At high schools across the United States, girls compete in the rough sports of rugby and water polo. Female wrestlers competing against boys in high school meets – and even state championships – are now a regular occurrence. Yet girls playing baseball at the high school level are still rare. The absence of girls and women from America’s baseball diamonds is not a matter of ability. Instead, as Jennifer Ring shows in her new book about members of the USA Baseball National Women’s Team, female ballplayers face strong cultural resistance and explicit opposition when they try to take the field.
“Baseball is war!” said Albert Spalding. He was referring to the game’s new identity as the “national pastime,” suitably masculine, a young man’s game for a young nation with ambition for power and global expansion. Spalding was emphatic about the game’s unsuitability for the nation’s women. “A woman may take part in the grandstand, with applause for the brilliant play, with waving kerchief to the hero… loyal partisan of the home team, with smiles of derision for the umpire when he gives us the worst of it…. But neither our wives, our sisters, our daughters, nor our sweethearts, may play Base Ball on the field…. Base Ball is too strenuous for womankind.”
Spalding’s description of baseball as war has always seemed far-fetched to me: a wish or a fantasy on the part of a baseball man who hopes that what he loves is the equivalent of history’s ultimate descriptor of masculinity. In spite of its record of exclusive masculinity, baseball seems much less warlike than, for example, American football. It’s not a contact sport, its goal is not primarily to penetrate and possess an opponent’s territory, and in spite of American passion for power, those purist fans who really know baseball will tell you stories of great moments that involve finesse, speed, artistry, and subtle deftness. The base runner who turns an infielder’s slightest hesitation into an opportunity to steal or score, the speedy outfielder who reaches over the fence to rob the slugger of his home run or lays out in a diving catch to prevent a run from scoring — they are as much admired as the ballplayers who display the strength and power to hit “bombs.” A squeeze bunt, the virtual opposite of the home run, is one of the most daring and exciting plays in the game.
Yet Spalding’s sentiments have been honored. In the United States, baseball has become so exclusively male that the picture of a girl playing baseball is confusing, calling for explanation. A girl with a bat in her hand swinging at a ball is perceived to be a softball player. Invisible to the public imagination are the generations of women, from the late eighteenth century, when baseball first arrived in the United States, to the U.S. national women’s baseball teams of the twenty-first century, who have refused to relinquish the nation’s diamonds. Women have played for nearly two centuries in the United States yet still are greeted with astonishment and disbelief, as though they are eternally the first girls ever to play baseball.
This attitude was exemplified by the media coverage of a baseball game in Van Nuys, California, on March 5, 2011. Marti Sementelli and Ghazaleh Sailors, two pitchers who had been teammates on the U.S. women’s national baseball team of 2010, were now in their senior seasons on the baseball teams at their high schools, Birmingham High of Van Nuys and San Marcos High of Santa Barbara. They were scheduled to be the starting pitchers in a game between their schools. For the first time in American history, two high school baseball teams played a game in which the starting pitchers were girls. It didn’t hurt that the game took place in media-obsessed Los Angeles, between two highly rated large urban schools. More than a thousand girls in the United States play high school baseball on “boys’ teams,” but the story would not have had such impact if it had been a game between two small-town schools.
The stands filled an hour before the game started at 11:00 a.m., and spectators stood when there were no longer seats available. Media trucks from ABC, NBC, and ESPN jammed the spacious parking lot adjacent to Birmingham High’s athletic fields. Prominent reporters from Southern California newspapers, including a nationally known sports columnist from the Los Angeles Times, and representatives from network news and online webcasts were busy interviewing parents, siblings, friends, and teammates before and during the game. After the game both pitchers were kept busy for over an hour, answering questions for reporters and television crews. Even the Birmingham junior varsity team, sitting in the bleachers waiting for the press to clear so they could play their game, were asked, “How do you feel about this? What’s it like to have a girl on the team? Is it okay?” They responded with positive grunts, well representing all fourteen-and fifteen-year-old American men: “Uh, yeah. Fine. She’s good. It’s history, man.” The reporter who asked the questions seemed oblivious to the fact that the girl on the pitcher’s mound was playing on a higher level than these boys. They aspired to play on varsity, as she was doing.
The questions put to Sementelli and Sailors seemed to me startlingly naive: “Isn’t the overhand throwing motion dangerous for a girl’s arm? That’s why they play softball, isn’t it?” “Do you think a girl will ever play college baseball?” “Do you think there will ever be a time when a woman can play in the Major Leagues?” “What does it feel like to strike out a boy?” “I noticed that you wear your hair tucked up under your hat. Isn’t that uncomfortable?” “Do you think this game will end prejudice against girls playing baseball?” The journalists asking these questions had just witnessed the girls playing successfully with and against boys’ teams but seemed incapable of believing their eyes. Marti Sementelli, pitching for Birmingham High, had gone the distance, giving up only one run and two hits. Ghazaleh Sailors, pitching for San Marcos High, had pitched superbly, opening the game with a three-up-three-down first inning and allowing only two runs off three hits in three and a half innings. After she came out of the game, the boy who relieved her surrendered the walks, hits, and runs that allowed Birmingham to break open the game.
Both girls pitched beautifully, but the attitude of the press with whom I sat was the same bewildered astonishment that characterized news stories about girls playing baseball in the early twentieth century and still dominates news coverage of girls who play baseball today. When I mentioned the existence of the U.S. Women’s National Team, to which both pitchers belonged, the seasoned sportswriters were caught by surprise. After a moment of silence, one asked, “Wait! There’s a women’s national baseball team?” When I asked why there was no American press coverage of the 2010 Women’s World Cup Tournament in Caracas, Venezuela, the reporters responded that they didn’t know about the tournament. I mentioned that the games had been attended by tens of thousands of Venezuelan fans and that the tournament had included an incident in which the shortstop from Team Hong Kong had suffered a gunshot to the leg while fielding her position in a game against the Netherlands. She underwent emergency surgery in Caracas, and the incident nearly ended the tournament, to which twelve nations’ teams had traveled. The sportswriters were unaware of both the international tournament and the violent incident that had nearly canceled it.
Shooting or not, a World Cup tournament in which the American national team competes is news that should be reported. The U.S. Women’s National Team has medaled in every World Cup tournament in which it has played, which includes gold medals in 2004 and 2006 and bronzes in 2008 and 2010. Not knowing about or acknowledging their existence amounts to an American media blackout. Media from the eleven other nations were present and attentive in 2010, as they had been in previous women’s World Cup baseball tournaments. Yet the American journalists to whom I addressed the questions merely shrugged and remarked that they hadn’t heard about it. One asked, “Was the player all right? I mean . . . did she die?” Another observed, “Venezuela is a violent country.” The reporters and I were engaged in the sort of slow-paced conversation that occurs in the bleachers at a baseball game. Our eyes were focused on the field as we watched a pick-off play, a long fly ball that was caught, a strikeout, and our discussion was interspersed with admiring remarks about the play. After a routine grounder had been fielded, I said, “No, she didn’t die. She had emergency surgery, and her team withdrew from the tournament to accompany her home.” Another pause in the conversation to observe the fate of a pop foul and I answered the other reporter: “Sure, Venezuela is a violent place, but still, you don’t expect a baseball player to have to deal with getting shot while playing. And you shouldn’t have to get shot to get noticed by the American media.” A brief pause to watch a throw to first, and the reporter responded, “You’re right. You don’t usually have to worry about being shot while playing baseball.”
I was describing a highly dramatic international baseball tournament that had been entirely overlooked by the American media. The shooting incident, it turned out, had nothing to do with the fact that the event was a women’s baseball tournament. But if this had been the men’s U.S. national baseball team playing in Venezuela and dodging bullets while on the field, it would have sparked outrage and been the lead story on every media outlet in the nation. If the headline had been “Bullet Narrowly Misses Derek Jeter during World Baseball Classic in Venezuela,” the response of the press would not have been to explain it by noting, “Venezuela is a violent country.”. . .
I was caught up in the excitement at Birmingham High, happily witnessing the event and the attention it garnered, but I was also amazed that it was such big news. I have written a book on the history of the exclusion of American girls and women from organized baseball [Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball (University of Illinois Press, 2009)] that begins with the story of the resistance my younger daughter faced when she wanted to continue playing baseball beyond Little League. It was legal for her to play Little League in the 1990s, but the cultural barriers she faced weren’t very different from those I had faced when I had wanted to play baseball as a girl in the pre–Title IX era. When my daughter was twelve years old, the age limit for Little League, she was expected to give up the sport she loved and switch to softball. She was pressured to change games “for her own good,” with the counterintuitive argument that she was so good at baseball she shouldn’t squander her talent on a sport in which she had no future. She could expect to earn a college scholarship if she played softball. There is no college baseball for women, so what was the point of continuing to play the sport? The rationale occasionally took the form of astonishing responses to her finest moments on the baseball diamond: the better she played baseball, the more forcefully she was urged to play softball by “concerned” parents, umpires who voiced their opinion to her in the middle of games, and coaches at the local high school.
My daughter refused to give up the game she loved. Her baseball journey took her from Little League, through high school and college baseball, to the virtually unknown USA Baseball Women’s National Team. Her story has attracted more attention than any other aspect of Stolen Bases, even though it is only the prologue. The ten chapters that make up the scholarly core of my previous book trace the history of women and baseball from fourteenth-century England, through the nineteenth-century American college and barnstorming teams, to the lawsuits in the 1970s to allow girls to play in Little League, to the continuing and current exclusion of girls from high school and college baseball in the United States. But the story of one girl playing baseball on a high school team, and later on a college team, is what surprised readers and became the focus of attention.
The appeal of stories of American girls and women who play baseball in Little League, high school, and (very rarely) college became especially apparent to me at a 2009 book signing at a women’s baseball tournament in Washington, DC. Players approached me tearfully and thanked me for writing the book, claiming that I had told their story. I had not. Their struggles resembled my daughter’s, but each one also had a unique tale. When told together, they add up to systematic and disturbing discrimination. The women who have achieved recognition at the highest level of their game tell stories of persistence, fortitude, and heart and are true to themselves, even in the face of public neglect and derision. The stories are worthy of sheer celebration in their own right. But they also share themes that provide theoretical coherence to the struggle of half the population to gain access to the “national pastime.”
Adapted from A Game of Their Own: Voices of Contemporary Women in Baseball by Jennifer Ring, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2015 by Jennifer Ring. Available wherever books are sold or from the University of Nebraska Press.
Jennifer Ring is professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno.