Janet Thomas (center) poses with Shirley Burkovich (left) and Maybelle Blair (right), two former All-American Girls Professional Baseball League players, during the 2021 Baseball For All Nationals in Aberdeen, Md. (Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Paul McKeen)

When Justine Siegal was 13, her coach told her girls were only supposed to play softball, not baseball. That disrespect led her to become the first woman in history to coach for an MLB organization, when she joined the Oakland A’s staff in 2015.

It also led her to give back to the next generation when she founded Baseball For All, a nonprofit that provides opportunities for girls to play, coach and lead in baseball.

In turn, it has also led to a driving force on the umpiring side to get more female umpires into the game. One of the people leading that charge is Janet Thomas, a Woodstock, Ga., umpire who has worked the Baseball For All Nationals — the largest girls-only baseball tournament in the U.S. — the past four seasons, including this year’s tournament, which was held at the Ripken Experience in Aberdeen, Md.

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“I have always been in baseball,” Thomas said. “I knew so many umpires and the big joke was, ‘When you finish coaching, you need to come to the dark side and umpire with us.’ I thought, ‘OK, I can do that.’ I decided I am going to go for it — that was 15 years ago, and I haven’t looked back.”

At most baseball tournaments, the majority of umpires are male. The Baseball For All Nationals is a little different as the majority of umpires are female, with only two male umpires on the staff for this year’s event. For Thomas, the goal is to recruit and retain more females to help offset the shortage of umpires across the country.

“I saw other women umpires and I just kind of stood there with my mouth hanging open,” Thomas said. “I’m not the only one. To just walk in a room where there are 20 other women umpires, I think everyone in the group would say the same thing in that it is just incredible to realize there are other women who have the same passion.”

When that group steps on the field to do the games, nothing else matters. It is a group of professionals who all share the same passion for the game and want to give back.

“We are just umpires,” Thomas said. “There is no differentiating between the men and the women. We are there to do a job, do something that we love. It is a family mentality. The game is the game and the uniform is the same. While the locker-room talk might be a little different, it’s still locker-room talk. It is still baseball talk and we talk about all the crazy plays, the good stuff and the bad stuff.”

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For the players, having someone who looks like them umpiring their games is something special as well.

“We get so much positive feedback from the girls and their parents,” Thomas said. “The girls love having lady umpires. They know we are in the minority in the profession just like they are in the minority for playing.”

The tournament also gives umpires something officials rarely receive: praise. Thomas said the umpires received a standing ovation when they were announced at the opening ceremonies prior to the games.

“The parents realize what we are doing,” she said. “They love it and they come up to us during the week and thank us for being role models for their kids.”

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