“Let Them Wear Towels” exposes bad behavior, terrible treatment and progress.

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A reporter’s job: keep eyes open, recorder running and don’t miss a morsel of what’s unfolding in front of you. To do this, it’s helpful to actually be there.

It was 2004. The Astros were in Atlanta. And they were celebrating.

That last part alone was remarkable. For years, there were very few reasons for the Astros to be celebrating in Atlanta. Whether it was the regular season, or, more significantly, the postseason, the only thing that happened to the Astros in Atlanta of any import was their ability to quietly pack up their belongings and get the heck out of town as quickly as possible.

The Astros never won in Atlanta. Even in their best seasons, they’d go there and get thumped, two, sometimes, three games. And the playoffs? Bah. Pick a year: 1997, 1999, 2001. Different seasons, same results. The Astros were, simply, the Braves’ personal punching bag.

That is, until 2004. The scene in the clubhouse was chaotic. The Astros finally did it — they beat the Braves in the Division Series, and they spent the next hour or so destroying the carpet in the visiting clubhouse with several dozen cases of bubbly. This was a big one. This wasn’t merely the first time the Astros won a postseason series against the Braves. This was the first time they won a postseason series, ever. Seven tries over 40 years and not a single time did they advance beyond the first round. Until now.

Amid the hugs and laughing and champagne chugging, there were so many other things going on in that clubhouse at Turner Field. Older players spoke sadly and solemnly about their friend, Ken Caminiti, who had died just days earlier. Longtime Brave John Smoltz, part of all of those prior teams that beat the Astros, snuck into a backroom adjacent to the visitors’ clubhouse to personally congratulate Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio and wish them luck in the next round. General manager Gerry Hunsicker, normally buttoned up, stoic and very GM-like, laughed joyously, champagne-soaked hair wildly shooting off in every direction, recalling his thoughts even with the Astros up by seven or eight runs late in the game: “Oh boy. Here comes (Mike) Gallo. This thing isn’t over yet.”

If this was the scene in, say, 1984 and not 2004, the situation would have been different. Oh, sure, the carpet would have still been destroyed. And players would still be loud and laughing. And the GM would still look like a crazy mad scientist. And classy players from the losing team would still be gracious in defeat.

It would have been different, however, in that the only reporters documenting all of this would have been men. Me? I would have been standing outside of the clubhouse, alone, missing everything, and hoping someone would be nice enough to come outside and tell me about it.

I thought about this, and the dozens of other poignant moments that I would have missed during my years covering the Astros for MLB.com, as I watched the documentary “Let Them Wear Towels” on ESPN Classic. This hour-long special, chronicling the treatment women sports reporters received decades ago, both enraged and enlightened me. Previously, I felt like I had a pretty good grasp of how things were handled back then. After watching this show, I realize I had absolutely no idea how bad it really was.

It’s impossible to truly comprehend how horribly women were treated back then, mainly because it seems so preposterous in modern times. If you walk into a Major League clubhouse today, you may not find the same number of women reporters as men, but the ratio is closer than ever. And there are probably athletes who still don’t like women in locker rooms, but for the most part, it’s a teeny tiny minority. It’s not unnatural or weird or a spectacle for a woman to be in a locker room. It’s simply a normal workday.

This would be in stark contrast to women being harassed, screamed at and physically thrown out of clubhouses, which apparently was standard practice in the 1970s and ’80s. As I watched “Let Them Wear Towels,” I found myself gasping with disbelief, just stunned, with what women had to deal with back then. It just infuriated me. One account actually moved me to tears.

I tried to imagine what it would be like today, to go through what our predecessors endured. And I can’t. It just makes no sense. Standing alone in a hallway, barricaded from a place I had every right to be? Shunned by not only the athletes, but also the public relations directors and fellow reporters, most of who refused to help? Having absolutely no control over anything, including the crappy copy I was about to file to my editor because I had no quotes? And not losing my mind — or worse, my temper — throughout?

I’d like to think I would have pushed forward and fought for what was right. Would I have stood my ground? Probably. Would I have done it with as much restraint, class and dignity as the women featured in “Let Them Wear Towels” did? Well…

As I watched, I tried to put myself into a 1980s setting where women in locker rooms were treated like human feces. Then I thought, why not do the reverse — put the actions of yesteryear in the context of today?

Below is what may have taken place if a female sportswriter in the 1970s or ’80s was live tweeting her experiences, in real time. Most of this is based on exactly what was relayed to us by the brave, strong women featured in “Let Them Wear Towels.”

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towels_kuhn_two

towels_male_writer

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towels_least_fave

towels_one_player

towels_pick_up

towel_put_on_towel

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towels_kingman1

towels_weaver

towels_martin

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towels_tommy_john1

towels_tommy_john2

towels_tommy_john3

towels_kuhn_rescind1

towels_kuhn_rescind2

towels_kingman_limp

towels_kingman_perf

towels_young_players

towels_reggie1

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towels_reggie3

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towels_padres1

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Couple of notes:

* Kingman most definitely dumped water over a reporter’s head, but there was no limping on his part later. I added that as a way of relaying how the situation may have been handled differently in, say, 2013, if it had happened to not @alysonfmlb but to @alysonfooter on a day that she may or may not have been moved to use her knee as a weapon of mass destruction.

* The kindness Garvey showed to Claire Smith of the New York Times brought tears to my eyes. It was such a small gesture, but looking back, it probably was a main turning point in the lifting of this outrageous ban on women in clubhouses. And Garvey acted as he did because he knew it was the right thing to do. Simple enough, no? You’d think.

* There is much more to the documentary, including the account of a landmark lawsuit filed by Sports Illustrated against Major League Baseball on behalf of then-26-year-old reporter Melissa Ludtke to grant women access into locker rooms. And then there’s the unspeakable treatment of Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson by the New England Patriots, the aftermath of which was so unbearable that Olson ended up moving to Australia for a spell to get out of the public spotlight.

To say we’ve come a long way would be laughably understated. Not only is the behavior that was so rampant in a generation ago looked down upon today, almost all of it is also illegal.

Progress can’t be made without our predecessors fighting for change. It’s just unfortunate so many had to suffer that much in order to move things forward.

Follow Alyson Footer on Twitter

19 Comments

Thank you for posting this. The tweets are especially effective in telling the story.

well told, Directrix. i remember the time and the inordinate amount of ink/print that this discussion took up. we were lucky in houston – anita martini was such a fixture by the early 80s that many of us were amazed at how stupid other parts of the country sounded on this subject. kuhn was a huge part of the problem, but players didn’t help themselves either.
glad you and many others are around to help the rest of us know what goes on in there.
keep up the work,
stevie

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Unbelievable column…#embarassedtobeaman

Awesome review Alyson……#ashamedtobeaman

Thanks…after seeing what Garvey, Tommy John, Goose Gossage and Billy Martin did I think it’s actually pretty #cooltobeaman

Love the Tweets. I’m going to have to check out the documentary.

Very well done, Alyson. Very well done!

Alyson, I immediately sent this off to my 21 yr. old communications major daughter in college. Her desire is to be a sports journalist.

The tweets were cool at first, but then got sort of creepy after the 95th one.

A tweet-blog describing “what may have taken place” is fictional, by definition.

This piece would have more credibility if you would have, at the very least, acknowledged that having people of the opposite sex in players’ dressing rooms must have been an awkward experience for many players, and probably was not appreciated by many of their wives.

Atrocious behavior is atrocious behavior, but why dredge up past peeves with so much negativity? Why not come at it from the positive and focus on being grateful for the access all now enjoy, and on the class and kindness shown by people like Steve Garvey, Tommy John and others.

You will usually say a lot more, and what you say will have a greater impact, if you let people come to the conclusion of what is fair and what is unfair themselves.

Very good!

Sent from my iPhone

Outstanding post. I don’t know if Anita Martini is still in Houston area, but she would be a good person for you to meet. She may have been in the documentary..will have to look for it.

Thank you for your comments. Anita Martini was a pioneer here and I have enjoyed learning about her and her history over the years that I’ve lived in Houston and covered baseball. She died many years ago and I have no doubt if she was still alive, she would have been interviewed for the documentary. Her memory is still very much alive and well here in Houston and from all accounts, she was a great lady. And a trailblazer.

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Hi Alyson! It’s your #1 fan in Little Rock! You never fail to impress! I don’t know but is there a journalism award for blogs? That post is so fantastic to use the tweet format to tell the story. What an awesome concept! Still miss you writing for the Stros full time but no doubt your star is still on the rise! Hope your boss liked this!
Thank you! I read your post to my wife and now we both want to see the documentary. :)
Ciao for now. #alysonfooterfanclub :)

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