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Major League Baseball has in its code a special directive on reporters’ access to locker rooms during the playoffs and World Series: “Under no circumstances shall any club discriminate in any fashion against an accredited member of the media based upon race, creed, sex, or national origin.” Officially, it’s labeled Rule No. 11 of the Postseason Regulations.
It could be called the Melissa Ludtke Rule.
Twenty-five years ago, discrimination—at least of the gender variety—was as much a part of the old ballgame as chew. Though properly credentialed and affiliated with a powerhouse publication, Sports Illustrated, Ludtke was barred from the visitors’ clubhouse at Yankee Stadium during the 1977 World Series between the Yankees and the L.A. Dodgers. At the end of the opening game, spokesmen for Major League Baseball told Ludtke that under orders from baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, she wouldn’t be allowed to follow the flock of male peers into the locker rooms. Kuhn wanted the same decorum that had always applied to baseball locker rooms to apply here: no women.
Ludtke was the only female reporter trying to break the ban at the series that year. She failed to do so. But by year’s end, Ludtke made a federal case out of her prohibition.
“When I think back to those days, I don’t think of myself as a pioneer, because other people did a lot more, before me and after me, to help the situation of women sportswriters,” Ludtke says from her home in Cambridge, Mass. “But my story got more attention because it had baseball, sex, and nudity—all the things that could get you to the front page.”
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By 1977, baseball was behind the times in gender equity and proud of it. NBA clubs and the National Hockey League had both begun admitting women reporters into locker rooms two years earlier. But watching the other professional confederations become more liberal in their admissions policies only made Kuhn more conservative. In 1975, the commissioner had sent a memo to all teams ordering them to present a “unified stand” in the fight to keep women out.
So Ludtke never expected she’d be treated like one of the boys when she was assigned to cover the Series for SI.
“I really tried to do everything right,” Ludtke says. “I even went to [Dodgers player representative and pitcher] Tommy John to say I wanted to go into the locker room and ask the players’ permission, which is something none of the male reporters had to do. He came back later that night and said, ‘We all voted, Melissa, and you’re in.’ I thought that would be enough.”
It wasn’t. Bob Wirz, the commissioner’s point man with the media during the World Series, was the guy who personally delivered Kuhn’s order barring Ludtke from the Dodgers’ locker room. The news that she’d already gotten the go-ahead from the team didn’t change Wirz’s stance.
“Bob Wirz told me the players’ vote didn’t carry any weight,” Ludtke says. “He said that there were two reasons I wouldn’t be admitted: The players’ wives hadn’t been consulted about letting me in the locker room, and the players’ kids would be ridiculed if their classmates found out a woman was in the locker room. That sounds so silly now, but that’s what they told me. I told Bob that I wasn’t aware baseball consulted players’ wives in making its rules.”
Wirz, who now runs a public-relations firm in Connecticut, defends his enforcement of Kuhn’s ban that night. “We couldn’t [let Ludtke in], because we couldn’t put the Yankees on the spot just because the Dodgers vote one way,” he says. “The players were under enough pressure without [having a woman in the locker room], and I would like to think the central issue is the World Series, and not the needs of a reporter, at that exact moment.”
By the end of the year, Ludtke and her employer had filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleging that baseball’s refusal to admit women reporters to locker rooms violated her civil rights. Not all of Ludtke’s colleagues took her case seriously. One newspaper headlined its story about the discrimination suit, “Woman Sues to See Reggie in the Buff.” And Red Smith, the legendary New York sportswriter, dismissed her suit as “a note of low comedy at the end of a baseball season.”
Kuhn, however, was in no joking mood. He fought the suit as if the future of baseball depended on same-sex reportage, at one point telling the court that allowing women in the locker room would “undermine the basic dignity of the game.”
“Through all of this, I never even met Bowie Kuhn, and there’s no way I can get inside his head to tell you why he acted like he did,” Ludtke says. “But I guess he thought he was protecting whatever he thought he needed to protect about his sport, the image of baseball and apple pie and Chevrolet or whatever.”
Kuhn’s image-protection argument didn’t hold up in court when the case (Ludtke and Time Inc. vs. Kuhn) was heard the following spring. Judge Constance Baker Motley told Kuhn his ban on women in the clubhouses at Yankee Stadium—the only venue covered in the suit—was unconstitutional, and ordered him to lift it. Kuhn appealed Motley’s verdict to a higher court, but that motion was rejected. One member of the appeals panel wrote that baseball might well be, as Kuhn argued in his motion, “a family game,” but “the family includes women as well as men.”
Ludtke left Sports Illustrated and sportswriting not long after the lawsuit, moving to Time magazine to cover family issues.
Kuhn didn’t extend the open-locker-rooms policy called for in the judge’s decision to all major-league franchises until 1979. He left the commissioner’s job in 1984 and now lives on Long Island. He is utterly unrepentant about his handling of the Ludtke situation, legally and morally. He still thinks the wrong side won.
“I wouldn’t do anything differently, absolutely not. We did the right thing,” says Kuhn. “We made every effort to protect the players.”
Kuhn says the Dodgers’ vote to allow Ludtke access to their clubhouse never changed his views.
“I don’t take that as a real measure of how the players felt that night,” he says. “There’s still a question of what’s the proper thing to do. The players need privacy. They needed it then, and they need it now. I’m sure she’s a fine woman, but we did the right thing.” —Dave McKenna