Baseball is War

 

Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball
By Jennifer Ring
Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009, 200 pp., $24.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Laura Pappano


With curious regularity, word of a “girl” baseball player notching a no-hitter or otherwise stunning the baseball elite makes national headlines. A few years ago, eleven-year-old Katie Brownell, the only girl in the Oakfield-Alabama Little League near Rochester, New York, struck out all eighteen boys who came to bat. The US media went wild last year when Eri Yoshida, a sixteen-year-old, high-school knuckleballer, was drafted by a Japanese professional baseball team. This spring, twelve-year-old Mackenzie Brown threw a perfect game for her Bayonne, New Jersey, Little League team and was invited by the New York Mets to throw out the first pitch at their new stadium, Citi Field.

Stories are even more plentiful in the local news: eleven-year-old Emily Moore, of Johnson City, Tennessee, is a commanding Little League pitcher despite being born without a left hand; the Downtown New Jersey Little League matchup between the Tigers and Blue Jays in June featured two twelve-year-old girls as opposing starting pitchers.

The point: some 37 years after Title IX became law and 35 years after the Little League charter was officially changed to allow females, girls playing baseball is still news. Parents who arrive at a youth baseball game and unfold their portable chairs are still, in 2009, surprised by the presence of a ponytail.

It is this striking deficit of female players that Jennifer Ring, professor of political science and former director of women’s studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, takes up in Stolen Bases. Unlike so many of the celebratory books for both adults and children that chronicle the suppressed history of female hardballers, Ring charges the mound in search of a bench-clearing confrontation. She does not aim to recall stars such as Jackie “Verne” Mitchell, who struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in April 1931 before her minor league contract was voided, but rather insists on more complicated questions: Why have women been essentially banished from baseball? And how?

The mother of a baseball-playing girl and a lifelong baseball fan herself, Ring is no dispassionate observer but is rather a witness to the politics of the sport. She’s watched father-coaches with baseball dreams for their sons bench other talented players to give their kids the edge. Frustrated at seeing her daughter ill-treated, Ring quips, “I was playing the wrong game. I naively thought I was playing a game called ‘Kids Play Baseball’”—while the coaches were playing, “My son has a future in baseball and whatever helps him get there is the reason I’m here. The league exists in order to showcase him.”

Ring uses the bookends of Stolen Bases—its prologue and epilogue—to make intimate her larger argument about the status of baseball as a coveted symbol of masculinity. In them, she describes her parental wrangling—“I find myself wondering, ‘Is she as good as I think she is?’”—and her difficult decision to have her daughter switch high schools so she can to earn a spot on the baseball team, as well as her joy at watching with other parents as their daughters play in an international competition. These sections are thoughtful, and the emotions she describes will be familiar to parents of sports-playing children. While the personal approach is risky—the passages have a different texture than the rest of the book—they give Ring’s argument credibility and the reader a lens through which to understand her sometimes overly emotional prose about bias in the baseball establishment. We can hear her frustration and sympathize with it, even when her writing gets repetitive, as if she is worried that we will miss the point. It is this narrative quality—along with the dearth of original research—which makes the book read more like an extended essay argued from multiple angles than a new, provocative work about a key aspect of American culture.

That said, the story Ring tells is outrageous. Her title is accurate: baseball has been stolen from girls. First, the history of its founding in the nineteenth century was recast, then softball was created to siphon girls away from the sport, and finally a powerful athletic fraternity framed baseball as dangerous and ill-suited for females. Ring is at her best when she simply reveals what appears to be nothing short of a conspiracy to keep American girls out of the “national pastime,” even as baseball holds a cherished place in American culture that Ring correctly likens to a “civic religion.”

In her early chapters, Ring picks apart baseball’s creation story. The tale that Abner Doubleday invented the game in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839, she reminds us, is pure mythology. Doubleday wasn’t even in Cooperstown; he was stationed at West Point, and a letter supporting his claim was written years later by a mentally unstable man who would have been only five years old at the time. In fact, a debate rages about baseball’s origins, which some argue is not American at all but rather is descended from the English game of rounders, played by both girls and boys. “Although the Doubleday-Cooperstown story was refuted almost immediately by historians, it is the version of the baseball history that stuck, much like George Washington’s cherry tree is embedded in the American imagination,” Ring writes.

>She saves most of her criticism, however, for Albert Goodwill Spalding, whose influential history of the sport, America’s National Game (1911), framed baseball as wholly American and wholly manly. He purposefully cast it as out of reach for women, writing,

Cricket is a gentle pastime. Base Ball is war!...Neither our wives, our sisters, our daughters, nor our sweethearts may play Base Ball on the field…Base Ball is too strenuous for womankind, except as she may take part in the grandstand.

In a passage that is interesting though somewhat overwrought, Ring psycholanalyzes Spalding. Separated from his mother at the age of twelve, he developed his sense of adult masculinity through baseball. Thus, he cast the game as the embodiment of American male vim, vigor, and virility.

In one of her more terrific observations, Ring points out that when Henry Chadwick invented the statistical analysis of baseball in the mid-nineteenth century, he gave the sport a history and a mission. Now that fans could track hits, runs, and errors—and distinguish between the successes due to their team’s skill and those due to the other team’s failure—the game had a moral backdrop and an intellectual and even scientific basis. These qualities enhanced baseball’s status and made it appealing to the powerful.

The problem, observes Ring, is that by the end of the nineteenth century, plenty of women were already playing baseball—and had been for years. She offers photos of women’s collegiate teams of the period and reports from travelling teams such as the Mrs. Jane Duffy Club from Huntsboro, Alabama, which beat a local men’s club, 20-11. In fact, several men who went on to become major stars got their starts on “mixed” teams, including Smoky Joe Wood, who was paid twenty dollars to pitch for the Bloomer Girls—an episode he was “not too keen about talking about,” he admits in his memoir.

Despite all this, the suppression of women’s history in baseball (the celebrated documentary producer Ken Burns, she points out, gave women 86 seconds of the first 119-minute “inning” of his nine-inning series) is only part of what irks Ring. She is also angry about the invetion of softball as “substitute baseball for girls.” It is politically tricky to criticize softball as less important than baseball, but Ring does it convincingly, noting the diminutive quality of the game—its smaller field and shorter distances between bases. True, she writes, the ball is bigger, but “‛soft’ is not a descriptive name for the little cannonball girls are encouraged to throw at each other because it is supposedly safer than a ‘hard’ ball.” While the game was invented to be played indoors at times of the year when baseball could not be played outside, the restrictions perfectly parallel the habit of confining women athletes to smaller sizes and tighter spaces.

This brings us to the cultural imperative: girls play softball; boys play baseball. “The sexes are segregated and given no real choice about which game to play,” Ring writes. The battle is cultural, not legal. Title IX has not remedied girls’ exclusion from baseball, and since 1973, when the National Organization for Women successfully filed a civil complaint on behalf of Maria Pepe, a twelve-year-old barred from Little League, girls have, at least officially, been allowed to play. Nevertheless, their presence on teams continues to be rare. Some state athletic associations have defined baseball and softball as the same sport, with softball being the “female” version, which has been a barrier to girls, who must petition to play baseball. (Interestingly, the National College Athletic Association this past winter changed its policy, defining college baseball and softball as separate sports.)

The awkward status of girls who want to play baseball is unmistakable. In the final chapters of Stolen Bases, Ring takes up the structure of college sports and the practical barriers to women players both on men’s teams and on teams of their own. The difficulty of opening up baseball to girls appears all the more absurd as Ring details the rise of women’s baseball around the world, including in baseball-loving countries such as Japan and Cuba. She quotes a Japanese coach who is utterly puzzled about why American girls play softball when “the ball doesn’t even fit their hand.” The answer, according to Jim Glennie, president of the American Women’s Baseball Federation, is simple, political, and maddeningly familiar: “American men really don’t want girls playing baseball.”

 

Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women, where she is working on the Women's Sports Leadership Project, including the FairGameNews.com blog on gender equity in sports. She is co-author with Eileen McDonagh of Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports (2007).

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