She’s short. Short short. Mary Alice Gausman stands only 4-foot-8. It’s half the reason Perry Thacker, her supervisor at the Reds Hall of Fame, dubbed her the “Four-Foot-Nothing Barracuda.” The other half, according to Thacker, is in homage to someone who “will get it done”—and the “it” refers to just about anything.
I’ve met Gausman several times before—she’s an old friend of my husband’s grandmother—but her stature is still a shock when she swings open the door of her home in Lebanon, Ohio, and ushers me into her memorabilia-plastered Reds Room, the suburban Airbnb of Mr. Redlegs’s dreams: the twin bed is layered with a trio of baseball-themed quilts, bobbleheads line the floating shelves, and on every wall hangs photo after photo of Gausman grinning next to Reds players of yesteryear. In one frame, there’s a collage of her paired with various members of the Big Red Machine, many of whom Gausman has come to consider her big brothers. There’s also a 1970 photograph of her with manager Sparky Anderson, and framed side-by-side shots of her attending the last game at Crosley Field and the first at Riverfront Stadium. She’s been collecting all of it over the past 56 years. There’s plenty more in storage.
I’m far from the first guest to receive the grand tour. A few years ago, a friend of Gausman’s who bowls with Barry Larkin’s mother, Shirley, told her about Gausman’s collection. When Mrs. Larkin came by for lunch and a visit, she was stunned.
“I’ve never met a fan who had a room like Mary Alice’s,” says Larkin. “It’s just unbelievable to me. I like baseball, but I don’t like it that much.”
Gausman has liked it for most of her 75 years. It’s how she ended up in Cincinnati. In the coal mining community where she grew up—in Boone County, West Virginia—the Reds television broadcasts didn’t reach her house, but she could pick up the games on WLW. From the first time she tuned in, she was hooked. At 18, after graduating high school and spending a year at business college, her father dropped her off in Charleston, West Virginia, to board a train for the Queen City. Her arrival was pure TV-pilot exposition montage: She disembarked at Union Terminal and took a taxi to her rented room in Reading. A block away from the address, she spied a sign in the window of Time Loan Company that read, “Clerical Help Wanted.” She dropped her suitcase at the house, then doubled back to apply for the job. They hired her on the spot.
The next day, she took a bus to Crosley Field for her first Reds game and was immediately transfixed. The girl from coal country had never seen a structure so large. She can no longer remember who the team played that spring day in 1960, or even if they won, but she remembers how she felt.
“To see the players live that I’d listened to on the radio—I was so in awe of it all,” she says. “I thought, I’m never leaving this.” After the game, she made plans to head back to West Virginia and collect the rest of her clothes. She was staying.
Gausman was the youngest of four and the first child to leave the family fold, though she doubts her parents were surprised by that decision. “I love adventure—it’s in my blood,” she says. “I don’t remember feeling scared. I just felt like I was home.”
She attended as many Reds games as she could with the money left over after rent and groceries. When the Rosie Reds fan club was formed in 1964 to lobby against rumors that owner Bill DeWitt might move the franchise from Cincinnati, Gausman joined. Her volunteer hours paid off a few years later when the 1970 Big Red Machine made it to the World Series. As a Rosie Reds member, Gausman could order up to 100 tickets to each game. Her boss at Diebold, where she worked at the time, used the access to impress his business associates: Gausman would order 100 tickets, the company would foot the bill, and Gausman—along with the company’s most loyal clients—had a seat at every home playoff and World Series tilt.
The seats have improved over the years. Nowadays, the same players Gausman watched as a young woman are her charges in the Reds Hall of Fame hospitality suite during inductions and reunion ceremonies. She still has her favorites based solely on their on-field skills—Barry Larkin and Sean Casey top that list—but after six years volunteering for the Hall of Fame, she’s gotten to know a few of the fellas personally, including George Foster and Tommy Helms. Some of them playfully tease her about her height, though she never fails to dish it right back. “I always remind them that I am six-foot-four on the inside and that’s all they need to know,” she says.
She has a reputation to uphold, after all. The first time she ever helped out at the Hall of Fame, she was assigned to stand outside the stadium and promote the miniature Reds bats that came free with a ticket to the museum.
“All of a sudden, I see two police officers coming towards me, very serious,” remembers Gausman. “I have a sense of humor that I shouldn’t always show. I held up both hands and I said, ‘Don’t shoot!’ ”
“What are you doing?” one of the officers asked.
“I’m showing this lovely commemorative baseball bat, and it could be yours if you purchase a ticket to the Hall of Fame today,” she replied.
The officer leaned into his radio. “She’s with the Reds,” he said.
Before they walked away, Gausman asked what was going on. One of the officers told her someone had called security about a woman on the terrace waving a baseball bat around.
“That was my first time volunteering, and I almost got arrested,” she chuckles. “Nothing scares me. Nothing.”
Aside from her deep love for the Reds and short stature, those close to Gausman know her to be an adventure-seeker. Words like determined and dare-devil are regularly employed. (Example: She’s come across four wild bears in her far-from-humdrum life, once while riding a moped for the first time. Timing is everything.) Pam Saylor, a friend of Gausman’s for over four decades, relocated to Florida about 15 years ago, but the two still make the pilgrimage to one another’s homes at least once a year; when the Reds used to hold spring training in Sarasota, Gausman would time her visits so she and Saylor could take in a few games. They always make sure to pack the itinerary with plenty of non-baseball activities as well—ziplining and hot air ballooning the past few years. Gausman has long dreamed of going skydiving, too.
“We actually talked about that as a family before we settled our mind on allowing her to do it if she wanted to,” says Tom, Gausman’s husband of 41 years. But by the time he and Gausman’s two adult sons had given their blessing, the doctor called it off: Gausman has arthritis, and it wouldn’t be safe. “He said I would implode on landing,” she says.
She wasn’t always so bold. A year after moving to Cincinnati at 18, she married for the first time. Things were happy for three-and-a-half years—before her husband started drinking. With the drinking came abuse. It was bad enough that it could be heard through the walls; a neighbor called the police one night when Gausman’s husband tried to break down the door.
She filed for a restraining order, but after a night in jail, he was back on the street. Two weeks later, he showed up at her office with a gun. He was there to kill her, he said, but first held her hostage for two hours. At some point Gausman’s phone rang. The babysitter was on the other end, asking about a dry cleaner across the street.
“No, sir, he’s not in,” said Gausman, coolly.
“Is there something wrong?” asked the babysitter, at home watching Gausman’s two young boys.
“Yes,” she said.
The babysitter called the police. Minutes later, an officer arrived. Gausman’s husband started shooting, the police officer fired back, and her husband died on the floor in front of her. The next morning, The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a front-page story under the headline, “Man Killed In Duel; Policeman Shot, Too.”
Traumatizing as it was, Gausman had to reckon with this haunting tragedy as an individual and a mother. She was afforded little room to process all of it, forced instead to stabilize things for herself and her two sons as quickly as possible, all while supporting the three of them on $48 a week.
“As children, we weren’t aware of all she was going through and had gone through. Our days were normal,” says Gausman’s oldest son Tim. “She’s told me that many nights she cried herself to sleep, yet I don’t ever remember seeing her break down.”
Tim does remember wanting a bicycle for Christmas that year. Somehow, Gausman saved up for it, enlisting the help of a neighbor to put it together for him on Christmas Eve. To this day, it remains his favorite Christmas. “I can still picture the apartment we lived in, walking down that little hallway and seeing that bike there,” he says. “I just thought I was the luckiest kid on the planet.”
She managed to hide her pain and distress from the boys, but for months Gausman lived in constant fear. “I spent the next year driving and looking through the rearview mirror to see who was following me,” she says. “But I wouldn’t change any of it. Had I not gone through that, I would not have known that I could be brave. I wouldn’t know that I could overcome all these obstacles.”
Gausman lived in Cincinnati for seven years before she attended her first Opening Day. It always fell on Monday, so she always had to work.
“I was taught work ethic,” she says. “You go to work on Mondays; you don’t go to a ballgame.”
One year, a coworker—well aware of her fandom—asked why she didn’t just take a vacation day.
“I said, ‘You can take one vacation day?’” she recalls, mock-incredulously. “That year, I went to Opening Day. And I went to every one ever since.”
That was 1967. Last April, she attended her 50th consecutive Cincinnati Reds Opening Day game. She had hoped to throw out the first pitch to mark the occasion—with skydiving off the table, taking the mound for the Reds on Opening Day is at the top of her bucket list—but when the team brought in former manager Lou Piniella for the honor, Gausman knew she couldn’t compete.
Regardless, the significance of the streak isn’t lost on her. It nearly came to an end in 2014, when she suffered a minor stroke the day before the opener. The morning of the game, after a night of hospital tests, Gausman told the nurse she had somewhere to be at 2 p.m. The nurses informed Gausman they weren’t sure she’d be released at all that day, that there were still tests to be done. She kindly requested they pick up the pace.
“Those nurses brought a wheelchair up and they took me from test to test to test, instead of me waiting my turn,” says Gausman. “We were through about 12 o’clock.”
The doctor came in with the test results shortly after and told Gausman that though they looked good, she couldn’t release her until the neurologist gave the OK. Gausman warned her: The neurologist has 20 minutes, then I’m leaving. The doctor reappeared moments later, having discovered that the neurologist wasn’t working that day.
“I said, ‘Well that takes care of that. I can’t see somebody who’s not here, so give me my discharge papers and his phone number and I’ll call him tomorrow,’ ” says Gausman.
She made it to the game before the first pitch.
“When I saw her, I just shook my head,” says fellow Hall of Fame volunteer Dee Taylor. “I thought, I cannot believe she did it. Then the light bulb came on and I thought, Doesn’t surprise me.”
The next year—number 49—she was in the stands at Great American Ball Park, cheering on the Redlegs with her arm in a sling after dislocating her shoulder.
Last year, fortunately, was less dramatic, more celebratory. News cameras came out to her house to tour her famous Reds Room, and on game day she wore a shirt with the phrase “My 50th Consecutive Opening Day Game” embroidered on the back. Walking to the stadium, numerous people asked, “Is it true?” then followed up by asking for her autograph.
On April 3, the Baseball Gods willing, the Four-Foot-Nothing Barracuda will extend her streak to 51. She continues to turn her hours (and zingers) logged at the Hall of Fame into game day tickets and Reds Room ephemera. And she hasn’t given up on her dream of someday throwing out the first pitch.
It could happen. She’s beaten taller odds before.