Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don't Play Baseball

The topic of women and baseball is one frequently mentioned on this blog; just recently we posted about the Indiana teenager whose lawsuit integrated high school baseball in her state. There's also been much buzz lately about the International Baseball Federation's campaign to make women's baseball an Olympic sport (see, e.g., here, here, and here). It seems like the perfect time to plug Jennifer Ring's Stolen Baseball: Why American Girls Don't Play Baseball (University of Illinois Press, 2009).

From Stolen Bases, I learned that contrary to popular mythology, baseball was not invented in Cooperstown by Civil War hero Abner Doubleday. Rather, it evolved from the British sport of rounders, which was played by males and females alike. But in the early 1900s, the efforts of Albert Spalding -- of sporting goods fame -- to promote baseball as the "national passtime" positioned the sport as a means of masculinization and colonialism. ("He articulated a mission for American baseball men: use the sport to teach men from nonwhite races and non-European cultures to become civilized and rational on a while American middle-class model.") In fact, Spalding himself promoted the Doubleday myth to make the sport more uniquely American and exclusively masculine.

Meanwhile, men invented softball as a way to play baseball indoors during the winter. But the indoor version was so obviously a "pale imitation" of the real thing that it could be inclusive of women without tainting the association of baseball and manhood. Early physical educators endorsed also softball as a sport for appropriate for girls, which, Ring explains, "solved the problem of how to get exercise to the average, nonathletic girl without running the risk of supporting 'games of strife' that make America's girls too competitive, brave, strong, and passionate about something not in the service of men and family. And it was played indoors, discretely out of the view of spectators." Moreover, promoting softball for girls had the effect of redirecting women's documented interest and enthusiasm for baseball into a different sport, insidiously marginalizing them from the "national" passtime. Softball has come a long way since its early days as a safe, indoor game; women can now play the sport for college glory and on the Olympic stage (until 2012, anyway). But as a sport it clearly doesn't rival baseball in terms of its cultural significance. Baseball is the sport that receives media attention, that provides the backdrop for family bonding and business meetings, that serves its players as role models for boys and girls, and that offers salaried employment to thousands of athletes.

The paradigm of baseball/boys: softball/girls is so ingrained as to be rarely questioned or challenged. There are no legal restrictions to women's participation in baseball, as Ring explains. Lawsuits invoking the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause lead to the integration of Little League in the 1970s, and Title IX's regulations do not allow schools to exclude girls from trying out for baseball as they do for some contact sports. It is simply a matter of "preference" that keeps girls and women interested in softball instead of baseball. Of course, after reading the history of both sports as presented by Ring, it is clear that this "preference" has been, and continues to be, constructed by social forces that operate with the interests of men, not women, in mind. The few girls who defy the gendered convention and play baseball in Little League and even into high school likely "choose" to switch to softball in order to play at the college level. Women could, collectively, assert their right to participate visibly in baseball, and for college and Olympic opportunities to do so. But because there is no critical mass of women in the sport, individual women have little incentive to sacrifice the opportunity to participate in the established sport of sotball in order to do so.

Ring's final point is that, despite channelling effect of softball, women do play baseball -- "you just have to look hard to find them." There are regional leagues playing in obscurity (Ring calls it an "underground") and a women's national team that plays under the aegis of USA Baseball, the sport's national governing body, in a biennial women's world cup (a literal "world series"). It won't be easy to create -- or even envision -- a world where girls and boys can make a free and legitimate choice between two different sports, but after reading Ring's Stolen Bases, I believe that support and exposure to the girls who already do or want to play the game is a necessary first step.