Why women have every opportunity to succeed -- and fail -- in professional baseball

Photo by Elsa Hasch /Allsport

Ila Borders became the first woman to play in a men's professional baseball league in 1997.

It's been 24 years since the film "A League of Their Own" told the story of the pioneering All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the 1940s. The movie, which starred Geena Davis and Tom Hanks, was the country's first on-screen depiction of women in baseball and served as an important reminder that the female cleat-print in the history of the game is a significant one.

Tonight, more than two decades later, Fox will premiere the TV show "Pitch," which tells the fictional story of Ginny Baker, the first female pitcher in Major League Baseball.

Beyond these Hollywood depictions, women have achieved a number of historic firsts in baseball, and female participation in the sport is increasing. But beyond the pioneers, it's difficult for women to find lasting opportunities in baseball. Youth and amateur players alike consistently face cultural and structural obstacles that deter them from playing the sport and shunt their advancement into higher levels of competition.

Women started playing baseball in the U.S. as far back as the 1860s, when all-female teams formed at schools such as Vassar College. Those teams were later dissolved by university administrators who believed in the strict social norms of the Victorian era and that athletic demands of the game would harm a woman's fragility, said Jean Hastings Ardell, author of the book "Breaking into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime."

Women who continued to play were quickly deemed novelties and were often covered in the media as oddities of the game. The history of women in the game was largely been relegated to footnotes in the record books, said Ardell, as those who were given opportunities (typically as spectator attractions) didn't play more than a single game or even a single inning.

"They were one-shot wonders," Ardell said. "Women were brought in for a single game or a game or two. That makes it hard to find good role models."

Still, there were women who found success on the diamond, including Jackie Mitchell, who famously struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gerhig in 1931, or Toni Stone, Mamie Johnson and Connie Morgan, who played in the Negro League in the 1950s. Julie Croteau was the first woman to play for a college men's baseball team when she walked on at St. Mary's College of Maryland, an NCAA Division III program, in 1989. The first woman's professional team since the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League came in 1994 with the creation of the Colorado Silver Bullets.

In 1997, Ila Borders became the first woman to play in a men's professional league when she pitched for the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League. She was previously the first female to earn a scholarship to play college baseball.

"It's like you were in a playoff every time you went out there," said Borders, who co-wrote a memoir with Ardell scheduled to release in February called "Making My Pitch."

At the beginning of her professional career, Borders said she faced heavy resistance to her participation on the team, ranging from managers who saw her as a publicity stunt, to drunk fans of opposing teams who threw beer at her from the stands. And Borders says some of her biggest dissenters weren't men, but women who believed that if she failed on the field, she would be viewed as a setback for women's progress.

"I had a lot of women athletes and women organizations calling me saying, 'Please don't pitch, because if you do you're taking away their opportunity,'" Borders said.

Photo by Elsa Hasch /Allsport

"I wasn't there for media, I was there because I loved the game," Ila Borders said of her time playing professional baseball.

Borders played professionally for four years before retiring after the 2000 season. During her career, Borders said acceptance of her participation grew, especially as she proved herself on the field.

"Attitudes changed as they saw that I wasn't trying to pick up guys. I wasn't there for media, I was there because I loved the game," Borders said.

That mindset has held over for Kelsie Whitmore and Stacy Piagno, the two women who this summer played for the Sonoma Stompers, an independent professional baseball league.

The opportunity arose when Justine Siegal, who became the first female coach in the MLB by guest-coaching in an instructional league, received a phone call from the Stompers asking for recommendations for women to play on the team. At the time, Whitmore was a 17-year-old high school pitcher and outfielder playing on the women's national baseball team, which was established in 2004 by USA Baseball.

"I said yes before I even talked to my dad about it," said Whitmore, who made her Stompers debut alongside national team teammate Piagno July 1 after joining the team midseason.

Whitmore says there were times when she felt her inclusion on the Stompers was more of a publicity stunt than a genuine opportunity to play baseball, a feeling she said she's had whenever she plays on male teams, which she has her whole life.

"Not a lot of people expect that girls can play baseball, so they try and find another way to make it believable," Whitmore said. "And that's to just put us out there to make it seem like something is happening, rather than putting us out there because they want to."

Whitmore picked up her first hit on July 20. Two days later, she and catcher and national team teammate Anna Kimbrell, who was brought in for a single game, became the first female battery in professional baseball.

The reception of the three women was overtly positive, Whitmore says; she's received messages of support over social media and has been approached by parents after games who tell her that their daughters want to play in a league after watching her. Whitmore, who said she struggled to find a female role model growing up, said she was honored to even be in that position.

"They would come up to us and tell us how we were their favorite players and they wanted to be like us and their dreams and goals changed," Whitmore said. "That stuff is great."

Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports

Kelsie Whitmore (pictured) and Stacy Piagno made their professional baseball debut July 1 on the independent league's Sonoma Stompers.

While a handful of women have cracked the rosters of professional teams, there's isn't a defined path to success in the sport, which has stunted the growth of any female pipeline. Even at the youth level, participation barriers are keeping girls from playing with their male peers.

Girls weren't allowed to play Little League until 1974, when a New Jersey Division on Civil Rights hearing officer ruled there was "no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls." Since their inclusion in Little League, 18 girls have appeared at the Little League World Series, five of whom represented the U.S., including 2014 phenom Mo'ne Davis.

According to coach Siegal, while more than 100,000 girls play youth baseball, only 1,000 of them end up playing at the high school level. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 1,290 girls played high school baseball in the 2015 to 2016 school year. While some of that could be due to attrition, the blame falls largely on two reasons: the lack of opportunity for girls at the high school level, and softball.

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Justine Siegal became the first female coach in the MLB by guest-coaching in an instructional league.

"Too many schools are telling girls that they can't try out," Siegal said. "These girls aren't being supported in their efforts to move up the chain."

And then there's softball, which siphons girls who might've had an interest in baseball away from the sport from the very beginning. For author Ardell, it's no coincidence that in the same year Little League allowed girls to play baseball, they also created a girls softball league, which now has 360,000 participants worldwide, according to its website.

"That is my favorite conspiracy theory," Ardell said. "People are still more comfortable with girls playing softball -- it's nice and neat and tidy. Softball, over the last 50 years, has really been a problem for girls who want to play baseball."

Softball is often deemed the girls' equivalent to baseball, a notion that former professional pitcher Borders vehemently disqualifies.

"It's hard to explain to people who haven't played the game, it's like comparing apples to oranges," Borders said. "You can take Jennie Finch and pitch a softball with Derek Jeter at bat. She's going to strike him out every time."

It's extremely difficult for someone to play baseball until they're 13, go play softball and change your swing until you're 18, and then go back to baseball.
Ila Borders

But softball is where girls can find the most opportunities to advance in their sport. Jessica Mendoza, an ESPN Sunday Night Baseball color commentator and former professional softball player, said she came across women all the time who would have preferred careers in baseball, but that the path for girls isn't straightforward. If you want to go to college, or pursue a route of free education, you play softball.

Kimbrell and Whitmore, who played high school baseball, both decided to play softball in college.

"It kind of sucked because baseball is my true love and passion, but I saw it as a scholarship opportunity," Kimbrell, who played at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, said.

"I wanted to play baseball in college, but I didn't know where to start," Whitmore, who will play for Cal State Fullerton this fall, said. "For women it's limited [after high school], there's really nothing."

Without a defined path to a professional career or the ability to commit full time to baseball-skill development, Borders said it's difficult to expect a woman from the U.S. to crack the majors, unless she has uncanny ability.

"It's extremely difficult for someone to play baseball until they're 13, go play softball and change your swing until you're 18, and then go back to baseball," Borders said. "You're not going to make it in the major leagues going that path."

Still, in July 2015, French shortstop Melissa Mayeux became the first known female baseball player to be added to the MLB's international registration list, making her eligible to sign with a major league club.

When size and strength are the leading dissent against women's participation in men's contact sports, baseball is the one major sport where that argument holds the least weight, Mendoza said, pointing to the league's best hitters Mookie Betts and Jose Altuve.

"I'm hoping that there's going to come a tipping point where we become so familiar with the idea [of women in baseball]," Ardell said, acknowledging that "Pitch" can be an avenue to build that sense of familiarity. "Yes, this is a possibility. Yes, there are young women out there who can play. That's my hope."

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