Eye on the Ball: Breaking through barriers

BOB DeSTEFANO PHOTO Betsy Johnson Martin
Betsy Johnson Martin

Back in the 1950s, I saw very few women playing sports and growing up I never thought much about it. I assumed everyone was happy with it.

There were many other things that are different today that I never thought about growing up. I saw few African-American men playing baseball and none playing golf. I played golf for years before I realized there was a Caucasian-only clause on the PGA tour, which wasn’t eliminated until 1961. Just a few years later, Lee Elder was the first black man to play in the revered Masters Tournament.

Everyone knows the story of Jackie Robinson, breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

But opportunity didn’t come for females until 1972 when Title IX was enacted into law, prohibiting federally funded educational institutions from discriminating against students based on sex. In short, nearly all schools had to provide fair and equal treatment of the sexes, including athletics — a great ruling and a major game changer for women and sports.

Before this, few opportunities existed for female athletes. At that time, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) offered no scholarships for women and held no championships for women’s teams. Thus, in 1972 there were just 30,000 women participating in NCAA sports as opposed to 170,000 men. That lopsided disparity was about to change.

Today, you see fine athletic women playing all sports. There’s is no argument that, overall, they work harder at keeping their bodies in better condition than the men.

When I saw Betsy Johnson Martin the other day I remembered her from school athletics when I was on the school board in 1975. I remembered her as a terrific athlete who played three sports— softball, volleyball and field hockey — in high school until she graduated in 1980 .

Like me as a boy playing sports, Betsy didn’t realize she was in school at an important time in women’s athletics. Her clearest memory of her early days was Coach Carol Spooner, who died a few years back. Coach Spooner was honored by Shelter Island’s Athletic Hall of Fame Committee, elected on the first ballot to the hall. She was also in attendance at the ceremony, witnessing not only Betsy’s love for her coach, but the many other students who shared the feeling.

What Betsy loved most about Coach Spooner was her interest in the kids, remembering that she could always talk to her and her coach always had time to listen.

Betsy is a true Islander; her mom and dad, Emil and Ginny Johnson, were also lifetime Islanders. Her brother and sister, Chris Johnson and Lisa Hashagen, live here and have made successful lives for themselves.

Emil was a good friend of mine, working with me for many years. He was known as the best teller of jokes on the Island and was a welcome addition to any party.

Like her dad, Betsy talks freely and laughs easily even though her competitive side comes out when you talk about sports and her children. She has a 20-year-old daughter, Julia, who you might know from Vine Street and a 15-year-old son, Daniel, a starter on the school’s varsity basketball team.

Betsy met her husband, Greg Martin, during a bible study class at Greenport’s First Baptist Church. Greg’s an East End boy who grew up in New Suffolk.

After talking to Greg, I figured out one of the things that brought them to one another. When the subject turns to sports, Greg shares his competitive nature with his wife.

Greg makes his living here on the Island as general manager of Shelter Island Mechanical. Without having a child in the program, I was impressed that he willingly volunteers his time coaching Little League girls softball.

Betsy Johnson Martin, it seems to me, has the life she wanted with a wonderful family that she says still tries to eat together every night. She lives in the town she wanted to bring her family up in, and for the past 20 years she’s been doing the job she loves. Out of school, she went to college for fashion merchandising and today is managing a Henry Lehr store, a fashion powerhouse in Amagansett.

Who says you can’t have it all?