Baseball for Boys
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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
Opening day for Major League Baseball is upon us. It's also the 70th anniversary of Little League. And once again this spring I wonder why women and girls are not diving for smooth-gloved catches across the outfields of America. It's not like football, originally a male-only sport, where women have always been outsiders. Women have a long history of running the bases. So where are they now? Well, this year I turned to two newly-released books for the answer to that question.
The first is called Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don't Play Baseball and its author, Jennifer Ring, has crafted a great read, replete with rich story-telling, fascinating history, and eye-opening sociological analysis. I've known that women played baseball before the World War II All American Girls Professional Baseball League, but until reading Stolen Bases, I had no clue as to how far back the days of women playing the game go. While there are umpteen homespun tales that paint the origins of baseball as a classic American boy's rural pastime, Ms. Ring leads us through the machinations of a few leading men in the late 19th century, most notably Albert Spalding, he of the sporting goods company fame, who had their reasons for their own revisionist history of the game. Spalding and others of the era were hell-bent to foster the myth of the white American male as tough, macho ball players. It was at this time, the late 1800's, that women were not only shepherded away from playing the game, but their century of playing was systematically erased as well.
In Stolen Bases, Ms. Ring takes us back to the 1700's in England, when milkmaids played a game with their stools as bases. Even that early on, there were three chances to hit a ball and running around a series of stools counterclockwise back home was the method of scoring. Ms. Ring reminds us of notations throughout English literature, including a Jane Austen character named Catherine who played baseball in a book published in 1803. Not only was most of that history denied by Spalding and his cronies in the late 1800's but, as we learn in Stolen Bases, the game of softball also came into being at that time. Softball was initially the indoor, winter training game for male baseball players but, convenient during an era when masculinity needed propping up, softball became the game women were funneled to in order to leave baseball to men alone.
When the women who played baseball during those famous World War II years are asked what will ever bring women back to the game, they all say it's got to start on the Little League diamonds. That brings us to the second book just released. A sociology professor at USC, Michael Messner, who has produced a career's worth of books and studies on gender in sport, takes a new look at the subject in his book, It's All for the Kids. Messner deftly chronicles the systematic exclusion of girls from Little League ever since its inception back in 1939. Crazy stories abound, such as one Michigan Little League group throwing in the rule that all players much wear jock straps, just to keep girls out. It's All for the Kids makes it clear that, although it is illegal to keep girls from Little League play, it takes a highly assertive girl and a fighting family behind her to suit up with the boys. At young ages, right after 6-year-old T-ball, girls are shifted over to softball. Messner's book also clearly presents both the anecdotes and the data behind the fact that men dominate on-field coaching while women are relegated to team parent positions in almost all youth sports, obvious signals to the kids that males are the athletes, females the cheerleaders and caretakers.
As Tom Hanks' character said in A League of Their Own, “There's no crying in baseball”. The clichéd interpretation? “There are no girls in baseball.”
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.