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WHY CAN'T WOMEN PLAY FOR PAY?

Robin Wallace, former pitcher with the New England Women's League, displays her power and form in this classic image. Robin is now a women's league administrator. If she's as good as she looks here, why didn't she get to play professional baseball? (Courtesy of Photographer Richard Reddy)

New research has shown that women and girls have been playing baseball in America about as long as men and boys. The feminine side of the sport is not as new as most people think.   

Those who discover that women are not new to baseball see this fact as curious but not earthshaking. What they really want to know about is the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) in which about 700 women played from 1943 to 1952 (the one featured in the hit movie, “A League of Their Own”). 

People wonder, ”Why don’t we have that league anymore? If women and girls have been playing baseball so long that they even had a professional league, how come they don’t have one now? Why did the women’s league stop playing?”

The league seemed solid at the beginning because Philip Wrigley, the rich owner of the Chicago Cubs who also owned a popular brand of chewing gum, founded it and got it going. Scouts, umpires, chaperones, equipment, uniforms, parks to play in — everything was organized and operating when the league opened for business. And as soon as fans learned about it through promotion and publicity and the league began to make money, they began coming to the ballpark out of curiosity and staying out of interest.

Dottie Kamenshek, a star player for the AAGPBL, helped the
Rockford Peaches to three championships.

(Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY)

Those who came found the women’s brand of baseball of impressively high quality and entertaining as well. Receipts increased regularly. The league seemed well on its way to becoming a great success. Little girls became fans seeking autographs and were quoted as saying they wanted to play in the league when they grew up.

The main reason the women’s professional league failed to last was a lack of commitment from its backers. After all, the league was not founded to give young women a chance to display their skills and succeed as baseball players. It was started to furnish entertainment for war workers at a time when the pro clubs in the male leagues were faltering as players got drafted for World War II.

The women’s league was designed to operate only in small cities of the Midwest where defense plant workers could easily access the games. So as soon as the war began winding down, the league did too as owners cut back on promotion and other support. 

Their lack of interest in the women’s league was supplemented by the attitude of the government. With the war’s end, the government urged women to give up their jobs in favor of men returning from the war. Most of them did. And the women of the AAGPBL stopped talking about their league and the experiences they had while playing in it.

Owners of men’s professional baseball clubs were really uninterested in anything but their leagues. They had no conception of the importance of baseball in the lives of those women who played in their own pro league.

After the film about them came out in 1992, these women not only admitted their participation, they said that playing baseball in the AAGPBL had been the most important thing they had ever done. Amazingly, they saw their baseball years as primary among their life experiences. Yet men in baseball continued to view the national pastime as theirs only, with women in the role of potential usurpers.

Several attempts that were made to continue the league or to sponsor individual professional clubs for women all failed. No backing from men’s pro baseball ever materialized, and no government or business help was enough to keep a league going. 

This is partly because in the United States the government has no tradition of supporting athletics for both women and men, as many governments do. In other countries women’s athletics receive support from businesses. In Japan, for example, a large corporation supports an entire professional league for women. That’s one reason Japan’s national women’s team regularly beats that of the United States in the women’s semi-annual world baseball competition.

Most Americans don’t even realize that the United States has a national women’s baseball team that competes internationally. It garners little support and so gets little time, usually just two weeks, to practice as a team before the tournament begins.

When you think about it, the surprising fact is not that women have no professional league, it’s that women who truly love to play baseball can, if they search hard enough, find an opportunity to play on an amateur team. 

Yes, there are women’s amateur leagues operating today. Guess who formed them? Not the government, not businesses. Although tournaments are usually run by men, women who love the game created today’s clubs and leagues. If they couldn’t find a club in their neighborhood, they started their own. Sometimes, with a lot of effort and volunteer help, it grew into a league.

Justine  Siegal pitching batting practice during
spring training for the Cleveland Indians in 2012.

(Courtesy of Dan Mendlik/Cleveland Indians)

Justine Siegal is an important example of an activist who created a league from nothing. Siegal grew up in Cleveland playing on men’s teams, although they didn’t always allow her to join them. Finding no women’s clubs or leagues, she formed one called the Women’s League. Realizing that girls needed the chance to grow up with baseball, she now runs a large amateur organization called Baseball for All, which offers girls and women teams to play on, holds instructional camps, and arranges games. And it doesn’t discriminate against boys or men, who are also welcome to join.

Like Siegal, Melanie Laspina created her league because a professional league on which she played for two years called The Ladies League collapsed, and she wanted a place to continue playing. Her California League, like Siegal’s, is amateur, because Laspina can’t afford to pay players. With some community support, Melanie is holding clinics for young girls who may want to join her California League one day.

Clubs and leagues formed from scratch seldom get much financial help. Players must pay their way. To keep a league going, they depend largely on support from families of the players and other volunteers. Unlike young men, these women and girls have no expensive trainers or coaches, no luxury travel, no big salaries or other perks. In order to be paid to play, as the young women of the AAGPBL were, they would need financial support and lots of promotion to build up a fan base. None of that seems forthcoming.

Girls and young women who love to play baseball today remain marginalized, as they were before World War II, when they suddenly found themselves in demand in order to entertain war workers. Will that happen again?  Doubtful. It would take something spectacular to bring them to the attention of backers from government and business. 

One way to do it would be to produce a few women players who are so skilled that teams in the minors cannot resist trying to hire them. Organized Baseball might then decide to experiment by forming a women’s team and admitting it to a men’s minor league. Or it could set up a women’s league in which the stars could perfect their skills before being hired on an individual basis for the minors. 

There are already some highly skilled players who play on elite teams. If some backers decide to make them into a women’s league, it could become professional. All it takes to create a women’s pro league is money and determination.

Lots of prospective backers have money, but determination is much harder to find. And as long as women continue to be considered less important than men, determination to help them reach the top will remain in short supply.

Katie Cleary hitting for her team in Melanie Laspina’s California League.
(Courtesy of Melanie Laspina)

 

 

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Ms. Mills nails it here with her signature insight and pull-no-punches commentary concerning current opportunities and future prospects for the girls and women who play baseball here in the United States. The near total absence of any financial support for a women's professional league at either the national or community level is a huge obstacle towards replicating the success of the AAGPBL, but with the grit and determination of women like Justine Siegal and Melanie Laspina leading the way, who knows what the future will hold for these dedicated, talented players?

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posted 01.20.2014