GENEVA — In 1972, football was beginning its exponential rise in popularity and revenue across the country, but baseball was still very much America’s pastime.

It is no secret that the game and its keepers have not always been kind and welcoming to barrier breakers. And one such example involves Geneva and Bernice Gera, the first female umpire in professional baseball history.

Fifty years ago today, Gera became the first pillar of female presence in baseball. On June 23, 1972 she took the field at Shuron Park in Geneva for a New York-Pennsylvania League doubleheader between the Geneva Rangers and the Auburn Phillies.

The June 21, 1972 edition of the GenevaTimes depicts Gera as she was gearing up for the historic twin bill two days later at Shuron Park.

“Petite, pert, partisan. Those three words pretty well describe the first lady umpire. Mrs. Bernice Gera, who will make professional baseball history Friday when she steps onto the field for the New York-Penn league season at Geneva’s Shuron Park, seems to be all those things and more,” Times Sports Editor Norm Jollow wrote.

He described Gera as a baseball fan who just wanted to be a part of the game. After graduating from high school in Jackson Heights, Queens, Gera began writing to baseball teams looking for a job in any capacity. All her hopes were met with notices that the jobs had been filled.

“I would have done anything,” Gera told the Associated Press about wanting to be involved with baseball. “I would have shined the ballplayers’ shoes. That’s how much I love baseball.”

“If everyone felt about baseball the way I do, baseball wouldn’t be slipping, the parks would always be filled,” Gera told the Times. “Baseball has always been so much a part of my life.”

After doors were repeatedly slammed in her face, Gera took her battle to court. She had graduated from Jim Finely’s Umpire School with high honors in 1967, but no professional leagues would hire her. Even when NY-P President Vincent McNamara offered her a contract, it was voided by Philip Piton, the National Association president who oversaw minor league baseball.

She so desperately wanted to be an umpire and was met with such disdain that the court battle — which she won — took much of the wind out of her sails.

“I’ve aged about 30 years since this started,” Gera said.

Though she was unaware how the fans in Geneva, Newark, Auburn and other NY-P League cities would treat her, she had a confidence about herself.

Gera had previously umpired in the National Baseball Congress tournament and in semi-pro tournaments in New Jersey and, “They’ve asked me back every year,” she reported.

With years of hard work and unrelenting perseverance, she finally had her day. Troubles like finding a chest protector for women and answering questions pertaining to potential rhubarbs were practically trivial to her.

Friday June 23, 1972 was the day she had been striving for.

But it was not a good day.

That morning at 9, Gera attended the league’s umpire meeting at Geneva’s Chanticleer Motor Lodge. First pitch for the clash between Geneva and Auburn was at 7:30 p.m.

Gera took the field in front of 2,225 fans as the bases umpire with the Associated Press, New York Times, Gazette Sports and, of course, the GenevaTimes, all in attendance. With that, the game began.

She survived the first seven-inning game of the twin bill, then marched into the officials office and told Geneva General Manager Joe McDonough, “Sorry, but I’m resigning from baseball.”

Gera’s appearance in professional baseball as the first “lady umpire” was called brief, explosive and mysterious.

There was immediate speculation that she had sold her story to the American Broadcasting Co. and there was decent enough evidence that a conspiracy had indeed transpired.

Jollow reported that Gera’s husband, Steve, slipped away from Shuron Park after the game began and checked the Gera party out of the Chanticleer at about 7:30 p.m.

After resigning, Gera spoke briefly to the trailing newsmen and got into a car that was believed to be driven by a representative of ABC, fueling the belief that it was a conspiracy from the start.

Barney Deary, chief of baseball’s umpire development program, told Jollow that he considered there was a conspiracy. He said he, “heard a rumor that she would only work one day and apparently it went just the way she planned it.”

Deary went on to call Gera “incompetent” and was upset that she “strung us all along.”

Jollow reported that the fan reception appeared good during the game and that Gera received a big hand from Geneva followers but only when she called out Auburn base runner Terry Ford trying to steal second.

The mystery in the days following Gera’s debut circled the wagons. All of a sudden, Gera — who had fought so vigorously to be a professional umpire — was framed as a con-artist housewife who quit after one game and duped everyone involved only to sell her story to ABC.

The perspective from her point of view, though, was very different.

Gera noted that the verbal abuse she took during the game drove her to tears. After calling Ford safe at second base, she reversed her call to out. Auburn manager Nolan Campbell raced onto the field and yelled in her face, “That was your second mistake, the first was putting on that uniform.”

With a quick motion of the arm, Gera yelled, “Yer outta here,” and threw Campbell out of the game.

In the news articles that followed, it is apparent in 2022 that Gera was fighting an uphill battle against the men who controlled every aspect of America’s pastime.

In the days prior to the game, Campbell openly said that he felt baseball umpiring was “No place for women” and that Gera should have “stayed in the kitchen peeling potatoes.”

Gera was always referred to in news articles as the “Jackson Heights (NY) Housewife” or “Housewife Bernice Gera,” which preemptively framed her as ineligible and incapable of taking on such a role as baseball umpire.

“Umpires must work as a team, but I went onto that field alone,” Gera said. “I had no partner. And out there, the other umpire is your only friend.”

After throwing Campbell out, she was immediately framed as being intimidated by the Auburn manager.

“I wasn’t scared off. I was disgusted. I was just fed up with it,” she said. “Baseball fought me from the beginning and was going to fight me to the end.”

Ever since she announced her desire to umpire, Gera was met with brute backlash, sexist comments and roadblocks at every step. To the lords of baseball, welcoming a woman was more revolting than lowering ticket prices.

Gera had fought baseball long enough to know exactly what was going to happen in her first game well before first pitch.

That Friday morning at the Chanticleer, she knew the game that night was going to be her first and last.

“I decided at the umpires’ meeting that I would resign after one game,” Gera told the Associated Press in an article.

She cited the “cool resentment” from the other umpires and the baseball establishment as a motivation for her decision to resign. In addition, the verbal, written and physical threats contributed to her disgust with baseball culture. The night before the game, eight men allegedly shattered the light outside Gera’s motel room and cursed at her, perceiving her as an “attack on baseball’s male fraternity,” according to the Sun Sentinel.

The years in and out of the courts battling the men in control of baseball and the anguished struggle that preceded that June 23, 1972 game took its toll on her.

In the following years, Gera retired her blue suit, spiked shoes and whisk broom and joined the women’s liberation movement. She retired to Florida in 1979 where she died of kidney cancer in 1992 at the age of 61.

Fifty years ago today, Bernice Gera made history. And like many of the all-time pillars of baseball barrier breakers — Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and others — she was met with great resistance, resentment and rage.

“You’ve come a long way, baby. I tell that to myself. But it hasn’t been easy. All through this case my heart was broken. I’ve wondered if it was all worth it,” Gera said to the Geneva Times. “In a way, they succeeded in getting rid of me. But in a way I’ve succeeded too.

“I’ve broken the barrier.”

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