Lilly Jacobson lays out for a line drive, New England Women's  Red Sox, 2011.
Lilly Jacobson lays out for a line drive, New England Women's Red Sox, 2011.

(WOMENSENEWS)–In the United States, baseball has become so exclusively male that the picture of a girl playing baseball is confusing, calling for explanation. A girl with a bat in her hand swinging at a ball is perceived to be a softball player. Invisible to the public imagination are the generations of women, from the late 18th century, when baseball first arrived in the United States, to the U.S. national women’s baseball teams of the 21st century, who have refused to relinquish the nation’s diamonds. Women have played for nearly two centuries in the United States, yet still are greeted with astonishment and disbelief, as though they are eternally the first girls ever to play baseball.

This attitude was exemplified by the media coverage of a baseball game in Van Nuys, Calif., on March 5, 2011. Marti Sementelli and Ghazaleh Sailors, two pitchers who had been teammates on the U.S. women’s national baseball team of 2010, were now in their senior seasons on the baseball teams at their high schools, Birmingham High of Van Nuys and San Marcos High of Santa Barbara. They were scheduled to be the starting pitchers in a game between their schools. For the first time in American history, two high school baseball teams played a game in which the starting pitchers were girls. It didn’t hurt that the game took place in media-obsessed Los Angeles, between two highly rated large urban schools. More than a thousand girls in the United States play high school baseball on “boys’ teams,” but the story would not have had such impact if it had been a game between two small-town schools.

The stands filled an hour before the game started at 11:00 a.m., and spectators stood when there were no longer seats available. Media trucks from ABC, NBC and ESPN jammed the spacious parking lot adjacent to Birmingham High’s athletic fields. 

Naïve Questioning

Prominent reporters from Southern California newspapers, including a nationally known sports columnist from the Los Angeles Times, and representatives from network news and online webcasts were busy interviewing parents, siblings, friends and teammates before and during the game. After the game both pitchers were kept busy for over an hour, answering questions for reporters and television crews. Even the Birmingham junior varsity team, sitting in the bleachers waiting for the press to clear so they could play their game, were asked, “How do you feel about this? What’s it like to have a girl on the team? Is it okay?” They responded with positive grunts, well representing all 14- and 15-year-old American men: “Uh, yeah. Fine. She’s good. It’s history, man.” The reporter who asked the questions seemed oblivious to the fact that the girl on the pitcher’s mound was playing on a higher level than these boys. They aspired to play on varsity, as she was doing.

The questions put to Sementelli and Sailors seemed to me startlingly naive: “Isn’t the overhand throwing motion dangerous for a girl’s arm? That’s why they play softball, isn’t it?” “Do you think a girl will ever play college baseball?” “Do you think there will ever be a time when a woman can play in the Major Leagues?” “What does it feel like to strike out a boy?” “I noticed that you wear your hair tucked up under your hat. Isn’t that uncomfortable?” “Do you think this game will end prejudice against girls playing baseball?” The journalists asking these questions had just witnessed the girls playing successfully with and against boys’ teams but seemed incapable of believing their eyes.

Both girls pitched beautifully, but the attitude of the press with whom I sat was the same bewildered astonishment that characterized news stories about girls playing baseball in the early 20th century and still dominates news coverage of girls who play baseball today. When I mentioned the existence of the U.S. Women’s National Team, to which both pitchers belonged, the seasoned sportswriters were caught by surprise. After a moment of silence, one asked, “Wait! There’s a women’s national baseball team?”

Women’s World Cup Overlooked

When I asked why there was no American press coverage of the 2010 Women’s World Cup Tournament in Caracas, Venezuela, the reporters responded that they didn’t know about the tournament. I mentioned that the games had been attended by tens of thousands of Venezuelan fans and that the tournament had included an incident in which the shortstop from Team Hong Kong had suffered a gunshot to the leg while fielding her position in a game against the Netherlands. She underwent emergency surgery in Caracas, and the incident nearly ended the tournament, to which 12 nations’ teams had traveled. The sportswriters were unaware of both the international tournament and the violent incident that had nearly canceled it.

Shooting or not, a World Cup tournament in which the American national team competes is news that should be reported. The U.S. Women’s National Team has medaled in every World Cup tournament in which it has played, which includes gold medals in 2004 and 2006 and bronzes in 2008 and 2010. Not knowing about or acknowledging their existence amounts to an American media blackout. Media from the 11 other nations were present and attentive in 2010, as they had been in previous women’s World Cup baseball tournaments. Yet the American journalists to whom I addressed the questions merely shrugged and remarked that they hadn’t heard about it.

I was describing a highly dramatic international baseball tournament that had been entirely overlooked by the American media. The shooting incident, it turned out, had nothing to do with the fact that the event was a women’s baseball tournament. But if this had been the men’s U.S. national baseball team playing in Venezuela and dodging bullets while on the field, it would have sparked outrage and been the lead story on every media outlet in the nation.

To my surprise, and perhaps indicating some real change in the making, the stories that were submitted about the Los Angeles game were uniformly supportive and serious. They avoided the trivialization and patronizing attitude that often accompanies news about effective female athletes and that I had expected from the game-time questions. A front-page article by Bill Plaschke in the Los Angeles Times Sports Section on Sunday, March 6, was accurate and respectful. Mark Saxon’s espnLosAngeles.com article was equally admiring and raised the question of both girls moving on to play college baseball, and perhaps Minor League ball.

Adapted from “A Game of Their Own: Voices of Contemporary Women in Baseball” by Jennifer Ring, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2015 by Jennifer Ring. Available wherever books are sold or from the University of Nebraska Press.

Jennifer Ring is a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is the author of “Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball.” 

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