A League for Us All
It's time for Major League Baseball to allow women to play
Toni Stone played for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, and once recorded a hit off Satchel Paige.
(This essay was presented at the SABR/IWBC Conference on Women in Baseball, September 11, 2021.)
In March 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher gathered his players for an impromptu late-night meeting in the kitchen of the team’s spring training hotel. The subject: A petition that several Dodger players had been circulating in which they objected to the inclusion of an African-American man as a member of the team. Durocher told his players in forceful, colorful, and no uncertain terms that if Jackie Robinson could help Brooklyn win the pennant, he would be a Dodger come Opening Day, and any player who objected to it would be traded from the team. “I’ll play an elephant if he can do the job,” Durocher famously said. “And to make room for him, I’ll send my own brother home.” Of course, Robinson played that year, led Brooklyn to the pennant, and changed the course of American history. (Wilson)
Despite Durocher’s promise, no elephants have ever suited up for a big-league game. But since Robinson’s rookie season, Major League Baseball has been played by legions of African-American ballplayers, as well as players from a host of different countries, including the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, Canada, Japan, Columbia, South Korea, Aruba, Australia, the Bahamas, Germany, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, and Taiwan. Even the tiny nation of Curacao has sent five players to the big leagues, despite having a population of only 165,000. (Cooper) Baseball has similarly opened its doors for disabled players, having seen Pete Gray, a one-arm outfielder, play for the St. Louis Browns two years before Jackie Robinson’s debut. And many of us here at this conference are old enough to remember seeing Jim Abbott throw a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians despite having been born without a right hand.
Apparently, ballclubs have agreed with Durocher that only nice guys finish last, and teams are willing to play anyone—or almost anyone—to avoid landing in the basement come October.
Considering Major League Baseball’s long-standing global reach for talent, it seems downright ludicrous that the sport has denied playing time to more than half the American population. Of the four major American sports, baseball is the only one that depends on speed and skill as much as (or possibly more than) it does size and strength, and yet, countless supremely talented athletes are barred from playing the game simply because they’re women. If Leo Durocher would have played an elephant in order to win the pennant, surely, he would have started a slick-fielding woman at second base, or placed a knuckleball-tossing woman on the mound, or played a speedy woman with a sure bat in his outfield.
The time for women to be allowed to play major league baseball isn’t just now—that time is long overdue. In the interest of diversity and inclusivity, for the good of the sport, and as a matter of national pride, women should be permitted to play alongside men on the major league field, beginning immediately.
Can women play at the major-league level? Of course they can. SABR and this conference are replete with stories of women who have competed against their male counterparts successfully. We’ve all heard the story of Alta Weiss, who paid for her medical school education by pitching semi-pro ball from 1906 through the mid-1920s. We know all about Jackie Mitchell, who used her 12-to-6 curveball to strike out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig during an exhibition game in 1931. And stories abound about Toni Stone, who, as a member of the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, recorded a hit off the legendary Satchel Paige. (Doublin)
And women baseball players, as we know, aren’t just relegated to stories of the past. As many of you know, in the spring of 2017, Melissa Mayeux, a young shortstop from France, was placed on her country’s under-18 junior national team. As a result, she made history as the first female baseball player added to MLB’s international registration list, making her eligible to be signed by a major league team. “She’s got great hands,” said one college coach who saw early video of Mayeux’s play. “She’s got power when she swings. And, obviously, I could tell that she had great work ethic.” (Gibson)
Then there’s Chelsea Baker, who, at age 13, was using a 60-MPH fastball and the knuckleball taught to her by Joe Niekro to throw two perfect games and send her opponents to the bench in tears. “Chelsea has a good delivery,” said former major league general manager Dan Duquette. “I saw that she throws downhill, and I also saw that she has good life on her fastball and she’s a good competitor . . . I can see that she has a real passion for the game.” (Houser)
“Baseball is the greatest game, and everyone should have a chance to play,” said Dr. Justine Siegal, the founder of Baseball for All, an organization that promotes women playing the sport. “There are women playing alongside men in colleges, leagues, and the occasional independent teams. Baseball has no gender.”
Certainly, there are differences between the way men and women play. A study by the Journal of Applied Biomechanics showed that men’s and women’s bodies function differently when throwing a baseball. For pitchers, the length of a woman’s stride towards the plate is shorter. The rotation of the hips while keeping the shoulders closed, a vital component in generating velocity, isn’t the same. Elbow velocity is similarly lower in women than in men, the study showed. (Passan)
Still, the first women ballplayers don’t have to arrive with a 100-mile-per-hour Jacob deGrom fastball, or the brute strength of a Vladmir Guerrero, Jr., and there are far more important qualities than size and strength needed to play the game. Major League Baseball has seen a long line of diminutive players such as Phil Rizzuto of the New York Yankees, David Eckstein of the Los Angeles Angels, and Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox, all of whom enjoyed long and successful careers without possessing the size and brute force of many of their teammates. In other words, when searching for the first woman ballplayer, we’re not necessarily looking for another Aaron Judge or Pete Alonso. Instead, the first woman to play major league ball could easily be a female version of Ozzie Albies or Jose Altuve.
Consider what former Arizona Diamondback and two-time All-Star Steve Finley had to say about Mayeux, the French shortstop: “What she really did well was make adjustments quick,” he said. “You could have her do a quick adjustment on the spot, and she’d take it right into the game. That’s really one of the key things that makes her such a good player.” (Gibson)
“Melissa is a warrior,” said Hall-of-Famer Barry Larkin, a former shortstop with the Cincinnati Reds. “I was very encouraged by her understanding of the game and her technique. I think it showed even more because she physically wasn’t as strong as some of the boys, but she paid more attention and became a leader.” (Gibson)
So where might the first women ballplayers come from? To find them, we need look no further than collegiate ball, traditionally the well from which most major league ballplayers spring. According to a recent Sports Illustrated article, a record six women played for collegiate teams this year, and a movement to make women’s baseball a college sport is gaining momentum. (Rosen) The names of many of these players are already familiar to those of you at this conference.
One player, Skylar Kaplan, grew up playing baseball and eventually made the team at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland. While pitching for the Riverhawks, she struck out 11 top Division I NCAA prospects in 11 2/3 innings of work in her first season. “I knew a few guys on the college team already from playing with them or against them through the years,” Kaplan told the magazine. “The ones who had no idea who I was, once they saw me hit and pitch for the first time, they were like, ‘OK, she’s good. That’s all I need to know.’” (Rosen)
For Beth Greenwood, a catcher for the University of Rochester, the transition to college baseball came with extra pressure. “Everyone is going to look at you whether you like it or not,” she said. “You feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders, and sometimes when you’re playing, you feel like you’re playing for all the girls and women in baseball. It can be hard to separate that and remember that you’re just a baseball player like anyone else. But having all those eyes on you is a privilege. It’s a privilege to be here and have those opportunities, because I didn’t know this was possible when I was younger.” (Rosen)
One of the biggest obstacles these women have had to face in their development as ballplayers is society’s propensity to automatically shift them to softball, as it tried to do with Baker and Mayeux. Baker tried softball, but according to Rod Mason, her stepfather and coach, “she doesn’t like it, so baseball is her deal.” (Houser) On the basis of early videos that she sent to the U.S., Mayeux was offered a full scholarship to play softball at Miami Dade College, which she accepted. (Gibson)
Marika Lyszczyk, a catcher and pitcher for Rivier University in Nashua, New Hampshire, was one of the many women who chose to buck that trend. “My mom assumed that I wanted to play with the girls, so she put me in softball,” she said. “A lot of times, girls switch over to softball because they don’t feel comfortable with the guys, or feel intimidated by them. But you shouldn’t have to switch to softball. Baseball and softball are two very different games.” (Rosen)
Luisa Gauci is a second baseman for Green River Community College in Auburn, Washington. “Even now, some people ask me if I’m interested in switching to softball, and they mention that there would be a lot more scholarship money for me in softball,” she said. “The money and getting to play at a Division I school entices me, but I am so passionate about baseball, and I love it so much that if I played softball at a Division I school, I would just be mad that I’m not on the baseball team.” (Rosen)
Ballplayers like these are signs that the barrier keeping women from playing baseball is cracking, and it’s not hard to imagine that one day, those cracks will eventually reach the professional—and even major league—level. In the end, people who oppose women playing baseball have no reason to bar them from the game other than the same reason that was used for so many generations to keep African-Americans from playing, and that is, “We just don’t want them to play.” And not only is that reason not good enough in the 21st century, but it may be keeping us from actually saving the game we love, a game that, whether we want to admit it or not, is in peril.
Consider this cold, hard fact: Major League Baseball as we know it is currently killing itself. The average age of today’s typical baseball fan is a shocking 57 years old, which is younger than me, but that certainly doesn’t make it young enough. Regular-season attendance, even before the pandemic, is down, and viewership of the World Series, baseball’s grandest event, is plummeting (Blaff). Our national pastime is in danger of becoming a regional curiosity, in which diehard fans in New York, Boston, and Chicago take a measured interest, but the nation as a whole finds little fascination.
And what has been MLB’s reaction to all of this? The league has nipped and tucked at pace-of-play rules, as if a two-hour-and-fifty-minute game will be more attractive than the exact same game played in three hours and ten minutes. Accusations of baseballs being juiced and de-juiced, all in the interest of manipulating action during games, fly around like Shohei Otani home runs. And in an effort to raise interest (as well as cash), MLB is cozying up with online companies that allow viewers to bet on games, both in advance and in progress—something that would have been a cardinal sin when I began watching the sport back in the late sixties.
But even will all these changes, baseball is failing in its efforts to attract new fans, while rule changes only serve to alienate its most loyal ones. Viewership continues to decline, and potential younger fans—the ones with the most disposable income and the most time on their hands (in other words, people who we need to hand the game down to future generations)—continue to be lost, not only to other traditional sports, but to the myriad of pastimes offered online. Someday, my friends, you and I will go the route of Leo Durocher and we’ll walk up the tunnel to that great locker room in the sky. And if something isn’t done soon, we’ll take the great game of baseball with us.
There is, however, a ray of good news in the midst of the gloom. The game we love can be saved if we were to embrace MLB’s fastest-growing audience: women. According to a recent USA Today article, the gender that’s not even allowed to play the game is flocking to it in droves. In fact, the audience for ESPN’s national baseball broadcast has grown a staggering 83 percent among women between the ages of 18-34, the demographic “sweet spot” for those in the industry (McCarthy). Surveys show that attendance by women at MLB games is also rising (Berr), and today, a full 45 percent of women in America describe themselves as either “avid fans” or “casual fans” of the sport (Statista).
Now imagine, with these numbers in mind, the level of interest in the game if a woman were to finally break MLB’s gender barrier. Instead of being a footnote in the sports pages of a dying local newspaper, the games in which this woman plays will be a non-stop headline in the 24-hour news cycle. This pioneering woman will be a household name, as will the women who follow her. And think of the multitude of fans, both men and women, whose fascination for the game would be reignited by the exploits of these new players. Today, the names of the top players in baseball are barely known in public outside the sport. Don’t believe me? See how many average Americans on the street have heard of LeBron or Tiger Woods or Tom Brady. Then see how many of them have heard of Mike Trout or Mookie Betts or Fernando Tatis Jr. The names of the first women to play Major Leage Baseball, though, will become legendary in an instant, and these women will catapult the game to a new level of international relevance.
There’s precedent in the world of sports for allowing women to compete alongside men. This past summer, the Olympics began busting gender barriers when it expanded the number of dual-gender competitions beyond the traditional mixed-doubles tennis. Men and women competed against one another in relay racing, swimming, and the triathlon so that the games would “be more youthful, more urban, and include more women,” according to International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach. (BBC)
But if that’s not flashy enough for you—if you want to reach for the kind of pizazz that MLB is fruitlessly searching for with pace-of-play rules and online betting—consider the WWE. In 2016, the pro wrestling behemoth took its women performers, known as “Divas,” and rebranded them as “Superstars,” the same term used for male wrestlers. In doing so, it launched a so-called “Women’s Revolution” in pro wrestling, headlined by such performers as Sasha Banks, Bayley, Charlotte Flair, and Becky Lynch (ironically nicknamed, “The Man”). The popularity of the women’s division exploded, and before long, the talent, action and interest in the women’s division outshone even that on the men’s side. Women superstars became tremendously popular amongst the entire WWE audience, so much so that in 2019, three women—Flair, Lynch, and former Mixed Martial Arts champ Rhonda Rousey—competed in the headline match at Wrestlemania, the industry’s equivalent to the Super Bowl, an event witnessed by hundreds of millions of avid fans around the world.
Just as they have in other arenas, the inclusion of women athletes would change the tenor of big-league baseball, and definitely for the better. In an age in which MLB is practically doing Ozzie Smith-style backflips in an effort to increase the action on the field, women baseball players will inject a style of play in the game that will make it more attractive to audiences both old and new, audiences who crave the very action for which baseball is searching. Today, thanks to the game’s obsession with analytics, batters emphasize the uppercut and too often swing for the fences, resulting in a record number of one boring strikeout after another. Defensive infield shifts take away what once would have been easy base hits, while turning routine ground balls into accidental doubles that dribble into the outfield.
Women ballplayers, however, will bring back a style of play based on speed, skill, and excitement. The very tone of the game itself will change, becoming new again by returning what made it great in the first place. The hit-and-run. The bunt base hit. The triple. The inside-the-park home run. Baseball’s most exciting and action-packed plays, the ones that have gone the way of the four-fingered glove and the woolen uniform in today’s age of stifling analytics, will return when women who depend on speed and skill to play the game finally get their chance to take the field.
This vital change to the game must also be implemented as both matters of social justice and of national pride. Eight years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, and 16 years before Dr. King gave his legendary “I Have a Dream” Speech in Washington, D.C., Jackie Robinson touched off the modern American civil rights movement when he took the field for the Dodgers. Baseball can similarly launch a new era in equal rights for women—an era in which young fans can grow up watching their male and female heroes play and compete beside one another—once a woman ballplayer suits up for a major league team.
Furthermore, considering the inroads women are making into baseball and recognizing that it’s only a matter of time before they begin to push against MLB’s gender barrier, it becomes clear that this historic event must take place here in the United States. The Japanese have already allowed a woman, a side-arm knuckleballing pitcher named Eri Yoshida, to play in a professional independent league. But the nation that ultimately gave Jackie Robinson the chance to play big-league ball must be the first to give the same opportunity to a female player at the major league level. After all, America is the country that tells its people that you can go as far as your talents and skills take you, as long as you work hard enough. MLB can no longer tell half the country’s population that this most basic of American principles does not apply to them. It would be a national disgrace if the honor of being the first female ballplayer, an honor representing a fundamentally American ideal manifested in the most fundamentally American sport, was finally bestowed upon a woman in another country.
“Baseball is the greatest game,” said Dr. Siegal of Baseball for All. “Everyone should have a chance to play. It’s a stain on American sports that girls are still told they can’t play baseball.”
“I don’t think the game is discriminatory male or female,” Larkin said. “If there’s a female that’s capable of physically doing it and has the skills to do it, then I don’t think there’s any holding back.” (Gibson)
“I don’t care if you’re a man or woman, either you can keep up or you can’t,” Finley said. "The sport will let you know how far you can go. And I think that’s true of anybody . . . If you’re a man or a woman, I don’t care, if you have the talent and ability to play at the big league level, go for it.” (Gibson)
Of course, the first woman ballplayer in the major leagues will have to be an extraordinary person. She’ll have to be “a woman of great fortitude and moral courage,” Dr. Siegal said. “She would have to play not just for herself, but for all the girls who have been told they couldn’t.” This woman will face unimaginable obstacles and pressure. She’ll be an object of scorn and derision by many, but to millions more, she’ll be a hero. She’ll be revered, and like Jackie Robinson, her name will be remembered throughout history. More importantly for Major Leage Baseball, she’ll move an unimaginable number of jerseys and T-shirts, she’ll inject new energy into the game, and she’ll put our national pastime on the top of every newscast and in the forefront of the international consciousness. That woman is out there, somewhere, toiling on a remote ballfield, waiting for her chance to make history. All she needs is for Major Leage Baseball to give her the time at bat that she deserves.
And if none of this is convincing enough, listen to Leo Durocher, who insisted that he’d play an elephant if he could do the job. Personally, I’m with Leo, and as a New York Mets fan, if a woman could help my team win the title that’s eluded us for 35 years, I’d meet her at LaGuardia Airport and carry her to Citi Field on my back. I’d wear her name on my shirt, I’d cheer for her from the stands, and I’d watch with pride as she takes her first pitch, finally proving that baseball is truly a national pastime played by an entire nation.
· Wilson, Doug. Doug Wilson’s Baseball Bookshelf. June 26, 2017
· Cooper, J.J. “Which Countries Produce the Most MLB Players?” Baseball America. April 7, 2021
· Doublin, Nance. “No Girls Allowed: Why Aren’t There Any Women in MLB?” Bleacher Report. September 1, 2010
· Gibson, Charlotte. “When will the first female play in the Major Leagues?” ESPN. June 27, 2019
· Houser, Ben. “In a League of their own” ESPN. July 20, 2010
· Passan, Jeff. “Mo’ne Davis, and why no one should laugh at the idea of a woman in Major League Baseball” Yahoo! Sports. August 19, 2014
· Rosen, Michael. “Breaking the Grass Ceiling: More Women are Playing College Baseball than Ever Before” Sports Illustrated. June 23, 2021
· Blaff, Ari. “How to Revive the National Pastime.” The National Review. July 11, 2021
· McCarthy, Michael. “MLB Attracting Younger TV Viewers This Season” USA Sports. August 8, 2020
· Berr, Jonathan. “Baseball’s pitch to put more women in the stands.” CBS News. April 10, 2015.
· BBC. “Tokyo 2020: Mixed-gender events added to the Olympic Games” June 9, 2017
Michael Ruscoe can be contacted at MRuscoeBooks@gmail.com.