‘Coach Katie Krall’ has a good ring to it for lifelong Park Ridge sports, academic achiever

By George Castle, CBM Historian

Timing and politics are intertwined in baseball, just like peanuts and Cracker Jack once were.

Thus Katie Krall has picked just the right moment to learn and thrive as a uniformed female pro baseball coach. Supplementing her own merit and drive is a game-wide commitment to diversity that not only promotes women working in baseball operations in the front office, but also in the dugout.

Katie Krall works with a pitching machine in the Red Sox's recent mini-camp in Ft. Myers. (Photo courtesy of the Boston Red Sox)

Katie Krall works with a pitching machine in the Red Sox’s recent mini-camp in Ft. Myers. (Photo courtesy of the Boston Red Sox)

The very presence of a woman in uniform might have been unthinkable two decades ago, let alone a half-century back, when Leo Durocher ordered Chicago Today sportswriter Linda Morstadt off the field at Wrigley Field as a supposed distraction to his Cubs players. Move the clock forward 17 years, and Chuck Tanner, best-known for his unorthodox handling of Dick Allen with the White Sox, harangued and harassed Robin Monsky, his Braves media relations director, until she was driven out of the organization.

Now, the hiring of Park Ridge, Ill. native Krall as the second female coach in the Red Sox farm system, soon after the Yankees hired a female manager, results in a series of stories temporarily distracting from baseball’s labor problems. But the news was hardly earth-shaking in the manner of Jackie Robinson’s and Frank Robinson’s breaking the color line as a player and manager, respectively, in 1947 and 1975. Baseball seemed to be organically moving this way, anyway.

“I definitely feel appreciative,” Krall said amid the warmth of southwest Florida. “I am the beneficiary of my time, and of all the women that came before me. I hope I can move the needle more.

“I want to focus on my responsibilities, but I also embrace the fact that there will be little girls watching me this summer. If people want to take photos with me after games, I’m very much in favor of that.”

Krall knows she won’t have totally smooth sailing, although the reaction was very encouraging at the first mini-camp she worked at the Red Sox’s Ft. Myers training base a month after she was hired on January 10. A few holdouts to a woman instructing players are bound to be encountered along with traditional remarks about the very presence and appearance of a female.

Katie Krall and Sam Denomme of the Red Sox baseball systems department watch a workout at the team's recent mini-camp in Ft. Myers. (Photo courtesy of the Boston Red Sox)

Katie Krall and Sam Denomme of the Red Sox baseball systems department watch a workout at the team’s recent mini-camp in Ft. Myers. (Photo courtesy of the Boston Red Sox)

The question will inevitably come up: if you’ve never played the game, how can you coach it? After all, women have been segregated into softball in elementary school forever and no high-level women’s baseball circuit has existed since the 1940s All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of “A League of Their Own” fame.

A climb through baseball’s ranks

But Krall hasn’t just been dropped from the sky to work as a developmental coach for the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs in Portland, Maine, using both analytics and scouting to augment the manager and his pitching and hitting coaches. She has served apprenticeships as an assistant general manager in the Cape Cod League and an economics and operations coordinator in the Commissioner’s Office in New York in 2018-2019. Krall worked the next two years as an analyst for the Cincinnati Reds, where she was a colleague of Jasmine Dunston, the new White Sox director of minor-league operations.

She was no passive observer as a Reds analyst, not in any way hidden in a back office crunching some of baseball’s new-fangled numbers on exotic software.

Katie Krall with parents Darryl (left) and Joan Krall at Reds spring training in 2020.

Katie Krall with parents Darryl (left) and Joan Krall at Reds spring training in 2020.

“At Great American (Ballpark) I would often start a game in the front office suite, chatting with my co-workers over the first few innings, and then made my way to the stands for innings three to eight,” recalled Krall. “I would alternate sides depending on what fielders I wanted to see.

“For example, when the Cardinals were in town, I would station myself on the third-base line because of (Nolan) Arenado. As nice as the view is from the skybox and the ability to have your laptop open and review pitch data in real time, it’s tough to get a feel for the game from that perspective.

“Being closer to the diamond always felt more right to me. No matter where I was in the stadium, though, I would always finish the game back upstairs. I believe that it was important that we all left together after the final out had been recorded no matter the outcome.”

Krall actually got her start in pro baseball in the aftermath of a starkly true occurrence of modern times, and not amid the annual lovable losers stereotype coinciding with the bad ol’ days of women interacting with baseball. She was a coordinator for the Cubs’ World Series Trophy Tour in the months after the blessed event in 2016. Near the end of 2021, the Cubs contacted her about a front-office position, but Krall was deep into talks with the Red Sox.

No stranger to multi-tasking and time management, she shepherded the trophy to its destinations in the middle of a three-year degree program majoring in history at Northwestern University, where she was on the dean’s list wire to wire.

Now Krall, who is also in the midst of an MBA program at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, is getting a post-graduate course in baseball human relations. For all the specified numbers she could offer her players, the personal factor weighs at least as much in her work.

A holistic approach to players

Rotating between hitters and pitchers with 28 players participating in the mini-camp, Krall felt she could speak their language as a coach just a few years their elder. She was no chaw-and-spittin’ baseball warhorse old enough to be their father.

“It’s important to have a holistic approach to a player,” Krall said. “Does he have the drive and willingness to make an adjustment within an at-bat? Players making the right adjustments in approach in their swing can move their career in different directions. Can we make sure players have as much opportunity to be true to themselves?”

Caring about individuals was deeply embedded in Krall’s psyche. With twin sister Annie, she contributed to the community while growing up at Park Ridge’s Maine South High School, also the alma mater of Hillary Clinton. The Kralls collected more than $1,000 in musical instruments to teach 30 Ojibwe children at a Boys and Girls Club near the family’s summer home in Hayward, WI.

“Our family instilled in us an expectation and reverence for being part of a community,” Krall told the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate. “We believe that we have an obligation to aid others and to share our gifts and blessings. Whether it’s volunteering time, money or mentorship, we enjoy impacting the lives of others.”

Read her interview at ChicagoTribune.com/suburbs/park-ridge

Twins Katie and Annie Krall got their start in sports early. They golfed at age 6. Here they are at a youth softball game.

Twins Katie and Annie Krall got their start in sports early. They golfed at age 6. Here they are at a youth softball game.

Even though Krall never played baseball competitively, she is no tanglefoot. She and Annie began playing golf at age six. They co-captained the Maine South girls’ golf team to the state tournament in 2013 and 2014. So whenever she wanted to get inside her mini-camp players’ heads even more, she went to the outfield to shag flies.

“Guys were asking how tough it would be coming off wooden bats,” Krall said. “Getting out there, you have a greater appreciation what the players do every day.”

The mini-camp gave Krall a chance to meet Bianca Smith, the first Black female coach in pro baseball. The Red Sox hired Smith in 2021. But she has not yet crossed paths with Alyssa Nakken, hired in 2020 with the Giants as the first female coach in the majors, or Rachel Balkovec, named by the Yankees over the winter to manage their A-ball team in Tampa. She’ll certainly want to meet Kim Ng, the first female general manager, working for the Miami Marlins. Ng had a long journey in No. 2 roles after starting as an intern with the White Sox.

None of the women could have dreamed of their present jobs if they had come up in the mid-20th century. A conservative game by its nature, with change typically only coming grudgingly, baseball was a testosterone-filled institution where women were often thought of for post-game recreational purposes only.

“They think they’re the grand old game, and that they can get away with anything,” Monsky said in 1987 of the discrimination and derision she had experienced. ”It’s just a good-old-boy network. And unless someone stops and says, ‘No, you can’t do this,’ they’ll continue to get away with it.”

Margaret Donahue a trailblazer

In spite of the predominant attitudes of the times, a few women distinguished themselves on the business and support sides of front offices. Most prominent was Margaret Donahue, hired by progressive Cubs President William L. Veeck, Sr. in the 1920s. A product of then-rural Huntley, Ill., Donahue immediately was given responsibilities in the small front office of the day. Donahue quickly rose to run most of Wrigley Field’s business operations through the 1950s. She has been honored by the Cubs with a Chicago city park named for her in the Lake View neighborhood a few blocks from Wrigley Field.

Millie Johnson was a respected White Sox director of promotions in the 1960s and 1970s. Later, Arlene Gill of the Cubs and Nancy Nesnidol of the Sox were the glue that kept the offices of multiple general managers they both served running as smoothly as possible.

Gill was a legend for her efficiency and accessibility. One day in July 1996, I heard dissension from Cubs Manager Jim Riggleman and lineup stalwarts Mark Grace and Brian McRae about lack of front-office moves with the trade deadline looming. I called Gill, asking to speak to Cubs President Andy MacPhail and general manager Ed Lynch as soon as possible for reaction to the bubbling clubhouse turmoil. Within an hour, Gill got me into an interview with both MacPhail and Lynch, who basically said “we’re upset because they are upset” without committing to any trades.

But the issue of women journalists having access to the clubhouse caused the most friction and backlash. Three years after off-the-field ladies’ man Durocher became livid at Morstadt’s intrusion onto the field, White Sox GM Stu Holcomb, an old football coach, physically barred her from entering the Comiskey Park pressbox. Traveling scribes in the Chicago chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, led by Jerome Holtzman, tied 2-2 in a vote to admit Morstadt. Holcomb claimed he had the tiebreaking “no” vote, but Holtzman fended off the general manager. Eventually, reasoning Waukegan News-Sun reporter Morstadt had formerly worked for Chicago Today, which traveled with the two Chicago baseball teams, Holtzman served as tiebreaker and let her in.

Organist Nancy Faust never recalled gender being an issue with her in her early years with the White Sox.

Organist Nancy Faust never recalled gender being an issue with her in her early years with the White Sox.

At the same time, the incomparable Nancy Faust was establishing herself as Sox organist with Holcomb’s enthusiastic support. Holcomb even moved Faust’s organ from a faraway perch in center field to a choice spot in the upper deck. And the GM backed Faust despite some Luddite fans complaining a woman shouldn’t be a ballpark organist.

Faust’s quick rise to popularity and her innovation of walk-up songs for Dick Allen is profiled extensively in the comprehensive, visually stunning new book “Chili Dog MVP: Dick Allen, the 1972 White Sox and A Transforming Chicago”.

Copies of the book can be ordered at ChiliDogMVP.com.

“I didn’t think much about gender at all,” said Faust, still as nimble at the keyboard as she was in 1972. “Sure, I thought baseball was a man’s sport. But I never thought of myself as a woman hired. I was hired because I was qualified. I didn’t think the rights of women hit me.

“Millie (Johnson) was there because she was qualified. She did her job well.”

As the 1970s progressed, the media access issues for women heated up. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn did not want women admitted to the World Series locker rooms. Reporters countered with a lawsuit, and a court ruling sided with them. But some individual teams lagged behind.

Bob Kennedy barred the door to reporter

In 1979, Joliet Herald-News Reporter Karen Chaderjian was barred by Cubs GM Bob Kennedy from entering the old cramped home clubhouse down the left-field line. A semi-compromise was achieved when Kennedy said Chaderjian could interview players at the clubhouse door. But she could hardly get two words in edgewise and any responses back from her interview quarries as they passed by, eager to get to their inner sanctum.

I shared some similar experiences of Chaderjian’s dilemma — not getting backing from my bosses — when her executive editor, Rey Hertel, threatened to pull her off the Cubs beat if she further agitated for access. Fortunately, Chaderjian got away from the parochial Hertels of the world, landing a few years later at the Los Angeles Times.

Sharon Pannozzo began her 24-season Cubs career, the final 16 as media relations director, late in 1982, and usually did not encounter such flak. She worked in the same era as Katy Feeney and Phyllis Merhige, who ran public relations and handed postseason media for the National and American leagues, respectively.

My only issue concerning Merhige was her intent to bust me back to the pizza-and-chowder-stocked Fenway Park media lunchroom for a potential Game 4 of the American League Division Series between the White Sox and Red Sox in 2005. Apparently, some Chicago media elitist did not like a suburban-paper writer taking up a seat assigned by MLB in the third row of the pressbox for Game 3. Fortunately, clutch pitching by the White Sox’s “El Duque” Hernandez made the Game 4 demotion academic.

The most egregious situation involving a woman of course, was the Robin Monsky-Chuck Tanner imbroglio. Monsky apparently did nothing wrong. She simply desired to do her Braves media-relations job, requiring clubhouse and team-bus access and cooperation from a coach on crunching statistics for game notes. Tanner was an outright obstructionist to Monsky on almost all points.

Three managing jobs previously, Tanner had gone against all baseball traditions by allowing Dick Allen to skip many batting-practice sessions, and even tolerated the superstar showing up as late as the National Anthem at old Comiskey Park — a system also profiled in “Chili Dog MVP: Dick Allen, The 1972 White Sox and A Transforming Chicago.” Whatever caveman attitudes Tanner possessed were not moderated a bit by a World Series ring earned managing the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, a franchise playing 50 miles from his lifelong home in New Castle, Pa.

But the list of guilty parties in the wrongful treatment of Monsky extended to Braves GM Bobby Cox — a future Hall of Famer — along with new Braves President Stan Kasten, owner Ted Turner and ultimately Commissioner Peter Ueberroth. Any one of them could have disciplined Tanner.

Fortunately, such confrontations had largely receded into history by the millennium. Baseball’s attitudes caught up with the society that the sport sometimes seemed to separate itself from. And the likes of Katie Krall can do their jobs in a normal atmosphere without the circus coming to town.

Good timing for opportunities

Katie Krall with Cristian Perez at the 2018 Gold Glove Awards at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Krall and Perez were selected as the diversity fellows in the Commissioner’s Office. The pair later worked together again with the Reds, Krall as a baseball operations analyst and Perez as major league advance scouting coach.

Katie Krall with Cristian Perez at the 2018 Gold Glove Awards at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Krall and Perez were selected as the diversity fellows in the Commissioner’s Office. The pair later worked together again with the Reds, Krall as a baseball operations analyst and Perez as major league advance scouting coach.

“It’s important to take advantage of these opportunities as they come available as teams begin to open the door for women to compete for these positions that were once unattainable,” said Pannozzo, now running her own public relations shop.

“I started my career as the very first Red Sox intern back in 1981, and it’s really wonderful to see that the team remains committed to making new and bolder opportunities available to women, bringing Katie into their organization as a minor- league coach.”

The women are starting to move up from entry-level jobs. Krall knows this, and was as happy for Jasmine Dunston, daughter of Cubs shortstop legend Shawon Dunston, as she was for herself. The younger Dunston replaced a pioneering woman in Grace Guerrero Zwit, who worked her way up in the White Sox organization after her original 1982 hiring by the late Roland Hemond and Dave Dombrowski.

“Jasmine’s amazing,” Krall said. “I consider myself lucky to not only work with her with the Reds, but to be her friend. She has a great attention to detail and is a problem-solver. I’m excited for her to be in a leadership role.”

And if another glass ceiling is established above the new uniformed women, a fellow like Gabe Kapler wants to see it cracked sooner than later.

Judy Walden Scarafile (left), a Katie Krall mentor and former commissioner of the Cape Cod Baseball League, visiting Krall at the MLB offices in New York in 2019.

Judy Walden Scarafile (left), a Katie Krall mentor and former commissioner of the Cape Cod Baseball League, visiting Krall at the MLB offices in New York in 2019.

A progressive manager running the Giants, Kapler said he could foresee a day when Alyssa Nakken could become a big-league manager herself. Just that pathway up and Rachel Balkovec’s Yankees-system job stirs thoughts in Krall, who always likes to keep her options open. She could easily go back to the front office. Or, if she is successful on the field, she could stay in uniform and try to move up.

“Managing?” Krall said. “I absolutely kicked it around and absolutely it’s a consideration with Rachel. I think it would be phenomenal.”

In the event…no Krall eruptions like Lee Elia’s?

“I could never be that way,” she laughed. “I could probably maintain my composure.”

That’s how, like navigating 18 holes, one by one, Krall has steadily moved up and navigated often treacherous terrain. In a perfect world, quality would always win out.

Leave it to Nancy Faust to put into perspective the concept of a meritocracy in a traditional, political game like baseball.

“It’s got to come from your parents when you are born,” she said. “Like the way Katie was raised. It’s not just this woman or this color. You can strive to be anything you can like. The reins are now loosened.”

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