(WOMENSENEWS)–Thirteen-year-old Mo’ne Davis will be entering baseball’s Hall of Fame as the first girl in history to pitch a winning Little League World Series game. Since that competition began in 1947, only 18 girls have participated.
Davis is such a standout because girls, by her age, are expected to play softball, not hardball.
Just ask Morgan Wilkinson, 15, who plays first base for the Peters Township High School softball team in western Pennsylvania.
“I’d rather be playing in an all-girl setting than be the odd-person-out on an all boys team,” Wilkinson said in a recent phone interview. “And baseball is for boys,” she added, although she couldn’t provide a reason.
Cassie Peterson, 15, a catcher on Wilkinson’s team, agrees. “I’ve been playing softball my whole life. I wouldn’t switch to baseball now,” she said in a phone interview.
David Wall, the league director of Peters Township, does not believe girls would be able to match boy’s physical capabilities if allowed to compete alongside them. Nor does he believe that schools would benefit from girl baseball teams. “Girls play softball,” he said.
Bryan Salley of the Peters Township Girls Softball Association agrees. “We have only had one or two girls play baseball but that was so they could improve [their] skills faster for the fast-pitch softball teams that they play for,” he said in an email interview. “The only benefit that baseball gave them was the opportunity to play most of the year rather than just spring and the fall.”
The prevalent assumption at Peters Township that baseball is for boys, softball for girls, is something at least two advocacy group are working to change.
Baseball For All has been serving girl baseball players for 16 years.
The group, which has volunteer advisers all over the country, provides a support system for girls searching for opportunities to play baseball.
Whenever a girl is spurned from her local baseball team, its staffers are ready to explain her legal rights based on Title IX, the 1972 gender-equity law for education. Baseball For All also teaches girls how to start club teams at their colleges, said Justine Siegal, the group’s founder, in an email interview.
“When we tell a [girl] she has to quit baseball and go play softball we are telling her that her dreams are not as important as boys,” Siegal said. “If we tell a girl she can’t play baseball, what else will she believe she can’t do?”
Girl Wins Homerun Derby at Cooperstown
In 2002, Siegal founded the Sparks, an all-girls 12-and-under baseball team in Cooperstown, N.Y. The team competes against all-male teams in the Cooperstown Dreams Park Youth Baseball Tournament, one of the most elite competitions for the age group. This year, the Sparks finished 36 out of 104 teams and one player won the homerun derby, beating 103 boys in the process.
The Chicago Pioneers Baseball Program, another advocacy group, helps girl baseball players find a way to play on all-girl teams.
Such efforts have been helping to nudge up the numbers of girls playing baseball in high school. This past season, 1,259 female teens played baseball, a 25 percent increase from the 2004-2005 season, according to figures from the Indianapolis-based National Federation of State High School Associations.
These numbers, while higher, are still dwarfed by figures for baseball participation by younger girls. In the United States, 100,000 girls play baseball when they are under 12, the year they age of out Little League. After that, a sharp loss in opportunities to play baseball pushes many toward softball leagues.
Softball wasn’t always associated with females. Some date the origin of the sport to 1887 when male football fans discovered the fun of hitting a boxing glove with a stick. Decades later, after softball had become a more standardized sport, it was widely advertised as a way for baseball players to maintain their skills during the off-season.
In 1973, one year after Title IX was passed, Little League opened up baseball to girls after the family of 12-year-old Amra Offutt won a lawsuit against the organization for forcing Amra off her baseball team in Nashville.
At the same time, however, Little League also created a girls-only softball program.
Baseball For All’s Siegal calls this a “pivotal moment in history when culturally we decided baseball was for boys and softball for girls.”
Push toward Softball Is Discrimination
Jennifer Ring, author of the 2009 book “Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball,” calls the push toward softball by age 12 a form of discrimination against girls.
“Otherwise you’re told you’re just throwing away your chances of a college scholarship in softball,” Ring said in an email interview. “The social and cultural pressure is hard to resist and most girls comply and switch to softball.”
Softball is “presented as ‘girls baseball’ when in fact it’s a different sport entirely,” said Ring. “But it serves to segregate boys and girls and tracks girls into softball rather than baseball.”
Lily Jacobson, daughter of “Stolen Bases” author Ring, faced resistance nearing the end of her Little League career in Reno, Nev. “I felt pressure [to switch to softball] all the time,” said Jacobson, now 26 and living in Berkeley, Calif. “People just assumed I would switch because that was what all the girls did.”
Despite all that, Jacobson ended up being the only girl in her middle school-level Babe Ruth League.
At Reno High School, though, she hit more problems. “I went through the whole preseason and tryouts, then was cut. It just didn’t seem right to me. The reason [my coach] gave was that I wasn’t big enough, fast enough or strong enough. But I was playing with a bunch of 14-year-old boys, who weren’t exactly fast and strong, and I had been playing with them my entire life. It was very clear that that was not the reason. It was because I was a girl.”
Later she switched to Wooster High School in Reno and became the first girl to play high school baseball and varsity high school baseball.
Marti Sementelli, a 2012 graduate of Burbank High School in Hollywood, played baseball since she was 3. She also had a hard time finding a high school team willing to accept her.
Two parochial high school teams and a handful of public school teams turned her down before she found her place on the Burbank High School team. At 15, Sementelli pitched for team USA in the Women’s Baseball World Cup.
Then there’s Paige Sultzbach. In 2012, she was the only girl on an otherwise all-male team when she played second base at Mesa Preparatory Academy. That year, Our Lady of Sorrows, a high school male baseball team in Arizona, forfeited the Arizona Charter Athletic Association Championship rather than play against Sultzbach, citing its ideal of “educating boys and girls separately during the adolescent years especially in physical education.”
David Hall, head baseball coach at Perrysberg High School in Ohio, would take female athletes if they tried out. “I have had about 10 girls that have worked out with our team over the years,” he said in an email interview. “They were elite softball players who went through our off-season hitting program and open gyms to get additional work in. I tried to get five of them to play baseball but they had already committed to play softball in college.”