Spotlight: Kathryn "Tubby" Johnston

The Little Girl That Broke Barriers in Little League Baseball

Who was Kathryn "Tubby" Johnston?

In 1950, Little League Baseball was a boy’s sport. Despite America having its own prominent Women’s league throughout World War II and into the 1950s, Kay Johnston, then living in upstate New York, couldn’t follow her dream of playing Little League Baseball.

She was in tears at 13 years old, watching her brother leave the family home to attend baseball practice. She told her mother, “I’m just as good as him. I wish I could play.” Surprising for the era, Kay’s mother simply told her to “just go and try out.”

In 1950, it was simply accepted that girls didn’t play Little League Baseball. There was no encouragement for girls to engage in the sport, despite there clearly being some real talent at all age groups. In 1948, more than 900,000 spectators watched the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the United States, yet there was no grass-roots movement to get girls into the sport from a young age.

Tubby Johnston Makes the Team

On the day when her mother told her to go and try out, Kay Johnston cut off her braids, took a pair of her brother’s slacks, wore a baseball cap, and signed up to try out for the team as Tubby Johnston.

She made the team with no surprise to herself, and she said in a 2018 interview that “I knew I was good, and I had fooled them so far.” Despite this, she was still worried that if they found out she was a girl then she would be dropped from the team. She approached the coach after a few practices, and to her surprise the coach didn’t remove her from the team, and instead, put her on throughout the whole season.

Players within the team were accepting of Kay but there was some trouble with opposition teams and even parents. Kay was booed when she was called to play, and she would be pushed and teased by other teams. After the first season, officials in the Little League told Kay’s father that there would be no girls playing under any circumstances.

Known as the Tubby Rule, the Little League banned girls until the rule was abolished in 1974. Today, inclusion and diversity are cornerstones of baseball in America, and Kay is proud to have played a part by being the first girl to ever join the sport at a junior level.

Kay Johnston threw the opening pitch at Yankee Stadium in 2006, aged 70, and she’s also thrown a pitch for the Oakland A’s. She’s also the center point of the Diamond Dreams exhibit in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which celebrates the history of all women throughout the ages of Baseball.

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