football games. Soon, she was ready for a new challenge.
Her first attempts to enroll in a formal umpire training program were rejected. Those courses, she was told, were “full.” So on her next application, Wren intentionally omitted a few select letters: instead of Christine, she became Chris. And, wouldn’t you know it, she was accepted without fanfare into the Bill Kinnamon Specialized Umpire Training Course, a five-week program beginning in January 1975 in Southern California. She was 26 years old.
The instructors were indeed surprised to find out that, of their 39 new students, one was a woman. Still, Wren says she got a fair shake at umpire school. She was confident in her abilities, and in her knowledge of the rule book, but she also recognized she had a lot to learn. She wanted to get better.
“I was challenged in ways that my fellow students were not, and that’s because I was a girl,” she says. “They thought they were going to wash me out pretty quick, but they realized I was a pretty good balls-and-strikes umpire (behind home plate).”
Wren stood 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighed 120 pounds. She wasn’t intimidated by the physical demands of the job, but some of the men there openly questioned that notion, suggesting “that I wasn’t big enough or strong enough, yada, yada, yada,” she remembers.
She still can picture the scene in the bleachers one afternoon, when she walked by two of the course instructors. One of them was puffing a cigar when he muttered to the other guy under his breath: “Well, she can umpire. What are we going to do?”
At the end of the five-week course, Wren was named one of the top 10 umpires in the school. In previous years, the top students were ranked in order, 1 through 10, based on how they graded out during the course. Curiously, they were not ranked that way this time; it was just a top 10. “I think they were embarrassed,” she says, “but it was fine with me. I knew what was going on. I was probably in the top three, but I didn’t know for sure. And it didn’t bother me.”
All that mattered to Wren was that she had proved herself capable. Just as important, the top-10 ranking qualified her for a job in the minor leagues, should one come available.
WOMEN ARE STARTING to earn promotions for baseball roles historically reserved for men. The Mariners in 2015 hired Amanda Hopkins as a full-time scout, the first woman to hold that role for an MLB team in 64 years. This year, the San Francisco Giants hired Alyssa Nakken as the first full-time female coach in MLB history.
In 2017, the Mariners were believed to be the first team to hold a Women in Baseball Night, featuring a panel of women discussing their careers in the game. They’ve hosted it each year since and plan to continue to do so. The Mariners, it should be noted, were also sued in 2018 after much-publicized complaints of discrimination by their former high-performance director, Dr. Lorena Martin.
MLB has long been criticized for its lack of diversity, and that has been especially true for its umpire crews. In 2007, MLB umpires were more than 90% white; a decade later, that figure hadn’t changed, according to a review by The Cincinnati Enquirer.
MLB did begin a concerted effort to recruit minorities in the mid-2000s by offering scholarships to umpire schools, among other initiatives. Those efforts appear to be slowly paying off: Of the 235 umpires in the minor leagues in 2018, about 20% were minorities.
A significant hurdle for women and minorities is the extremely low turnover rate among MLB umpires; some years, there might be just one or two openings on MLB umpire crews, which include 76 full-time jobs. On average, umpires spend seven or eight years working their way up through the minors — with little pay and a lot of travel — before they’re even considered for a promotion to MLB.
“Part of (the issue) is simply recruiting, but how do you recruit for something that (some) people don’t see as an option for them?” Heaphy asks. “You can tell someone, ‘You should do this.’ But why would they, if they’re never given a chance (at a top promotion)? That’s a tough recruiting tool.
“MLB has certainly made some changes in the last few years. A big one is teams have created locker rooms (at MLB’s request) for the potential of female umpires. … But the recruiting part is hard. Some may argue, ‘Well, guys have to do the same thing.’ That’s true, but they know they have a chance to make it. Whereas Triple A is as far as women have gotten. And most of them haven’t even gotten that far.”
WREN GOT HER call-up to a major-league stadium earlier — much, much earlier — than she could ever have hoped. After finishing umpire school in February 1975, Wren came back to Seattle and waited for a minor-league assignment. What she got first was a call from Los Angeles Dodgers President Peter O’Malley, who had tracked down Wren at the auto-body shop where she was working. O’Malley invited her to umpire the annual exhibition game between the Dodgers and the University of Southern California at Dodger Stadium.
Wren accepted, received a first-class seat on a flight to L.A. and was the plate umpire for the game. The exhibition was free for fans, so 51,000 of them showed up to pack the stadium. Club officials gave Wren solid reviews for her work that day, and Wren recalls her first professional game as the highlight of her career.
“That gave me a picture of what The Show was like,” she says. “There’s nothing like a loaded stadium when you walk onto the field. I still get hairs on the back of my neck standing up right now.”
After that, Wren got her first minor-league assignment to umpire in the Northwest League, in one of the lowest divisions of baseball, featuring an 80-game season. The pay was minimal: $300 monthly salary and $5.25 per day for expenses. But it was a convenient start because it allowed her to keep Seattle as her home base (the Seattle Rainiers were still part of the league then); it was inconvenient because travel demands in the league meant she might be asked to work a game in Boise one night and Bellingham the next.
On those long road trips, she usually would drive through the night in her 1975 Chevy van, which doubled as her home for most of the summer. She had built a bed in the back, a spare tire resting next to her pillow; she hung small flower pots and a couple extra shirts from the van’s ceiling.
Her dog, Arrow, a real cockapoo, was along for the ride, always. The ump and the pup subsisted on largely the same diet: fast food and leftover ballpark hot dogs. (“I don’t think I’ve been able to eat a hot dog ever since,” Wren says.)
Wren’s first ejection came a week into the season, at Seattle’s Sicks’ Stadium on June 26, 1975, a day after her 27th birthday. Rainiers catcher Ron Gibson argued over a foul tip he thought Wren missed.
“I must have told him to shut up,” Wren says, “because he turned around and got in my face, his chewing tobacco flying everywhere. Then he called me every body part in the book.”
“I really never had a whole lot of trouble with ballplayers until I got into pro ball,” Wren says. “There were a few guys who, no matter what you did, you were wrong. But I didn’t let them call me names. I would run their little keisters.”
Later that season, Wren was hit by a foul ball and suffered a broken collarbone near her right shoulder. She was determined to work through the injury, and she didn’t miss a game as the bone healed over the next six weeks.
“For a girl, she’s made of sturdy stuff,” Barney Deary, who headed MLB’s Umpire Development Program, told reporters around that time. “But you see, that’s what we’re worried about: whether she can take the physical punishment. You never hear the men complaining, because the pain is second nature, just part of the job. And I doubt very seriously any of the players tried to set her up to get hurt. If anything, I think they were more prone to protect her.”
Hopeful of a promotion, Wren was instead back in the Northwest League for the 1976 season. In the winter before the 1977 season, she cut off her long hair — getting the popular Dorothy Hamill wedge cut — in part so she could be more innocuous on the baseball field.
For the ’77 season, she was promoted to the Midwest League, a full-season Class A circuit in Wisconsin and Iowa. It would be her last season as an umpire.
BARBER IS OPTIMISTIC, perhaps more optimistic than she’s ever been, about a breakthrough for a woman to umpire in the major leagues.
“There has been a tectonic shift in attitudes and cultural acceptance, just in the last five to 10 years,” she says. “Up until then, I was in despair wondering if anything was ever going to change.”
Barber credits umpiring schools for being more open-minded about women, but there is still much to be done.
“Now they need to be proactive about it,” she says. “They can’t just wait for the perfect woman to come around. They need to put in the same effort and energy they do as promoting the guys. And that is starting to happen.”
In 2019, there were two female umpires in the minor leagues — Jen Pawol and Emma Charlesworth-Seiler. This year, before the coronavirus pandemic shut down baseball, two more women were scheduled to begin umpiring in the minors. Pawol started in 2016, and Barber believes Pawol is on track — by 2024 or ’25 — to finally be the first woman to earn the top promotion from MLB’s Umpire Development committee.
Wren never much liked the attention that came with being the only female umpire, and she only reluctantly agreed to an interview now to revisit her minor-league experiences. Barber argues that it’s vital for women in baseball to know about Wren, and others, who helped set a foundation for future generations.
“That’s what makes what Christine did so important, so radically progressive for the time: that she bucked the system and held fast for as long as she did,” Barber says. “Because she knew that even though she was ahead of her time and a promotion wasn’t in the cards for her, what she did made it just a tiny bit less daunting for the women who would follow in her plate shoes somewhere down the road.”
WREN LOOKS BACK with contentment at her umpiring career. Or, perhaps put more accurately, she is content with what she was able to do in her career in baseball.
“In a roundabout way, it was made clear to me there was no path (to the majors),” she says. “They were afraid of it. Baseball was afraid of it. They were afraid it wouldn’t look good.”
She walked away on her own accord after the 1977 season.
“I gave it the best shot I could,” she says. “I don’t think I’m bitter. I love the game.”
Is she still convinced, all these years later, that she was good enough to make it as a major-league umpire? “Damn right I was good enough,” she says.
Her experiences in baseball did give her the confidence to dive into other male-dominated fields. After baseball, she became a delivery driver for UPS; she remembers being one of just two women working out of the downtown Seattle warehouse. And in the mid-1980s, in the early stages of the computer age, she went back to school to learn about Apple computers. That helped her land a job as a staff computer specialist in the Renton School District, where she worked for some 25 years. For years, her old umpire’s chest protector hung above her desk there, a reminder of a dream not forgotten.
She retired in 2015 and moved back to Spokane. She has another real cockapoo, Boga, and she volunteers several days a week delivering food for Meals on Wheels. On a typical afternoon, you might find her tending to the tomatoes, carrots and bush beans in her yard. The past few summers, she liked to hang her transistor radio on her fence and garden while listening to the radio broadcast of Spokane Indians games. Baseball is in her blood, still.