June 7, 2009
Prospectus Idol Entry
Yeah, That Girl Can Play
Back in 2003, just after Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi had cut over 20 million from Toronto's payroll and was still managing to moneyball his way to an 86 win season, some members of the Toronto press foolishly accused him of racism. The accusations, which concerned the racial make-up of the team, were so crudely conceived and without basis in reality that they are not worth going into here, but, ironically, Riccardi was so concerned with finding undervalued players at the time that he'd have surely gone after a certain race if those players were devalued simply because of their skin color. In other words, he'd have loved nothing better than to pick up all the best Negro League players in 1940.
Still, there is a whole group of people that have been ignored by Riccardi and everyone else making decisions in the game. Thousands of players play underneath MLB's umbrella every year and not one of them has ever been a woman. While the debate goes on about whether women are qualified to compete alongside men, we will probably never find out as long as women are offered so little opportunity to play competitive baseball.
There was a time when Major League Baseball at least recognized female players. Back in 1943, Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley began the All-American Girls Softball League, which soon became the All-American Girls Baseball League (made famous in the film A League of Their Own). The AAGBL enjoyed some success, but never really took the playability of females seriously. At first, the league even subjected them to charm school classes where they learned such valuable baseball lessons as how to remain inconspicuous in public and how to keep their hair neat while on the field. Later, the league dropped charm school but it was certainly a little more concerned with Betty Booping it rather than intense preparation for a possible move to the majors.
Still, once these women played in front of crowds, they gained David Eckstein-like reputations for their work ethic and many people believed some of the women could play baseball on par with their tobacco-spitting counterparts. The league is the first evidence of the two baseball skills that women most often exhibit: pitching and speed. In fact, it quickly became clear that some of them performed these skills at a level far beyond their peers. Sophie Kurys, for example, seemed to master the art of teleportation: she had a season in which she stole 201 bases in 203 attempts. Nevertheless, Kurys and her teammates were never invited to so much as try out for the majors. Major League Baseball was a boy's club and they would not allow girls in their tree house.
Around the same time, a few women actually did play professional baseball with men in the Negro leagues. These women may not have been good enough to scramble with the guys in the majors, but they demonstrated that while some black women were good enough to play professional baseball, they could only do so as second-class players much like the black men. In other words, no one was rolling out the red carpet for women to play in white or mixed leagues regardless of their race or deftness for tossing around the horsehide.
In the fifty years since the AAGBL and the Negro leagues, women who want to play baseball have had as many options as Manny Ramirez and Pat Burrell have positions they're qualified to play: one and they can't play it the way they'd like to. Young girls often play baseball in Little League, but by high school they are usually forced down the softball path that rolls right into college. While some of the blame goes to MLB for continuing its all-male tradition, they would have to convert softball players to hardball because of the limited opportunities high schools and colleges afford to females who want to play baseball.
That is not to say that the conversion to baseball can't be a success. Take, for example, the Colorado Silver Bullets-a group of female softball players in the 90's who converted to playing baseball. They formed a team but didn't have a league in which they could play. So what did they do? They went barnstorming across the country, playing games against amateur and independent league men's teams. UCLA head softball coach Kelly Inouye-Perez trained with the team, and though she left the team for her current position before they went on tour, she kept up with the team and spoke to me about their transition from softball to baseball: "Hitting is the same. It's a skill and there are more ways to win than just hitting home runs. There were girls who could pitch and had some nasty stuff. Fielding is the same and all trained for the longer throws." While Inouye-Perez didn't imagine the team to be better than the men they played, they were still competitive and won some of their games. She said of women who play men, "Yes they can compete. Boys versus girls? Maybe not consistently beat them but there are girls that can flat out play either softball or baseball."
Unfortunately, the Silver Bullets don't play anymore, but once again, their existence puts a fine point on the idea that women don't have many opportunities in hardball: they didn't have a league to join, they were almost all softball players who had to convert, and they had to tour and schedule one-time exhibition games against all-men's teams. If more women played, they would have been in a much different situation.
More recently, some women have played collegiate baseball. Ila Borders, for instance, was the first woman to ever start an NCAA men's game when she did so in 1997. Certainly, the boy's team is uninviting to the girl who wants to play, but here again, there is a specific reason why women don't usually compete against college men even in the most inviting of circumstances. The best female high school players can usually get scholarships for softball but not for baseball, even if they managed to play baseball at their high schools. While it makes sense that a university would want them in the sport where they can be more successful, it is one more reason that women are pulled away from baseball at a young age.
While some women like Borders and Missy Coombes (one of the Silver Bullets) broke through to play on independent league men's teams, it is important to remember that for every one of them, there are hundreds of great softball players who never try and make the jump to men's baseball.
That does not mean that they are without significant achievements on the field, however. Take Katie Burkhart who was this year's number one draft pick in the National Pro Fastpitch, a professional softball league. While at Arizona State University in 2007, Burkhart struck out an amazing 517 batters in one season in what was only her junior year before going on to pro softball.
How does a number like 517 convert to success in minor or major league baseball? That is an answer I can't honestly give. Conversion statistics are based on actual conversions. For example, we project how Japanese players would do in the majors based on other players who made the jump. Because women have so little opportunity to do so, there is no way to know whether that equals success against professional men. It's even unclear whether an underhanded pitch would be legal in the majors-though Chad Bradford is permitted to dig up a scoop of dirt during many of his pitches-or whether softball pitchers are biomechanically suited to have a correspondingly successful overhand pitch. Until more women have opportunities, we won't know the answers to these questions.
All that's left is for us to dream whether women will ever compete alongside men at the highest levels of professional baseball. While it may seem hard to believe that women will ever hit bombs out of the park with the ease of someone like Ryan Howard, is it so hard to believe that some of the faster women could have a skill set similar to Juan Pierre or Scott Podsednik? The first female player could even be the breaking ball pitcher that baseball historian and filmmaker Ken Burns has suggested in interviews.
Either way, it seems not only possible but likely that the best female player in the world is better than the worst male minor league player and the reason she's not out there is because she hasn't been provided with the opportunity.
Maybe some ambitious GM will be the first to break the unspoken rule: "No girls allowed." Even unqualified men-and suspect entertainers-like Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks have been invited to camp, but never a woman. The first GM to try it, to discover it, will not only be the first to tap this possible hidden resource, but he will also have a significant footnote in this late addition to the women's rights movement. And then we will have the true people's game that baseball was always intended to be.