From the desk of Jennifer Ring: Not Softball

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 and A Game of Their Own: Voices of Contemporary Women in Baseball (Nebraska, 2015). 

Underwood Holmes Alvarez_Ring post

Malaika Underwood, Tamara Holmes, and Veronica Alvarez.

“It’s a great age for girls to be excited about baseball!” proclaimed Tamara Holmes, left fielder for Team USA and the most prolific home run hitter in the history of women’s baseball. She was referring to the decision of Major League Baseball and USA Baseball to jointly sponsor the first Trailblazer Series, a three-day girls’ baseball tournament to be held April 13-15 at Major League Baseball’s Urban Youth Academy in Compton, California. MLB’s Youth Academy was established in 2006 to encourage boys from the inner cities to play baseball. The clinic and tournament for girls will be held in conjunction with Jackie Robinson Day, commemorating seventy years since Robinson first stepped onto a Major League diamond.

In 2008 USA Baseball held tryouts for their Women’s National Team at the Urban Youth Academy, and I was struck at the time by the irony of Major League Baseball’s efforts to attract boys from America’s urban centers, while overlooking girls who needed no encouragement: they wanted to play. Now, one-hundred girls, ages sixteen and under, representing twenty states, the District of Columbia and Canada, are set to play ball in that venue. That’s progress.

Current and former members of Team USA will coach the young Trailblazers. Malaika Underwood, captain and seven-time veteran of Team USA, stated “I’m honored and excited. It’s profoundly significant that MLB and USA Baseball decided to put this on and make a statement about the role girls and women have in the game, not as fans but as players. I hope this becomes a yearly thing.” Tamara Holmes, who has been on Team USA six times, and before that played on the Colorado Silver Bullets women’s professional baseball team, observed, “I am honored to be a part of this groundbreaking series hosted by MLB… I hope this is the first of many.”

RingDonna Mills, still another veteran of Team USA slotted to coach at the tournament, remarked, “Somebody at Major League Baseball must have read A Game of Their Own!” referring to the book I wrote, published by the University of Nebraska Press (2015). A Game of Their Own uses the players’ own stories to chronicle the challenges faced by American girls who want to play baseball—not softball. Seven of the eleven players I interviewed in A Game of Their Own will be coaching the Trailblazer Series.

Playing for Team USA was the first moment when most of the ballplayers became aware that other girls play baseball. The sheer joy of playing their favorite game with women who were their athletic equals was an unparalleled experience. Veronica Alvarez, catcher for Team USA from 2008-2015, is looking forward to coaching in the Trailblazer series as a chance to reach the girls early, and show them that they are not “weird” for playing baseball: “Most of these girls are the only girl in their hometown league. Most of them at some point have been ridiculed by boys and parents on the opposing team… This is most likely going to be the first time they learn that they are not the only girl playing baseball and most importantly that there is a women’s national team.”

Yet that national team has been flying under the radar for years, unrecognized by American sports media. They have competed internationally and come home with medals—beating everybody in the world except for Japan, a nation that encourages its girls to play baseball from kindergarten on. In 2015 Team USA won gold at the PanAm games in Toronto, and still—no publicity! “There’s a Women’s National baseball team? Who knew??” was the response of the American public, if they heard about it at all. The players featured in A Game of Their Own laugh about trying to convince anybody in the U.S. that they actually play baseball. “You mean softball?” is the usual response they encounter.

During the past few years attention paid to the girls’ game has increased. Mo’ne Davis, the Little League pitching phenom, was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated on August 19, 2014 after she shut out a boys’ team in the Little League World Series. In 2016 the Fox Television series Pitch aired, with a story line about a hypothetical first woman to play in Major League Baseball. Filmmakers Matthew Temple and Jon Leonoudakis are both at work on documentaries about girls and women in baseball: The Girls of Summer, and The Sweet Spot.

Baseball Commissioner Robert Manfred has likened the Trailblazer Series to the racial integration of Major League Baseball: “In memory of Jackie Robinson, Major League Baseball is committed to making our sport accessible and inclusive for all those who want to play, coach, or participate… MLB and USA Baseball have listened to the growing demand for girls’ and women’s baseball by launching this unprecedented event. We will be proud to do so on the most meaningful date on our calendar, Jackie Robinson Day.” (USA Today, April 6, 2017.)

MLB and USA Baseball seem so close to “getting it right” and welcoming girls into the game. Yet the celebrity spokesperson for the event is legendary softball player Jennie Finch. This is ironic in light of MLB’s association of their outreach to girls with the achievements of Jackie Robinson. The Civil Rights Movement taught us that separate is not equal, and that the Negro Leagues were not the equivalent of all-white Major League Baseball. Yet astonishingly, Major League Baseball has chosen a softball star to represent women who have resisted the all-male gender segregation of baseball. The banner of MLB’s press release shows Finch wearing her Olympic softball uniform and holding a yellow softball. Finch is featured in MLB’s promotional video for the Trailblazer event. The Los Angeles Times notes, “The girls… will be coached by several of the nation’s top female baseball coaches and players, including Olympic gold medalist Jennie Finch.” (April 8, 2017)

Jennie Finch is an admirable and accomplished athlete, but she doesn’t play baseball. Why, wondered one member of Team USA, didn’t they feature the “Babe Ruth of women’s baseball, Tamara Holmes,” for their publicity? Her teammate wisecracked, “I actually had no idea this tournament was such a big deal until they started putting Finch’s face all over it!”

It’s time for women baseball players to become the faces of their own game. The ball with which they want to play is small and white, with beautiful red stitching.