Men Play Baseball, Women Play Softball

Photo of a 'Young Ladies' Baseball Club,' 1890-91 i i

A women's baseball team in the late 19th century. National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY hide caption

itoggle caption National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY
Photo of a 'Young Ladies' Baseball Club,' 1890-91

A women's baseball team in the late 19th century.

National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY
The 1918 New York Bloomer Girls i i

Barnstorming baseball teams such as the 1918 New York Bloomer Girls also played baseball, but they were treated as a novelty act. National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY hide caption

itoggle caption National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY
The 1918 New York Bloomer Girls

Barnstorming baseball teams such as the 1918 New York Bloomer Girls also played baseball, but they were treated as a novelty act.

National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY
The 1943 Kenosha Comets i i

Women's baseball reached a peak in the United States during World War II, when it appeared the men's game might be suspended. Among the competitors in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League were the 1943 Kenosha Comets. National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY hide caption

itoggle caption National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY
The 1943 Kenosha Comets

Women's baseball reached a peak in the United States during World War II, when it appeared the men's game might be suspended. Among the competitors in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League were the 1943 Kenosha Comets.

National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY
The 1948 Racine Belles i i

Another AAGPBL team, the 1948 Racine Belles. The league was popularized again in the 1992 film 'A League of Their Own.' hide caption

itoggle caption
The 1948 Racine Belles

Another AAGPBL team, the 1948 Racine Belles. The league was popularized again in the 1992 film 'A League of Their Own.'

All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in action i i

Scoring a run in an All-American Girls Professional Baseball League game. hide caption

itoggle caption
All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in action

Scoring a run in an All-American Girls Professional Baseball League game.

Team USA Robin Wallace i i

Will women's baseball reach the popularity of women's soccer or basketball? Pitcher Robin Wallace, who plays in the North American Women's Baseball League, would like to think so. Courtesy of North American Women's Baseball League hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of North American Women's Baseball League
Team USA Robin Wallace

Will women's baseball reach the popularity of women's soccer or basketball? Pitcher Robin Wallace, who plays in the North American Women's Baseball League, would like to think so.

Courtesy of North American Women's Baseball League

Last year, the U.S. women's baseball team took the silver medal in the women's World Series, played in Japan. In the United States, the team's feat was barely noticed. Nor did the team's gold medal win last year in the World Cup in Canada garner much attention.

"Despite what they achieved, they never got the recognition they deserved," says Nicholas A. Lopardo, general manager of the 2004 USA Baseball Women's National Team. "We're still scratching our heads to figure out why."

Me, too. One of the first questions I asked while learning about baseball is this: Why do women play softball and men play baseball? I found that the question is one many female baseball players struggle with every day.

"People just assume that softball and baseball are the same thing or that it's an equivalent for women," says Robin Wallace, the executive director at the North American Women's Baseball League. Wallace was the first female athlete to play varsity high school baseball in her hometown of Mobile, Ala.

It turns out that women have played organized baseball nearly as long as American men. As I researched the history of both games, I came across an article by Leslie Heaphy: "Women, Philosophy and Baseball," published in the book Baseball & Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter's Box.

I found that students at the all-female Vassar College formed baseball teams in 1866. In 1875, a women's baseball club was organized in Springfield, Ill. The crowd had to pay admission to see the two teams — the Blondes and the Brunettes.

In the early 20th century, barnstorming teams known as "Bloomer Girls" were formed in various parts of the United States and played against male teams. In its early stages, women's involvement in professional baseball was largely an attempt by sponsoring companies to profit from the novelty of female players.

Heaphy notes that even the names of many of the early women's teams reflected the difficulty the players had getting people to take them seriously. "Today's female players often have had a hand in choosing their team's name. Thus we have clubs such as the San Jose Spitfires and the Detroit Danger, as opposed to the earlier Dolly Vardens, New York Bloomer Girls, and Fort Wayne Daisies."

In 1943, during World War II, when it was feared that professional baseball might be forced to close down, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League made its debut. This provided more than 600 women an opportunity to play professional baseball and to entertain several million fans. By 1948 overhand pitching was introduced, and eventually the only difference of note between men's and women's baseball was the size of the diamond. In the women's league there was a shorter distance between bases.

During its 11-year existence, the league received a great deal of national attention, but by the 1950s the televising of men's major league baseball led to a decreasing interest in the women's teams, and the league folded. The 1992 movie A League of Their Own, tells the story of the women's league.

The Origins of Softball

Softball was invented in a windy day in 1887 in Chicago, Ill., by a group of men waiting for results of the Harvard-Yale football game. While they were waiting, they turned a glove tied together into a large ball, with a broomstick as the bat. It was first regarded as a way to play baseball indoors, and after it gained popularity throughout the country, it was named softball. Tom Heitz, former librarian of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, explains that softball was created for men who could not play baseball or did not want to play outside.

After World War II, insurance companies were rising, and injuries from baseball became more costly than ever. More and more men started playing softball. Fewer women played baseball.

Meanwhile, American society moved from physical labor in the fields and farms to mental labor in the offices, Wiles notes. There was a fear in society from the idea that men would be seen as feminine, and that the roles were changing.

"Men too were now 'coming inside' while women became more active," Wiles says.

Later in the century, Title IX, the 1972 law mandating gender equity in federally funded education programs, helped girls' sports grow. But it did not do much for women's baseball. Jocelyn Samuels, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center, explained that Title IX does not mandate the kind of sport programs schools should have... only that women and men's sports should be funded equally.

Attorney Sue Lukasik, an advocate of women's baseball, explained that because softball and baseball were deemed equivalent sports during the 1970s, schools were within their rights in denying girls baseball when softball was available. Still, as Lukasik tells Jean Hastings Ardell, author of Breaking into Baseball, Women and the National Pastime, "the law needs to be adjudicated because the two are not the same — baseball has leadoffs, pickoffs, stealing, balks. If you ask, every woman baseball player will say no, they are not the same!"

After a 1974 lawsuit, Julie Croteau was among the first generation of girls in the United States allowed to play in the baseball division of the Little League. Still, when she reached middle school, every time she wanted to sign up to play baseball, it was a struggle. "The tryouts for girls' softball and boys' baseball were held at the same time, and I had to be proactive," she said. "This is a difficult fight for a 13-year-old to lead."

I was surprised by how much my research contradicted the image I first had of women's sports in the United States. I was deeply impressed by the number of young girls playing sports, and by the support they receive from everyone.

Soccer and basketball have the same rules for men and for women, and in both cases the popularity of the women's game is growing. The women's national soccer team won a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics, and was nationally recognized for its achievements by the American media and crowd. All the big newspapers cover the draft of players for the women's pro basketball league, the WNBA. Women's college basketball is producing its own name-brand stars.

As girls turn into young women, even the most talented and the most daring put baseball aside. Coaches, parents and scholarship money are all factors. But strike three is simple inertia. An arrangement forged in a much earlier time persists, and today, it's still a difficult road for girls who dream of stealing home.

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