VOL. 132 | NO. 60 | Friday, March 24, 2017
Whether Toting Gloves or iPads, Women Have Role to Play in Baseball
By Don Wade
First-year Memphis Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp has played and coached for Canada’s National Team. He understands, perhaps better than most do, that baseball’s stage extends beyond the major leagues and its minor league feeder system.
The Rockford Peaches, 1943, inspiration for the movie “A League of Their Own.”
(National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)
So the notion of a women’s professional league again finding a niche is to him a good idea, a sensible business idea.
“I think it’s pretty neat, trying to revive it,” Clapp said, noting that he has worked with players on Canada’s National Women’s Baseball Team and they are “pretty darn skilled. If you can get a league going, it can promote the game. That’s the thing that I keep coming back to. We need to do anything we can to promote this game.”
The game just got a boost from an exciting World Baseball Classic, which concluded with the United States beating Puerto Rico 8-0 in the finals to win the event for the first time. The WBC’s international rules – and the over-the-top passion of fans from countries such as Puerto Rico, Japan and the Dominican Republic – gave the games a much bolder flavor.
While the U.S. players generally were not as demonstrative as many of their opponents, they let their emotions out, too.
“We had a goal – to put the USA on the top of the baseball world where it belongs,” said first baseman Eric Hosmer, who also won a World Series two years ago with the Kansas City Royals.
“We’re trying to make America great again,” manager Jim Leyland said wryly as he opened his post-game press conference.
Historically, baseball is so American that the ball itself should have stars and stripes. If you know much of anything about women’s professional baseball, it probably comes from the movie “A League of Their Own,” which starred Tom Hanks as manager Jimmy Dugan (“There’s no crying in baseball”), and Geena Davis, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell as players with the Rockford Peaches.
But the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was very real. And every bit an idea born out of capitalism. By the fall of 1942, many men’s minor league teams had disbanded because of the war. Philip K. Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, worried about the future of pro baseball.
With his backing, a women's pro softball league was formed as a nonprofit corporation in 1943. It morphed into the baseball league portrayed in the movie, but the field retained the shorter dimensions as it made the transition to overhand pitching and the use of a smaller ball. In all, some 600 women played in the league from 1943 to 1954.
John Kovach, who recently moved to Memphis, is a women’s baseball historian. He has toured an exhibit on the subject for several years, and has decades of experience coaching girls and women’s baseball teams that competed nationally and internationally. In 2011, when Major League Baseball prohibited girls from participating in the baseball portion of its Pitch, Hit and Run competition (there was a softball division) Kovach fought the change. In 2016, MLB resumed allowing girls to participate in the baseball division.
Kovach also has worked to give women opportunities on men’s teams. His stint as the pitching coach at an NAIA school in Indiana ended when the head coach refused to give a tryout to a female pitcher. He believes a woman one day might play at the game’s highest level, probably as a pitcher with a great knuckleball or some other refined off-speed pitch.
MLB and Fox partnered for the TV series “Pitch” about a young woman who makes it to the majors with the San Diego Padres on the strength of her screwball. The Little League pitching sensation from 2014, Mo’ne Davis, informed some of the show’s plot.
In real life, two women did play for the Sonoma Stompers in a California independent league last year. According to The New Yorker, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola had approached the team about having his winery as a sponsor, but one of his conditions was the recruitment of female players.
Kovach says he doesn’t know how realistic a woman pitching in the majors is in the near future. Then again, he doesn’t believe Tim Tebow’s quest to play in the big leagues has much hope. What he does know is that establishing a women’s league again will take financial backing, consistent coaching and grooming of players from a young age, much planning, and a path that would allow females to play baseball in high school and college.
“You’ll need time if you’re going to recruit baseball players and not converted softball players,” he said.
Meanwhile, women are making inroads in the game in minor league front offices, more rarely in MLB front offices, in the MLB commissioner’s office and as scouts.
“They can judge and evaluate as good as anybody,” Clapp said.
Clapp says if a women’s league is to make a go of it, fans will simply have to view it within context – much the way fans can enjoy one style of college basketball with the men’s game and another with the women’s game. And he’s not opposed to women trying to play on a men’s pro team.
“Can she compete? That’s it,” Clapp said. “If she can compete, why would it hurt? If she can’t compete, it’s not good for that person to be exposed or the business end of it. We’ve got that now with male athletes.”
Kim Ng may one day be MLB’s first female general manager. She has been an assistant GM with the Yankees and Dodgers and currently serves as MLB’s senior vice president of baseball operations.
Kovach is rooting for her to be the ultimate trailblazer outside the lines.
“If you don’t want females working in the front office,” he said, “that’s like saying a woman can’t be a doctor or a lawyer.”