'Shutout!' Women have to battle to play baseball

With a sharp breaking ball, Jackie Mitchell thrilled the local fans by striking out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in 1931. AP Photo

For all of baseball's self-congratulatory braggadocio about being a "national pastime," the game isn't exactly inclusive. Opportunities to play baseball have remained elusive for women and girls, especially after reaching a certain age.

Given a prime-time slot at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum's 13th annual film festival in Cooperstown, New York, in late September, "Shutout! The Battle American Women Wage to Play Baseball," presented a multi-pronged inquiry into the systematic exclusion of girls and women from Little League to the big leagues, while also chronicling their successes and achievements in the face of tremendous adversity at all levels.

"All of this is tied to the much larger issue of how women in our country are marginalized," said the documentary's director, Jon Leonoudakis. "It seems to be woven into the fabric of American culture and history."

'Let's just get rid of the girl'

In "Shutout," Lisa Ely described some of what she has seen as a Little League mom whose daughter played against boys. "There were times when you would see [boys] slide just a little bit harder and then you would hear, 'Let's just get rid of the girl. Let's just take her out.' And as a parent, it's like, 'What?' They're 5 years old."

"One of my players was hit every time she was at bat while playing high school baseball. The entire league decided they would hit her," said baseball coach and sports educator Justine Siegal, Ph.D., who is also the founder of Baseball for All, a national nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for girls to participate in baseball.

"[Baseball for All] was created for girls that want to get in the game, whether it's playing, umpiring or coaching. Essentially, we empower girls to know that their dreams are worth it," said Siegal, who became the first woman to be employed as a coach by a Major League Baseball team, working for the Oakland Athletics in the Arizona Instructional League in 2015. She was also the first female to pitch batting practice in the major leagues, which she did for the Cleveland Indians in 2011.

"I worry that if you tell a girl she can't play baseball, what else will she think she can't do? And conversely, if you tell a boy, 'Girls can't play baseball,' what else will they think they can't do?" Siegal said.

"Shutout" is divided into nine chapters comprised of segments originally produced for Leonoudakis' "The Sweet Spot," a collection of original baseball documentaries that stream on Amazon Prime. Each episode explores different elements of American girls' and women's participation as baseball players, coaches or umpires and attempts at advancing to the next level of their chosen field.

Leonoudakis drew inspiration for the film after attending a tournament sponsored by Baseball for All.

"When I got there, I was surprised to see three women who used to play in the women's professional baseball league [the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which inspired "A League of Their Own"]," Leonoudakis said. "All of the players were females, the officials were women and women coached them."

Softball is not baseball

The documentary's second episode looks at the way girls are funneled from baseball to softball. Girls weren't allowed to play Little League Baseball prior to 1972, when Maria Pepe was a 12-year-old pitcher for the Young Democrats team in Hoboken, New Jersey. After pitching in three games, she was asked to leave the team when Little League baseball threatened to revoke Hoboken's charter.

Represented by the National Organization for Women (NOW), Pepe sued and won. The New Jersey Superior Court decided that Little League must allow girls to try out.

"Little League's response was to shut down the Little League for boys rather than let them play with girls for a year, and what they came back with after that year was Little League softball for girls while playing on boys teams remained an option," said baseball expert, author and political scientist Jennifer Ring.

A few years later, fictional ace pitcher Amanda Whurlitzer, played memorably by Tatum O'Neal, was the only girl on her Little League team and proved to be its savior in the 1976 film "The Bad News Bears."

'We have to prove that we're better than the men'

Among the first women to pitch professionally, 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell of the Chattanooga Lookouts struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in succession during an exhibition game against the New York Yankees in 1931. Major League Baseball's first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, allegedly responded to Mitchell's performance by voiding her contract with the Lookouts, dismissing it as a farce.

"We have to prove ourselves that we're better than the men in order to be judged on an equal footing with them," said Perry Barber, one of the most high-profile women umpires at multiple levels of amateur and professional baseball.

"And everybody wants to put you in a box so they can understand you," said Ila Borders, the first woman to receive a college baseball scholarship, from Southern California College in the 1990s. "People said, 'Why didn't you go into softball?'"

"I wanted to be an overhand pitcher, and I wanted to play in the major leagues," Borders said.

Borders' appearance on the baseball team was met with mixed feelings from her teammates and hostile opposition from some students to the point that she was physically threatened.

"I was running on the field to keep in shape for playing ball, and some guys attacked me from behind," Borders said. "I think they had the intentions to rape me to get me to quit playing. I fought my way back. I'm a pretty big person, but I was able to claw my way, fight my way and kick my way out of it. I didn't report it.

"My roommates came back, and they knew something was wrong, but I didn't want to say anything because I was so afraid that I would get kicked out. It would be all over the media. I wouldn't be able to play anymore."

Stories like Borders' and those of other women presented in the film describe the often-painful road they've taken to play the game they love. But they have hope for the future.

Plenty of room for growth

Without any professional leagues in the country, the highest level of baseball being played by women in the United States is the women's national team.

Leonoudakis sees the path forward for women in programs like the San Francisco Bay Sox baseball team, for ages 6-16.

"It can serve as a pilot program for the rest of the country. Major League Baseball should partner with the parks and rec departments of all 30 MLB cities to institute girls baseball leagues starting at age 6 and all the way through high school," Leonoudakis said.

"It may take a generation," he said, "but once these leagues are established, girls will develop as skilled baseball players. They'll be able to field a professional women's baseball league of their own."