Another season of professional baseball is upon us,
another season of a sport that's billed as the "National Pastime,"
yet bars half the population - the female half - from the playing field.
Major and minor league teams, as well as most amateur and
semi-professional clubs, have kept the game largely what it has been since its
beginnings: a chewing, spitting, macho game reserved for men. Women are allowed
to watch, but only rarely have they been allowed to come out of the stands and
Major League Baseball made it official in 1952, when
teams were banned from signing major or minor league contracts with women.
Baseball officials have not even bothered to explain why
they've barred women from play. Just about the only public explanation came
many years ago from former Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
Voiding a contract between the minor league Chattanooga
Lookouts and pitcher Jackie Mitchell in 1931 - the first contract ever between
a men's professional team and a woman -- Landis declared that women were unfit
to play baseball because it is "too strenuous" for them.
Many others know better, among them famed home run
slugger Hank Aaron. He notes that baseball "is not a game of strength. The
game needs a special kind of talent, thinking and timing. Some women, as well
as some men, qualify. There's no logical reason women shouldn't be playing
Certainly Jackie Mitchell had what it takes. Just a few
days before Landis voided her contract, she had struck out two of baseball's
greatest hitters, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig -- back-to-back -- in a Lookouts'
exhibition game against the New York Yankees.
So why bar women? Perhaps it's simply that professional
baseball has been a game that both reflects and reinforces the social mores
that decree it to be a man's world. Women weren't allowed to play in that
world, or make the rules or challenge or enforce them. Their role was strictly
to cheer on the men who ran the game, just as they ran society in general.
In any case, there have been few exceptions to the
men-only rules that have governed baseball. The 1952 ruling against
professional teams signing women has been violated a few times, and a few women
have actually played for minor league teams. But not many have done so, and not
Only one woman has played above the minor league level.
That's Toni Stone, who replaced Hank Aaron at second base for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro
American League in 1953 after Aaron left the team to play for Major League
Baseball's Milwaukee Braves. It was difficult for Stone as the only woman in
the league. Even players on her own team treated her rudely and roughly. But
though she said "it was hell" at times, it was worth it to "live
my dream" of playing professional baseball.
Of the relatively few other women who have played the
professional game, the most famous were on teams in the All-American Girl's
Professional Baseball League that operated from 1945 to 1954. Films showing
their games make clear beyond doubt that women did play - and can play - as
well as men, and draw crowds of thousands to watch them do it.
The women moved as smoothly and naturally as their male
counterparts, threw as hard and accurately and hit as well. They even slid into
bases aggressively, despite being uniformed in the short tunic dresses their
teams' male owners insisted they wear.
In the years since the league disbanded, there have been
several independent women's teams that have challenged all-male teams at the
professional, semi-pro and amateur level, in softball as well as baseball, and
even some mixed male and female teams that have played each other. A few women
have played on otherwise all-male college teams, and some have played on
gender-mixed high school teams.
The prospect of integrating baseball along gender lines
to any substantial degree still seems highly unlikely, however. Probably the
best hope rests with the thousands of girls now playing with boys on Little
League teams and other pre-high school teams that had once barred them.
What matters most is that the girls have been allowed to
join in the childhood joy that comes from playing organized baseball. But it's
important, too, that those are the teams on which most professionals began
developing the skills that take so many years to perfect.
Many women have already developed the essential skills,
and many more are certain to develop them in the future. It's time professional
baseball gave them the opportunity to use those skills at the highest levels of
the game. It's the least we should demand of the National Pastime.
Copyright (c) Dick Meister