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Softball isn’t baseball, and yet we’re told it is. We’re told from a very young age that if we want to play baseball, we have to satisfy ourselves with this different sport entirely, a sport that should have its own rich heritage and history but instead, despite the fact that it comes from a different place, is looked down on as inferior to baseball[1].

This is not a piece about Sarah Hudek. I don’t know her motivations, and I can’t blame her for taking a reported softball scholarship to a well-reputed university instead of continuing to play baseball at a community college in Louisiana. I don’t know what her thought process was, I don’t know what might have gone into this decision, but I do know that even if she had continued to play baseball, there wasn’t really anywhere for her to go after two years.

It’s hard enough to find and maintain and grow a competitive college baseball team on the anemic number of scholarships maintained and mandated by the NCAA. I can understand why a coach, especially a D1 coach, especially a D1 coach in any kind of competitive conference, would shy away from giving any part of a scholarship to a woman, and why a woman might not be able to take even the piddling amount potentially offered to attend an expensive university.

This isn’t a story about that, though. It’s a story about false equivalencies. If you took an American football player and told them that sorry, you’re not… I don’t know, it’s hard to make the analogy here. But if you told them that they couldn’t play American football, that they had to go play some other sport… like Canadian football, where the rules are different but the same, where it’s looked down upon by those “in power” and where salaries are so much less, and they had to play this other game since childhood because of some characteristic, that’s what you’d have.

But Canadian football isn’t like that. Not every American football player is going to make the NFL, of course, and not every one of them is going to get a scholarship to go to college[2]. They all have the chance to try, though. Half of them aren’t sorted out at age five, told to go play Canadian football right away.

Softball isn’t baseball. The women’s version of baseball is baseball. It’s the same sport, played under the same rules, with the same ball, and the same field. This, then, is the problem—it barely exists. The United States does have a women’s baseball team, operated under the same federation as the men’s team. This is well and good, except that the selection out of baseball happens below then. It’s not an issue of having a national team. It’s the issue of having a middle school team.

Baseball[3] is like a pyramid scheme. You start out at the base of the pyramid in Little League, where there are thousands and thousands of players. A limited number of those play through middle school. Of those, a limited number play in high school. Of those, an even smaller percentage play for select teams or get noticed by scouts or college coaches. That turns into the minuscule percentage drafted or signed by a major-league team, which is a larger number than those that play minor-league ball, that leads to the ~750 active players on a major-league roster, a good number of whom didn’t actually come through the US-based pyramid, but instead an international one.

In order to be competitive, in order to develop a sport that is pleasing to the eye, and “high-quality[4]” you have to start with a huge base of the pyramid. When girls are told in in saccharine-sweet voice, “Oh, baseball? No, you want to play softball,” we choke off the base of that talent and make it almost impossible for the rest of the way up.

We all got really excited last year when AT&T put out an ad imagining the future with the first female major leaguer. For now, though, that’s going to remain wishful thinking.

If we’re going to ever have women playing baseball, it starts now, and it starts at the bottom. Mo’ne Davis can’t be the only girl at the Little League World Series. Sarah Hudek can’t be the only girl pitching in college. We have to stop peddling the doctrine of false equivalency.



[1] While softball may not be viewed as inferior de jure, it certainly is viewed that way by a majority of the sporting population (de facto). Additionally, there has been no real viable professional softball league to date. All this leads towards this question: If men played softball, and women baseball, which would be considered the "legitimate" sport?

[2] Though, with the 85 scholarships each D1 school not under restrictions is empowered to offer, a hell of a lot of them do.

[3] All sports, particularly ones with little leagues.

[4] Whatever the hell we’re deciding that means this week.

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AlexTheGreat
4/18
Is anyone actually saying that women should not be allowed to play baseball? Oh, and men do play softball. Around here there are far more men playing softball than women.
unlikelyfanatic
4/18
Are they saying "women should not be allowed to play baseball?" Not at an adult level, no, but it's heavily implied. Why do you think there have been so few girls at the Little League World Series? It's not as obvious as someone coming out and saying it - it's something far more insidious.
tearecrules
4/18
"Why do you think there have been so few girls at the Little League World Series?" Because, even in the tween age group, the best boys who play baseball for a region or nation are better than the best girls? Because the girls who'd be able to are shunted off to softball too soon? Because LL coaches are so sexist most refuse to entertain rostering a girl even if she would be the best player for that spot and would help them win a championship? Some combination of the three?
misterjohnny
4/18
Most LL coaches are not that sexist that they wouldn't play a girl. Parents steer their girls to softball because that is all they will be able to play in HS and college. And there simply aren't enough Sarah Hudek's out there to compete with boys at the HS and college level. The solution is to get the HS and colleges to have women's baseball teams. Limited resources says that will not happen in my lifetime.
tearecrules
4/18
I was offering a possible reason why girls haven't been greater participants in the LLWS. For, what, 40% of its history girls were prohibited from playing LL baseball and I'm sure that attitude didn't change in 1974 when the rules were changed. A Little League coach in 2016 who was that sexist, openly or not, would probably not make it to the WS tourney level. But a similarly biased coach from 1974 until, what, the 2000s probably would.
AlexTheGreat
4/18
Right, it's because of money. An athletic scholarship is a life changing amount of money for many families. If you're a low/middle income parent of a young girl with natural athletic talent in baseball, are you going to put her somewhere where there is almost no chance of a scholarship? Or somewhere that she has a genuine chance to do something that improves her entire life?
edwardarthur
4/18
100% right, Kate.
tearecrules
4/18
I'll go ahead and bet the first woman to play in the MLB won't be from the US. I'll further bet she'll come from a country which doesn't have a deep history of baseball and so teams would be more willing to go with a player who can play regardless of their gender. Some 15-16 year old girl will dominate will dominate the Deustches Baseball Verband to the point she gets the attention of some independent league team who is willing to take the chance for publicity sake, she then handles herself well and gets MLB scouting attention. There's over 3.5 billion women, one of them, somewhere, can probably handle the MLB.
Phillies113
4/18
Well said. There are so many talented athletes out there who are excluded from participating and being exposed to the public simply because they're women. I think things are slowly (emphasis on slowly) changing; the inclusion of Mone Davis in the LLWS was a small but significant step forward. As is the inclusion of Jessica Mendoza in the Sunday Night Baseball broadcast booth. While she isn't competing on the field, her commentary has proven that she certainly knows what she's talking about. As steps like this emerge and demonstrate that, yes, girls can certainly compete with (and in Davis's case, defeat) boys, the idea of girls and women playing baseball becomes less a strange idea and more of a reality.
maphal
4/18
I lean a bit old fashioned, but I certainly think girls/women should be able to play baseball with men or women. The one sport I wouldn't support women playing would be football, at least at high contact positions.
woodruff11
4/18
I don't think anyone is saying that they are not allowed but it has become one of those things that goes without saying. Most of us think baseball = boys and softball = girls or old guys. I have 4 daughters and 3 sons and I have to admit that, until recently, I never considered registering one of my daughters for baseball despite the fact that we all play baseball together. The thought first popped into my head yesterday when I realized my 6 year old daughter has a cannon.
scher3
4/18
Kate, thank you for this story. I have long thought that the best way to break into MLB would be with as a LOOGY, and promised to encourage my child if they showed the slightest southpaw tendencies (like me) to at least think about throwing a small round ball for a living. As my daughter seems ambidextrous or lefty dominant, I excitedly await the day we get in our first catch.
Machaut
4/18
BP is lucky to have you, Kate! As someone who was shuttled into RF on his little league team because a girl had a far better throwing arm than him at 3B, I can assure you that women can and do succeed at this sport at a young age when given the chance. (She could hit, too!)
edgargiulo
4/18
Another useless article from a woman at Baseball Prospectus
woodruff11
4/18
Really? You think it was necessary to post this as a comment? If it does not interest you, move on to the next article. If you are suggesting that women should not be writing for BP, you probably should find a different site with people who share your views. I'm sure BP would rather refund your membership than have this trash in the comments.
sneugebauer
4/18
I've been thinking about this a lot lately as the father of a girl who loves baseball but is already the only girl on her 6 and 7 year old team. Are there any good articles out there as the origins of softball as a girls sport? I know that as recently as WWII Tom Hanks was coaching women playing actual baseball, but in the intervening years they've been moved off into softball. At the same time, women's soccer, basketball and even ice hockey have developed in ways that are almost indistinguishable from the men's game (from a rules standpoint, that is). What would it take to reverse this and get Girls/Women's Baseball to be the thing at the youth, high school and college levels?
unlikelyfanatic
4/18
I think it would take a concerted effort on the part of Major League Baseball, Little League Baseball, and institutions like Perfect Game (despite my personal feelings about PG) and other big players to include and encourage girls on a local level. The most frustrating thing is that while there may be noise on a national/international level about changing things, it's the local level where change has to happen, and hasn't really so far.
misterjohnny
4/18
Until there are college scholarships available to female baseball players, you won't get the best girls to play baseball. Baseball and softball are different, and if you want to play at the college level, you need to play at the HS level. And if you want to play at the HS level, you need to play it at a younger age than that.
tearecrules
4/18
So what legal jujitsu is the NCAA engaging in to avoid losing a lawsuit under Title IX for not offering women's baseball teams or scholarships for women to play on their men's teams? Are they getting away with considering softball to be the equivalent to baseball because were I a university lawyer I'm not sure I'd like to try and make the case that two sports which use wholly different equipment and playing surfaces are the same sport for the purposes of Title IX.
misterjohnny
4/19
Title IX requires equivalent scholarships, it doesn't say what those scholarships need to be. Schools could certainly shut down their softball programs and start a women's baseball program, but I'm guessing MOST women and parents don't want that. They have been playing softball for the last 10 years getting ready for that scholarship. Title IX does not require them to add women's baseball. As an example, UCLA had a world class men's gymnastics team but shut it down in the 80's to balance out Title IX scholarship levels. They kept women's gymnastics.
tearecrules
4/18
Give "Stolen Bases" by Jennifer Ring a read. It's the only book I've read which addresses a "why" for the gender split in baseball and softball. I'm also not a very voracious baseball history reader so it's possible there are plenty of others out there. This is just the one I know of.
jpomrenke
4/19
There's a long section on the history of softball, including details on how girls were pushed away from baseball, in Harold and Dorothy Seymour's classic "Baseball: A People's Game" (1990). Google Books preview here: https://books.google.com/books?id=oJuwTnbkmUMC&q=softball#v=snippet&q=softball&f=false For example, the Seymours found a 1909 pamphlet called "Athletic Games in the Education of Women" in which the authors "expressed the view that although regulation baseball contained the greatest educational possibilities, it presented problems for women: the hard ball, the heavy bat, the long throws, and the complex rules." Two decades later, in 1929, the American Physical Education Association "asserted that the 'intricate technique' of baseball was 'too difficult for the average girl to master'; to obtain its educational benefits ... sponsors must alter baseball's rules 'to fit the peculiar needs and abilities of girls and women.'"
jnossal
4/19
WTF is wrong with fast-pitch softball? I think the writer might want to examine her own prejudices.
unlikelyfanatic
4/19
Nothing is "wrong" with fastpitch. Everything is wrong with girls, and only girls, being directed towards it as a replacement for baseball.
jnossal
4/20
Why? That's an absurd premise. Girls are treated less well than boys because they play softball instead of baseball? That's implicitly implying that softball is an inferior endeavor, despite your protestations to the contrary. C'mon. You know why girls play softball? It isn't a conspiracy. They play it, because that's what girls do. They could care less if that offends your purist principles. I've known plenty of female players that played hardball through the age of 10 or so. At that point, they almost universally move to fast-pitch softball, and it isn't because the big, bad male-dominated world forces it upon their sweet innocent souls. Few girls stick on baseball teams past that age because that's when the strength and speed of boys begins to outstrip girls. There are certainly females who can continue to compete with males past that point, but those with the ability and desire to so are few. That leads directly to the other reason, it is significant and obvious, young girls don't want to be the only female on a team of boys. The rare girl who can compete with males at a high school level might well be "one of the boys". Yay. But as a softball player, that girl will dominate because any female with the size, strength and speed to hold her own against males is going to be a top tier player in an all-female softball league. It's just great I guess that a player like that sticks on the high school baseball team to salve your ego, Kate, but most players and parents would rather have an opportunity for a scholarship, to play for a national team or even to play professionally. You do know there are professional women's fast-pitch leagues, right? I guess those teams don't meet with your expectations of success, but that's far more your problem, not theirs. If a woman is going to play in MLB someday, she isn't going to be a pitcher. She'll be an ex-softball player who slips the strength mismatch by relying on speed, defense and contact hitting. There *are* players like that out there, right now. You want to complain, wonder why pro teams aren't considering female players with those abilities. Spare me the trope of girls being "forced" into softball. For the record, I have two daughters who play fast-pitch and I've coached and supported teams for many years. Not once have I ever felt that girls were given short shrift, that somehow fast-pitch softball is a second-class sport compared to baseball. That's insulting, Kate, and the kind of soft sexist thinking I'm sure you fancy yourself as being above. My only complaint is how the two sports are supported financially. For example, our local municipality just approved $13 million in field improvements. They gave $12 million to the boys baseball fields and $1 million to the girls in an area with a strong girls program. I know boys participation in baseball isn't 12 times the girls softball participation rate. Now that is worthy of censure, not just the mere existence of a softball league in the first place, as you apparently are wont to believe. Your writing might be first-rate, Kate, but your thinking and conclusions on this topic are severely flawed.
bigdonut
4/20
Two statements: "Not once have I ever felt that girls were given short shrift, that somehow fast-pitch softball is a second-class sport compared to baseball." "My only complaint is how the two sports are supported financially. For example, our local municipality just approved $13 million in field improvements. They gave $12 million to the boys baseball fields and $1 million to the girls in an area with a strong girls program. I know boys participation in baseball isn't 12 times the girls softball participation rate." Your second statement directly contradicts your first. Your municipality totally considers softball a second-class sport compared to baseball.
jnossal
4/30
Keep in mind while I find the city's spending decision exasperating, that decision does not dictate success or failure for the players. For one, we are talking about field improvements, not team or league operations which are self-funded. That same municipality has won the Texas high school girls title twice in the last five years, the local travel teams are highly competitive and our local girls regularly gain admittance to top college-level programs. Yes, the local fields could use repair, the backstops are falling down and the parking sucks. But none of that has anything to do with the product on the field or opportunities afforded to the participants. My argument is that fast-pitch softball as a sport is not inferior to hardball and that girls are not somehow forced into a less desirable athletic path. That apparently is not how the author of this piece feels. I disagree. If she wanted to make a point about how female athletics are underfunded even 30 years after Title IX, fine, but that was never her argument. It was that softball isn't as good as baseball, so girls should play baseball instead and if they don't, it is due to rampant sexism and that's asinine beyond belief.
lipitorkid
4/19
My wife played baseball until the 7th grade. She played 1st base. She's 5 foot 11 and could probably pitch. The first time I played catch with her she hurt my hand on the first throw. Her team got in some fights because of how boys were trying to intimidate her, both they and their coaches were uncomfortable with the idea. She actually played on the same team as a MLB catcher. She stopped playing baseball because she didn't want to play softball. Her 5 foot 6 110lb sister played boys varsity water polo because there was no girls team at her school. She then went to work on a crab fishing boat in Alaska. I can't wait for the day when I see a woman in Spring Training and that day will come sooner when we have girls baseball at the high school level.
misterjohnny
4/19
Why didn't she keep playing baseball? If she's good enough, she is eligible to play on "boys" High School teams.
TyEstler
4/19
Great article, thanks Kate