Jennifer Ring

(WOMENSENEWS)–Girls can’t play baseball and American folklore has the rhetoric to prove it.

From the ubiquitous declaration "Girls can’t play baseball!" to the taunt "You throw like a girl" to Pete Rose’s remarkably honest assertion that he was grateful to be born a boy because otherwise he couldn’t have played baseball, the national pastime has been declared the domain of only half the nation.

By the time I was 9 years old, it was clear I fell among the excluded half. Before then, I was always among the first picked in games with the boys on my street because I was the neighborhood slugger who could also pitch. Then in the fourth grade the boys went off to organized Little League play, and I went from first picked to entirely excluded.

I was left throwing a ball at my garage wall or tossing it in the air with one hand, batting it down the street, trotting after it and then hitting it back to where I started–for hours. Still, it was the thing that occupied nearly all of my spare time, when I wasn’t reading about the Dodgers in the Los Angeles Times.

As a woman I am thus doing what I can–writing about baseball instead of playing it. And that takes me to a story of thievery.

Twice Stolen

Baseball has been twice stolen from American girls and women: once in the 1890s when the game became associated with the American national identity, and then when softball was invented as "substitute baseball for girls" to prevent girls from playing Little League baseball.

Softball was officially endorsed as a less strenuous form of baseball, more appropriate for girls, by the Sub-Committee on Baseball of the National Committee on Women’s Athletics of the American Physical Education Association at their first meeting in April 1927. In 1933, the Amateur Softball Association made the term softball official and the name was adopted for the modified baseball game that girls had been playing.

A few years later, in 1939, Little League baseball was organized by Carl Stotz in Williamsport, Pa., for boys ages 8 to 12 for the purpose of "developing the qualities of sportsmanship, citizenship and manliness." Girls were officially banned from youth baseball since baseball on all levels was associated exclusively with manliness. Baseball was given the task of building male citizens at the same time that softball was allocated to girls.

Defying gender stereotypes, however, women never completely gave up playing baseball. Softball has developed into a serious sport with many skilled players and avid fans. Women’s tenacity in sticking with the national pastime, in spite of tremendous cultural discouragement, has resulted in a gold-medal winning national women’s baseball team– almost unknown because it’s been largely ignored by U.S. media.

Despite the obstacles, girls and women have stayed in this game.

Jennifer Ring is a professor of political science and former director of women’s studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her previous publications include "The Political Consequences of Thinking: Gender and Judaism in the Work of Hannah Arendt," as well as works in political theory and gender and identity politics.