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35 years of girls in Little League: Where are all the players?

March 10, 2009 – 8:24 AM

By Laura Pappano

In our insta-age, everything you hear about is old the second you’re in on it. But one big secret isn’t out: Girls are allowed to play baseball. (Well, kind of).

It’s 35 years since President Gerald Ford signed legislation opening Little League to girls, but it remains a shocker to actually find one on a baseball diamond. OK, of course, there are girls in Little League. But there are so few that everyone notices when they see one.

Parent antennae emit an alert signal the second they scan the field before a game. Their folding chairs may not be fully positioned when the buzz starts: Hey, did you see there’s a girl on that team? It’s not said with any malice, but rather like the way kids spot advertising vehicles on the highway. Hey did you see that truck shaped like a hot dog?

It’s a curiosity, and that’s the point. That this many years later so few girls play baseball suggests nothing less than A Great Baseball Conspiracy. This is one of those open secrets that’s as embarrassing to women as to guys because it speaks to the thousand subtle ways young children get messages about who they are and what they should – and shouldn’t — do.

In 2009, it remains scary for girls to play baseball, even at young ages when it most surely is not about physical prowess. Having watched my share of coach-pitch, it’s concerning to see the level of self-censorship girls apply to joining up for baseball. Why might that be?

Maybe thanks to ordinary encounters like one last spring in which each time two girls in a first grade (first grade!!!) Little League game reached second base they got the treatment from boys in the field: “Girls don’t belong in baseball,” “You cannot play defense,” There shouldn’t be girls in this league,” and, my favorite, “You cannot hit and we will easily get you out!” (Weren’t they already on second?)

This is not just another episode of kids-say-mean-things, but a window into the way we are raising our children. It is not helpful for girls – or boys – to have baseball serve as the vessel of American Manhood. Yet, somehow, from young ages the message gets embedded that baseball is for boys and softball is for girls. Any girl who plays baseball past fourth grade gets asked when she is going to “switch over” (read: stop making trouble and go where she belongs).

It doesn’t help that some states legally consider baseball and softball to be the same sport – which means for Title IX purposes that having softball means they are providing females an equivalent opportunity. As a female baseball player pointed out recently in The New York Times, “It’s like saying Ping-Pong and tennis are the same sport. ”

That was the issue last year when Indiana high schooler Logan Young and her parents filed suit against the Indiana High School Athletic Association. Public Justice and its cooperating lawyers succeeded in getting the association to pass an emergency rule allowing girls to tryout for baseball teams (good luck finding that key vote on their web site). Victoria Ni, a Public Justice staff attorney, says the association is expected to pass a permanent rule change when the full board meets in May.

Ni, who says the baseball-softball definition is just one of several problematic rules in Indiana school sports, says other states may be just as guilty but how to know? There is no master list of all the states that classify baseball and softball as the same sport, legally, speaking. “It’s a state by state fight,” she told me. “To research these rules is extraordinarily hard because you have to get in touch with each high school athletic association.”

One good move: After a nudge from The Women’s Sports Foundation, in December the NCAA’s Legislative Council “determined that baseball and softball are considered separate sports.” According to a February 2009 NCAA “talking points” memo, “previous interpretations of NCAA legislation stated baseball and softball were the same sport for NCAA amateurism and outside competition.”  Now college softball players can join baseball leagues in the off-season and vice versa.

While clearly a change meant to give players more flexibility without sinking their eligibility, this is a technical change which deserves some notice at the high school level – and younger. Baseball season is starting, it’s time for little girls to grab their mits and loosen up those arms.

  1. 15 Responses to “35 years of girls in Little League: Where are all the players?”

  2. When I was a kid in grade school, I always loved baseball but never admitted to wanting to play. I look back now and I can’t believe I didn’t just go for it! It would have sent a really critical message as shown in this blog.

    By molly on Mar 10, 2009

  3. I coached rookie league a few years ago and there was a girl on the team. I’m not sure if she still plays, though. One thing that would help is if more mom’s volunteered as coaches. Little league is run by volunteers and I never see any women coaching. Girls notice this stuff.

    By Lucy on Mar 11, 2009

  4. I wish my daughter who is in first grade would have at least one female role model from MLB- she has a great swing but feels like it’s boy territory.

    By Agnes on Mar 11, 2009

  5. This blog definitely makes an interesting point. Where I’m from (Midland, Georgia), it’s not at all acceptable for girls to play little league. I have five daughters (4 of which are all grown up). None of my older girls were ever interested in sports (so I haven’t had to face these sorts of obstacles) but my youngest can’t get enough of baseball. I’ve tried to have her join little league, but the strict males in charge just keep saying “that’s what the softball league is for!” I’m so glad there finally separate sports. Now that “go play softball” rationale won’t work… I think I might just print this story right out and hand it to the commissioner! Take that!

    By Ronny S. on Mar 16, 2009

  6. My primary concern: Why hasn’t this happened sooner? I’m a little disheartened by the amount of time it has taken to gain even the slightest bit of equality. However, this truly is a great step in the right direction.

    By Olivia on Mar 16, 2009

  7. The good news is that there are a growing number of girls baseball leagues and tournaments across the country. Although of course it’s important that girls be able to play in whatever league is available to them, it’s also important to get these leagues on the radar and to increase their numbers across the country. These are run by people who understand that girls need opportunities to play. There was an article in the New York Times a few weeks ago about the difficulty for girls who want to play baseball. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/01/sports/baseball/01baseball.html?emc=rss&partner=rss
    And the article has spurred discussion about reinstating girls baseball to the Olympics.

    Check out http://www.womensbaseball.com/ and http://www.baseballglory.com/ as starting points to find out where girls and women are playing. They’re out there.

    By Laura on Mar 23, 2009

  8. Ronny — good for you for standing firm. The problem is not that girls aren’t allowed to play baseball — It’s that this many years later they are so openly discouraged (and no one makes a fuss!)

    By fgn on Mar 24, 2009

  9. Laura — You are right on target. We need to support female baseball players and let people know that men don’t own “America’s Pastime” (even though it’s not really that anymore). Little girls need to see big sisters on the diamond and make it — not a spectacle — but another normal choice for female athletes.

    By fgn on Mar 24, 2009

  10. We have a girl playing in our league, and she’s good. She went as the 11th overall pick out of 62.

    By jeff H on Apr 6, 2009

  11. I wanted to play on the high school girls softball team, but they told me I wasn’t allowed. Now that’s sexist too isn’t it??

    By Silent on Apr 6, 2009

  12. I have not seen one female on Ohio State’s baseball team, nor have I seen one male on Ohio State’s softball team. As to the former, I think it nearly impossible a female could qualify. If men were allowed to play on OSU’s softball team, there would be few females left.

    By CJF on Feb 22, 2010

  13. Create a baseball league exclusively for girls. Boys need their own league. Boys & girls are different and that needs to be respected. girls in little league is BS – feminist BS – and some dumb— bowed to their relentless pressure.

    By bob on Feb 23, 2010

  14. Girls in Little League is BS. Girls & boys are different and an all boy little league should be allowed. If you want to start a mixed league – go do it. Another example of the “feminization” & liberalization of this country.

    By joe on Jul 26, 2010

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