Why do women strike out in baseball?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff Mom Never Told You from howstuffworks.com.

Molly: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. This is Molly.

Cristen: And I'm Cristen.

Molly: Is that announcer voice, Cristen?

Cristen: Yeah.

Molly: Because we're going to talk about baseball?

Cristen: It's my sports announcer voice.

Molly: We get a ton of requests from people about doing podcasts about women and sports. And it's a massive topic, so I don't know if we'll continue going this way, but I figure we should just start with one sport.

Cristen: So the American pastime.

Molly: Baseball.

Cristen: Baseball.

Molly: And you know Cristen, when I think about women in baseball, I think of the movie A League of Their Own, and that is one those movies that whenever I'm flipping channels and I see it's on, I just stop and watch the rest of it. I love this movie. My brothers and I used to act it out, which is weird because I have two brothers and I'm the only girl. So I had to play all the women's parts. Maybe that's why I enjoyed acting out that movie.

Cristen: And I just gave Molly the shock of a lifetime by telling her that I have never seen A League of Their Own.

Molly: I'm embarrassed for you, Cristen.

Cristen: Well, you know.

Molly: It's a great movie, I think.

Cristen: No, I'm sure it is, and you know, I will watch it someday. But one thing -

Molly: This weekend?

Cristen: Maybe.

Molly: This weekend?

Cristen: I'll think about it.

Molly: This weekend?

Cristen: I will consider it this weekend.

Molly: Okay. That's the best I think I can do.

Cristen: Okay. Well, I was listening to NPR earlier this week, and they were talking to someone at the Library of Congress about this new baseball exhibit that they have, and she started talking about these bloomer girls, who played baseball way back in the day, and they - one of them was so good that she actually - she was a pitcher - and she actually struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. And I thought, "Wow, that's so cool." So I came to work the next day and I told Molly. "Molly, women played baseball back in the day. But now they don't. Let's talk them in a podcast."

Molly: Okay, so you were talking about Jackie Mitchell.

Cristen: Yes.

Molly: And she was just 17 years old when she struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game in the 1930s. But we need to go back even further.

Cristen: Yes.

Molly: Because women were playing baseball in 1866. Can you believe that?

Cristen: I can believe it. Because it's fact. Students at the all-female Vassar College formed baseball teams in 1866, and then in 1875, a women's baseball club was organized in Springfield, Illinois, and the two teams were the blondes and the brunettes, which I like.

Molly: That's kind of adorable.

Cristen: Yeah.

Molly: But you know, it wasn't just going out there and playing some ball. You had to wear 30 pounds of clothing.

Cristen: Yes.

Molly: Like can you think of any other sport where you have to wear 30 pounds of clotting?

Cristen: Thirty pounds of clothing, a floor-length skirt, underskirts, a long-sleeved, high-necked blouse, and high-buttoned shoes.

Molly: That just screams baseball to me. But you mentioned the bloomer girls, and we have Amelia Bloomer to thank for those Turkish-style trousers that are kind of baggy, quite cute, quite fetching. And they were more practical for the women athletes. So in 1890s, all these baseball teams formed called bloomer girl baseball teams, and they'd just basically go around the country challenging local teams to play.

Cristen: Yeah, they referred to this as barnstorming across America. And yeah, they would just get into towns and challenge semi-pro and minor league men's teams. And sometimes men would also play on the bloomer girls, and they would pose as women.

Molly: A little bit of a ringer in there, I guess.

Cristen: Yeah, but by and large, these were mostly all female teams. And they were known for pretty good baseball.

Molly: A solid day of entertainment.

Cristen: And there were hundreds of teams, including the All Star Ranger Girls, the Philadelphia Bobbies and the New York Bloomer Girls.

Molly: So these girls were around from 1890s to 1934, and that's where we got the story of Jackie Mitchell. And she was playing on a AA team, the Chattanooga Lookouts. She was 17 years old as we mentioned, and basically the New York Yankees one day stopped in Chattanooga for an exhibition, 4,000 people are there. Jackie didn't start, but she came in. She had one great pitch, a wicked dropping curve ball as it is described by The Exploratory in San Francisco. She takes the plate and Babe strikes out.

Cristen: Babe Ruth. Jackie Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth.

Molly: At 17 years old.

Cristen: And then - at 17 - and then the next batter was Lou Gehrig. And she struck him out too.

Molly: Struck him out.

Cristen: Yeah, and so she gets this standing ovation that lasts for several minutes, and then she walks the next batter, and the coach pulls her from the game.

Molly: You never pull a pitcher when she's hot.

Cristen: And then to add insult to injury, a few days after this exhibition game, the baseball commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis - how about that for a name - was very displeased with Jackie's stellar performance because he claimed that baseball was too strenuous for a woman, and so he banned women from baseball and nullified her contract.

Molly: Yeah, and here's a quote from Babe Ruth in the paper after that happened. "I don't know what's going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball. Of course they will never make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day."

Cristen: But Jackie Mitchell did not give up. She began barnstorming, along with those other kind of rag-tag teams, and in 1933 when she was 19, she signed on with the House of David, which was a men's team famous for their long hair and long beards. But then she only traveled with them for about four years and got tired of the sideshow aspects of barnstorming. Because it was kind of, a little bit of vaudeville in there, as well, such as playing an inning while riding a donkey.

Molly: Jackie Mitchell deserved better than that.

Cristen: Yeah, she was a real athlete. She struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

Molly: So she is one of the big sort of stars of that era, but it wound down just because Babe Ruth was not the only one who thought that women had inferior abilities when it came to sports. Basically, professional baseball was coming along. It became known as a men's sport. The women's professional baseball just disappeared, completely gone by 1934.

Cristen: But then with World War II, we obviously have a lot of these male players who are going overseas to fight, so in 1943, Phillip K. Wrigley of Wrigley Gum, was worried about the state of American baseball because the teams were starting to dwindle, and so he organized the All American Girls Softball League. And the league's rules permitted stolen bases, but it was essentially just softball.

Molly: And if you've seen A League of Their Own, unlike Cristen, this is where you might start to recognize elements of the story because when I was researching this, the movie is pretty good about depicting things as they happened. The players weren't based on any real players, so Gena Davis was not depicting one specific person in the league. But you think about Jon Lovitz going out and scouting out the girls. That happened. They had a lot of scouts. You may remember in that movie there was one sort of unattractive girl that they didn't want to let on the team, and that was sort of important as well because they wanted to have these really beautiful All-American girls. They did have to go to charm school like they did in the movie. And they were divided equally based on their talent into several teams, the Rockford Peaches, the Muskegon Lassies, the Racine Belles, just to name a few.

Cristen: And in the meantime, the league changed its name to the All-American Girls Baseball League because they didn't want to play just watered down softball. They wanted to play the same game that men were playing. But at the same time, Wrigley emphasized that the women had to maintain their femininity because that was part of the attraction, was attractive girls playing this sport.

Molly: But it definitely reminded me of our cheerleading podcast, Cristen because we were talking about how that cheerleading is getting more and more physical, but at the same time, the women get sort of more and more cute because they don't want to sacrifice that female aspect. And I definitely think that was in play here. If you go to the AAGPBL website, you can read a kit they would hand out about all the cosmetics a woman should own when they played in the league and how you could never leave, you know, anyplace to be in public without your hair a certain way. And there's a section on teeth care, and they say, "Well, we don't even have to go over this because every good American girl knows how to take care of her teeth." But it was everything about like when to wash your face, what to wear. Some of the rules were things like you must always appear in feminine attire when you're not actively engaged in practice or playing ball. Lipstick always has to be on. There was one Smithsonian article where this girl was talking about how, you know, her chaperone wouldn't let her go up to bat until she put some lipstick on. And that was the other thing that was also pretty accurately depicted in the movie, was they had these chaperones who followed them everywhere because no one wanted these girls to be seen as anything less than an All-American proper girl. Just because she could play a man's sport, didn't mean that she wasn't a girl.

Cristen: But some of these players did try to get on male teams. For instance in 1952, shortstop Eleanor Angle was signed onto a minor league contract with the AA Harrisburg Senators. And then you have Tony Stone, Connie Morgan and Mamie Peanuts Johnson, who played on all-male teams in the Negro leagues in the 1950s.

Molly: But by and large, I don't think that baseball's really offered as an option for girls today.

Cristen: Right.

Molly: I mean I always played softball.

Cristen: Yeah, so why is that? That's one question we wanted to answer too in this podcast is why is softball somehow the women's sport? I mean obviously you've got the bigger ball, you've got the underhanded pitching, and you have a smaller diamond. But one thing we learned was that softball was invented by men.

Molly: Right. I mean it was just invented because men were too cold to go outside and play baseball.

Cristen: Mm-hm. I think this was on the day of a Harvard-Yale football game in 1887 in Chicago, and these guys got together and they turned a glove tied together into a large ball and then they used a broomstick as their bat.

Molly: Exactly. And because insurance companies starting coming into being after World War II and baseball injuries were expensive, you know, more men were urged to play softball because they thought it you get hit with a softball, it's not going to hurt as much as getting hit with a baseball. Women stopped playing all these ball sports. But really when women started playing softball, something I spent many a summer doing, it all traces back to good old Title 9, which will keep coming up in these women and sports podcasts we're going to do.

Cristen: Right. We've got Title 9 that comes around in 1972 that mandates gender equity in federally funded education programs. And so that really did a lot to help female sports grow. But it really didn't do anything for baseball because it brought up all these stipulations forcing girls to play only softball instead of baseball.

Molly: Right. The school could say, "Well, we're offering baseball for boys and softball for girls," therefore, that's your gender equity. But there are girls out there who are saying, "This is a completely different game," for all the reasons that Cristen mentioned. You know, bigger ball, smaller base pads, underhand pitching, and so girls want to play baseball. Take Julie Crotow who had to sue in 1974 to be able to play in a baseball team in little league.

Cristen: Yeah, and Massachusetts still has high school rules that bar girls from even trying out for boys' baseball in schools that also offer softball. And that goes back to the Title 9 issue that you were talking about.

Molly: But we did find some pretty cool articles about girls who buck these rules and will search out schools that will let them play baseball. They try out with the boys. They get accepted on their own merits. It's not - obviously they're not going to just give it to them because there's this thinking now that girls don't play baseball, girls play softball.

Cristen: And a lot of girls do play softball. I don't think that we should just discount softball. I mean it's a tough sport to play. But it is a different sport from baseball. But like you said, a lot of girls do still try to go out and play on baseball teams. For instance, last year, 1,012 girls played for high school teams, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. But that count might be a little bit higher.

Molly: Right, and so the thinking goes that these boys are stronger than a girl would be at that age, that they are going to be heaving a ball harder, swinging a bat harder. So these girls really do have to out and prove themselves or become known for other things like Jackie Mitchell, a really good curve pitch, speed. But if you're interested in baseball, don't give it up just because when you get to high school they expect you to play softball. I think that's the take-away.

Cristen: But we have failed to mention one important women's baseball team that was formed in 1994, the Colorado Silver Bullets. And the AAGBL has long since folded, but this was a minor league, all women's baseball team that formed and lasted for four seasons. And it wasn't an official league. It was kind of like the bloomer girls, sort of a rag-tag team that would go around barnstorming and challenging other male teams, playing men's college, amateur and semi-pro teams around the country.

Molly: Yeah, they had to fold. They really didn't feel like they had equivalent competition basically.

Cristen: Mm-hm.

Molly: So there's that. And one more thing about women and baseball, this happened very recently. I found out when we were researching this podcast. They just had the second annual Working Women in Baseball Conference. Because not only do we think of playing baseball as a men's thing, but also working in baseball. Like yes, a woman might hold these traditional female jobs like communications, marketing. But more and more women are holding leadership positions, like in baseball operations, of these major league teams. So at the meeting they discuss things like, you know, how to balance a family and your career, how to dress so the guys respect you. You know, these women weren't reporting that it was necessarily uncomfortable to work there, but they're really blazing a new trail in terms of working in this field, and they were just there to network with each other. So I think that's pretty cool.

Cristen: Yeah, but you still don't see women in the dugout, Molly. Where are the women in the dugout?

Molly: I think we need women all the place. Maybe one of the ways to get them into the dugout is to have more women in the team leadership.

Cristen: And this research really gave me a new perspective on America's pastime because we think of, you know, the boys of summer, all-male teams and all that. But women have been playing baseball just as long as men.

Molly: That's right, yeah.

Cristen: And Jackie Mitchell, one of our own, struck out the Babe and Lou Gehrig. That's awesome.

Molly: It is awesome. And a big tip of my baseball hat to all the girls who are fighting to be on the baseball teams today.

Cristen: And softball teams. You know, we're not just giving an underhanded pitch to softball players.

Molly: Let's work in all our baseball metaphors here at the end. Yes, I think we've run the bases on this podcast, Cristen.

Cristen: I think we hit the ninth inning, Molly, and it's about time to do listener mail.

Molly: Would you say we've hit a home run with this one?

Cristen: I don't know. Listeners, you tell us.

Molly: Okay, but our listeners have already told us some things that I guess we should get to first.

Cristen: Yeah. Well, to start things off, I've got an email from Anne in regard to our Disney princesses podcast. She says, "The one issue I do have with the Disney princesses in general is that I'm trying to teach my daughters to dress modestly, yet several of the princesses show quite a lot of skin." I agree. "Sleeping Beauty's outfit in the current merchandising has been altered from the original movie so that her dress is now off the shoulder and shows a little bust like Belle's dress. Jasmine and Ariel, of course, are wearing halter tops and seashell bikini tops, and Pocahontas is a skin-tight off-the-shoulder buckskin outfit that is slit up the side." Meow. "I'm trying to teach my girls that they don't need to dress in skimpy clothes to get attention, yet here I am with a 5-year-old girl who would give anything for a real Ariel outfit with a seashell top and who loves to draw pictures of our family as mermaids, complete with an emphatically drawn belly button over our fishy tails. Still she does not understand that an outfit like that would be a costume, not an everyday outfit. Not that it matters since there's no way I'm getting her that one. But it's a bit of a relief to see that she at least has drawn a distinction between the two." So thanks, Anne.

Molly: Okay. Our next email is from Lisa. She writes about how we basically said - the conclusion of the podcast was that that wasn't how we saw the Disney princesses, as bad role models. And she agrees. She says, "Often I find the feminist reading of the princesses is equally degrading to women. By stripping all their characteristics down, you're discounting these female figures completely, regardless of their positive features. I'd like to defend Ariel as she is the one that comes under attack so often. People cite that she changes her appearance and loses her voice all for a man. But as a child, I never saw her that way. As adults, we interpret Ariel's loss of voice as a metaphor that she should be seen and not heard in her relationship. But as a child, I just thought the evil sea witch was a meanie. Even now I still think of Ariel as a really strong woman. She loved the human world even before she met Eric, and she had the courage to give everything and leave her home to live the way she wanted to live, Eric or no Eric. He was just the icing on the cake. It really is about how the child views the princesses though and not some highbrow feminist interpretation we may have. If the child sees Ariel as strong, then that's that, and most of my friends think Ariel is pretty bad ass."

Cristen: All right. Well, guys. Why don't you pitch us some more emails if you care to.

Molly: Ooh, one more. Had to get one more in.

Cristen: Our email is momstuff@howstuffworks.com, and as always, you can check out our blog during the week. It's called How To Stuff, and it, along with a library of other fascinating articles about sports and other things, are all to be found on howstuffworks.com.

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