Outfield of dreams
by Jim Provenzano
Wendy Gershow has played softball for most of her life, and been a part of the San Francisco LGBT softball community for almost 30 years.
Born in Rhode Island, her family moved to San Francisco while she was a baby. As far back as her Marin elementary school days, she played intramural softball. By her early 20s she played softball with a Santa Rosa team in the 1970s.
But the first gay team she played on was the first women's team in the history of the growing Gay Softball League. Sponsored by the late Rikki Streicher and her historic lesbian bar Amelia's, Gershow, now 46, played on Amelia's fast pitch team for a year.
Previously, the GSL, which made history by being the world's first gay league in the world, had yet to have women's teams, although some were part of the growing sports community. When another historic lesbian bar Maude's formed a team for the San Francisco Park and Recreation League, Gershow continued to play.
"That was the first big year of the bar leagues," said Gershow. "Women didn't come on board until the late 1970s."
Eager to expand women's inclusion, Gershow created her own team, with Amelia's as a sponsor. That team lasted four years. In her fifth year in the GSL, Gershow started a team sponsored by the Gallion bar. That team lasted another two years, followed yet another team sponsored by Olive Oil's.
"By this point, there were definitely men and women playing each other," said Gershow. "For the first couple years, we played against the men because there was only one women's team. By the third year, we had four. After that we boosted it, promoting it, and got the league up to 12 women's teams.ï¿½
Gershow has since competed in over 20 Gay World Series, four of them championship teams, including the Gallion Men; a women's team sponsored by the Cafe Women, which won two years in a row; and a third was an early incarnation of the Pilsner Panthers.
"We had the Panthers for a while," said Gershow. "The names have changed, but it's basically been the same. Just the sponsors have changed."
Gershow's first Gay Softball World Series was in 1983 in Milwaukee with a women's team. Her first Gay Games softball tournament was in 1986 at the second Games, held in San Francisco. There, Amelia's played at Moscone Field. The Gay Softball World Series was in San Francisco that year as well.
How did Gershow's team do at its first Gay Games? "We stunk!" she laughed. "We were definitely outnumbered."
By 1994, at New York's Gay Games IV, Gershow's Cafe team had improved quite a bit, and won the gold medal in the women's competitive league at the tournament held in Central Park.
Asked about that experience, Gershow is hard pressed to recall much, except the daily train trips uptown to Harlem, then across the tram to parks in Randall Island.
She also recalled the view from her hotel room across the street from Madison Square Garden, and lugging all their softball equipment through "masses of people, like swimming upstream."
"We played every day, so that's all we saw of New York, other than the opening and closing ceremonies," said Gershow. "There were so many teams out there, I thought it was the biggest softball tournament I'd ever seen."
Gershow is going to Chicago's Gay Games as an outfielder and coach with the new version of the Pilsner Panthers, and celebrating 20 years of coaching and playing in gay and lesbian leagues.
Coaching duties alternate, she said. "Usually, it's the injured player who coaches. It's actually very handy, and keeps everybody involved."
Each of the 12 players will pack th
Gershow hopes her team's advantage in playing in tournaments outside gay leagues will add to their expertise. They've played in Phoenix, San Diego, and other California cities in softball events that aren't gay.
"We play in a lot of different leagues," said Gershow. "It's always been mixed. Even some of the women on our team are straight. Women in general have always had mixed teams of straight and lesbian players. It was never an issue for us. It was more of an issue for the men to be out as a team."
While Gershow said she appreciated the growth of softball in the LGBT community, she said, "I think women in sports in general have always mixed. We've always had straight and gay women together."
That hasn't always been the case. In fact, the rift over allowing straight players into the Community Softball League, whose organizers encouraged diverse players, is considered to be what inspired the GSL.
"I don't think we would have needed to create a gay league," said Gershow, "because we've always gotten along. On park and rec teams, it really doesn't matter."
Local tournaments draw more teams, and competition levels are expanded. Not that Gershow isn't looking forward to another predominantly gay tournament in Chicago. But there, she said, they may end up playing mostly San Francisco teams.
"For the Gay Games, they've always allowed straight players. But for NAGAAA [the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Association] and the GSL, they've always had strict rules about it, which is basically discriminatory."
Part of that reason was the often-contested complaint of "ringers" with exceptional players being inserted into team rosters, some of them straight. Gershow said NAGAAA has come around to allowing straight-inclusive diversity, after women like her (Gershow has served on NAGAAA's board for six years) complained about it.
As the softball and Gay Games movements developed in the 1980s, asserting and promoting LGBT athletics also was important. As the Cable Cars Awards grew into a popular celebration event, Gershow and Tom Waddell, who founded the Gay Games, and a few other local sports leaders created the Apex Awards.
While a few Cable Car Awards were given to athletes, including Waddell and Gershow (in 1992 and 1996), they didn't expand to include the growing variety of team and individual sports that grew out of the first two Gay Games.
"The Cable Cars didn't get into detail, just one or two sports," said Gershow. "We broadened it to include all kinds of sports, as many as we could think of."
Members of this chosen family of softball players have come and gone â€“ in looking at her 1980s Amelia's team photo, Gershow noted how most of the players had died.
Her grandfather, a longtime athletic director who encouraged Gershow's sports participation, died in 1994. But he did get a chance to see her play at a softball tournament in Milwaukee and in Rock Ridge, Illinois several years beforehand.
Gershow also has family members in the Chicago area, who will see her play at the seventh Gay Games next month.