Phillips v. Kidsports

Faces of Liberty: Baseball Isn't Just for Boys

Phillips

"All persons against whom any distinction or restriction on account of race, religion, sex, marital status, color or national origin has been made by any place of public accommodation...shall have a cause of action..."
-Oregon Revised Statutes 30.680

There are two big things to know about Kimberly Joy Phillips. One is that she's a bright, vivacious little girl—who takes violin lessons, sings in the choir and lives in the bosom of a warm and loving family. The second is that she loves baseball. She's loved baseball ever since her big brother Charlie got her interested in the Oakland A's.

"We're a year and a half apart. I always wanted to be just like him. So I did everything he did. He did magic cards. So I did magic cards. He liked the Oakland A's, so I liked the Oakland A's. Then he went and played baseball, and that was a little scary at first for me. But the next season I said, okay, I'm gonna play."

When she was in second grade, Kimberly played on a third-grade boys' team and hit an inside-the-park homer, one of her treasured memories. But that was in San Jose, California, where little girls have been playing on baseball teams with boys for two decades. After that season, the Phillips family moved to Eugene. There they discovered that Kidsports, a nonprofit organization that sponsors community sports for youths, barred girls from playing on their baseball teams, even though most of the games were played on public school fields. The group offered girls a softball league instead. Since the Phillips family was new in town, they didn't press things. But Kimberly was crushed.

"I have nothing against softball. It's just that I was brought up with baseball and that's what I like...I tried playing softball just to see what it was like. It went really slow. I kept swinging like two minutes before the ball got there. I pitched and it felt really weird, and the rules are weird."

The family moved to Eugene because for its atmosphere of friendly openness. Kimberly's father, Charles, is a bear of man who, in a pact with his wife Elaine, had reversed roles. He gave up a $40,000 a year job to be with his kids, and started a children's day care center at home. Elaine, a nutrition counselor, got an outside job. Charles had too much invested in his family to let the matter pass: "Our life revolves around our kids and I felt like one of them was being kicked in the teeth, in a sense. And when that happens I feel you've gotta fight."

The next season, when Kidsports refused to let Kimberly sign up, Phillips mobilized pickets and appealed to the community through the media. When that didn't work, with the ACLU's help, he filed a civil rights complaint on Kimberly's behalf. Meanwhile, Zach Stewart, coach of the fourth-grade boys baseball team Kimberly would play on if Kidsports ever relented, invited her to practice with them. She proved she had the right stuff. But the legal standoff kept her on the bench.

Finally, in an episode that captivated the community, the boys voted unanimously to let Kimberly play in the next game, even if it meant a forfeit. When the director of Kidsports learned of this, he threatened to have her removed from the field and to cancel the season for the team. So Kimberly stayed on the sideline. Tears well up in Phillips' eyes even now as he remembers: "It was a very emotional thing. What does it mean to a 9 or 10 year old person to be told, 'Look, these avenues are all closed to you because of who you are.'? How could this group of men sit there and tell her that she doesn't qualify because of who she was born?"

Ultimately, a settlement with Kidsports was reached after Margaret Nichols, Eugene superintendent of schools, stepped in as an intermediary. Phillips dropped his lawsuit. Kimberly, and every other little Eugene girl who wants to, won the right to play baseball. Fittingly, in her first time at bat, Kimberly Phillips smacked a line-drive single down the first-base line on the first pitch of the game, stole second and third—and, on another hit, slid into home and scored.