Mary Shane, Betty Caywood
Last night, as often happens when I’m trying to put myself to sleep, I ended up in a deep Wikipedia hole, landing on the page of Suzyn Waldman, the Yankees’ radio broadcaster I listen to sometimes on my tour through MLB radio stations. She’s divisive, but I like her and her Boston accent (which doesn’t help the divisiveness), distinctive in a world of broadcasterly plains. I’d always assumed she was the first female baseball announcer, but it turns out that’s not quite true. She was preceded by two women in the 1960s—hired, naturally, by Charlie Finley and Bill Veeck.
The first was Betty Caywood, a Kansas City native, a former professional dancer and “midwest fashion coordinator for leading dress manufacturers” with a master’s in speech pathology from Northwestern. In the mid-60s, Caywood was the “weather girl” (she was 31, but, you know) for channel 7 in Chicago, when the Trib captured her in the language of the time:
Betty likes to wear slacks, dislikes heavy makeup; she loves to cook gourmet meals, hates to go to bed early. She’s a natural mimic, unconsciously slips into a soft southern drawl even on TV. Her blue-green eyes sparkle when she talks, which is most of the time.
By way of statistics for the men, Betty is a perfect size 10, wishes she had a true model’s figure, but complains she’s “a bit hippy.” Maybe, but she looks well in slacks, the ultimate test.
Finley, the flamboyant owner of the atrocious Kansas City Athletics, hired Caywood as one of his stunts. She was entirely ignorant of the sport—including that the Yankees’ number seven was Mickey Mantle—but Finley offered her a ton of money to do color, along with relocation expenses, so she took the job. KCUR interviewed her a couple years ago (in her 80s, she still has a perfect broadcaster’s voice, sounding like someone who studied speech at the graduate level), and she still sounded amused by the whole thing: “Frankly, I had no interest. My first response to him was, ‘Charlie, I don’t know the first thing about baseball.’ He said, ‘I know, but you’ve got the gift of gab, and all you have to do is color.’ And I didn’t even know what color was. But he was right, I did have the gift of gab, and he offered me an amount of money I couldn’t believe. And I said, ‘well, you’ll have to move my children back, and me back, and get a housekeeper.’ Anything I asked for I got. I was paid so much, to do something I knew nothing about, that it was quite extraordinary… and kind of silly.” She lasted only the 1964 season; the struggling A’s moved to Oakland after the 1967 season.
Caywood was followed in 1977 by Mary Shane, the hire of equally adventurous owner Bill Veeck during the glory years of the weird White Sox: uniform shorts, Harry Caray singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” Disco Demolition Night. Shane was also an inexperienced broadcaster, but was an entirely different story from Caywood. Her father was a former minor-league pro who coached industrial-league teams as a kid and dreamed of being “the best second-base player in the world,” she told the Tribune. Instead, she studied history and journalism at the University of Wisconsin, teaching high-school history while picking up freelance writing assignments and trying to break into sports journalism. She finally got a sportscasting job for a Milwaukee radio station when it switched from music to news:
“My first assignment was rather unstimulating,” she says, very quietly. “I was asked to interview the cheerleaders at Marquette University. When they gave me the assignment, my face fell. I couldn’t help it. I was so disappointed. But I did it. And I did the best job I could.
Shane moved into high-school basketball play-by-play, while covering the Brewers as a reporter. While on assignment in the press box during a Sox-Brewers game, Harry Caray handed her the mike to do some color announcing, and did so the next two games. The Milwaukee Journal offered her a job as a sportswriter, but before she could accept it WMAQ offered her a dream job working in the booth, a huge leap for a 28-year-old.
She was only given 20 games, crammed into a busy booth with Caray, Lorn Brown, and former Red Sox star Jimmy Piersall. Shane’s inexperience has been cited for why she got so few games in the booth, and only lasted one year, but only Caray was a broadcasting vet—Brown was a former steelworker and high-school announcer in his second year at the major-league level, and Piersall had just occasionally appeared with Caray the year before. At the Society for American Baseball Research, Peter Morris blames the role of sexism for both elevating a smart but young broadcaster too quickly and pushing her out before she could improve:
Even her defenders concede that Shane had struggled in her new role. Sportswriter Jim O’Donnell saw her as “a victim of inexperience, too much too quickly and no small amount of male resentment,” as well as “an on-air delivery charitably referred to as a ‘high, melodic alto.’”
But her broadcast partner Jimmy Piersall believed that she was also a victim of the fact that Veeck had always been half-hearted toward the idea of a female broadcaster. “She never had a chance,” Piersall recalled. “Even a bad baseball player gets at least one full season to see if he’ll come around. But because of all the in-bred prejudice against a woman covering a baseball team, Mary didn’t even get that. It was a real shame, because I think she had what it takes to make it, and some day the idea of a woman bringing a woman’s perspective to baseball broadcasting will be a tremendous innovation somewhere.”
Shane died tragically early of a heart attack a decade after her groundbreaking season with the White Sox, at the age of 39. But the last few years of her life were a triumph—the first full-time female sports reporter for the Worcester Telegram, the first woman to cover the Boston Celtics’ locker room, and an award-winner for her coverage of the Celtics’ 1986 championship, one of the greatest teams in basketball history.
Photographs: Chicago Tribune / Press Photo via Ebay