Tell Us Your Story: She Made Baseball HistoryJun 11, 2021 04:24PM ● By Bob Fulton
Susan Perabo is a professor of creative writing at Dickinson College in Carlisle and the author of two novels and two collections of short stories. And she holds an intriguing distinction—first female to play for a college team.
“My brief baseball career continues to follow me around,” Perabo says. “When I published my first book, Simon & Schuster was fascinated to find out this little bit of trivia about me, and they made a big deal out of it in their publicity materials. So even to this day, if I’m doing a Q&A after a reading, someone in the audience will invariably say, ‘Can you talk about your baseball career?’ So funny.”
Perabo appeared in four games and went hitless in five at-bats as a second baseman for Webster University's (MO) inaugural varsity team in 1987. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum later honored Perabo for her role as a pioneer.
The irony is, had Webster sponsored softball—which Perabo played in high school—she would never have caught the eye of those in Cooperstown, N.Y. With no softball team to join, Perabo turned her attention to baseball. She actually preferred it to softball, having spent endless hours as a youngster playing the game in her Glendale, Mo., neighborhood.
“I grew up on a block with several boys my age,” Perabo wrote in Scoring from Second: Writers on Baseball, an anthology published in 2007. “I had little interest in Barbie or ballet. Instead, with my friends, on our quiet suburban street, I learned to turn flawless double plays, to wait on pitches and to hit to the opposite ‘field’—the Brands’ front yard for us righties.”
Years later, as a Webster sophomore, Perabo spotted a flier in a campus dorm publicizing an organizational meeting for those interested in forming a varsity baseball team and decided to attend. The other hopefuls likely wondered if she’d wandered into the wrong room.
“I’ll be honest, it was rather shocking when I walked into the meeting and she was sitting there,” recalls player-coach Karl Karleskint, whose fledgling Gorloks finished 6-6 that first season. “I tried to separate myself from the situation. I didn’t want to bring attention to her, but yet the whole time I’m speaking I’m making eye contact.”
Perabo appeared in her first game that spring, blissfully unaware she was making baseball history. Only later, after Webster sports information director John Arenberg contacted the NCAA, was it confirmed that Perabo had broken the gender barrier.
And yet she was loath to capitalize on what distinguished her from thousands of other college baseball players. When a St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer asked Perabo to pose outside the dugout—while a game was in progress—she adamantly refused.
“Susan was very genuine about her participation,” says Niel DeVasto, then Webster’s athletic director. “I think Susan figured if she went along with the publicity or tried to garner any extra attention that it would kind of belittle her participation. She wasn’t doing it for the publicity. She just wanted to play.”
Perabo rarely stirred from the bench, but Karleskint admired her resolve just the same. She hung tough in an all-male domain, no small feat.
“Susan was fearless,” he says. “That’s the best way I could describe her. She had a lot of moxie. That’s what I liked about her. She probably spurred the other players along, too. If she did something, they all wanted to do better.”
Perabo played only that one season at Webster. With an influx of recruits likely to further limit her playing time in 1988, Karleskint encouraged her to try out for the women’s softball team, which had just formed. Perabo started as a junior and senior, in effect helping to establish a second varsity program at Webster.
Onward and upward
Since joining the Dickinson faculty 25 years ago, Perabo has written two novels (The Broken Places and The Fall of Lisa Bellow) and two collections of short stories (Who I Was Supposed to Be and Why They Run the Way They Do). Her work has also appeared in several anthologies and various magazines.
And the Hall of Fame tribute? The museum hung a plaque acknowledging Perabo’s groundbreaking achievement in its Women in Baseball exhibit.
“That was such an honor,” she says. “It was overwhelming to be represented in that magical place, with all my heroes. Also, I sent the Hall of Fame a team photo for the exhibit, and it made me very happy that the guys on the team got to be represented there as well. That made it extra special.”
While the plaque has long since been removed to the museum’s archives, Perabo need not fear her role as a trailblazer will be forgotten. After all, at speaking engagements where her literary endeavors are ostensibly the focus, conversation invariably turns elsewhere.
Susan Perabo, it seems, just can’t escape her baseball past.