By Kristin Huckshorn and Michele Himmelberg
What if we held a convention and nobody came?
That is what the founders asked one another as we considered inaugurating our nascent organization with an actual convention. Panel discussions. A hospitality suite. Commemorative T-shirts. A weekend of rituals and bonding that would stamp legitimacy on the newly formed Association for Women in Sports Media.
At that point, in early 1988, there were perhaps 100 women working as sports journalists. We were spread across the country. Outside major metro areas, some women went entire seasons never coming face to face with another female sportswriter. The first small wave of women sportswriters had secured seats in the press box. We were the second, larger wave, with one foot in the door but the other in the hallway, still kept out of many locker rooms, assigned second-tier beats and paid less than male colleagues. We were fighting to be valued for our work while still dealing with harassment and condescension.
But California sports sections were at the vanguard of change. The Bay Area counted Susan Fornoff, Nancy Cooney, Joan Ryan, Annette John-Hall, Shelley Smith, Pam King and Kristin Huckshorn. In Southern California, Michele Himmelberg, Tracy Dodds and Julie Cart were among a similar group.
We well understood the power of that West Coast sisterhood and we wanted to share it.
“Back in those days, everyone had ‘one’ of us and we were all scattered about,” Fornoff said. “We’d go to cover an event and see women from other outlets and we would just hug each other. And those of us who had been more fortunate – my paper (the Sacramento Bee) had at least three women in sports – remembered what it was like to feel so alone.”
We modeled the first AWSM convention after APSE events that had educational components, speakers and some fun, social events. The luxury resorts came later. For our first convention, the operative word was … cheap.
Fornoff, who covered the Oakland A’s, got us into the Edgewater Hyatt, a 25-year-old hotel that was often used by ballclubs playing across the freeway at the Coliseum. The Hyatt had seen better days – specifically those in the 1960s. We went with Memorial Day, so members could miss less work. The rate was $65 a night and the meeting room was free. They wanted our business!
The RSVPs trickled in: Lesley Visser, probably the best known female sports journalist in the country at the time. And Ann Miller, a perky red-head from Hawaii, who was willing to cross an ocean to attend. Today, it sounds corny, but with each response, our excitement grew.
Fornoff invited Orioles manager Frank Robinson, as they were playing the A’s that weekend and she herself was from Baltimore. He seemed to agree. But on the first day of the convention, Robinson told her he had no intention of coming. She scrambled and begged A’s manager Tony LaRussa, who came, charmed, and got the save.
Stars such as Oakland A’s slugger Don Baylor and San Francisco 49ers’ safety Ronnie Lott, appeared on a panel and talked honestly about dealing with female sportswriters for the first time in their careers. There was a session on ethics, one on what to wear.
The membership elected its first President, Christine Brennan of the Washington Post, and wrote and approved – then promptly lost – the first bylaws. Cart designed funny T-shirts that we sold for about $10 to fund scholarships, thereby launching a T-shirt tradition that continued for many conventions.
Thanks to Fornoff, we attended an A’s game in a luxury suite. The night was immortalized by the New York Times, through a story written by Jane Gross (who was also one of the first female sports writers in the country).
“Female sportswriters, who once toiled for months at a time without seeing another member of their sex, are now numerous enough to have formed a professional organization that gathered here this week for its first convention,” Gross wrote.
AWSM’s first convention had warranted a New York Times story. We felt significant. Himmelberg fondly remembers how the experience impacted her.
“The big surprise for me was how much fun we had,” Michele said. “Sure, we were all serious about the seminars and presentations, but in the hallways we were swapping stories, getting to know each other as something more than a byline, sighing in relief that we weren’t the only ones who had lived through this or that trauma.”
Throughout the weekend, the esprit de corps was profound.
“Forming AWSM created an “old girl network,” Fornoff said. “But it was really the convention that grounded that network, and made it flesh and blood and heart and soul.”