For two weeks this past August, sports media in the U.S. was dominated by a 13-year-old girl named Mo’ne Davis, the star pitcher for a Philadelphia team in the Little League World Series. To get a better sense of the phenomenon of Mo’ne and the place of girls in baseball, we talked with political scientist Jennifer Ring, author of Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball.

 

(Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated)

(Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated)

 

Much of the press coverage of Mo’ne Davis has cast her as extraordinary – a rare girl playing baseball who is at the same time a pitching prodigy, able to throw the ball 70 mph. How extraordinary is this 13-year-old girl playing baseball?

As remarkable a baseball player as Mo’ne Davis is, she is not as “exceptional” as she seems. Yes, it takes an exceptional girl to choose to play with boys, and then to become one of the best players on her team. But she is not alone. Since 1973, when a series of lawsuits made it illegal to exclude girls, many girls have played Little League baseball, although they remain a distinct minority. Usually there is only one girl on a team, sometimes even only one in a local league.

What is really exceptional is for a girl to continue to play baseball at the levels above Little League – so beyond ages 12-13. There are usually about 1200 girls playing high school baseball on boys’ teams at any given time in the U.S. Again, a distinct minority, but persistent, given the skepticism and discouragement they face.

Mo’ne Davis is a terrific athlete, obviously. But there have been other girls in baseball who have also been successful. What is not exceptional is that every time a girl stands out as a baseball player, the American public acts as though it has never happened before. Erasing the history of girls in baseball makes each one seem like a fluke, a prodigy, an exception. Because nobody remembers those other ballplayers, Mo’ne seems to be a complete exception, and nobody believes she can continue to develop as a baseball player.

The press coverage of Mo’ne has been ecstatic. Most notably, she was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and featured in a five-page spread of photographs. Yet while people are overwhelmingly supportive of this one girl in the Little League World Series, you find that – even today – people are not always supportive about girls playing on local teams.

At the Little League level, people tend to be pretty supportive of a girl on the team. They certainly appreciate her if she’s a standout with a winning personality, like Mo’ne. It’s after Little League that the resistance sets in.

The players on the U.S. women’s national team who played high school baseball invariably reported warm acceptance from the boys on their teams, and from their coaches. There was occasional grousing or silence from some individual boys, but eventually all the boys warmed up to their presence, once they saw they could play ball and weren’t there just to “make a statement.” Several of the women referred to their teammates as their “brothers.”

It was the boys’ parents who resented their presence, but often the girls didn’t experience that directly. A very few girls experienced real abuse from adults, often parents at their school. In one extreme case, parents yelled insults from the bleachers and threw rocks!

By parents, do you mean fathers, or both fathers and mothers?

From my personal experience with my daughter Lilly, who played high school baseball, many mothers were so excited that she was playing and wanted their daughters to see her. Several fathers felt that way, too. On the other hand, it seemed to be fathers who complained to coaches about her playing.

One day, my daughter was followed to the team bus by the mother of an opposing player, whose son had struck out against my daughter. The mother was incredulous – as though she had to talk to the girl who had “humiliated” her son. But she wasn’t threatening. One father did come up to my husband and told him: “No girl will ever play high school baseball as long as I’m in this town!” But many of the fathers were affectionate, encouraging and supportive of Lilly.

The sons didn’t seem to mind that there was a girl on their team. The boy whom Lilly struck out definitely minded. He asked to be put in the lineup to face her the next time she pitched. She struck him out again.

If I remember correctly, the mother who told me about the rock-throwing incident said that it had been some boy’s mother who threw the rock and yelled some obscenity at her daughter. That story’s so amazing it almost makes me laugh each time I think of it.

Is there something about baseball that brings out this kind of anger?

I think there is something threatening about girls “intruding” on a sport that has been historically associated with American boyhood and manhood. It has to be a fear of changing some exclusive all-male dynamic. Maybe masculinity is pretty fragile: if your “manhood” can’t survive a girl striking you out, how powerful can American manhood be? I’m at a loss to explain it.

Over 34,000 fans were in attendance for one of Mo’ne’s games at the Little League World Series. It’s probably the case that most of those fans don’t even know that there is organized women’s baseball, and that the U.S. national team played in Japan last week in the Women’s Baseball World Cup. With all of the attention that Mo’ne received, have you stopped to think why there is so little media coverage of women’s baseball?

As one veteran member of Team USA said to me, unforgettably, “Nobody even knows we exist. I don’t think they WANT to know we exist.” If there was public awareness of the fact that there IS a U.S. national women’s baseball team that competes successfully in international tournaments, maybe people would have to stop denying that women can and do play baseball. And then what would happen? Denial is always hard to let go of.

Are you hopeful that all of the attention around this one 13-year-old girl playing baseball might bring some attention to women in the sport? Or do you remain skeptical?

Both. I think Mo’ne Davis is a terrifically positive thing for girls’ and women’s baseball in almost every way. That she’s so visible, and that she has been treated respectfully and affectionately by the American sports media is really something new and welcome. I salute Sports Illustrated for putting her on the cover. Little girls all over the U.S. have been able to see her splashed all over the media, and I’ll bet that will draw a lot of girls into Little League baseball. I also think it’s important that she’s African American and can serve as a model to all girls. That’s what women’s baseball needs as its base: we need girls of all backgrounds to know that they can choose to play baseball. Some of those future Little League girls who are emboldened by Mo’ne will not want to switch to softball. They will either continue to play with boys as they grow into their teens, or maybe there can be competitive leagues established for them from age 12 and up, like Canada and Australia already have. Then maybe we can see high school girls’ baseball teams, and ultimately women’s collegiate baseball.

Women’s baseball needs a critical mass, and the more girls that insist that they want to play the game, the better it will be in the long run for women’s baseball. I’m hopeful about that.

My skepticism is that, as I said in response to your earlier question, Mo’ne is not the first 13-year-old girl to excel at baseball. Every time it has happened before, it has been turned into an “exception” rather than the rule. The American public needs to acknowledge that if girls are encouraged to play baseball, then girls will excel at it, just as boys who have encouragement excel at it. I don’t think that one girl pitcher who gains some celebrity will change the nay-sayers who have been crowding the internet with predictions that she can’t succeed at baseball as she gets older. But I think the attention and admiration she has garnered will help move us closer to having a national pastime that is truly national: for all Americans.

 

Jennifer Ring is professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is author of Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball (University of Illinois Press, 2009) and A Game of Their Own: Voices of Contemporary Women in Baseball, forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press.