Lilly Jacobson has always been enamored of baseball. From the time she was a little girl, Jacobson watched baseball with her mother and played baseball with her friends, moving up over the years to Little League, where "Little Miss RBI" excelled playing on a boys team.
The older she got, though, the more she was isolated, despite her undeniable talent. After playing ball both in high-school and at Vassar College, Jacobson's dream of a professional career playing the sport she loves was over.
"It's time to realize that shock and awe cost society more in the long run than respect, fair play, and sportsmanship."
Most girls don't even get a shot to play on collegiate teams, which prefer to keep roster spots for boys with a shot at the big leagues, something girls don't have. Instead, they are shunted to the sidelines to play a kinder, gentler game: softball.
But women have a long history playing baseball that author Jennifer Ring explores in Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don't Play Baseball. Ring, who is Jacobson's mother, notes the efforts men have made over the years to reshape baseball as a man's game and limit women to playing softball. It's an issue as vexing today for Ring as it was when she began writing this book years ago.Gelf Magazine's interview with Ring, a professor of political science and former director of women's studies at the University of Nevada, was conducted by email, and has been edited for length and clarity. Her daughter's struggle to play baseball was Ring's motivation for writing Stolen Bases. She tells Gelf why she thinks women can play in the majors, how baseball used to be more gender-blind, and why softball is no substitute.
Gelf Magazine: You've loved baseball your whole life. Why was it so hard to write a book about something you cherish so much? You write that it was "the most intellectually and emotionally challenging experience of my life."
Jennifer Ring: It was difficult because I was witnessing the efforts of my local community to exclude my young daughter from participating in youth baseball, from developing her talents and being able to play the game she loves without adults interfering in a basic childhood pleasure. The fact that we had to battle to keep her playing the game stirred long-buried memories of my own exclusion from the sport when I was a girl. Those of us who love baseball, whether male or female, know that childhood baseball memories go very deepthey're almost primal. So writing about baseball and the exclusion of girls and women reawakened in me a feeling of loss, a longing for something that never happened. Writing the book was also a way of channeling my maternal outrage at the way my daughter was being treated.
Gelf Magazine: I'm sure millions of people don't know that women's role in baseball goes back to the 1830s, and that the game wasn't invented by Abner Doubleday. How hard was it to track down baseball's beginnings in England, in a game that boys and girls played? Were there lots of dead ends?
Jennifer Ring: The really weird thing is that those facts are undisputed, and already published in every reputable history of baseball. What was puzzling is that the facts are noted and then ignored. Nobody really pays any attention to them. When I first read about girls' and women's long involvement in the game, both in England and in the US, I knew I had to write a book. The fact that millions of people don't know about women's baseball history is part of the mechanism that perpetuates women's exclusion. Erasing and ignoring history often has political implications. If it were public knowledge that girls and women have played baseball for centuries, and played in the US since the early 19th century, it would be more difficult to insist that "baseball is for boys and softball is for girls."Gelf Magazine: Your daughter Lilly faced barriers in her pursuit of playing baseball at higher levels instead of playing softball. Often, she was a better player than many boys but couldn't play with them. Did her struggle play a part in your decision to write this book?
Jennifer Ring: Yes. I began writing because what she was going through was so blatantly unjust and hurtful, and it hurt me to watch. I also wanted to make sure that she knew it wasn't right. I needed to do something about it, and I had a better chance of publishing a book than changing our local baseball community. While doing the research and meeting other girls who play baseball and their families, I learned that Lilly is not alone. Many other girls have also experienced appalling discrimination and denial of their talent and work ethic. I can't understand adults trying to crush the spirit of children by denying them access to a game (or any activity) they love and are working hard to excel at.
Gelf Magazine: You didn't get full cooperation in researching your book. Does that surprise you?
Jennifer Ring: I'm usually surprised when I do get cooperation for what I do. I'm not quite sure what you're referring to, though. I wasn't able to convince any scholarly foundations to provide funding or grant money for my research, which really slowed down the writing of the book. I was surprised at how long it took me to finish the book. There's usually institutional resistance to supporting a project that challenges accepted beliefs about the world, and the academic establishment is notoriously timid. However, I was fortunate to get an advance contract with the University of Illinois Press, and to work with an editor, Joan Catapano, who was supportive and very smart, and committed to helping me make the book as good as it needed to be. All of the people at Illinois Press have been enthusiastic about the book, and helped to bring it into the world.
Gelf Magazine: There wasn't always a glass ceiling against women in baseball. In 1931, Jackie Mitchell had a Class AA contract with the Chattanooga Lookouts and played an exhibition game against the mighty Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig. The 17-year-old pitcher struck out the Babe and the Iron Horseback to back. Mitchell's contract was soon voided by commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who said baseball was "too strenuous" for women to play. But what if women had continued playing? Might they be playing in the big leagues today?
Jennifer Ring: I think so. It takes so much commitment and effort to be really good at baseball. The men who make their living at the sport are so good, and have spent their whole lives getting there. But it's so easy to play baseball if you're a boy. For girls, it's a battle to find a team to play on every step of the way, and so most girls naturally get discouraged. It's just easier to give in and play softball, or another sport altogether. If the doors had been opened in the early 20th century, even a little bit at a timefor example, if MLB had encouraged, or even acknowledged, girls who showed they had talent and desireI'm confident there would be women playing in the big leagues today, or women playing in big leagues of their own. Some of the women who played in the mid-20th century might have accomplished it. I know there are many young girls today who have big-league dreamsjust like boys dobut they get the door slammed in their face and it keeps them from seeing how good they might become.
Gelf Magazine: You write that baseball is as exclusionary as most of the world's religionswomen only in the pews (stands), not in the pulpit (on the field). With the glacial pace of change in most churches, can you be surprised by women's exclusion from the baseball field?
Jennifer Ring: I'm not really surprised that women are excluded from something so important to American culture (and so lucrative), but I'm surprised at the process by which the exclusion is perpetuated: the direct suppression of children's desire to play the game. I am still surprised at how otherwise good people, parents of daughters and sons, can say to a little girl, "You can't play this game, even though it's something that America values and celebrates. We have a different game for you." I don't understand how that is still possible in 21st-century America.Gelf Magazine: Your research shows that baseball evolved from an English gamethat it wasn't an American original. But you say that it wasn't until the profit motive came along that baseball was declared "a manly game," shunning women to the sidelines. Attitudes certainly were different early in the 20th century. And yet things haven't changed much. Women today can play softball but not baseball, even though women played baseball as far back as the 1860s and early into the 20th century.
Jennifer Ring: Yes, all that is true. I don't think that the professionalization of baseball "caused" the exclusion of women. But the association of baseball with the American national identity, and the idea that men were to be paid a living wage to play a "child's game," meant that baseball had to assert its "manliness" more stridently than before. Money was regarded as appropriate compensation for difficult work. But then baseball had to be seen as work: no longer simply a game, but an activity that called for training, discipline, and skill. It was associated with military prowess and with being an American. All those factors converged to make women a threat to the significance of the game for Americans. The national game had to be masculine. America couldn't have a girly national identity! And women certainly did not have professional earning power in those days. Women still don't have the earning power that men do. Money and wealth are still associated with manhood, as is athletic prowess.
Gelf Magazine: It's kind of funny to think that in 1906, Rogers Hornsby and Smoky Joe Wood played on a barnstorming team called the Bloomer Girls. But there were some pretty accomplished women playing at the time, although they couldn't play pro baseball. Women's baseball was dismissed as a "freak show." It would be interesting to know how they felt about that feeling.
Jennifer Ring: I'll bet the women who played in that circuit just loved playing baseball, and were grateful to have the opportunity to travel and be paid a modest wage for doing something they enjoyed. That's probably similar to the way Hornsby and Wood felt when they were very young. It was a good job. People who are the brunt of ridicule develop resistance to the stupidity of their detractors. Victims of bigotry know how ignorant bigots are. Still, I think women, and other victims of prejudice, whether racial or sexualpeople of color, gays and lesbians, womenstruggle with "internalizing" the message that they are not to be taken as seriously as the people who subject them to ridicule. Being called a freak is no fun; it's a terrible burden to have to deal with. But the strongest people are able to use ridicule to become still stronger: They know who they are.
Gelf Magazine: You write that you hope to rescue baseball from its "arrogance and sense of exclusionary entitlement." Before reading your book, I didn't know there was an outcry for women to play baseball. Is this a battle you can win? And how long might it take?
Jennifer Ring: There isn't really a general outcry for women to play baseball. That's part of the problem: People don't think it's an issue. It's not just baseball; it's most sports. But baseball has the longest history in this country, and regards itself as distinctly American, which gives it a distinctive sort of arrogance. It's long been resistant to racial inclusiveness. It's still regarded as a "white sport" by many people of color. My appraisal of how long it might take to include women fully in the national pastime depends on what sort of mood I'm in on any given day. If I'm feeling upbeat, I can envision a day when Americans assume that as many little girls will want to play baseball as do boys. Maybe my granddaughters and grandsons will play in the same Little League. Maybe my daughters will not have to fight so hard if their daughters want to play baseball when they're young. And if they're good, maybe people will encourage them to keep playing and develop their skills. Maybe they'll play on all-girl teams, maybe they'll play on mixed teams with boys. Japan, Canada, and Australia all have well developed infrastructures for girls' baseball. Why can't the US? It seems like such a simple expectation: Play the sport you love whether you're a girl or a boy, and be allowed to see how good you can be at it.
Gelf Magazine: Baseball's history has been rewritten, you write, to exclude women's role in its beginning, and to force women to play softball instead. Is your goal to have women play in the major leagues or to have their own pro league?
Jennifer Ring: Whatever works. I'd like to live long enough to see a US that celebrates women athletes and rewards them as it rewards its men athletes. Well, maybe the way we reward professional male athletes is a little excessive, but I'd like to see women have the opportunity to be professional athletes, and to be able to make a gratifying living doing it, whether in baseball, basketball, soccer, or whatever other sport they like. It's probably more realistic to envision separate professional leagues for women and men. But if there are women who are big enough, strong enough, and talented enough to play baseball with men, I think we as a society should embrace and celebrate that.
I think there's more likelihood that women can play baseball with men than some other sports. Football and basketball seem to me to be more dependent upon size for excellence. Size matters less in baseball, unless you respect the current obsession with home runs that permits ballplayers to do whatever it takes to be able to hit them. Some of the best players of the game are small men. There's a role in baseball for different body types and different skills. David Eckstein comes to mind as a small man who is a brilliant ballplayer, and who has been celebrated for it. World Series MVP: can't do much better than that. Dustin Pedroia is another example. Some women are bigger than those baseball superstars. So I don't think it's impossible to envision the best female ballplayers playing on the same teams as the best men. But it will take a while to create a culture that permits women to develop skills at baseball and other sports without making men feel that they're failing as men if they can't "beat" all women in all sports. I think sex segregation in sports is more about protecting men from possible psychological threats from women than protecting women physically from men.
"I think there's a greater discrepancy in how women and men athletes are treated than women and men politicians."Gelf Magazine: A.G. Spalding, a former ballplayer and founder of the Spalding sporting-goods company, was abandoned by his mother after his father's death, leading to his infantilizing of women and their banning from baseball. You say Spalding's book, America's National Game, is saturated with nationalist and gender chauvinism. His insistence that baseball didn't evolve from the British game rounders, which girls also played, would make the game manly. Were women doing anything to counter those moves?
Jennifer Ring: I don't think women were even aware of Spalding's efforts to Americanize baseball. Not many men were, either; it wasn't really an issue. People were glad to believe that the enormously popular American game was indeed born on American soil. It went along with the nationalist and gender chauvinism that prevailed at the turn of the century. It was welcome news that baseball was American, or people didn't regard it as news at all.
It's not quite accurate to say that Spalding was "abandoned" by his mother. She believed she was doing what was best for her beloved first son, in sending him closer to urban Chicago, rather than the parochial Illinois farmland, after his father died. She thought she was doing what her late husband wished, in educating her son properly. But 12-year-old Spalding, who was sent away from his mother and younger siblings for a year shortly after his father died, experienced it as abandonment. The surrogate family he found during that difficult pre-adolescent year were the boys with whom he played baseball. His need to control his feelings of loneliness and abandonment led him to regard baseball as a brotherhood. He didn't "need" women if he had his brothers. I suggest in the book that it was that period of his life that enabled him to so stridently say women didn't belong on the playing field.
Gelf Magazine: Were you surprised to learn that softball, whose origins go back to 1887, was originally played by boys? Now it's predominantly a girls' game. Is there much clamor among young women today to play baseball? Would they be successful playing on the bigger fields, throwing much farther, not only from the outfield but from the pitchers' mound?
Jennifer Ring: I was surprised about how the men who first invented softball were so apologetic about it even though they loved playing it, that they went out of their way to make sure everybody knew they didn't regard it as "real" baseball. It began as an indoor substitute so that baseball-loving men could play even in the cold winter months. But they "gendered" the game by calling it "sissy ball" and "nancy ball" and "panty waist." It wasn't regarded as sufficiently rigorous, strenuous, or warlike.
These days, there are plenty of girls who want to play baseball. Most of them take the course of least resistance and play softball. But many women who have played softball tell me they would have played baseball if they thought they had a choice. The girls who do play baseball now really want to play; it's painful to learn of the struggles they undergo to keep playing. There's no problem with fit, athletic girls running 90-foot basepaths, pitching the ball 60 feet, and playing with baseball-size outfields. Anybody who has seen women play baseball on a regulation baseball field knows that the dimensions are not a problem. The game is the game. Women don't regularly hit the ball out of the park yet, but I know they will if they keep playing the game. Long home runs are nice, but there's a lot more to the thrill of baseball. When they're young, girls, of course, should play on smaller diamonds, just as boys do in Little League.
The dimensions of a regulation baseball diamond aren't inherently masculine. We're used to what men have been able to accomplish, and believe that if a woman doesn't pitch a ball 90 miles per hour, or get to first base in three seconds, or hit a ball 500 feet, she shouldn't be playing. That's pretty stupid.
Gelf Magazine: It's only been since 1973 that girls have been able to play Little League. What is the participation rate like today versus a quarter-century ago?
Jennifer Ring: It hasn't changed much at all, because all the rewards are for girls playing softball. There's nothing wrong with softball, but there's no real choice, even though the legal path has been cleared for girls to play hardball.
Gelf Magazine: As you know, women's professional tennis, golf, soccer, and basketball are suffering, especially with the tough economy. Do you foresee the day when women's sports have the same cachet as men's sports, where they're must-see, and not just for one-off women's events, for example the World Cup, which tend to be successful?
Jennifer Ring: I sure hope so. Why not, if what makes sports compelling is the appreciation of athletic excellence? Great women athletes are as beautiful to watch as great male athletes. The entertainment industry and spectator sports often thrive during a depression. Why not add women's sports to the mix of what we love to watch? And what we'll pay to see? Of course "realists" say that women's sports will never succeed because it's economically unfeasible. I disagree, and hope people get tired of power and violence being billed as what's most important about sports. It's time to realize that shock and awe cost society more in the long run than respect, fair play, and sportsmanship.
Gelf Magazine: Separate gender roles gained currency after the Civil War, with women's sports called "unfeminine." Other than in baseball, is that belief prevalent today?
Jennifer Ring: In large part, yes. We're more tolerant of girls being athletic, but women athletes still have to "prove" their femininity. Male athletes are assumed to be masculine. Grown men can still be sports-crazylook at the marketing for the Super Bowl and the World Series. We assume most viewers will be men, reliving their boyhood through their athletic heroes, and in general acting like children. We still associate athleticism with masculinity, which in turn discourages many women from pursuing their athletic dreams.
Gelf Magazine: What's been tougher for women to win: political power or athletic freedom?
Jennifer Ring: Athletic freedom, at least in terms of team sports. We reward a few great female individual athletestennis players, golfers, track athletes, swimmers, gymnasts. But we have come closer to accepting the idea of a woman being president than we have to accepting the idea of adequately supporting women's professional athletic teams. We have a woman Speaker of the House, two women Supreme Court justices, and a few women senators, governors, representatives. But if you're not a superstar at an individual sport, as a woman you can barely make a living as an athlete. Women certainly don't get multimillion-dollar contracts out of high school. I think there's a greater discrepancy in how women and men athletes are treated than women and men politicians.
"I know no women who have tried to play baseball with men simply to make a political point. They just want to play the sport they love."Gelf Magazine: Women have made a lot of progress in sports, even if it doesn't show at the box office, and even if it isn't doesn't include baseball. What female athletic achievement gives you a sense of pride?
Jennifer Ring: All of them. I love seeing grace, unapologetic strength, and aggression on the playing field. I love the Williams sisters of tennis. I love the 1999 Women's World Cup soccer team. And I love the US women's national baseball team. Those girls and women make me glow with pride. They've persevered against such tremendous discouragement. They've been overlooked, ignored, and marginalized, and they keep coming back to play, however they can, and with more heart and ability than you can imagine unless you've seen them play. What heroes!
Gelf Magazine: Has Title IX helped or hindered the women's baseball movement? You blame Major League Baseball and Little League for not helping promote baseball for women.
Jennifer Ring: It has definitely helped, at least to the extent of bringing the issue of women's athletic equality to public attention. It's not enough all by itself, but it's created unparalleled opportunities for girls to become athletes. Legally, the Fourteenth Amendment has probably been used more in litigation than Title IX. And people tend to misinterpret Title IX with the mistaken idea that advancing women's sports means sacrificing men's sports. I suppose that since Title IX is responsible for the development of girls' and women's softball, which has been used as a substitute for girls' baseball, it might have had a negative effect on women's baseball. But that's a false issue. Whether they're playing softball or baseball, the more girls are encouraged to be all they can be athletically (and otherwise), the better. There will come a time when there's a real choice for girls, and they can play either softball or baseballor both.
Gelf Magazine: You argue that the competitiveness of Division I precludes women playing on men's teams, and you suggest that Division III would be a better fitsome have played successfully at that levelalthough there are still competitive pressures to win. What next for women's baseball, then? Might your suggestion of club baseball catch on?
Jennifer Ring: Division III has not been kind or supportive to the few girls who have battled their way onto baseball teams. It's disgraceful how the handful of superb college baseball women have been marginalized, refused playing time, and emotionally abused by Division III baseball. Sometimes it's the coaches; sometimes it has been the players. It reveals garden-variety bigotry toward women playing hardball, when you would think that Division III, with its proclaimed balance between academics and athletics, would provide the enlightened environment necessary for women to advance. But even in that supposedly educated environment, women baseball players have been treated as interlopers competing against men in some psychologically threatening way.
I know no women who have tried to play baseball with men simply to make a political point. They just want to play the sport they love, and if they're capable, they should be given a fair shot at it. I hope the young girls who are playing youth baseball now will continue to try to play college ball, and that college women will also try to join club teams. Women need to be encouraged and welcomed at all levels if the women's game is to develop: youth baseball (truly coed Little League baseball), high-school baseball, college baseball, and club baseball at whatever level a woman is capable of playing at, either with men or on their own teams. There needs to be elite-level baseball available as an incentive, whether collegiate, Olympic, professional, or whatever it takes. You can't start girls in Little League and expect them to take the sport seriously if they know they're going to be thrown out at age 12. And yet you can't expect women to be able to play college baseball if they haven't had a chance to play when they were younger. So I think it has to happen on all levelsa full-court press, to use an analogy from another sport.
Gelf Magazine: Some people believe women could compete with men on mixed teams. But if Major League Baseball ever rescinds its ban on females, do you foresee the day a woman playsand succeedsin the majors?
Jennifer Ring: Definitely, if the culture of the sport and of our country changes enough. Somebody is going to be strong enough, fast enough, talented enough, and tough enough to do it. Look what Jackie Robinson went through to open the door for men of color to play major-league baseball. Why is that so different than a woman breaking into the majors? Of course, he was a big, powerful four-sport athlete, which must have given him confidence and courage, and women currently don't even have segregated baseball leagues like the Negro Leagues, so it's even more of a battle for women to hang in the game. But I know many young teenage girls who play now, and know how real their dreams of making it are. I think the cultural resistance is more of a problem than lack of athletic ability.
Gelf Magazine: Your daughter won a gold medal with Team USA in 2006. That's a great accomplishment, but how did you feel knowing your daughter could go no farther in baseball?
Jennifer Ring: She's still playing ball. It's a struggle to find teams, and to play regularly between Team USA seasons. She's always taken baseball one season at a time. It's not fair, and very nerve-wracking, but it's also given her a strength and tenacity that has made her an extraordinary young woman. It has certainly given her that essential athletic attribute, mental toughness. She assumes nothing and keeps on working to get better and better. I totally admire her. It would be nice if she could assume that she could keep playing forever, but even without that sense of privilege and entitlement, she's managed to find great coaches (she has worked privately with a Division I coach and is now working with a retired major leaguer), and managed to stay in the game in whatever form is available. That's more than many men have done. And maybe there will be a women's baseball team in the Olympics before she gets too old.
Gelf Magazine: You're a political-science professor. What kind of response did you get from colleagues about writing a book about baseball?
Jennifer Ring: My friends and colleagues have been very supportive, and probably a little amused, by my turn to baseball writing. My book has scholarly credibility, is published by an excellent university press, and has plenty of footnotes, so it has earned the respect of my academic colleagues. And I've made a lot of new friends in sports sociology. I think my political-science colleagues are appreciative of my ability to cross disciplinary boundaries after a long career in political science. It's better than going stale and doing the same old thing for decades.
Gelf Magazine: Two final questions: Any player, past or present, who exemplifies the equality you'd like for women in baseball? And who looks like a serious World Series contender this year?
Jennifer Ring: Jackie Robinson is the natural historical role model for equality because of the racism he had to endure. Being insulted, doubted, and excluded because you're a girl is just as horrible, and there aren't even any segregated leagues for girls that compare to the Negro Leagues. In terms of modern ballplayers, I like David Eckstein as a role model for equality because he's so small and so good. He was overlooked for college ball, but just kept coming until he couldn't be denied. He's a terrific and charismatic ballplayer, as well as a decent and modest guy. I also admire Hank Greenberg and Roberto Clemente for being members of minorities who succeeded in spite of prejudice. And I love Sandy Koufaxthe best pitcher ever (in my opinion) who was aware of how important it was for him to identify with being Jewish by observing Yom Kippur even though he was scheduled to start in the World Series.
For the Series this year? I don't know. The Giants are hot this week, and then there are the expected wealthy contenders: Yanks, Dodgers, Angels, Phillies, Red Sox. Even though I grew up a Dodgers fan, I always like the less predictable outcome. The Giants might be a nice change this year. (I can't believe I actually wrote that!)