A door opened to Alison Gordon in 1979, and she walked through it, armed with her passion for baseball.
She became the first full-time female beat writer in Major League Baseball when the Toronto Star hired her to cover the Blue Jays in the team’s third year of existence. She also became the first woman welcomed into the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, awarded a membership card that read “Mr. Alison Gordon.”
Ms. Gordon, who died on Feb. 12 at the age of 72, was described as a pioneer by colleagues. She entered major league clubhouses during the first season the doors were open to women and overcame the sexism she sometimes found there, helping to pave the way for later generations of female sports journalists.
She was born in New York in 1943, to John King Gordon and his wife, Ruth (née Anderson). The family, along with her older brother, Charles, moved a lot as her Canadian father was a diplomat working for the United Nations. They lived in Tokyo, Cairo and Rome, before returning to the United States in her late high school years.
“After living overseas, Alison had some culture shock when we returned to the U.S, and she began to go to Yankee games with a group of friends, so baseball became really important to her,” said her brother, Charles Gordon. “It helped give her an identity.”
She came to Canada to attend Queen’s University, worked as a freelance magazine writer before working as a producer for CBC’s As It Happens and eventually gained Canadian citizenship. The Star hired her in 1979 to take on the Jays beat. It was not only her first job in sports – it was her first time working at a newspaper.
Until that time, female sports reporters had been barred from entering most locker rooms in pro sports, left to wait in the hallway and interview players exiting after they finished with the male press. Sports Illustrated writer Melissa Ludtke was covering some New York Yankees and Mets games in New York that season after she sued Major League Baseball and won, earning clubhouse access for women reporters.
“When The Star decided to put Alison on the beat in ’79, it was a very hot topic,” said Howard Starkman, former Jays director of public relations. “Everywhere she went, she became a bit of the story, but she was emotionally tough. Her saving graces were that she could definitely write and had good knowledge of baseball.”
Mr. Starkman says many inside the clubhouses were uneasy with Ms. Gordon’s presence, including the team’s manager, Roy Hartsfield. Some players complained it was against their religion, including outfielder Barry Bonnell, a devout Mormon who objected very vocally.
A few players would flagrantly walk out of the shower without a towel and go right up to the locker of the player she was interviewing. There were instances where players would snicker and dare one another to ask her out.
“I remember the feeling of enormous delight to see Alison – seeing another woman there at that point in history was something special,” said Ms. Ludtke, reached by phone at her home in Cambridge, Mass. “That season, in particular, some places would send women just for the point of sending women, but then there was Alison, a real bona fide print reporter who was no-nonsense. We just wanted to do our jobs – it was simple in our minds and a whole lot more difficult in the minds of others. Alison had a great kindness about her as well as a steely determination to do her job.”
Ms. Ludtke recalls that Ms. Gordon had the ease of a veteran sportswriter, even though she was constantly being followed by news cameras and scrutinized by players and managers.
“1979 was a year of transition and Alison was a very transitional figure,” Ms. Ludtke said. “The judge had ruled and the legal shift had happened, but the cultural and attitudinal shifts were still in the early stages. At the time, many men found it hard to believe that all we wanted was to do our jobs.”
Ms. Gordon herself recounted in a 2001 Star article, “Reaction as I set the first female foot into the press boxes and clubhouses around the American League ranged from acceptance to hostility.” The laughable 53-109 Jays were more respectful than most, many of them true gentlemen, she said. It was a sharp contrast to the Texas Rangers, who shut out all reporters for a stint when they knew she was about to make the trip to Arlington.
Change was slow in Toronto as well, though, recalled Jays broadcaster Buck Martinez, who was a catcher for the team from 1981 to ’86.
“By the time I got to Toronto in ’81, there were still some guys who weren’t comfortable with Alison being in the clubhouse, because they felt it was a man’s world and the clubhouse was a very private atmosphere,” Mr. Martinez said. “Some players would put clothes racks in front of their lockers when she was in there so they could hide behind them and dress in private. But she was very professional and without question, she soon won people over.”
She learned to use her own mini-celebrity as an advantage. Players and managers across the American League remembered her – even if only for her gender – and she created some strong working relationships. She won over Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver, who once said of Ms. Gordon “she ain’t no pecker checker,” discounting a macho view back then that some female reporters were more interested in the nudity inside the clubhouse than the stories.
“Toronto was a safe harbor because of her,” wrote ESPN baseball news editor Claire Smith, who began her career as an MLB newspaper reporter in 1982. “It was a place to decompress because she had done all the heavy lifting.”
Ms. Gordon stayed in the beat for five years, then wrote a funny memoir called Foul Ball!: Five Years in the American League (1984). She then went on to author a series of five baseball-themed mystery novels between 1988 and 1997, her main character a sports reporter-turned amateur sleuth named Kate Henry.
Some wondered why a seasoned sportswriter and self-described lover of baseball would leave the gig so soon, when the profession has so many long-tenured veterans.
Ms. Gordon married lawyer Paul Bennett in the early 1980s but divorced in 1996. Even after leaving the beat, she remained at The Star for a few years, writing features and occasionally attending Jays games. It was her view from the seats in 1990 that led to the comical eye witness account of a couple having sex behind the wide-open windows of the SkyDome Hotel, overlooking the Jays’ outfield during a game.
“He was corpulent, hairy and nude,” she famously recounted in The Star. “She was blonde, buxom and wrapped none too securely in a towel.”
She became very active in fighting for free expression with PEN Canada. It was under her stewardship as vice-president in 1992 that PEN hosted Salman Rushdie, a few years removed from the controversy surrounding his book The Satanic Verses. She had a strong network of close writer friends – including Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood.
“Alison was a dear friend for many years and a travelling companion on several escapades,” Ms. Atwood said by e-mail, noting their destinations included the Northwest Territories, one of the settings in Ms. Atwood’s novel MaddAddam. “She was a bright light, a generous soul, always a joy to be with, and very smart and funny.”
Ms. Gordon was no longer writing books in recent years, but was doing some speech writing for friends in politics. She had become an avid bird watcher and played tambourine in a band full of writers – a rollicking bunch who jammed rock songs from the 50s and 60s in the basement of her Toronto home and shared laughs over glasses of wine.
Ms. Gordon died at Toronto East General Hospital a few days after she had surgery for a lung condition that had been causing her respiratory problems. Her brother said the death was unexpected and the family is still awaiting tests on the exact cause.
She particularly cherished her time with her six-year-old great-nephew Desmond Chan-Gordon, a talented young baseball player. Ms. Gordon leaves her brother, Charles Gordon; nephew, John Gordon; niece, Mary Gordon; great-nephew, Charley Rands; and great-niece, Catherine Rands.
A celebration of Ms. Gordon’s life was held on Feb. 20 at the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto.
“Alison specified in her will … that she wanted it to be a joyous event,” her brother said.
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