SPORTS: Keith Hernandez, meet Phyllis Ackerman, trailblazer

Keywords Sports Business

Former New York Met and current Mets announcer Keith Hernandez emerged from a cave April 22, observed that a member of the San Diego Padres’ training staff wa s – g a s p ! – a female, and opined on air that women have no place in a Major League dugout.

Hernandez was promptly reprimanded by his employers and issued a tepid apology on the next Mets broadcast.

This might come as a bulletin to the Neanderthalic Hernandez, but women have made all kinds of incursions into the landscape of sports, including those played by males. Journalism and broadcasting have been two of the most obvious areas, with women reporters, commentators and columnists now common on the sidelines and in the press box. No one gives it much thought.

But back in 1974, into our midst came a woman who was far ahead of the times.

I ran into her the other day during a visit to the NCAA Hall of Champions, where she works as an instructor in the Stay in Bounds character-development program.

“Remember me?” she asked, sticking out her hand. “Phyllis Ackerman.”

Of course I remembered Phyllis. What I’d forgotten was her trailblazing role in local and even national sports history.

At a time when many males, especially those in sports, still believed a woman’s place was in the kitchen, Ackerman was the first female television analyst for a professional sports team, serving in that role with the ABA Indiana Pacers in the 1974-1975 season, their first in the new (and then ultra-modern) Market Square Arena. It also happened to be my rookie year covering the team as the beat writer for The Indianapolis Star.

Here’s how Ackerman’s role came about. WTTV-TV Channel 4 had the television rights to Pacers games. Channel 4 was under the guidance of an offbeat general manager, Don Tillman, who determined the station and the Pacers could generate some interest-and maybe some ratings-by holding a contest to choose a female analyst.

Ackerman’s husband, Warren, convinced her to enter. Even though she was a stay-athome mother of three, she was spunky, opinionated and-like most Hoosiers-knew her basketball.

“Warren put me up to it,” Ackerman remarked. “He said after all those years of hearing me do ‘color’ in our living room while we watched basketball, that if I was on television, he could at least turn me off.”

Long story short: Hundreds of applicants were whittled down to several dozen who got called in to do on-camera tests. Then there were two: Ackerman and a pretty, perky, former Miss Indiana, Becky Graham. Phyllis figured she had no shot. Then they called her name.

“I jumped out of my seat and said, ‘Holy s…!'” Ackerman recalled. “It was Aug. 10, 1974 … I’ll never forget it because it was my birthday.”

Thus, if not a star, at least an intriguing novelty, was born, one not without controversy. Again, it was 1974.

“I heard people who said, ‘What the hell does she know?’ or ‘Why isn’t she home taking care of the kids?'” Ackerman said.

Ackerman didn’t let the critics get to her. She was too busy having fun. Paired with the venerable Jerry Baker doing the play-byplay, she prepared and tried to impart her knowledge. Under the best of circumstances, it was a tough situation, and it lasted only a year. Tillman and Channel 4 then decided to return to the “traditional” approach.

Phyllis smiled through it all. Her 15 minutes of fame gave her a lifetime of memories.

“Hey, I got interviewed by WGN in Chicago and David Letterman here,” she said. “I made a little money and they paid all my expenses. Block’s (department store) gave me a new outfit for every game. My family had season tickets. And Bobby Leonard and the players couldn’t have been any nicer.

“I didn’t want to be a freak show … the midget coming to bat. I really thought I could add something to the telecasts, and I think I did. I’m glad I had the experience. When I look back, there are no negatives, no regrets.”

These days, Ackerman dotes on her three children and three grandchildren (husband Warren died three years ago) and works with youngsters at the Hall of Champions. She appreciates the opportunities today’s women have in sports broadcasting and wishes they would be assigned roles with more substance.

She doesn’t see herself as a trailblazer.

“No, it wasn’t a feminist thing,” Phyllis said, laughing. “What can I say? I won a contest.”

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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