Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Fairer Game: Melissa Mayeux, Mo'ne Davis, and the Rise of the Female Ballplayer

The funny thing about history is that it can only be viewed in retrospect. While the redundancy of that statement is rather blatant, what I mean by it is veiled a bit. Certain milestones in our culture seem inevitable, but there will always be a level of uncertainty to their happening until the day finally arrives. Integration was inevitable in the 1940's, but it took the risk and guile of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson to make it happen. Larry Doby and others followed soon thereafter. In a much less socially turbulent manner, Masanori Murakami became the first Japanese player to make the Major Leagues in 1964, nearly a century after the inception of professional baseball. Robinson, Doby, and Murakami were not the primary trailblazers, though. Many men had tried and were held back by any number of disadvantages. They were the men to break through. Fifteen and a half years into the twenty-first century, the paradigm of baseball and American sports is much different, and two very young women are kicking up dirt on another cultural inevitability.

When I was rather young, I played tee-ball. My sister had as well, and I liked that we had both of our player photos together on a shelf. It was a small bond we had, even when we were at each other's throats, as siblings sometimes do. In that time, I just understood that girls played baseball too. Despite watching plenty of games on TV and not once seeing a woman do anything more than snag rolling foul balls, I still felt like they could play. Then I learned about softball. This happened around the time that boys and girls sports naturally split off around middle school. The late 1990's had plenty of big-name female athletes, some of whom I can still recall off of the top of my head: Mia Hamm, Picabo Street, Michelle Kwan, and one of my boyhood crushes- Tara Lipinski. They were great and probably got girls interested in sports, as well as proved that athleticism and femininity were not mutually exclusive, but none of them played my favorite game.

Then came Jennie Finch. Tall, strong, beautiful, with lightning-quick reflexes and an attitude that made you notice her game. The 2000 Athens Olympic Games were her coming out party, and with it came a heightened interest in softball. She was a SportsCenter darling. She had the charisma to back up the talent, and vice-versa. Then came the inevitable question- 'Could Jennie Finch succeed in pro baseball?' The game of softball, for all of its detailed similarities to baseball, is a vastly different game. The most glaring difference is that pitches are thrown under hand. Major League Baseball outlawed submarine pitching (the closest thing to true underhand) nearly a century ago. This is not to say Finch couldn't adapt to possibly throwing sidearm, but at this point its all speculation.

Over the course of my lifetime, women's sports have grown in popularity and posterity. The WNBA formed when I was in elementary school, and while it is nowhere near the magnitude of the NBA, the league itself has formed an identity in its near twenty-year history. Female Olympians are still the most prominent when it comes to a national scale. The niche-sport aspect gives individuals more glory and name recognition, but it still doesn't garner the attention of the male-driven "big four" sports. So let's go back to Little League. In 1974, the league charter was amended, allowing for girls to play alongside boys. In that era, Title IX was paving the way for female athletes everywhere. The sports world was recognizing that athletics were a universal activity. Less than a century prior, in the early days of professional baseball, it was considered un-ladylike to join into any physical activity. Still, many young women enjoyed the nation's craze of baseball, despite often playing in the clothing style of the day, which appeared cumbersome to say the least.

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not bring up the All American Girl's Professional Baseball League, famously portrayed in the classic baseball movie A League of Their Own. Formed in 1943, it filled a hole that was heavily vacated by Major League players serving in World War II. The league featured four teams- Kenosha Comets, Racine Belles, Rockford Peaches, and South Bend Blue Sox. By 1950, the league had grown to eleven teams. By the time the league folded in 1954, it had contracted down to five, with only the Peaches and Blue Sox as the remaining charter teams. Major League Baseball was back, the color line had been broken, and America's dalliance with women's baseball was over. The league held a special spot in baseball's history, and it planted the seeds of women's sports in America.

The Sandlot, the greatest baseball movie ever, portrayed an era between the AAGPBL and Title IX. In one scene, the sandlot boys are confronted by a little league team dressed in pristine uniforms and chrome bicycles. The two sides engage in a volley of insults. The final blow is delivered by Ham Porter, the sandlot team's portly catcher. With conviction, he states the other team's leader "plays ball like a girl." This causes visible gasps from both sides. It sets up a game in which the sandlot team just manhandles their rival. The movie came out in 1993, and I was six years old. The idea of saying another boy played like a girl was still a major insult, despite being decades removed from the film's 1960's setting. I remember thinking it was odd, considering that the best kickball player in school that year was Cassie, and her good looks and athletic skill had me swooning. For the record, I don't ever remember thinking girls were gross. A few of my female friend also liked baseball. I was always more attracted to the ones who could name players or even knew all of the teams. None of them played, though. Sure, we all played kickball or teeball, but as we aged, the game drifted away from girls. If they stayed with sports, it was basketball or gymnastics or volleyball. Sometimes softball, and that was close enough, but softball has always felt like a different game to me. So for the most part, by my teen years, 'playing like a girl' meant not playing baseball at all.

Enter the world of Mo'ne Davis. Born June 24, 2001, she became a superstar in the Little League World Series last year. She became the eighteenth girl to play in the annual tournament, and the first African-American girl to do so. Her fastball tops out at seventy miles per hour, which equates to around ninety-one if extended to perceived speed at Major League pitch distance. Davis quickly became a household name, and she embraced the spotlight. On August 15, 2014, she finished off the first win by a female pitcher in Little League World Series history. Davis tossed six shutout innings, only giving up two base hits while firing eight strikeouts. Five days later, her next start was the highest-rated television broadcast for a LLWS game. Five days after that, she appeared on the front cover of Sports Illustrated, another first for any Little Leaguer. There was a slight novelty to her public perception. People suggested that if she were a boy playing at that high of a level, she would not receive the same media attention. Of course she was given more attention because of her sex and race. That is the main point. Mo'ne Davis may someday pitch professionally, but regardless of where her career leads, she will likely be a catalyst for more young women to play baseball, which can only be considered a positive thing.

Baseball in Europe is still in its infancy professionally. Soccer is still the main draw there, but it is slowly gaining in popularity. I wrote last year about the first German professional player to break into the league. The same growth echoes in the global scene with women. Take for instance women's soccer, which sees a massive spike in popularity every four years here in the States due to the success of our national team. Internationally, smaller sports are making similar waves, if merely on a much lower ripple. The larger the talent pool and sample size, the greater likelihood that a woman will break into men's professional sports. With twenty-first century scouting tactics, Major League teams are able to scout around the world with an ease that was impossible not long ago.

So goes the story of Melissa Mayeux, a sixteen-year old French shortstop, who this week became the first woman eligible for the MLB international signing period on July 2nd. The likelihood of her being selected is not high, but the consequence of selecting the first woman could pay huge dividends for a team. The road to the Major Leagues is a brutal mountain to climb, and often times touted prospects never reach the summit, but the idea of even having a female ballplayer in an organization can start something much bigger. The fact that she is even on the list, however, adds a legitimacy to her game. Scouts are paid to research the best talent out there, and it would be a waste of time, money and energy to scout a player just because of her gender. Mayeux is a true prospect, and given her age, she has plenty of time to develop into a player that could someday break into Minor League Baseball and beyond. What her presence on the international selection list proves is that women's baseball is developing fast, and if they are given the same training as their male counterparts, perhaps we could see the American interest grow. The stigma of losing a playing job to a woman will be there, but it will not last.

I believe that by the end of the decade, a female baseball player will be signed by a Major League organization. Will she be good enough to make the top league in the world? That's tough to say, but maybe just the visual of seeing her on the diamond, professionally, with the boys will grow the game with girls across the globe. Baseball is better when the best talent is on the field, and I believe in my lifetime I will see a female ballplayer accomplish something great on the biggest stage.

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