Jenny Fulle: Pioneer blazed a trail in Little League
By Kaki Flynn
I love this story, because it is, at its heart, about kid courage. The kind where a kid finds herself surrounded by adults that keep telling her no, no, no, and she just keeps pounding patiently on doors until finally she gets a yes.
It's also a story about growing up and getting – at least to any kid that ever dreamed of being Spider-Man or devoured comic books – one of the coolest jobs in Hollywood.
The journey of how Fulle got there starts back in the 1970s in Marin County, Calif., where she grew up, and begins with a little kid that really, really just wanted to play baseball.
Any girl who has been turned down for anything just because she is a girl will appreciate this part of the story.
Jenny was just 9 when, after having spent time playing baseball near the schoolyard with kids since she was 5, she decided to sign up to play Little League, and was turned down because of a rule added in 1951 that prohibited girls from playing.
At the time, there were more than 8,000 Little League teams in 31 countries, and none of them allowed girls to officially play. Fulle was one of many girls who had been turned down to play.
Donna Lopiano, who recently stepped down as chief executive officer of the Women's Sports Foundation, and who is frequently ranked as one of the most powerful women in sports, has talked about how being shunned by Little League in 1958 when she was just 11 had a major impact on her life.
"The one thing I've wanted to do most in life, I've never been able to do," she said in a recent speech. "I've wanted to be a pitcher for the New York Yankees."
Lopiano, after trying out for her local Little League, was drafted as the starting pitcher, only to be told by a father while she stood in line for a uniform that "no girls were allowed." Little League eventually started a softball league for girls. Many women like Lopiano gave up on baseball, and switched to softball and other sports.
Fulle, unlike Lopiano and other girls, didn't take no for an answer. Her journey to play Little League can be traced through a series of clippings from newspapers and letters she has kept.
In the clips, you can dive back into the world of the early 1970s, and hear the voice of one spunky, tenacious, hilarious little kid.
Jenny, who you can see from the pictures and read in the articles, is taller and bigger than most of the boys she plays with. An Amada Whurlitzer look-a-like, as a kid she had long blonde hair and blue eyes. Bats left handed, throws right-handed. Can throw a softball 140 feet, farther than most boys. Very opinionated.
Why didn't she just give up and play softball?
As she told the Mill Valley Record newspaper in a 1973 story, she just wasn't a huge fan. She was consistently hitting home runs in softball, but it was too easy. "They're so dumb," she told the paper. "Last year girls were out there picking flowers. How can't you hit home runs when they're out there picking flowers?"
Dear President Nixon
Jenny decided the next season she was going to do something about girls not being able to play, so she did the logical thing:
On Feb, 7, 1973, she wrote a letter to President Nixon – marking it "private" so that he would get it - telling him she didn't think it was fair she couldn't play, and that she sincerely hoped he could do something about it.
"Most girls who even want to try out are good enough to at least make minor without any trouble. I sincerely hope you will do something," she added in the letter.
"I'm not sure he actually read the letter," said Fulle in a recent interview in her office at Imageworks, "He had a few other things going on – like Watergate."
She did, however, get a response a few months later, on April 1, from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
Those guidelines referred to in the letter would apply to the Title IX amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the amendment that is now synonymous with the fight for equality in women’s sports.
"If Little League uses public school facilities, your complaint falls into the category of sex discrimination and we are in the process of preparing guidelines to handle this type of discrimination," read the letter, promising to contact Fulle when the guidelines were completed.
Peter Holmes, the director of the Office for Civil Rights, supported Jenny, and told a newspaper months later that there were many battles to be fought in the arena of discrimination based on sex, including the issue of homosexuality.
Jenny then called local Little League president Peter Wolffe, who told her, according to Jenny, "All this mushy stuff," which basically means "no."
Little League had been to court a few times before over the rule keeping girls out and won. Wolffe told the Record that every year he had girls who wanted to play, but he just turned them away.
Jenny contacted "a lot of ladies" for help, but "they said they really hoped I'd get somewhere … the men just said no," Jenny told the paper, adding that for her, there was "no last straw."
"I just decided I was so mad and so frustrated – everyone kept saying "no-no-no," she added.
"I didn't ask for this sex," she told the San Francisco Examiner. "If I'd been born a boy, there wouldn't be any problem. There are a lot of girls that want to play," she added, "and lots of boys who want us to play. It's just that most girls are afraid to ask."
Locker Room Mentality
The Little League president argued that,"If girls were allowed on the field, they might upset the close relationship between the young male ballplayers and their coaches. I don't know what relationships managers can strike up with little girls."
Jenny then told the San Francisco Chronicle in a May 9 story about a poll she conducted of her fifth-grade class at Marin Terrace School. Out of 16 boys in class, three object to girl baseball players, and they, Jenny says, "are the tough boys who show off in front of girls – what would they do if a girl got into Little League and did better than they did?"
Another article running the same day in the paper said that most girls and women who have any involvement in sports – either as an athlete or a fan – are regarded at best with "amusement" by most men.
Jenny received letters of support from people who followed her story. "I wish you peace, a love that holds close with open arms, the joy of being free to be. I admire your determination. Have happiness and success always," read one letter.
A Michigan town disbanded the local Little League chapter after being forced to kick 12-year-old Carolyn King off the team, and take back her uniform because of the "no girls" rule, according an article in the Examiner. Girls wanting to play on teams in Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia were stopped from playing as well.
On the national level, the media’s focus was on another battle brewing in women’s sports. In a few months, on Sept. 23, 1973, an estimated 37 million Americans would watch Billie Jean King defeat Bobby Riggs in a tennis match in the Houston Astrodome.
NOW Jumps In
Lee Hunt, president of the Marin chapter of the newly forming National Organization for Women, wrote Jenny and her mom a letter on May 21, 1973, asking them if they wanted help. Hunt became a major asset in Jenny’s fight to play. In a letter to the pair later in the battle, she wrote: "It's certainly not easy to stand up and challenge the way things have been done. Sometimes even friends may disagree with us, but in the end I think you are respected for standing up for what you believe to be right.”
Jenny was confident she would be on the field, rather than the bleachers, when next season rolled around, but she still faced discrimination. She was called a tomboy by some boys, and said she hated to wear dresses because "my underwear shows every time I bend over," she told the Independent. "The boys pick on her," said one of Jenny's classmates who said she also wanted to play. "I know one boy in our class who says he'll quit Little League if we get on."
Jenny’s plea to play was taken to the city council. She showed up for a meeting wearing a T-shirt, pants, and a plastic baseball cap. The 10-year-old fifth grader was then grilled by a standing-room only crowd that is described by the papers as "overflowing" and "hostile." Mayor Jean Barnard – a woman – asked Jenny, "Why don't you want to play baseball with the girls?"
"Girls are expected to play with dolls," Jenny responded. "We don't have that much experience playing baseball. But that doesn't mean we can't. I haven't played with dolls since I was 7 years old."
The meeting ended with the city council voting 3-2 to tell Little League to not come back unless girls could play – with the mayor voting against Jenny. Barnard explained herself to the Examiner, saying that, "there is very little difference between the sexes, except in muscle power. Viva la difference."
The council decided that organizations discriminating based on sex could not use city facilities, but it still didn't win Jenny the right to play, because the council decided to let the ban on girls remain until the end of the season.
On April 2, 1974 – a year after she gets her response to her letter from President Nixon – ACLU lawyer Fred Hurvich told the Examiner he would sue the City of Mill Valley if girls couldn't play that summer in Little League. On April 10, 1974, Marin Superior Court Judge Joseph Wilson issued a temporary restraining order, which said that the team could not bar Jenny from membership on account of her sex, and that Little League could not take away the team’s charter. Four hours later, Fulle became the first girl to officially play Little League baseball since the rule disallowing girls was added in 1951.
Jenny – now 11 and in the seventh grade – played for the Mill Valley Bears. Player reaction was mixed.
"I thought we would have a crappy girl, but she's good," said 10-year old Jess Allan. A pitcher commented, "She's going to ruin baseball."
One pitch hit Jenny's helmet. She hit the dirt, got up and "smashed out a liner." Twelve more pitches that game, and she hit nine of them beyond the "reach of any fielder." At bat, the outfield yelled for the pitcher to, "Pitch it to her like she's a boy."
Jenny took it all in stride. "All smiles," said one paper. "I'm happy and glad I'm finally am getting to play. It's going to be fun," Jenny said. She went on that season to lead the league in homeruns. She only played one season, because of the age cap. Six girls sign up the next season for the Mill Valley League in Marin. The league also added women assistant coaches.
In June of 1974, the Little League national office officially bows to public and legal pressure, and announced that the league will begin admitting girls.
Some of those who opposed girls playing would later say they were wrong. This includes Dr. Creighton Hale, a physiologist and the Little League president at the time, who was recently interviewed in the book “Play Ball: The Story of Little League Baseball.” Hale was a major force in keeping girls out, arguing that bone structure and other physical differences made baseball too dangerous for girls to play. Hale now has a granddaughter that has played Little League, and adds in the book, “what comes around, goes around.”
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
In 1977, the movie "Star Wars" came out, and the world of visual effects was rapidly evolving. As fate would have it, George Lucas built the now famous Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, and Jenny's step-dad, a landscaper, got a job with him. The Ranch and Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic are home to the visionaries of the field of visual effects.
Jump forward a few years to 1980, when Fulle was 18 and not sure what she wants to do, having dropped out of college a couple of times already. A man who worked in janitorial services at her step-dad's work hurt his ankle, and was out for a few weeks, so Fulle stepped in, initially just temporarily.
She did such a good job as a janitor, that she was kept on. And so began her journey up the ranks in the world of production and visual effects to her current position of executive vice-president.
Fulle, who moved to Los Angeles shortly after her career started to take off, has always been out as a lesbian both personally and professionally. She now coaches her own son in Little League. “Of course, every year, we have a few girls,” she said.
CNN interviewed Fulle a few years ago at a Little League parade in her hometown. One little girl that plays Little League told the network, "I really appreciate [Fulle], because baseball's a big deal to me. I've been playing for five years."
"If she hadn't changed that, I don't think many other girls would have had the guts to do it," added another.
Kaki Flynn is a writer, and can be reached at KakiSports.com.