Lisa Saxon, the Woman Who Helped Change Sports Writing Forever
Lisa Saxon isn't famous, but she was and remains a pioneer in the battle for gender equality in the workplace.
Photo by Scott Howard-Cooper
Ever wonder what you would've said to Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner after he flubbed Mookie Wilson's grounder-that-will-live-in-infamy to hand the Mets the 1986 World Series?
Lisa Saxon lived that hypothetical, she was the first reporter to ask Buckner a question in the game's aftermath: "Bill, what happened on that ground ball in the 10th?"
Remember where you were when UCLA point guard Tyus Edney traversed the length of Boise's blue court in 4.8 seconds and kissed home his layup to beat Missouri 75-74 en route to the Bruins' 1995 national title?
Saxon's recap of that game won an AP Sports Editors' award that year, one of two such awards to her name.
Over more than twenty years, Saxon covered and chronicled thousands of games, and practically everyone and everything in the sports world. She manned the Angels beat for four seasons (1983, 1985-87), the Dodgers for another (1984), and the then-L.A. Raiders for three years (1988-90). She worked and witnessed NBA Finals, NCAA Finals, World Series, Rose Bowls, Super Bowls, and more.
But what truly sets Lisa Saxon apart was her fight—a lightly chronicled struggle that was usually waged behind closed doors in stadiums around the country; a battle fought by a handful of female sports writers in a closed off and closed-minded world that did not want them there. A fight for professional dreams, sure, but also for access, equality, and at times, for basic human rights and dignity.
When Saxon got her start in 1979 as a 19-year-old Cal State Northridge sophomore by day, LA Daily News sports reporter by night, sexual harassment wasn't part of the American vernacular. In the days long before Anita Hill's testimony against Clarence Thomas, gender discrimination, exclusion, and carte blanche cruelty were accepted aspects of the workplace status quo for women.
And from 1983 to 1987, when Saxon was one of only three woman (along with Yankees' beat writer Claire Smith of the Hartford Courant and the Sacramento Bee's Oakland A's beat writer Susan Fornoff) who covered the majors full-time, degradation was a commonplace occupational hazard.
"People say 'You were a pioneer,'" said Saxon. "Really, I was just a naive, enthusiastic young woman, doing what she loved to do. I never understood the pioneer part. But I gained perspective, as I won battles of opening locker rooms and changing perspectives. It really wasn't until I left journalism that I had a clear view of what I accomplished.
"I didn't complain a lot. But I cried a lot. I wondered why people hated me. Eventually, I came to realize they don't hate me, they're just afraid of what I represented. Change is hard for people, and I was changing the face of things."
Change, though, came at a cost.Sometimes those costs would catch headlines—like the 1986 incident when 6'6" first baseman Dave Kingman delivered a corsage box to A's reporter Fornoff. Inside the box? A live rat, with an accompanying note: "My name is Sue."
The majority of the time, though, the abuse flew well under the radar.
In the locker rooms Saxon entered, players did everything imaginable and worse: yelling, spitting, and throwing jock-straps at her daily; exposing themselves and even masturbating in front of her. Memories of physical harassment and groping blur together. The instances were as common an occurrence as the days she wore black pants: "And I wore black pants a lot of days."
Fornoff, meanwhile, remembered the auditory contrast of clubhouses more than anything else, recalling one post-game interview session in Boston where the language was so explicit, it rendered useless all of the radio hosts' audio clips.
"The clubhouses would either be really quiet, or really loud because everyone was commenting at me," said Fornoff, who covered the A's from 1985-89 and formed the Association for Women in Sports Media in 1987. "I became very good at not listening and blocking it out. You could hear the noise, hear the laughing. I'll just leave it at that … maybe I was a little lucky. I know Lisa has a lot of stories, and outside of the rat thing, I guess hers were worse than mine."
"There were no workplace rules, no sexual harassment training," Saxon added. "We were in there filling a quota, and no one really knew what to do with us. 'What will happen if women come into sports?' It was a test for everybody, and we went out and did the best we could. Because there was nobody fighting across the board for basic rights. That was what set my group apart. We knew it was our job to open up things; to open the locker rooms and create a situation of equality for all."
Even in more neutral spaces, equality was hard to come by. In 1982, Angels manager Gene Mauch literally ran away from Saxon after she introduced herself to him. Mauch even barred her from his office, threatening not to speak to any reporters if she was present. The press box was hardly a safe haven, either. Case in point: Saxon's first playoff series, at Fenway Park for the AL pennant in 1986, saw her assigned to a seat squarely behind a pole.
Meanwhile, simple access was almost always an issue, media credentials be damned. After all, when Saxon covered the Dodgers in 1984, some National League teams still banned women from the clubhouse. (By that time, every AL clubhouse was open.) In Montreal, Saxon endured diesel fumes of team buses while waiting outdoors to, maybe, get her post-game interviews. In Cincinnati, when she stormed inside the clubhouse with her credential in tow, she was literally picked up off her feet by security.
She even developed a handful of sharp barbs ready to flummox clubhouse security guards when they turned her away: "The credential says, 'Admit Bearer,' not 'Admit Bearer with Penis,'" she quipped frequently. "Do we have a problem? Do we have a penis-check?" (Naturally, she wrote a letter using the Daily News' letterhead to the National League President demanding equal access in all NL clubhouses after the 1984 season, though never got word of any response.)
"Everyone tried to spin it like they were doing you a favor," said Saxon. "You get to ask your questions alone, you get an inside scoop. The truth was I talked to everyone after they talked to everyone else, after they were pretty much worn out. I couldn't see any of the emotion or interaction, I couldn't benefit from anyone else's questions. Everything I got, I had to get on my own." As such, the question of what her career might've looked like had she been allowed to focus solely on writing (and less on constantly fighting for access) still nags at her.
Meanwhile, off the field and on the road, not much was off limits. Saxon remembers unplugging countless hotel room phones to avoid incessant sexual advances from players—even after she was married in 1986. Merely being seen with another player in public was often cause for rumors and innuendo that Saxon was sleeping with someone to get a scoop. During one road trip in St. Louis, a Marriott security guard attempted to kick her out of the hotel after convincing himself that Saxon was a sex worker.
"'Whatever they do to us, I'm going to put up with it,'" Saxon confided to Smith at the time. "I fought the battles as best I could. But if they close the door, it wasn't going to be because of me. Sure, there were hardships, but I knew I wouldn't overcome them by complaining."
All of the abuse made living a solitary life something of a necessity. Add in the rigorous hours, travel, and demanding nature of working a baseball beat—Saxon once took only a single day off during a 175-day span—and the endurance of Saxon and her colleagues becomes even more unfathomable.
She took refuge in the smallest sources of inspiration, like music, with an anthem propelling her forward on her lengthy afternoon commute to Angels Stadium:
"Every day, for the four years I was on the beat, on my way to the ballpark in Anaheim, I would do the same thing: Turn on the radio. Listen to the news. And then, when I was close to the ballpark, pop in Helen Reddy's I Am Woman. Hear me roar. In numbers too big to ignore. I had it on an eight-track, that's how long ago it was.
"That became my mantra. To some extent, I knew that what I was doing was bigger than just me. I knew that, no matter the pain, there was a gain to be made, no turning back. And no giving up."
Now, when she recalls her days as a beat writer, Saxon seems more understanding in regard to the absurdities she put up with, and accepting that things simply were as they were in those days. She is mostly grateful that she got the chance to carry out her sixth-grade dreams on a daily basis at the ballpark, and deeply appreciative of the colleagues, coworkers, and friends who supported her along the way.
Of course, there's her husband Reed, a photographer for the Associated Press who Saxon met in 1983 after an Angels-Rangers game, and married three years later. But given the rigors of their respective schedules, not to mention the lack of constant contact now provided by cell phones and emails, it was normal to go weeks at a time without talking, even months without seeing each other until the offseason came around. Ditto for her correspondence with longtime friend and colleague Claire Smith.
During the season, that left Saxon largely to fend for herself, though plenty of "heroes" stepped up and battled on her behalf. Hall of Fame writers like Phil Collier (San Diego Tribune) and Bob Hunter (LA Daily News). Angels pitchers Don Sutton and Tommy John. And many others.
"I look back, and there were so many people like that," Saxon said.
John McNamara, for one, who replaced Mauch as Angels manager for only the 1983 season, was "like an uncle," a source of strength, guidance, and kindness. He witnessed the blatant racism of the 1960s as a manager in the minor leagues—even pulling his teams out of hotels if they were racially segregated—and went to great lengths to make sure Lisa was treated fairly by all.
Towards the end of the season, on a road trip in Chicago, Saxon grappled with quitting amidst deep frustrations over the day-to-day disrespect. McNamara noticed, and offered an ear and supportive words over iced-tea and tuna sandwiches. They spoke until 5 a.m. "If you're tired of it, that's one thing," he told her, "but if you're letting someone else make the decision for you, then I'm gonna argue with you. You cannot let someone else decide your dreams for you." His words helped her eventually come back the following season.
For every McNamara, though, there was a Reggie Jackson. While Fornoff had to deal with the antics of Kingman, Saxon's heel in many ways was Mr. October.
"Reggie wasn't happy unless he was making someone else miserable," she recalled. "He told me he wished I was dead many times, would scream and curse at me for no reason. I'd be talking to Mauch and he'd ask me, 'Do you even look at yourself before you leave the house? And you still wore that?'"
As the '86 season wound down, the LA Times ran a brief story detailing Jackson's mistreatment of her: "Everyone knew what happened, it happened in broad daylight, and I just put some of it on the record." Naturally, the tensions escalated.
After Saxon missed a road trip to Kansas City due to the flu, she met the team for a series against Texas. She got to her hotel room and her phone's answering-machine light blinked red. A message from lumbering Angels first baseman George Hendrick: "Call me as soon as you get in." She did, and Hendrick warned her Jackson was on the warpath; then, he asked Lisa to come down to he and pitcher John Candelaria's room.
She resisted at first—"I didn't go to player's rooms, it was one of my rules,"—but Hendrick emphatically insisted: "Come. Down."
The meeting was brief, and the message was simple: "Lisa, from here on in, you're not fighting alone. To get to you, Reggie's gonna have to come through us. We're tired of watching it."
"And at the ballpark that night, Reggie tried to come after me, screaming [about the story]. And sure enough, here comes Hendrick and Candelaria, tall and imposing. 'To get to her, you're gonna have to go through us.' Reggie got so mad. He took his fist and banged it into the wall. And that's why he had a hurt hand for the playoffs that year."
Some six years later, when she returned to Anaheim to do a story on Mark McGwire and visit her friend, A's pitcher Bobby Welch, Jackson was there—and immediately yelled for Lisa's attention, apparently ready to make amends. Something was awry, Saxon told Welch, because it was the first time Jackson hadn't referred to her as "bitch." Jackson immediately queried Saxon, wondering if there was a problem between them.
"Well you have to be more specific, Reggie," she said. "Was there a problem when you cursed at me, yelled at me, told me I looked like a man, told me to have the team bus run over me, when you mocked my clothes, asked me to sleep with you when I repeatedly told you to leave me alone, when you undressed in front of me?"
Jackson pleaded ignorance: "Reggie doesn't do those things," he said in his usual third-person dialect. "Reggie never did those things. But if he did, Reggie apologizes."
To which Lisa, still stunned and confused, replied: "Reggie, there is absolutely no reason to apologize. Because in the long run, you did me a favor. Because no matter where I go or what I do, I know I'll never meet a bigger jerk. And if I can deal with you and the nonsense you've shoveled at me, I can deal with anything. And that's quite empowering. So Reggie, I have to say 'Thank you.' But I'm still confused, why are we even having this conversation?"
With a crowd gathering and their noses some six inches apart—"I'm not backing down and neither is he,"—Reggie conceded he couldn't remember what he wanted to say, and the situation finally, tensely, dissolved.
Saxon headed back onto the field thoroughly perplexed, and then-Angels first base coach Bobby Knoop, noticing the puzzled look on her face, asked her what was up. She explained the showdown and Knoop smiled knowingly, understanding in full what transpired: Jackson was up for the first-term of his Hall of Fame election, he pointed out. Jackson wanted to get selected to the Hall unanimously. Jackson needed Saxon's Hall of Fame vote. And suddenly, the picture became crystal clear.
"I turned on my heels and went back into the clubhouse and I said, 'Hey Reggie, I finally figured out why you wanted to talk to me. The answer is: Yes, I have a Hall of Fame vote. And no, you're not getting it. I hope this clears up everything for you. Thank you, and have a great day.' Everyone started laughing; and then I explained to Bobby, there's a citizenship component [for the Hall of Fame]. And the way Reggie's conducted himself is not aligned with the principles spelled out there. I can't vote for him ... and we've never spoken since."
While the Reggie saga marked perhaps Saxon's most trying relationship, her baseball reporting career saw far more subdued, and sublime, exchanges, too.
Like the sage words she received from Dodgers legend Vin Scully on the team's bus after a 1984 night game in Cincinnati (when she still wrote under her maiden name, Nehus). It began with a simple query from Scully:
"May I ask you, what is your goal, what you really want to do, if you could do anything?"
"I told him, 'You know, Vin, I want to be like Gordie Verrell,'" she said, recalling Gordon Verrell, the legendary Dodgers beat writer.
"Well, I'm sorry to hear that, Lisa," Scully said. "Because if you're spending your life trying to be Gordie Verrell, you'll never be as good at Gordie Verrell as Gordie Verrell is. The correct answer is: 'I'm going to be the best Lisa I can be.'"
Vin continued: "When I go around and hear people trying to mimic my radio style, at first it's flattering. But then I realized, they're doing themselves a disservice by preventing themselves from finding their own style, being their best. And maybe they could've been even better than me.
"Never, ever compare yourself to anyone, Lisa. You are so unique and what you're doing is so incredible, don't compare yourself to someone else. Just be the best Lisa you can be, and then one day, maybe someone will say, 'I want to be like Lisa Nehus.' And then, you'll tell them my story.'"
And so she does. Today, Saxon teaches at Palisades Charter High School in Pacific Palisades, California and is the journalism advisor for the Tideline, the school's student-run, full-color magazine (which, in its first year of operations in 2013, was awarded a first-place ranking by the Quill and Scroll journalism honor society).
The salt-of-the-earth wisdom of Scully doesn't seem to fall on deaf ears there.
"I pull that story out when kids are competitive and want to be like someone else," she says. "I tell them, 'You have to be yourself. I learned that at 24; I want you to learn it at 17. If you live your life to make someone else happy, the one person you won't make content is yourself. Life isn't a dress rehearsal, we get one run at it. And if you learn anything from me, it's just go for it.'
"So what if people laughed at me when I wanted to be a sports writer?" she ponders.
"I think about the hard days. People telling me they wanted to kill me, even. People hating me, telling me, 'I don't respect you.' Not even players; these are fans. And they don't even know you … and now I get to tell my kids, that if I can deal with that, and I'm no one special, you can certainly deal with this."
Today, what was laughter decades ago has morphed into real respect and admiration, evidenced by her recent nomination for a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Women in Sports Media. And by her most recent trip back to Angels Stadium in 2013.
She returned to the Anaheim press box and Julie Buehler, a Palm Springs-based radio and television reporter, introduced herself and eventually offered her heartfelt words of appreciation. Overlooking the field later that afternoon, Saxon couldn't help but shed a few tears.
"Eventually, someone with the Angels came up to me, started asking me questions: 'Oh, how are you doing? Anyone you're looking for? How can I help?' It was in that moment, that I really took it all in, of how much had changed."
Shortly thereafter, she headed down to the field for Angels manager Mike Scioscia's pre-game press interview in the dugout. A handful of her old colleagues and friends listening to Scioscia eventually turned around and noticed her, declaring, "It isn't a ghost—Lisa's back!"
"To know that people remembered and acknowledged me, and the fight I fought, means it was all worth it."