Susan Perabo was sitting on the bench when her coach, Karl Karleskint, told her to quickly put on a helmet, grab a bat and scurry to the on-deck circle. The news startled Perabo, who was more accustomed to being a late-game defensive replacement at second base than a pinch-hitter. She was, after all, hitless up to that point of the 1987 season for Webster University. With almost no time to warm up for her at-bat, Perabo stepped into the batter’s box, sized up the opponent on the mound and readied for Pitch 1…
Perabo, BA ’89, came to Webster in 1986 without any expectation of athletics being part of her collegiate experience. Perabo grew up in the St. Louis area, and in her mind — not to mention the minds of a majority of her college classmates — Webster and sports just didn’t go together, didn’t make sense.
“It wasn’t actively or in a nasty way anti-sports, but most people at Webster were like, ‘What? You play sports here?’ That’s what it was like then. It just didn’t seem like a Webster thing,” Perabo said.
Although Webster students have been playing sports since the University’s earliest days – a basketball team was established in November 1916 and the Athletic Association was founded in 1919 – today’s athletics program actually began in 1984. That year, the University’s intercollegiate athletics program commenced with six programs: soccer, basketball and tennis on the men’s side and volleyball, basketball and tennis on the women’s side.
One year later, Webster joined the NCAA as a Division-III school. And five years after that, Webster began play as one of six charter members of the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the league in which the Gorloks still compete today.
Webster is the dominant force in the SLIAC, as the university has captured the All-Sports Trophy — which, as its name suggests, is awarded to the school whose teams collectively finish highest in the conference standings — 15 of the past 17 years.
More specifically, the Webster baseball program has been a force to be reckoned with on the national scale. The Gorloks qualified for the eight-team College World Series three times in a four-year span from 2012-2015, finishing fifth on two occasions. About 385 baseball teams compete at the Division-III level.
That’s where the Webster baseball program is — routinely in the top 2 percent nationally. Perabo was there when the baseball program began, and it was a different world during the team’s inaugural 1987 season. Perabo found out about the squad through a flyer that stated interested students should attend an upcoming team meeting.
Softball wasn’t yet a Webster-sponsored sport (it stayed that way until 1997), and Perabo preferred baseball anyway. She attended the meeting, as did a dozen of her future teammates, all males. Coach Karleskint was fine with her playing, as were the other members of the team, so that was that.
“I didn’t feel like I didn’t belong on the field,” Perabo said. “That was kind of my requirement. I didn’t want people to think, ‘Oh my gosh, what is she thinking?’ And I didn’t feel that way. The team was fine with it. They said ‘OK.’ The coaches said ‘OK.’ It was a very different time, obviously, in Webster sports.”
… As Perabo waited for the Principia College pitcher to deliver, she heard the whispers from the stands. “Is that a girl?” “Look, that’s a girl batting.” “Oh my gosh.” Perabo shrugged it off. The pitch came. Fastball, right down the middle. Perabo stood sheepishly with the bat resting on her shoulder. Strike one. Perabo steadied herself for the next pitch. Another fastball. Same location, same result. Perabo didn’t flinch. Strike two. She stepped away from the plate, took a few breaths, then told herself she had to swing. She couldn’t just stand there and watch three straight strikes without taking a hack. It was now or never. Perabo hopped back into the box and gripped her bat. The third pitch was on its way. It looked good. Perabo swung away…
Perabo didn’t know it at the time she joined the team — no one did — but she was about to make history by becoming the first woman to play NCAA baseball. It’s an achievement that was later commemorated in the National Baseball Hall of Fame for several years. Webster honored Perabo this past February by giving her the Pioneer Award at the Athletics Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
All excellent awards now, but at the time of her playing days, Perabo just wanted to fit in, not stand out.
“I felt uncomfortable being the center of attention. I wouldn’t have felt that way if I had been the star of the team. I felt uncomfortable being the center of attention purely because I was a woman,” Perabo said before excitement sprang from her voice. “I loved doing that so much. I still remember it very vividly even though it’s been over 25 years.
“I just loved playing baseball every day with other people who cared about playing baseball, because I had never done that before. It was a strange thing, but playing college baseball was my first organized baseball. I loved that everybody cared about it deeply, took it seriously and had a lot of fun. But we also played hard, and I really enjoyed that.”
Baseball didn’t turn out to be the only sport Perabo played at Webster. Niel DeVasto, Webster’s first athletics director (1984-1988) and current sports information director, approached Perabo about joining the women’s basketball team.
Perabo obliged, playing on the team her final two years at Webster after deciding to lay down baseball after one season. The women’s basketball team did not win a game either season, going 0-8 and 0-7. It wasn’t until the 1990-1991 season that the program picked up its first win — two years after Perabo graduated — as the Gorloks went 0-39 their first four years.
On several occasions, Perabo said, her team only had five student-athletes dressed to play. That meant if one of them fouled out, the Gorloks were forced to play short-handed. “It was exhausting and demoralizing,” Perabo said. “And yet, it was wonderful.”
… Perabo gave it a cut, but came up empty. Strike three. As she slowly made her way back to the visitor’s bench, a funny thing happened. The women in the stands — Principia fans — stood and applauded. Not because their team’s opponent had struck out. No, they cheered because Perabo played. She wasn’t a bystander in a male-dominated sport. As her swing showed, she was a participant. “I always thought that was classy and nice,” Perabo would say of the incident. “And also, I just think in a movie, I would have gotten a hit certainly. Maybe even a home run Roy Hobbs-style. But just the fact that I swung the bat was triumph for me in that moment.”
Perabo knows the novelty aspect of her being the first female to play NCAA baseball will stick with her forever. Though no longer displayed, Perabo’s feat is still on file at the library of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. She’s a part of history.
The history she’s more proud of, though, is being part of the infancy of Webster’s now-robust athletics program. Perabo, who’s taught at Division-III Dickinson College in Pennsylvania the past 19 years, had an opportunity to see firsthand the department’s numerous changes when she accepted the Pioneer Award earlier this year. She said she loves what Webster athletics has become.
“Personally, the more important thing I had done and had helped be a pioneer in was being at the beginning of the sports program in general,” Perabo said. “All of those people who played sports in those first few years — even though we didn’t have any locker rooms, we didn’t have any transportation to games, there were absolutely no perks whatsoever — it was all just about the game. And all about building the program into something that was stronger when we left than it was when we got there.
“We took that pretty seriously, that responsibility. We were the foundation of something we believed in.”