Day 6

40 years after winning the right to report from men's locker rooms, Melissa Ludtke still sees work to be done

On Sept. 25, 1978, baseball reporter Melissa Ludtke won her discrimination lawsuit against the MLB commissioner, allowing women to report from men's locker rooms. There are more women sports reporters now, but she says the fight's not over.

'Men felt enormously threatened by even the presence of one woman among them'

Melissa Ludtke, a writer for Sports Illustrated, is shown on the job in her office in New York, Jan. 23, 1978. She sued MLB's commissioner to allow women reporters in sports locker rooms. (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff)
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In the middle of Game 1 of the 1977 World Series, sports reporter Melissa Ludtke was called to the press box by Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of Major League Baseball (MLB).

That's where he told her that she could never again enter or report from any MLB locker rooms.

Ever.

In response, Ludtke and her employer, Sports Illustrated, filed a civil rights suit against him, citing discrimination.

Forty years ago this week, Ludtke won that case, paving the way for female reporters and allowing them to interview athletes in their locker rooms.

Very few actually made that trip out of the locker room and into the dugout to talk with me.- Melissa Ludtke

"It was about excluding women from yet one more domain," said Ludtke, speaking with Day 6 guest host Peter Armstrong. "Men felt enormously threatened by even the presence of one woman among them.

Ludtke was 26 years old and the only woman reporting about baseball ​at the time. Leading into the World Series, she'd been allowed into the clubhouse to interview members of the New York Yankees, thanks in part to Manager Billy Martin.

And when the Yankees made it to the World Series, Ludtke had asked for access to the Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse as well. That's when Kuhn learned of her locker room interviews and cut off her access completely.

"I ended up having to wait in the dugout, depending on the few male reporter friends I had to go in and make a request for me that a player come out and talk to me in the dugout," Ludtke explained.

"I have to tell you that over the years, very few actually made that trip out of the locker room and into the dugout to talk with me," she said.

MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1979. (AP Photo/FILE)

Getting help from the Yankees

By halfway through the 1977 season, Ludtke had earned the trust of Yankees manager Martin.

This was a storied period in Yankees history, with 'Mr. October,' Reggie Jackson, as one of their star players. And Martin was both loved and hated as the team's controversial leader.

But Martin grew to respect Ludtke's work, and along with his friend and Yankee PR person Mickey Morabito, quite literally opened the door for her.

There was a player, I don't know who it was to this day, who left a cake in the shape of a very obvious part of male anatomy ... on the table with a sign 'for women only.'- Melissa Ludtke

"The two of them made a decision which really changed my life."

"Mickey very quietly, he told no one else, but what he would do is he'd go in the front door of the clubhouse, he'd walk around to the side door where he'd instructed me to wait for him. He'd open that door, let me in and walk me into Billy's office," explained Ludtke.

"And at first, the guys — the male reporters — would come in from the locker room, and they were shocked, a little surprised to see me in there, but you know I don't think anyone was, sort of like, no harm no foul."

But not everyone with the Yankees was welcoming of Ludtke.

"There was a player, I don't know who it was to this day, who left a cake in the shape of a very obvious part of male anatomy ... on the table with a sign 'for women only.'"

Public reaction to her lawsuit

Sports Illustrated, on behalf of Ludtke, filed the lawsuit against Kuhn on December 29, 1977.

Ludtke was on vacation that week, so her parents went to New York to visit her. On the night the lawsuit was filed they had tickets to see a Broadway show.

At the theatre, two couples sat down behind Ludtke and her parents.

"My memory is that they were from New Jersey. I think I remember the women talking about driving in over the George Washington Bridge. It seemed as though they were meeting their husbands there, who had worked in the city," explained Ludtke.

Sports Illustrated writer Melissa Ludtke in 1978, in New York. (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff)

"And what they were bringing to their husbands was news about this woman who had just filed this ridiculous lawsuit to get into locker rooms. 'Can you believe it?'"

As the conversation ensured behind her, with the women trying to remember her name, Ludtke realized that her life had changed.

"I was frankly shocked that suddenly I had gone from, you know, being completely anonymous to being someone who was now being talked about ... because I was in the news."

The women who came before her

Ludtke's case, by random chance, was assigned to Judge Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman appointed to the federal bench.

At the time, Ludtke says, she wasn't aware of Motley's history.

"My attorney, who was F.A.O. Schwartz Jr., told me that she had an incredible history through the civil rights movement. What I later found out is that history, I think, arguably makes her probably the most influential — along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg — woman lawyer of the 20th century."

Motley was named to the federal bench in 1966 by Lyndon Johnson, based on the precedents that she set in the Southern courts.

I don't know what it's going to take to get us out of this ditch, but I sure hope that we find a tow truck, you know, that's up to the task and can somehow pull us out.- Melissa Ludtke

As a lawyer, Motley often lost her battles in the lower courts, but then took those cases to the Supreme Court. She took cases to the highest court 10 times, and won nine of those cases.

"That's a remarkable record for any attorney," said Ludtke.

Motley represented James Meredith, best known as the man who desegregated the University of Mississippi.

"And you know what's amazing to me, is that you take her back to the early '50s and she wrote the brief ... with Thurgood Marshall on Brown v. Board of Education. So if there is anyone who understood the concept that separate is not equal it's got to be Constance Baker Motley."

Melissa Ludtke (left), Claire Smith (centre) and Lisa Nehus Saxon (right) at the Baseball Hall of Fame in July 2018. Smith was the first woman to ever be inducted into the hall. (melissaludtke.com)

But Motley wasn't the only woman of influence who is part of Ludtke's story.

In 1977, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who now sits on the U.S. Supreme Court, was director of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project.

"Precedents that she set in the law were used by my attorney in arguing for things such as state action, and using the Equal Protection Clause as she had used it in racial discrimination cases, only now the topic was gender."

Women and rights in 2018

When asked if she still feels the same hope and anticipation for change as she did in 1977, Ludtke hesitates slightly.

"I've got to look for it. I've got to look under a lot of layers because I see such instances of racial injustice. I see the misogyny in ... the more nuanced behaviours that are still causing women to leave professions that they started out, feeling that they really wanted to do, and were their passions."

Ludtke says she thinks it's less likely that resolutions will be found in a court of law today.

"This is really digging deep into sort of our souls, and our cultural norms, our social morays, and I'm afraid right now I don't find a lot of hope in those," she said.

"I don't know what it's going to take to get us out of this ditch, but I sure hope that we find a tow truck, you know, that's up to the task and can somehow pull us out."


To hear more from our conversation with Melissa Ludtke, download our podcast or click listen above.

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