It’s October. In the American sports calendar, that means it’s time for the baseball playoffs. My team, the Minnesota Twins, wasn’t even close this year, going from first place last year to the cellar this year. But I gained some measure of consolation last week in watching A-Rod strike out to end the Yankees’ season.
Jenny Ring’s team, the Oakland Athletics, is also sitting out this October. A scholar of political theory, Jenny is a lifelong baseball fan. She was born with, as she calls it, the “baseball gene.” She follows the Major Leagues, she played ball in the neighborhood as a girl, and she passed the gene on to her daughter. But whereas Jenny was left alone with her ball and glove when the boys her age went off to play in organized leagues, her daughter joined the team—and proved herself on the field. Jenny’s daughter played the game well, as well as any of the boys. As she grew older, though, and tried out for teams in the higher ranks, it became clear that a girl playing baseball was not acceptable to many coaches and parents. But Jenny’s daughter refused to leave the game, and she still plays baseball today for the USA Women’s National Team.
As Jenny watched her daughter encounter overt discrimination in her attempts to play baseball, she asked the question: “Why aren’t American girls allowed to play baseball?” Boys and girls play soccer together. In swimming and cross-country, they practice side-by-side. Boys and girls teams share basketball courts and lacrosse fields. But baseball remains off-limits for girls. For example, 337 players were on teams in my local Little League last spring. Only two of those players were girls. And unlike in other sports, there is not the option to play in a girls’ baseball league. Instead, girls who love to throw a ball and hit it with a bat are steered into a different sport: softball.
In her book Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball (University of Illinois Press, 2009), Jenny looks at the history of baseball to find that women were on the diamond from the sport’s beginnings, only to be openly and deliberately excluded in the 20th century. As we discuss in the interview, the reasons given by baseball’s guardians for girls’ inability to play covered the bases of male ignorance and insecurity toward women. But beyond the stated reasons, there was something deeper going on. The fact that resistance to girls playing baseball is still strong in the United States (while Canada, Australia, and Japan all have girls baseball programs) suggests that a belief in baseball as the sacred domain of American manhood is still strong. There will be girls, like Jenny’s daughter, who will find a place on the diamond, and even stand out among the boys. But despite all the advances for girls and women in sports, baseball in America remains a game of fathers and sons.