While researching the article I wrote recently about Doug Ault, I came across a fascinating new piece of information: During the 1991 season, the Blue Jays’ low-A affiliate in St. Catharines, Ontario, had a front office staff consisting entirely of women. Granted, the modest size of the organization meant that this front office consisted of three people, but it was a still a situation that was, as far as anyone could tell, entirely unique in the history of North American professional baseball. I decided to do some digging into how the front office “Girls of Summer”—as the newspaper headlines repeatedly referred to them—came together, and what eventually became of the three women who had made it happen.
In 1981, 18-year-old recent high school graduate Ellen Harrigan responded to an ad in a local newspaper for secretarial work. Harrigan was born in Ireland and raised in the small Ontario town of Beeton, and even at 18 she cut an imposing figure—a loud, confident young woman, six feet tall, with a head of curly red hair. Thirty people interviewed for the secretarial position, which turned out to be in the Blue Jays’ player development department, headed at that point by eventual World Series-winning general manager Pat Gillick. The main reason Harrigan got hired, she said years later, was because she was the only one tall enough to reach the roster sheet that was hung at the top of Gillick’s office wall. “This is true,” she insisted.
Regardless of whether this seemingly facetious hiring rationale the Jays gave to Harrigan was indeed rooted in truth or not, it became clear quite quickly that Harrigan was aptly suited to the fast-paced and male-dominated environment of a major-league front office. Around the office, Harrigan was called Big Red, earning a reputation as a jokester with a big sense of humor, an efficient, no-nonsense worker. Most importantly, her bosses were struck by her quick ability to learn. Harrigan had known very little about the business of baseball prior to joining the Jays organization: she had been a basketball and volleyball player in high school, and didn’t really follow professional sports. But her aptitude for learning, her willingness to ask questions, led her to be promoted to the position of administrative aide within the player development department. Harrigan was responsible for processing roster information, setting schedules, booking travel—part and parcel of the minor-league GM’s job description.
So when Rick Amos, GM of the Jays’ short-season affiliate in St. Catharines, Ontario, was promoted to become the major-league Jays’ head of promotion over the 1988 offseason, with his assistant general manager Steven Stunt slotted to take over his role, Gillick and the Jays sent Harrigan to take over in the AGM role. Never mind the fact that she had only a high-school diploma, that she was a 25-year-old woman in a field where there was precious little precedent for women in leadership positions. She was, given her strong background in player development and her demonstrated ability to learn by working, the most qualified person available.
The situation that Stunt and Harrigan were to inherit in St. Catharines was far from ideal. The St. Catharines Blue Jays were founded in 1986, an attempt to ride the wave of local baseball excitement inspired by the 1985 Jays’ 99-win division-championship season. The team played in the short-season New York-Penn League, in the 2,500-capacity Community Park. And at first, the team rode the goodwill inspired by the Jays’ big-league triumphs to great effect. In its inaugural season, the St. Catharines Jays—the Baby Jays, as they were known—averaged around 1,600 per game in attendance.
It was short-lived. While the big-league Jays continued to post winning records, the novelty of the Baby Jays wore off steeply for the local crowds. By the time Amos was promoted and Stunt and Harrigan were set to take over, attendance had dropped off a cliff, to the point where 800 people were in the stands on a very good day. Most days, though, were not good days, and it was a struggle for the team to attract more than 300 die-hard regulars. With both the major-league team and the Triple-A team within easy distances of St. Catharines, and with the Baby Jays repeatedly placing at or near the bottom of the 14-team New York-Penn League, there was simply not enough incentive for people to come out to Community Park.
As it turned out, the prospect of turning this situation around proved too dire for Stunt, who, after one summer on the job, quit his position before the 1990 season began. (I couldn’t find any mention of him in newspaper archives after this date; it seems that he may have abandoned the baseball business entirely.) With him went the entire rest of the front office staff—save for Harrigan.
Abruptly thrust into a position where she was quite literally responsible for the entire operation of the franchise, Harrigan was the GM of the St. Catharines Blue Jays in all but official title. She ran the team, organized the promotions, interacted with and organized the players, consulted with the manager—J.J. Cannon, whom she had known for years from his days as an outfielder for the major-league Jays. On occasion, Harrigan herself stood outside the gates of the stadium handing out the various giveaway knick-knacks designed to draw in the otherwise uninvested.
Harrigan handled this chaotic situation admirably. (“The whole year was a blur,” she said later. “I hope I never go through anything like it again.”) When the season ended in September, she was officially promoted to full-time GM, making her both one of the youngest GMs in the game and one of only three women to hold that position.
Her fully-realized GM role gave her the freedom to bring on her own front office staff: an AGM and a secretary. To fill these roles, she hired Marilyn Finn, a local radio station’s successful promotions director, and Eleanor Bowman, an experienced secretary whose son was the Baby Jays’ clubhouse manager. In doing so, Harrigan created no only the only all-female front office in baseball, but the only all-female front office in pro sports.
Throughout the period when the St. Catharines Jays were receiving media coverage for their unique front office demographic, both Harrigan and those further above her in the Jays organization repeatedly insisted that they weren’t interested in precipitating any move for social change in front office hiring practices—that they were just trying to run a successful minor-league baseball franchise. “She had a lot of experience … We have every confidence in her,” said Jays vice president of finance Bob Nicholson, assuring reporters that he saw Harrigan going far in the world of baseball. Harrigan, too, simply described it as having found—both for herself and for her two primary staff members—jobs that they excelled at and enjoyed, and for which they could see futures for themselves beyond the St. Catharines Jays. “We’re not striking a blow for feminism or anything like that,” Harrigan told reporters. “We’ve just all found jobs that we really love.”
Despite how unpolitical Harrigan’s stated intentions may have been, there was still a political undertone running through all the reporting surrounding that front office. “Bad enough that the Jays are threatening to become the first non-American-based team to win the World Series,” remarks one article, “but now they have taken aim at the old boys’ network by assembling an all-female front office.” And contemporary profiles of the team, whether from local papers or from national outlets, focused largely on how Harrigan being a woman affected her experience with the team: breaking down how the players treated her, whether the coaches and managers and even the groundskeepers respected her.
Harrigan openly acknowledged the occasional difficulty she had with misogynistic environment of professional baseball. On her first day as GM, picking up new players from the airport, a new recruit had spent most of the ride back to St. Catharines making sexual gestures at Harrigan, eventually moving on to sexually-explicit comments. Harrigan recalled saying something so “X-rated” to that player that he was terrified into silence. Earlier in her career, while working in Toronto, another front office staff member had given her an unsolicited slap on the butt while she was working; Harrigan’s response, reportedly, was picking up said staff member and shoving him against a wall.
Both Harrigan’s strong personality and imposing size seemed to make her ideally suited for dealing with ignorant young men. She talked about her players, who were typically in the 18-21 age range, to the media fondly, as though they were mischievous, sometimes errant younger siblings; players felt comfortable talking to her, and came to respect her authority. Doug Ault, who managed the St. Catharines Jays from 1990-1991, said that Harrigan was among the best managers he had ever worked for—if not the best. Coming from someone with almost two decades’ worth of professional baseball experience, this was high praise.
So while Harrigan did shoulder the annoyance and discomfort posed by the casual misogyny involved in baseball life—and while her experiences very well might have factored into her decision to hire two other women professionals as her closest collaborators—she didn’t view it as her primary professional obstacle. As Ault noted, it was instead “baseball traditionalists”—men in positions of power who didn’t appreciate women filling their roles—who truly stood in the way of Harrigan’s career ambitions . “It’s going to take a little longer because I’ve got attitudes to overcome,” she told reporters in 1990.”Baseball’s always been a man’s game, always will.”
Harrigan’s own faith in her abilities, however, particularly in the fields of player development and baseball operations, never seemed to waver. Both for her and for her superiors Nicholson and Gillick, ascension to a high-ranking position in a major-league front office was a matter of when, not if. “I’m not a whiner here,” she said. “I know it’s something that will make a career for me, and it may take the rest of my career to do it.”
Harrigan, Finn, and Bowman stayed together as the Baby Jays’ front office staff through the end of the 1994 season. At the beginning of the 1991 season, they had collaborated on forming a three-year plan to increase attendance and community engagement with the team, hosting promotions more frequently and changing the way that they advertised. While some of these efforts were successful, with promotions like Family Day bringing full-house crowds not seen since their inaugural season, and while the team did receive a significant boost in interest with the Blue Jays’ back-to-back World Series wins, it wasn’t enough. Attendance trended upwards, but only slightly, not enough to make the team financially viable; in 1994, the Jays began to float the idea of selling the team, resulting in a huge loss of corporate sponsorship.
Harrigan expressed some hope that the strike would drive baseball-hungry fans to St. Catharines, but that hope did not come to fruition. The Baby Jays’ attendance remained near the bottom of the New York-Penn League. The team was sold to a local group after the 1994 season, and was renamed the Stompers. (A few years later it would relocate to New York and become the Queens Kings, and after the 2000 season, moved again and became the Brooklyn Cyclones.) The new ownership’s preference was for Harrigan to stay on as the manager of the renamed, hopefully rejuvenated franchise.
Harrigan, though, had higher ambitions. Over the offseason, Gillick had offered her a position with the major-league Blue Jays, as assistant to the general manager. Harrigan accepted it, leaving the minor leagues behind, moving with Gillick to the Orioles the following season, and then herself to the Dodgers to work in baseball operations in 2000.
When Harrigan moved on from baseball in St. Catharines, it seems her AGM Marilyn Finn also moved on—there are no references to her in connection with the Stompers after Harrigan’s departure. While the woman described as the soul of the team, secretary Eleanor Bowman, stayed with the Stompers as long as they remained in St. Catharines, she doesn’t appear to have followed them to New York. And thus ended the brief history of professional baseball’s first and only all-women front office.
Harrigan and her superiors were right about her future in baseball. In February 2008, the Dodgers promoted her to director of baseball administration, a position she still holds today. At the time of her promotion, she was one of fewer than 10 women to ever reach such a high-ranking position in baseball. Interviewed back when she first moved to the Dodgers organization, Harrigan said that she could see herself staying in the business another two decades, still having fun and learning new things, and she has certainly made good on that promise.
In retrospect, however, Harrigan was also right about her all-women front office not being a blow struck for feminism, or a massive step forward for gender parity in the sport. While the percentage of women working in front offices is much higher than it once was, and while MLB continues to run various diversity initiatives encouraging women to get involved in the business, the idea of such a thing as an all-women front office in 2018 still seems hard to imagine. And in today’s hiring climate, where many—if not most—of those considered suitable for front office roles come with academic and internship histories of the highest order, it is perhaps even harder to imagine another young woman in a similar position being able to follow a career path like Harrigan’s.
The St. Catharines Blue Jays front office of the early 1990s ends up standing alone in the history of baseball’s relationship with women, as much an anomaly as it ever was: a happy coincidence of aptitude, effort, and organizational situation, and one that seems unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.
“Dodgers promote Harrigan to director of baseball administration.” ESPN, February 20, 2008. http://www.espn.com/mlb/story?id=3255419&src=desktop (accessed January 28, 2018)
“Jays farm club names new GM.” Toronto Star, November 29, 1988.
Millson, Larry. “Jays’ farm teams cash in Series win a boon for St. Catharines and Medicine Hat.” Globe and Mail (Toronto), October 29, 1992.
Milton, Steve. “Baby Jays must fly or face losing their nest.” Spectator (Hamilton), June 4, 1994.
Milton, Steve. “Play ball! There’s still plenty of action in the area.” Spectator (Hamilton), August 13, 1994.
Potrecz, Bill. “On the right track: John Belford’s passions include the Stompers and a fascination for trains.” Standard (St. Catharines), December 23, 1998.
Potrecz, Bill. “A clutch hitter: There’s never a dull moment for Stompers’ Eleanor Bowman.” Standard (St. Catharines), April 26, 1999.
Potrecz, Bill. “Baby Jays put her on road to L.A.” Standard (St. Catharines), July 26, 2000.
Potrecz, Bill. “Harrigan went from Baby Jay to Los Angeles Dodger.” Standard (St. Catharines), June 26, 2012.
Trickey, Mike. “The Jays’ girls of summer: Farm team is operated by all-female front office.” Kitchener-Waterloo Record, July 23, 1991.
Whiteside, Kelly. “Every Day Is Ladies’ Day: General manager Ellen Harrigan-Charles runs a farm team for the Blue Jays.” Sports Illustrated, November 2, 1992.
Zwolinski, Mark. “Girls of summer run baby Jays: St. Catharines team has baseball’s only all-female front office.” Toronto Star, June 25, 1991.
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