The push to create more opportunities for girls and young women in baseball has come with a curious, and troubling corollary: The dismissal of a sport that in the United States has been at the forefront of women’s sports for decades.
If a ludicrous story published this week in The Washington Post is to be taken seriously (and it should not be), it is now considered an act of proud defiance for young girls to eschew softball for baseball, seemingly as part of a more strident effort to crack the glass diamond.
In an otherwise understandable campaign to champion “Baseball for All,” softball has been relegated to something approaching separate but equal status.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also In This Issue: 25 Years Of The English Premier League; John Thorn’s Top 5 Baseball Books; An Aussie Rugby Grand Final for the Ages; Remembering Don Baylor, Darren Daulton and Betty Cuthbert
But softball for females in America, as fleshed out in Erica Westly’s fine 2016 book “Fastpitch,” has a richer and more enduring history, and deserves better from gender equity proponents.
Westly tells the story of star pitcher Bertha Tickey and the dynastic Raybestos Brakettes, a Connecticut-based women’s semipro team that produced other softball Hall of Famers, including pitcher Joan Joyce, who once struck out Ted Williams in an exhibition and played on the LPGA tour.
Before Title IX, the Brakettes pulled in big crowds, won many national tournaments and landed their stars, including Tickey, on national TV (she was once a guest on the game show “I’ve Got a Secret,” with host Steve Allen.)
While women physical educators at U.S. high schools and universities resisted varsity competition for female students through the 1960s, the Brakettes and their rivals were unwitting forerunners, as Westly writes:
“Softball gave female athletes an open window in a room full of closed doors. It was the main reason so many women played fastpitch in the United States in the sixties and why no shortage of them was likely anytime soon.”
It’s a shame none of this has been picked up in the many women in baseball pieces that have been proliferating in recent years. Instead, Jennifer Ring’s 2009 book “Stolen Bases: Why American Women Don’t Play Baseball,” has spawned a misleading narrative: Females have been systematically “steered” into softball, with the presumption that they’d all rather play baseball.
Among the more historically dubious assertions from Ring is this one:
“Softball was handed to American girls when American middle-class men stole baseball.”
The author of a similar diatribe argued that that because of sexism in baseball, women have been “relegated to marginalized sports such as softball.” But these women’s baseball advocates are doing the marginalizing.
While I don’t dispute the travails of females wishing to play baseball, the notion that hundreds of thousands of girls and young women are sheepishly competing in a supposedly inferior sport that they would willingly drop for baseball is as insulting as it is inaccurate.
Writing in The New York Times in 2014, under the absurd headline “Is Softball Sexist?,” this is also what baseball writer Emma Span suggests:
“Yes, Division I softball is demanding, far from the beery fun of middle-aged weekend leagues. But the women’s version of baseball is not softball. It’s baseball.”
Since Mo’ne Davis turned the Little League World Series on its head a few years ago, this narrative has ramped up (and also in podcast form). No story of this type is complete with the following sentiment, uttered by one idealized, cleated trailblazer:
“I like beating the boys. I like shoving it in their face when they say, ‘Girls can’t play baseball. Then we come out and pitch a no-hitter against them, and they’re like, ‘What?’ “
Softball, with its smaller field, shorter distance between the bases and underhanded pitching motion, just is too ordinary, too designed for feminine builds, for the glass-crackers to embrace. In their minds, anything that is so different can never be seen as equal. Never mind the increasingly healthy TV ratings for the College Women’s World Series, and the fact that a former U.S. Olympic softball star, Jessica Mendoza, is an ESPN baseball analyst.
I envy the fact that girls get to play fastpitch today (it was only slow-pitch in my pre-Title IX childhood), and compete for full-ride college scholarships. A summer travel program and high school in my Atlanta suburban community nurtured Kelly Barnhill, the national college player of the year at the University of Florida and the winner of an ESPY award. My late stepfather, an ardent SEC football fan, loved watching women’s college softball in the springs, reminded of the adult softball he played as a young man, a sport that both genders have enjoyed for more than 100 years.
But the Jessica Mendozas and Kelly Barnhills are inconvenient to the active storyline. Like the girls who want to play tackle football, or wrestle, or box, girls who want to play baseball, and who are being somehow denied by the thousands, must be hoisted as causes célèbre.
As Justine Siegal, the Baseball for All creator and the first female coach in the majors, has said:
“We have this cultural myth that baseball is for boys and softball is for girls.”
I’m trying to be sympathetic, but surely there is a way to elevate baseball for females without denigrating softball, which I think Siegal is doing, perhaps without intending it.
Years ago I wrote a few newspaper stories about the Colorado Silver Bullets, a barnstorming women’s baseball team that played from 1994-97. They were the brainchild of Bob Hope, a former PR man for the Atlanta Braves, and at the behest of knuckleballer Phil Niekro (Hope later became a board member of the Women’s Sports Foundation).
Perhaps the Silver Bullets were ahead of their time (they ceased operations when losing their Coors sponsorship), but in the historically illiterate times of today, neither do they rate much of a mention in current media treatment of the sport.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the making of the Hollywood film “A League of Their Own,” and mainstream media myopia has played into current activism. I loved the movie, and the inspiring story of women in another era who got to live out their dreams, if only for a short period of time. My mother, who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, and who could never have contemplated the present sports landscape for women, loved the movie too, and not long ago we enjoyed watching it together.
For what it’s worth, in her book Westly calls the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League a “gimmick” but she doesn’t mean it with disdain. Her more historically faithful tales in “Fastpitch” ought to be more instructive now.
Yes, many girls are told they shouldn’t play baseball. They shold be encouraged and supported, just like girls of my youth were as Title IX turned their dreams into lasting realities.
But to disparage or offer unfavorable comparisons to a sport that so many females are thriving at playing all across America (nearly 400,000 alone at the high school level) does nothing to help the cause of women’s baseball.
When English Soccer Went Global
It’s been 25 years since the English Football Association created the Premier League, peeling off the cream of the old English First Division into a phenomenal financial success with popular global appeal.
The new season of the “Prem” kicked off this weekend, illustrating how much more stratified the elite clubs, indeed some of the richest clubs in the world in any sport, have become. Leicester City’s stunning championship run two seasons ago is more than just an anomaly in the annals of the EPL; the Foxes fell back to earth in a 12th-place finish last season.
Manchester United has won the EPL title more than half the time (13 titles in all, but none since 2013), followed by Chelsea (5), Arsenal (3), Manchester City (2) and Blackburn Rovers (1). This raises a familiar question that the likes of the curmudgeonly journalist Brian Glanville have been answering almost from the start: “Twenty five years on, it’s still the Greed is Good League:”
“In the ensuing years, the huge money from television hasn’t prevented the leading clubs vastly increasing their admission charges, so that a game which was largely attended by the working classes has become increasingly a bourgeois affair. And fewer and fewer British players, just some 30 per cent, now figure in the Premiership, though there is a largely meaningless small quota of British players to be implemented.”
It’s been enough for a turned-off Manchester United fan to write a book about his disenchantments. While fan “antidotes” are not uncommon during a time of unprecedented exposure, as well as skyrocketing ticket prices to prove loyalty, there are some deeper issues at work that may test the Premier League’s longevity.
Sociologist and author David Goldblatt’s 2014 book “The Game of Our Lives” explores the EPL in the context of larger social, political and cultural issues in post-Thatcher Britain, and offers a grim assessment, especially the widening gap between big and small clubs.
These are not new assertions, as the excellent When Saturday Comes fanzine has been detailing all through the EPL age. But they’re worth keeping in mind as the league becomes ever more popular, stylish and expensive.
A Few Good Reads
At the Five Books site, official baseball historian John Thorn identifies his Top 5 baseball books. His criteria hinges on the craftsmanship of storytelling as much as stellar historical research, and one of the titles on his list remained deeply influential as he decided to forget about Cornell graduate school and preparations for a traditional scholarly life:
“It helped convince me that having left a doctoral programme in English Literature, in which I was writing a thesis on a 17th-century metaphysical poet named George Herbert, that it might not be such a steep fall into disgrace to go from that to being a baseball writer.”
- From The New Yorker, “The Ephemeral Perfection of the Immaculate Inning,” featuring Red Sox pitcher Rick Portello, who recently turned in the eighth 9-pitch inning (all strikes) this season;
- From FiveThirtyEight, how even the best hurlers—including Clayton Kershaw—have hot and cold streaks with their fastball velocity readings;
- Mark McGwire is enjoying a second career in baseball as a coach with the Padres, and says he hasn’t ruled out managing: “Wherever this takes me, I don’t know;”
- From the Smithsonian magazine, the enduring joys of “The Compleat Angler,” first published in 1594 and that continues to inspire generations of fishermen and women for the same reasons that prompted Izaak Walton to write about it in the first place.
Sports Book News
- In 1969, the South Sydney Rabbitohs and Balmain Tigers met in the Australian Rugby League Grand Final. The distinguished journalist, author and sports historian Ian Heads has just published “The Great Grand Final Heist” (Stoke Hill Press), detailing one of the biggest upsets in the history of the event (excerpt; author podcasts here and here);
- In October, longtime Sports Illustrated basketball writer Jack McCallum will publish “Golden Days,” linking the Jerry West Lakers and and the Steph Curry Warriors as California-based, high-octane championship clubs that revolutionized the NBA.
- Tracy Ringolsby on former National League MVP Don Baylor, 68, whose death this week from multiple myeloma brought him to tears; Baylor played, coached and managed in many places, but from his hometown of Austin, Texas, American-Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls traced the roots of a man who exuded toughness in a quiet, dignified way;
- Darren Daulton, 55, was an off-beat baseball character who bravely fought brain cancer in his final years; lost amid his zany metaphysical and astral travel departures was his key role for the 1993 Phillies National League championship team, and its “impact on Philadelphia’s sports consciousness;”
- Betty Cuthbert, 79, was dubbed “the Golden Girl” after winning three gold medals in track and field at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics as an Australian teenager, then followed it up with another gold in Tokyo in 1964. Her post-sporting life was as quiet as her upbringing, but she didn’t shy away from being a public advocate in the battle against the multiple sclerosis that afflicted her for nearly a half-century and eventually claimed her. When the fiercely independent Cuthbert could no longer care for herself, she was looked after for 26 years by Rhonda Gillam, before moving into a nursing home. Said Ron Clarke, an Australian former middle distance runner, of Gillam’s spiritually-motivated devotion to Cuthbert:
“When you get the call, you get the call. You have no idea what Rhonda’s done. She took her in, her and her husband, and they looked after her. Phenomenal. Had it not been for Rhonda, I don’t know what would have happened to her after that.”
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The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 92, published Aug. 13, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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