Baseball has always had an ambivalent relationship with its female audience, often assuming they had to be catered to or patronized to stoke their interest in the game. For those marketing the game, it often seems as if the idealized image of the distaff fan is not the modern woman, whose adherence to received, stereotypical notions of gender roles erodes by the day, but Ruth Ann Steinhagen, the schizophrenic who, obsessed with Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus, lured him into a trap and tried to murder him in 1949. Women, in their view, see ballplayers as sex objects as much or more than they do as athletes involved in a competition that can hold their interest for its own sake. This seems to be the reasoning behind Baseball Boyfriends, a “fantasy” game aimed at women and girls in which participants “pick a new hottie or hang onto you hunk.” [sic]
Steinhagen, 19, had been fixated on Waitkus since seeing him play for the Cubs in 1947, making a shrine of his pictures and clippings and conducting an imaginary relationship with him. She had no interest in the game, she said, until she began to focus on Waitkus. “I just became nuttier and nuttier about the guy,” she later testified, “[I decided] if I can’t have him nobody can. And then I decided I would kill him.” On June 14, 1949, the Phillies were in Chicago. Steinhagen took a room in the Phillies’ hotel and had a note delivered to the first sacker: “Mr. Waitkus, It is extremely important that I see you as soon as possible. We're not acquainted, but I have something of importance to speak to you about.” After calling and being put off for half an hour, Waitkus appeared at Steinhagen’s room. According to her own testimony:
At the time I had a knife in my skirt pocket and was going to use that on him. When I opened the door he came rushing past me. I expected him to stand there and wait until I asked him to come in and during that time I was going to stab him with the knife. I was kind of mad that he came right in and sat down and didn’t give me a chance to stab him. He looked at me surprised and said, “What do you want to see me about?” I said, “Wait a minute. I have a surprise for you.”
The next thing Waitkus knew, he was being confronted by a .22 rifle.
He got up right away and said, “Baby, what’s this all about?” That made me mad. He just stood there stuttering and stammering and he asked me again, “What is this all about? What have I done?” I said, “For two years you have been bothering me and now you’re going to die”—and then I shot him.
The bullet just missed the 29-year-old’s heart. He barely survived emergency surgery and spent considerable time in critical condition. “I admire him now more than ever before,” Steinhangen said. “He showed so much courage as he lay there on the floor.” She was put on trial but judged not guilty by reason of insanity. She would spend three years in a mental institution. Waitkus missed the remainder of the season but came back to play all 154 games for the pennant-winning 1950 Phillies. He was named the Comeback Player of the Year and also saw Bernard Malamud liberally adapt his story into the first section of The Natural. However, it was often remarked that he was never the same player. His career was over quickly, and he died young.
Steinhagen was always an outlier, as was the pulchritudinous self-promoter Morganna. Women have been interested in baseball for baseball’s sake from the very beginning, whether that meant various college teams that sprung up as long ago as the 1870s, pitcher Lizzie Arlington, who competed against men in the Atlantic League in the late 1890s, or the Bloomer Girls, a barnstorming team of female (and, okay, some male ringers, including Rogers Hornsby in a dress) ballplayers that played for about 40 years from the 1890s to the early 1930s. The great Olympian Babe Didrikson tried her hand at pitching and shut out the Dodgers for an inning in an exhibition game. There was the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League from 1943 to 1954, collegiate players who crossed over into the men’s game, like Julie Croteau and Ila Borders, aspiring umpires such as Pam Postema, and even female owners, including Helene Britton of the Cardinals, Grace Comiskey of the White Sox, Joan Whitney Payson of the Mets, and several others, including Effa Manley, who shared or had outright ownership of the Negro Leagues Newark Eagles franchise from 1935 through 1948.
And let's not exclude the large contingent of female sportswriters whose presence in major league clubhouses is now commonplace. They achieved this only after decades of resistance by Major League Baseball, and the forerunners of the current generation endured no small amount of harassment from players, managers, and even their own male colleagues in attempting to practice their trade (and I do not fool myself into thinking that said harassment has been universally eradicated).* There were women covering baseball as long ago as the 19th century. There is also now an impressive number of female writers online both as bloggers and writers for major publications, including this one. They do good, serious work, don’t pander, and as such in no way need to be distinguished from their male counterparts. They aren’t women baseball fans or women baseball bloggers—they’re just fans and bloggers, period.
*In researching this piece, I came across this quote from the late New York Post sportswriter Maury Allen: “What will happen to the women reports on the road? Most of the women writers I’ve seen are girls I wouldn’t cross the street to ask for a date.” Did you ever see Maury Allen? I was in the Yankees clubhouse with him on several occasions before his death in 2010. Not only did he ply the players for autographs, a stunningly unprofessional gesture no matter how veteran a writer you are, but his nose hair had nose hair. If there is a thin borderline between having excessive nose hair and tusks, he straddled it.
There will always be unserious fans among both genders, simply because the world is full of unserious people. Years ago, I found myself in a quiet corridor of the old Yankee Stadium offices, waiting for a friend to conclude a meeting. A young woman was making a personal call to an apparently female friend with her office door open. I was shocked as she went on, at great, panting length, vividly describing her sexual fixation on one of the Yankees' outfielders of the time. It was as if I had stumbled into an issue of Penthouse Letters. I was shocked to realize that a woman who had achieved a place of even mild importance working for a major league team would be willing to even entertain such thoughts given that hers was a quintessential example of the kind of behavior that, if acted upon and/or discovered (and if I overheard it just walking down the hall, so could any of her superiors) could set the cause of women in baseball back by 50 years.
Yet, I was being naïve. There are always those whose worst impulses will overwhelm any thoughts of the greater good at stake (this is true of most of us at one time or another). Still, marketing by Baseball and other entities seeking to stoke women’s interest in the game should not be pandering to that crowd. Celebrity worship fades as subject and object age. The former gains maturity and, we hope, a deeper appreciation for qualities other than surface physical qualities, while the latter declines in potency and sex appeal. The crush is transient. I recall a female friend circa 1987 with this poster on her wall (I wonder if she would admit to it today):
She was a real baseball fan, with a serious interest in the Mets, but had shirtless Lenny been the sum of her focus, she would never have stayed. As a child puts away his toys, she would have put away baseball. Thus, when “Baseball Boyfriends” tells a “girl” that “Every time your boyfriend plays, you accumulate points based on his stats for the day. If he can't perform, dump him. Then pick up a new BBBF,” it may find some of the mindset that will want to play and perhaps even make some short-term dough, but in the long run, such approaches are not only insulting to all female fans, provide an extremely poor example to the younger ones (I’m no prude, but I wouldn’t want my daughter to absorb the winking, juvenile attitudes espoused on the game’s home page), but will in the long term be deleterious to anyone hoping to profit from a wider audience for baseball, and that includes the manufacturers, CBS Sports Interactive, cbssports.com, and Major League Baseball itself. When you treat the players as if they are Menudo, you’re simply not going to get much in the way of a long-term commitment, and you just might drive some away.
The Boyfriend app has provoked many responses from its supposedly intended audience, from a piece by Stacey Gotsulias, another from our own Rebecca Glass (who was among the first to notice and rail against it on Twitter), to today’s satirical take at BP from Michael Bates. In each case, the takeaway is the same: the publishers have not the foggiest clue how the modern female fan thinks about the game. And thank goodness for that. It’s good to have the company of intelligent baseball fans of either gender. We need ever more of those, fewer of the “Red Sox suck! Jeter rulez!” variety, and even fewer who are in it only for the tight uniform pants. Sexual titillation is hardly in short supply in the age of the Internet, and baseball’s appeal need not be built around anything but the game and the players—the players as superb athletes and competitors.
“Ladies Day” promotions, in which women (usually if accompanied by a male) were admitted free, were popular with female fans for almost 100 years, clubs knowing they could double their attendance and sell some extra hot dogs. From 1894 through 1899, the Washington Senators of the National League had a good-looking pitcher named Win Mercer. Mercer was popular with the local women, and the club would often schedule Ladies Day promotions around his turn in the rotation. I am uncertain as to the exact date, but in 1897 one such event ended in disaster when Mercer was rapidly ejected from the game by umpire Bill Carpenter. A horde of enraged women rioted, pouring out of the stands to attack the arbiter. They pummeled him until the police arrived to restore order.
If that happened today with, say, Justin Verlander, we might have different results. There would still be unrest in the stands—hell, if an ump kicked Verlander out of the game I might riot, and I don’t care if he pitches with a paper bag on his head—but I’d like to think his female admirers would stay and watch the rest of the game. There will always be women who don’t like baseball or like it for superficial reasons, just as there are men who feel the same disregard for the game. However, if recent decades have shown us anything about women and baseball, it’s that there is nothing inevitable about women not being fully invested. You don’t have to dress it in pink or undress it, and you don’t have to make it about teenage crushes. Women are just as capable of getting baseball as men are.