At a time when girls were prevented from playing Little League baseball, Sharon Poole certainly opened a few doors — first in Haverhill and then across the country.
Because of her stubborn persistence to join a team, she broke barriers and gave the sport new meaning.
The year was 1971 and I was enamored by this 12-year-old girl from Haverhill whose story wound up making Life Magazine and just about every TV network across the land. In essence, she put Haverhill on the map and sent reporters and cameramen scampering to our ball fields.
It’s Little League season in our city when hundreds of young boys and girls look for a spot in the playing field. Many teams will have a fair representation of girls in uniform. They’ll be counted among the players with equal pride and respect.
They will all be peers sharing the same bench and the very same infield. In many cases, you won’t be able to tell the difference, with the girls’ hair nestled inside their caps. A ponytail protruding from the back may be your only clue.
They hit and field the same way as boys and there have been cases where they’ve even made the varsity team at the high school level, same as in other sports.
Much like the city’s basketball marathon I resurfaced in an earlier column, I made the Sharon Poole controversy my business. It got so annoying, she probably hated to see me approaching, given all this attention and hullabaloo.
I’m looking at a portfolio of stories and briefs that were compiled and saved from that year. For some reason, I’ve saved this and just happened to run across it in my file cabinet, possibly because it won a Golden Press Award the following year from the Massachusetts American Auxiliary.
The series was recognized in the category of Best Feature Articles in the interest of youth, which gave The Haverhill Gazette some notice that year.
More importantly, it put intolerance to rest and opened some very big doors in our national pastime. James Waldron, the mayor at that time, filed legislation to eliminate discrimination on city property.
Waldron filed the measure with the City Council as an outgrowth (and outcry) of a Little League decision to ban this young girl from playing.
His ordinance provided that any discrimination against an individual because of race, religion, sex or nationality would prevent an organization from the use of any municipal field.
Either play Sharon Poole or remove yourself from our ball parks. It was a firm and resolute edict that ruffled a few feathers and drew national attention, much like that discrimination suit against the Haverhill Country Club some years ago.
After starring in two games, the freckled-faced redhead who was called “Sweetie Bird” was kicked off the team by a vote of the managers and coaches of other teams in the league.
The mayor may have been influenced a little by his wife and four daughters who, undoubtedly, went to bat for this young heroine who was billed an “illegal player” in the league.
After all was said and done, she got reinstated — the first girl ever, I was told, in the United States.
Aside from making Life Magazine, she appeared on the Dick Cavett Show. Newsweek followed The Boston Globe. The New York Times ran a half-page story with the headline, “The Town Doesn’t Support Her.”
Here’s what a Boston Globe editorial said about the flap:
“One expects occasional scandals in adult baseball. Shoeless Joe Jackson yesterday. Denny McLain today. No doubt, someone else tomorrow. It is the way of sports flesh in the wicked grown-up world.
“Now comes the shattering news that a girl player temporarily infiltrated a Little League team in Haverhill, MA. Because she is so young, Sharon could not perceive how heinous it was for a girl to be playing in Little League.”
Sharon had her own thoughts on the subject. She was destined to play, despite the rigmarole and negativity behind the scenes.
A Gazette poll showed general sympathy for her situation. In fact, the only place Sharon got any real opposition was in the league for which she played so briefly. And that came mainly from adults.
“The kids thought I did a good job,” she said. During the controversy. “My teammates didn’t mind. I don’t know why they won’t let me play.”
After being reinstated, she led her Indians team to first place, played a steady center field, and wound up with a lifetime batting average of .400 before moving over to girls softball as a pitcher.
The fact remains that Haverhill couldn’t possibly have attracted any more attention nationally than it received through this episode — unless it had an earthquake or some other natural disaster.
Two of my grandsons play Little League baseball on the same team. They share the lineup with girls and one of them can wallop the ball. Her name is Alice.
“She’s the best one on the team,” one of the boys rejoiced. “Wish I could hit like Alice.”
I had to smile. If only Sharon Poole realized the legacy she had started.
Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.