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Breaking Barriers: Will We Ever See a Woman in Baseball?

Jackie Robinson is among baseball's most famous pioneers. (Courtesy of Wikimedia).

Jackie Robinson is among baseball's most famous pioneers. (Courtesy of Wikimedia).


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By Brendan O’Connell

Jackie Robinson is among baseball's most famous pioneers. (Courtesy of Wikimedia).

Jackie Robinson is among baseball’s most famous pioneers. (Courtesy of Wikimedia).

On Friday, every player across Major League Baseball sported the number 42 on the back of their uniform, a tradition the MLB has practiced for years as a way of honoring and celebrating Jackie Robinson and the demolition of the color barrier.

Some seven decades ago, Robinson became the first African-American player in the MLB, despite the fact that there were other professional leagues that allowed black ballplayers during the time. Not only was Robinson a great player, but he was also an icon and a legend for his demeanor on and off the field and for acting as a pioneer for equality.

Nowadays, it is common to wonder which barrier is next to fall in the MLB. The racial barrier is down and has been for quite some time. Players from America, Asia, South America, the Caribbean and elsewhere, regardless of their skin color, have been a part of the MLB for a long time now.

Similarly, players of all different religious backgrounds have seen action at the professional level, and many have been candid and unguarded in showcasing their beliefs on the field in their apparel and routines. Despite the fact that there have not been any openly homosexual players in the majors as of yet, it is completely feasible and even probable that there have been one or more in the century-plus that baseball has been the national pastime.

Of the remaining barriers that are present in the MLB, perhaps the most glaring and important is that of gender. This is not solely a baseball issue, of course. Of the four major American sports – baseball, basketball, football, and hockey – no league has had a very progressive approach in implementing women into their game. Excluding owners and lower-level employees, such as trainers and equipment and coaching assistants, let’s examine what women have done in the major professional leagues.

The National Hockey League has not had a woman at the coach, player or official position at any time, but there is a National Women’s Hockey League that formed in 2015 and just finished its inaugural season.

The National Football League has had very little female influence, as no player or coach position has ever been held by a woman. However, Shannon Eastin and Sarah Thomas have each served as officials in NFL games.

The most progressive league of the four, the National Basketball Association, has had several female officials, including 1997 pioneers Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner, and the San Antonio Spurs hired the first female assistant coach in history in 2014 (Becky Hammon). There have not been any female NBA players, but there is a professional women’s league – the WNBA – that has existed for nearly twenty years.

So what about the MLB?

It is interesting to note that baseball is a bit different from other sports in that there is a complementary sport designed especially for females – softball. Football does not really have a corresponding sport, but hockey and basketball both have separate leagues for women at the youth, college and professional levels.

Because baseball and softball separate boys and girls at quite an early age, it adds an extra obstacle for females in their efforts to play with the men later on. However, the sports are extremely similar, so coaching or umpiring would not be out of the question necessarily.

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, with regards to last Friday’s festivities, said, “This isn’t just an African-American celebration. This is about the opening of doors for everybody…I still believe firmly there is going to be a day where there is a female player in the big leagues…Where it goes, I don’t know. I don’t believe I’ll be in the dugout to see it.”

Maybe Hurdle will be retired from coaching by the time a female actually plays in the MLB, but how long will it be before a female takes up the role of umpire or assistant coach? Perhaps not too long if professional sports continue to embrace progress and equality.

If she’s qualified, why not let a woman play, coach or officiate in the MLB? It’s time to for another Jackie Robinson, this time representing an entirely new cohort of potential players.

4 Comments

4 Responses to “Breaking Barriers: Will We Ever See a Woman in Baseball?”

  1. Carol Sheldon on April 20th, 2016 10:25 pm

    SOFTBALL IS NOT THE SAME SPORT! WOMEN HAVE PLAYED BASEBALL SINCE THE BEGINNING 1866! WE JUST WON THE GOLD MEDAL IN THE PAN AM GAMES IN TORONTO. JAPAN AND AUSTRALIA HAVE PRO LEAGUES. US HAD A SHORT LIVED ONE FOR 2 YEARS IN THE 90’S. JUSTINE SEIGEL WAS THE 1ST WOMAN TO COACH FOR A MLB TEAM, A’S, IN THE AZ FALL LEAGUE. THE NFL HAS HAD A FEMALE COACH, JEN WELTER FOR THE AZ CARDINALS IN THE PRESEASON. JEN PLAYED LINEBACKER FOR A WOMEN’S PRO TEAM.

  2. umpireplb on April 22nd, 2016 11:01 am

    Baseball and softball are no more “similar” to each other than apples and oranges. That’s a false dichotomy foisted on young girls who WANT to play baseball – and continue playing through high school and college – to convince them that softball is an acceptable alternative. While it may be a terrific sport on its own merits, it is in no way an “alternative” to baseball; that’s like saying piano lessons are an alternative to learning to play the saxophone. Two different instruments requiring an entirely different set of playing skills.

    As the previous commenter notes, women have been playing BASEBALL here in the United States for more than a century and a half. Women played hardball at colleges up and down the east coast back in the late 1800s. A team of black women players from Philadelphia known as the Dolly Vardens barnstormed around the country taking on all-male teams as competition when major league baseball was in its infancy. Amanda Clement was a highly respected umpire out in the midwest at the turn of the twentieth century who would have been the first female major league umpire if she had accepted an offer from Ban Johnson, the president of the newly-formed American League, to join its staff. (She didn’t; she preferred to stay close to her South Dakota roots and teach youngsters the healthful ways of exercise and outdoor activity, which she did all the days of her remarkable life.) Women played professionally during World War II; the film “A League Of Their Own” later immortalized the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, whose players’ achievements had been rendered largely invisible with the passage of time until the film revived interest in the league and the players, about 100 of whom are still alive and thriving. More recently, Justine Siegal became the first woman to coach a major league men’s team (the Oakland As) when she served as a guest instructor during the Arizona Fall League last October, but her focus is actually on creating opportunities for girls and women to play, coach, and umpire through tournaments she sets up via her organization Baseball For All that draw HUNDREDS of girls of all ages, all of them BASEBALL players, as participants. An organization called the International Women’s Baseball Center (full disclosure: I serve on the board of directors) has embarked upon a campaign to join Justine in creating opportunities for girls and women to play, coach, and umpire – we’re sponsoring a tournament at the Big Vision Sports Complex in Leesburg, Pennsylvania this June – while also raising funds for the construction of a museum/conference center that will honor the accomplishments of all the women who have worked so hard for so long with so few accolades to make baseball accessible to girls, women, and anyone else who ever wanted to play but was told “no” for whatever spurious reason.

    The myth that baseball and softball are similar sports has been a manufactured ploy designed to shunt girls into softball, which was actually invented as an wintertime, indoor version of baseball for MEN called “kitten ball.” The reasons for this separation of the girls from the boys beginning at about age 12 has traditionally been attributed to the need for a less contact-heavy sport because girls are so, you know, delicate. THAT myth has been pretty solidly busted by the growing numbers of girls and women worldwide who now play baseball in leagues and on teams all across the globe; they currently number in the thousands, perhaps the tens of thousands. The USA Baseball women’s team routinely mows down the competition in international tournaments, yet few people are even aware that there IS a USA women’s team playing baseball, not softball, much less one of the championship caliber of the squad that won the Gold Medal at the World Cup in Toronto last summer against some excellent competition from Japan, Canada, and other countries where there are national programs designed to draw women into baseball as players, coaches, and umpires. There is no such infrastructure of recruitment, training, and support here in the USA where baseball is supposed to be our national pastime but cannot truly be regarded as such until it stops excluding women from the professional baseball diamond. That may happen sooner than we think: a woman named Jen Pawol earned a job in pro ball out of umpire school this spring and will begin her career in the Gulf Coast League in Florida in June, ending an almost ten-year drought during which there were no women umpires at any level of pro ball. With high-profile major leaguers like Jamie Moyer, Clint Hurdle, Casey Candaele, and others all attesting to the fact that they believe the integration of women into professional baseball is inevitable and not to be feared, we may make it sooner rather than later – and it will be about time. And worry not, skeptics: opening the door to one or a few talented, dedicated women with the skills and the ambition to make it to the highest level of playing, coaching, or umpiring will NOT unleash a raging torrent of shrieking, estrogen-crazed banshees seeking to take over and feminize the field. Baseball will not be ruined by our participation, but will be made much the better for it. Thanks to the author of this article for shining a light on this issue.

  3. Theresa on April 24th, 2016 10:45 am

    Thank you so much for your response to this issue. When my oldest daughter was twelve, we visited Cooperstown after watching A League of Their Own sparked an interest in women in baseball, and we were so disappointed at the paltry representation of women in baseball. They presented it in the movie as a much bigger exhibit. I was not aware that women currently compete in baseball, not softball internationally. I thought that once the few brave girls who joined the boys teams in little league hit high school, that they were forced to quit or sent off to the softball team. It is however a shame that there aren’t girls baseball teams in little league. My youngest daughter loves all things baseball and really wanted to play baseball, not softball, but she did not want to break the all boy barrier in our area. Maybe her daughters wont have to. Thank you again for your comment – I will share this with my daughters and we will look for opportunities to cheer on the USA women baseball players.

  4. umpireplb on May 23rd, 2016 2:42 am

    Theresa, there are lots of organizations today that will help you and your daughters find a welcoming league or team to play baseball with if they want to. I’d start with baseballforall.com, Justine Siegal’s non-profit; you can also go to internationalwomensbaseballcenter.org, the home page of the IWBC, for news and updates about girls’ and women’s baseball tournaments and other events. USA Baseball sponsors the women’s team that plays in international competitions; you can find out about it here: http://web.usabaseball.com/womens_national_team.jsp. Times are changing! I wish you and your daughters the best, and all the joy that participating in our national pastime can bring.

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Breaking Barriers: Will We Ever See a Woman in Baseball?