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Baseball - More Than A Man's Game
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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 play.

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 baseball."

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 for long.

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