At the Minor League Baseball Umpire Training Academy (MiLB) in Vero Beach, Florida, 99 students stand in rows in the outfield of a ball field. Over a loudspeaker, an instructor yells, “Call it!” In unison, the students respond, “You’re out!” They punch their fists straight ahead, looking more like martial artists than umpires. From behind, it is impossible to tell one from the other—each wears the standard school uniform of a black polo shirt, gray slacks, black cap, black sneakers. But out of the back of one of the ball caps, a long ponytail hangs down a student’s back. Danni Proenza is the lone woman in the 2018 class.
It’s been over 100 years since Amanda Clement umpired semiprofessional baseball games in a full skirt and white blouse embroidered with the letters “UMPS” on the front, with players referring to her as “Miss Umpire.” Bernice Gera, the first female umpire in professional baseball, earned her spot through a sex discrimination lawsuit in 1972, but quit after her first game. Only a handful of women have umpired the predominantly male sport, with the most well-known being Pam Postema, who spent 13 years in the minor leagues. There has never been a woman to umpire at the major-league level. Systemic sexism has affected baseball at all levels, from who can play it to who can coach and call games. Now people are determined to change that. The sport is trying to recruit more women into the field of umpiring—but despite those efforts, it’s not really working.
The job of being a professional baseball umpire is a hard, thankless one. The season is long and grueling. The pay at the minor-league level is low, with umpires in rookie ball making about $2,000 per month and salaries increasing incrementally from there. They get yelled at, day in and day out. And for many prospective umpires, their first experience with the job is working Little League games, where angry parents get in their faces on a regular basis. Plus, people only notice when they make one bad call, not the hundreds of good calls that came before. Yet to work behind the plate, umpires have to be passionate about the job. If they’re good at what they do, they’ll be invisible on the field. They are the glue that holds the game together. They perform a choreographed dance that is both graceful and athletic. “When you watch a major-league baseball game from high up in the stands and you watch the umpires, you can see the choreography, and it’s really beautiful,” says Perry Barber, who has been a baseball umpire for 38 years. “It’s an element that a lot of people never pay attention to that adds this sparkle to a game.”
Amanda Clement, the first woman to umpire semiprofessional baseball games (Photo credit: South Dakota Hall of Fame)
Above all, umpires must love the game of baseball since the road to becoming a professional one is so long and uncertain. The path for an umpire involves attending one of the two certified umpire academies—MiLB Umpire Training Academy and the Wendelstedt Umpire School—for their once-a-year, five-week course; being selected as a top student and moving on to the advanced course; being hired into rookie ball; and moving up to single A, Double A, Triple A, and eventually to Major League Baseball. Umpires can expect to spend between 7 and 10 years in the minors before making it to the major-league level (twice as long as the players themselves), and only 5 percent of minor-league umpires will ever get a job in the majors, according to MiLB.
For this reason, recruiting people to become professional baseball umpires is a difficult task. “Overall numbers are down,” says Dusty Dellinger, Minor League Baseball’s director of Umpire Development Personnel. “We want more people in the game. It’s a dying industry.” And so the league has turned to recruiting women, a demographic that baseball has long ignored, in hopes of increasing the pool of candidates.
Jen Pawol and Emma Charlesworth-Seiler are two of those women who are calling games in the minor leagues and hoping to one day reach the majors. Pawol graduated from the MiLB Umpire Training Academy in 2016 and just finished her second season in the minors, becoming the first woman to earn a professional umpiring job out of umpire school in 10 years. Charlesworth-Seiler graduated in 2017 and has completed her first season on the job as only the eighth woman to umpire in an affiliated league. Both women received scholarships to attend the academy. In Pawol’s class, there was another female student who did not earn a professional umpiring job; Charlesworth-Seiler was the only woman in her class. This year, between the two certified umpire schools, there were only three women students. Both schools say they average between one and two female students per year.
But both schools are making an effort to show that they value women and would like to see more of them attend. Charlesworth-Seiler has returned to the MiLB academy this year as an instructor, becoming the first woman instructor in the school’s seven-year existence. As for Wendelstedt, the school says it is their goal to “encourage the training, evaluation, and placement of female umpires into professional baseball,” and beginning next year, they will be adding a “Women in Umpiring” scholarship opportunity “to find qualified female candidates in hopes of being the first program in history to have a female umpire reach the Major Leagues in a full-time capacity.”
Jen Pawol receiving the lineup for minor league baseball game between the Detroit Tigers and the Toronto Blue Jays (Photo credit: MiLBPR/Twitter)
To understand the state of women in the field of umpiring today, you have to understand how women have historically been treated by professional baseball. When Postema entered the minor leagues in 1977, she wanted to put her head down and not make waves. As she writes in her memoir, You’ve Got to Have Balls to Make It in This League, she hoped that she would get promoted because she was good at her job. And she did get promoted, eventually making it to the Triple-A level, where she stayed for six years and became the first woman to umpire a major-league spring training game.
But Postema’s contract was cancelled abruptly in 1989, and shortly thereafter, she filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against Major League Baseball, saying, “I believe I belong in the major leagues. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m a woman, I would be there right now.” The suit was eventually settled out of court. Postema was fired at about the same time that Theresa Cox entered minor-league baseball. Barber doesn’t think that was a coincidence. “It was always my suspicion that they just wanted to be able to say, ‘Hey, look, we don’t discriminate, we’ve got a woman!’” says Barber. “One woman has been enough up until now. Up until very recently, one was enough.”
Barber went to Wendelstedt for the first time in 1982 and then returned in 1983, 1984, and 1985. Each of her four years, she says there was at least one other woman in her class. She hoped to land a job in professional baseball, but it never happened for her. Even still, Barber has umpired at most other levels of the game—from major-league spring training games and minor-league games to international baseball games through USA Baseball, Division I college, and the Cape Cod Baseball League. And she’s become a passionate advocate for other women in the field, offering guidance, support, and mentorship when she can. But the problem remains that many women still don’t know that umpiring is a legitimate career path for them. Proenza, the one woman in the the MiLB academy’s 2018 class, says that it wasn’t until she read an article about Pawol that she realized that umpiring was an option for her.
There’s still a stereotype about umpires being older men. “While the image of umpiring is changing, a lot of people still think of it, first and foremost, as a man’s job,” Charlesworth-Seiler says. Barber echoes this sentiment. “When’s the last time you heard of somebody walking up to a woman and saying, ‘Hey, I think you would make a good umpire?’” she asks. “Even now, rocket scientists and neurosurgeons are professions that are presented to women as attainable. But umpiring? Very, very seldom.” Dellinger says he, and MiLB, have begun attending women’s and girls’ baseball tournaments such as the Baseball for All event not only to recruit umps (that’s where they first encountered Charlesworth-Seiler), but to let the girls playing ball know that umpiring is a feasible career path for them when they get older.
There have also been institutional changes, like adding separate women’s umpires dressing rooms in new minor-league ballparks. Pawol says those little things make it clear that MLB wants women umpiring. “That is a top-down concept,” she says. But this kind of structural change is going to take time. “There’s no infrastructure to draw women into umpiring right now, and to me, that’s the crux of the matter,” says Barber. Men grow up playing baseball and may end up officiating as an offshoot of that, while girls are pushed out of the game and into softball at young ages. The fabric of the sport has been sewn by men, and they are still the most visible and prominent faces of it. But for women who do want to pursue the career, the stepping stones are slowly being put into place. Major League Baseball offers free umpire clinics and, if you’re good enough, you can earn a scholarship to umpire academy, like Pawol and Charlesworth-Seiler did.
Long before Pawol began her professional umpiring career, she worked at many different levels of the game and offered her own camps for girls. However, she’s a bit befuddled as to why all of the efforts to increase the gender diversity of the field have not worked. “I’ve done clinics for girls. I mentor women to get them ready for umpire school. I have started speaking at conferences and coaches’ conventions,” Pawol says. “I’d love to set up a day or weekend [for a girls clinic] next fall, but nobody is emailing me. I’ve done like 50 interviews since [my professional career] started, but it’s just so hard to get the women out.”
For Pawol and Charlesworth-Seiler, the road ahead is a long one if they have their sights set on the majors. “I don’t think too much about if I am going to make it, it’s more just taking it all in and learning and enjoying it,” says Charlesworth-Seiler. “But you’ve got to have a larger pool [of women] to pick from because it’s just such a small chance in the first place.”
And with that, she gathers herself to head out to the field and begin afternoon instruction for the group of students hoping to follow in her footsteps.