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My Favorite Player: Justine Siegal

By Dorothy Seymour Mills, November 29, 2013

Justine Siegal wanted to play baseball for as long as she can remember. “It’s in my blood,” she says. Justine grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, so “I wanted to be Orel Hershiser.” 

From the age of 5, Justine was playing on boys’ teams and knew she was a good player, although at 13 she was told by a coach that he didn’t want her on his team because he thought girls shouldn’t play baseball. She expected to play at the high school level, but the administration at the private Hawken School said she couldn’t try out.

So Siegal transferred to Brewster Academy, where she got to play third base and pitch — the only girl permanently on the team. One spring when she attended a baseball camp to improve her skills, who should appear to play against the camp team but the Hawken School team. Justine got her revenge. She pitched well against Hawken, and when she returned there for her senior year, the school permitted her try out for the team, and she made it.

Fans heckled Siegal for being a female; she heard a lot of sexual remarks. How did she handle that? At first she was “terrible” at taking it. “I played like the weight of the world was on my shoulders,” she said. But soon she was able to disregard insults. She teaches young women, “You have to be able to hear those words and then ignore them and continue your game.”

After high school, Siegal played on amateur men’s teams in and around Cleveland. When she heard about the formation of a women’s pro team, the Silver Bullets, she tried out and made the spring training roster. But she hurt her arm and was released.

Siegal, whose fast ball traveled at least 70 mph, wanted to play baseball with other women. Since she couldn’t find a league to play in, she formed one when she was 23. After that she formed a semipro team. And when Justine moved to Toronto, she arranged with Patrick McCauley, head of the Central Ontario Baseball League, to set up a team selected from his league to participate in a Women’s World Series started in 2001 by promoter Jim Glennie.

Siegal realized that “long-term growth for our sport would happen only if we helped girls.” She arranged for a team of girls 11 and under, the Sparks, to take part in a tournament that had been set up for boys. The girls had long been left out of baseball because adults thought they should play softball. Once she had put the girls’ team together, says Justine, “I was hooked. There is nothing better than a kid’s smile.” 

Siegal coached the Sparks in a boys’ tournament held annually at Dreams Park in Cooperstown, New York. (Want to watch Justine coach these girls? Get a copy of Max Tash’s short film, “Girls of Summer.”  See the movie trailer at http://www.girlsofsummermovie.com/trailer.html.) Gradually, her teams began to win games against boys. And she changed the rules of her organization, called Baseball For All, so that boys need not be left out of it the way girls had long been excluded from children’s leagues.

When Siegal began concentrating on organizing and administration, she did not stop developing her baseball skills. After earning a master’s degree in sports studies from Kent State University, she worked for three years as an assistant baseball coach for Springfield (Massachusetts) College. At that time, she was the only woman in the country coaching a men’s college team.

When Justine Siegal joined the Brockton Sox in 2009, she became the first woman coach in men’s professional baseball. 

Her next “first” was to be appointed first base coach for the Brockton Rox, a men’s professional baseball club in the CanAm League in 2009. Can you think of another woman who has done that? Then she topped it all off in 2011 by becoming a spring training batting practice pitcher in Arizona for the Cleveland Indians. Later she did the same for the Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays, St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros and New York Mets. Her baseball accomplishments are dizzying.

What did the Indians think of this 36-year-old woman’s pitching performance during batting practice? Said manager Manny Acta, “She was pretty impressive. She throws strikes. It was very good.”   

Those words make him sound surprised — a woman throwing strikes? Isn’t that impossible?

Said Paul Phillips, who batted against Siegal: “If you didn’t see the ponytails, she would have fit right in. She did great.”

No wonder. Siegal is an excellent pitcher. No, not just “for a girl.” She’s an excellent pitcher, period.

Is Justine doing any pitching now? Yes. Apologizing for “being a bit of an old lady” at 38, Justine says she just plays with a pickup team, and  “I have to rely on my curveball to get them out." Do women approaching their 40s still have a curveball? Yes. So do some men.

So what are her “stats” The important ones are as follows:

Justine is proactive. “I got tired of waiting for opportunities, so I made my own,” she says. (How do you think she got those jobs in men’s pro ball?) John Matteson, author of a new biography of player Margaret Fuller, describes her in terms that could be used for Justine: “She saw herself as a master of adaptation. As a woman, she had come to realize that she would seldom be in a position to create circumstances for herself. She had learned instead to be fantastically resourceful in transforming herself to suit whatever opportunities the male-fashioned world afforded her.” Fantastically resourceful indeed.

Along the way, Siegal has had to grow a thick skin. “It’s been a difficult journey,” she says. “I grew up with a chip on my shoulder. I was heckled a lot.  I had to decide who I was going to listen to and who not to. Disapproval of women playing baseball is an ongoing theme in American culture. [That’s because] legally girls are allowed to play Little League baseball, but culturally girls are told to play softball.” 

Siegal decided that if others were mean, she would be kind in return. And she understands the consequences of men’s attempts to keep baseball for themselves.

“Without access to all sports, girls and boys learn they are not equal and that discrimination is acceptable,” she says. Siegal points out that when boys and girls play together and are held to the same high standards, each group accepts the other and respects its abilities. Promoter Glennie has put it this way: “When men see that women play baseball well, barriers go down."  Justine found acceptable ways to enable boys and girls to play together.

Siegal is a Renaissance woman and, like many others, is a master multitasker.  While raising a teenage daughter, Jasmine, she earned a doctorate in physical education. Although Jasmine no longer plays baseball, she knows that she is free to take on whatever she aspires to do. 

Justine also holds advisory and consulting positions in various amateur and women’s international baseball organizations. And Northeastern University in Boston has engaged her to help young men in professional baseball to find ways of completing their education so that they will have something to fall back on in case their baseball careers falter.

Justine is selfless. Why does she persevere? She says she is doing all this for her daughter and other girls. In other words, she knows that her work can improve the lives of others. What higher goal can anyone have? 

Justine Siegal is the Founder and Executive Director of Baseball For All, a non-profit organization providing meaningful instruction and opportunities in baseball, especially for girls.  Her life passion is to help girls follow their baseball dreams.

 

 

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