Fond as the media are of historic anniversaries, it’s inevitable that some get lost in the shuffle. One recently came to my attention, but probably not yours, so I thought I’d drag it out for your edification.
75 years ago the AAGPBL was founded. Yes, even back in 1944, acronyms were popular, perhaps as a result of the New Deal’s creation of numerous federal bureaus, popularly known as alphabet soup agencies.
The AAGPBL was the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. It was inspired by the U.S military cornering the market on young able-bodied men, the very demographic that had dominated major and minor league rosters. The result was the disappearance or suspension of many minor league teams (and leagues), while the major leagues had to make do with 4-Fs, old-timers, and sometimes teenagers. Baseball fans on the home front had little to cheer about. What do do?
Chicago Cubs’ owner Phillip K. Wrigley had an idea. Women were taking over for men in the factories, so why not on the baseball field? Hence the AAGPBL.
In subsequent years the AAGPBL has achieved legendary status in the realm of female empowerment. It was greatly aided by A League of Their Own, a 1992 movie about the founding of the league. The film still shows up regularly at revival houses and, not surprisingly, has become something of a lesbian cult film. So I guess we could say the LGBTQ folks are down with the AAGPBL.
Recently some of the few remaining veterans of that league were present for the inaugural Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida.
The June 14-18 event brought together 65 high school girls from the U.S. and Canada. Among the coaches were former major league players Dmitri Young, Fernando Arroyo, and Lou Collier. Another was catcher Veronica Alvarez, who coached Oakland Athletics’ backstops during spring training this year. All expenses were paid by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball, the governing body for amateur baseball.
The symbolism of the Dodgertown location was obvious to every baseball geek. As the name implies, Dodgertown was built by the Brooklyn Dodgers as a spring training site in 1948. Today vast spring training complexes are common but the Dodgers got there first. One of the purposes of Dodgertown was to provide a safe space for Jackie Robinson and other black Dodger players, who were hardly welcomed with open arms in Florida during the Jim Crow era.
The Dodgers moved out after 2008, but in February 2019 Dodgertown (n/k/a Historic Dodgertown) was added to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. Consequently, females playing baseball at the facility evokes civil rights, inclusivity and breaking barriers in major league baseball. It’s about “opening up equality.”
This was not the first time the ghost of Jackie Robinson was summoned to enhance female empowerment. Two years ago MLB and USA Baseball introduced the Trailblazer Series, a baseball tournament for girls. To make sure everybody got the connection, the tournament was initiated on Jackie Robinson Day Weekend in mid-April.
The connection between black and female ballplayers doesn’t even rise to the level of tenuous. The long history of the old Negro Leagues, as well as numerous exhibition games played between white and black teams, showed that the black players were more than capable of cutting the mustard at the highest level of play. The same is not true of female ballplayers.
Nevertheless, it’s not hard to figure out why Major League Baseball is embracing this program. It’s good public relations – and it’s great virtue signaling.
Silly me, I used to think that virtue was doing the right thing even if no one was watching, but organized baseball isn’t about to lavish largesse on any entity without providing a host of press releases and photo ops. Typically, major league teams build youth baseball fields in underprivileged or underserved (i.e., poor) neighborhoods, and often hold workshops for young players. The much-vaunted RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program dates back to 1991.
Good will aside, there is always the chance that such programs might one day produce professional players, some of whom may make it to the big leagues. This, however, is not the case with female players. In truth, there’s less chance of a female player in the major leagues today than ever before.
Say what? In an age of unprecedented female empowerment and diversity how can that be? Well, it’s a matter of biology and odds.
From 1901 to 1960, major league ball had 16 teams. Given 25 players per squad, that meant that at any one time, only 400 men were on the active rosters of major league teams. Today we have 30 teams and there are rumors that major league baseball wants to expand to 32. So with twice as many teams in the near future, that would mean 800 men would be on active rosters in the near future. But the US population has more than quadrupled since 1901, and as baseball goes global (in 2018 27% of the players were foreign- born and the percentage is even higher in some minor leagues), the odds against women become longer and longer.
Personally, I think organized baseball’s global crusade is not one of spreading the Gospel of the grand old game but of widening the talent pool to depress salaries in the future. But that is not a topic to be explored on this web site. In keeping with the topic at hand, let’s just say that the larger the male talent pool, the less chance for a female breakthrough. But no one in organized baseball will ever admit that.
Now if you go way back to the early days of baseball when town ball was popular, maybe an occasional female baseball player would have been feasible. In a small town, it’s not entirely impossible that a talented female player could qualify for the town team. The smaller the talent pool, the more likely a talented female athlete can eke out a spot on a roster.
You might be surprised to know that the USA has a Women’s National Team (Veronica Alvarez was on the team) and they played in a World Cup Tournament in 2018. More than likely, some of the girls from the Dodgertown get-together will be on the 2020 squad. The question is who will pay to watch these games? If they are telecast, who will watch them?
Sure, in the past there have been some interesting female performances in baseball, but they were novelties. Teenage pitcher Jackie Mitchell allegedly struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game. I say allegedly because there is reason to believe it was staged and that Babe and Lou were in on the gag. Barnstorming ballplayers were notoriously lax (or should I say relaxed) away from the rigors of the regular season. Their off-season appearances were primarily entertainment for rubes in the hinterlands who were far removed from major league ball.
A more recent example of a prominent female was Ila Borders, who was the first woman to earn a college baseball scholarship (Southern California College – no, not USC – in 1994). She played four seasons of independent minor league ball for three different teams. Her overall record was 2-4 with a 6.75 ERA (if you’re not a baseball fan, this is not good) in 101.1 innings pitched. Had she been a male pitcher, she probably wouldn’t have lasted as long as she did. Her peak fastball velocity was in the low 80’s mph, which would never get you anywhere close to the big leagues. Male junkball pitchers can match this speed with minimal strain on the arm.
There is a reason why Ila Borders was signed by an independent minor league team. A minor league team affiliated with a major league team would not waste a roster spot on anyone who is clearly a non-prospect. Affiliated teams exist to develop a supply of ballplayers for major league teams. They can tap into the deep pockets of the major league affiliate. The independent minor leagues can do whatever they want but they have to pay their own way. Hence, the attraction of a novelty act like Ila Borders. It’s all about putting butts in seats. A female hurler taking on male hitters will do that. Of course, so would Siamese twins or Jojo the Dog-Faced Boy.
Sure, an exceptional woman may be able to play baseball as good as an average man but a major league player is near the far end of the bell curve for men. The bell curve for women just doesn’t extend that far. The chances of becoming a big league ballplayer are slim and none: slim for boys, none for girls. Sending your teenage boy to baseball camp is a dubious expenditure, but sending your daughter to a baseball workshop is absolutely a waste of time and money. Her chances of ever earning a paycheck from playing baseball are close to zero.
Nevertheless, the female empowerment theme persists. In 2014 a young icon was pitcher Mo’Ne Davis, a Little League sensation. Her fastball maxed out at 71 mph. Outstanding on a field of Little League dimensions; no big deal on a regulation-sized diamond.
At age 13 she was the first girl to pitch a shutout and earn a victory in the Little League World Series. The fact that she was black, certainly didn’t hurt when it comes to corporate media hoopla.
Actually, Davis’s achievement isn’t as surprising as it appears at first, though it is unexpected. For one thing, girls mature faster than boys. Assuming Davis was at the far end of the female bell curve, she may well may have been ahead of even her male peers. But there is more…and here we get into even more controversial realms.
It is well known that blacks have higher levels of serum testosterone levels than whites (and Asians). Women, of course, have lower levels of testosterone than men, but the black/white difference persists in them as well. Also, blacks mature physically faster than other races. Consequently, if any female was going to excel in a Little League contest, the most likely suspect would be a black girl at the far end of the female bell curve as well as at upper end of age eligibility. In fact, that is what Mo’Ne Davis was, though no one in the corporate media (at least no one who values his job) would ever bring this up. (For the record, the old Negro Leagues featured three female players: Toni Stone, Connie Morgan, and Mamie Johnson.)
By definition, prodigies peak early, which garners them plenty of attention, but as the years go by, their peers catch up with them. The exceptional girl athlete’s time in the spotlight is brief, as most males eventually catch up with her and surpass her. Indeed, Mo’Ne Davis has faded into the welter of amateur sports (appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated is a notorious jinx, which may explain why her profile has been much lower over the past five years). When last heard from, she intended to play softball at Hampton University. Whether she will dominate the competition at this level remains to be seen. She will likely end up as just another athlete, perhaps even a good one, but no longer the stuff of headline news.
Whatever the reason, major league baseball never passes on a golden opportunity to display wokeness. Pick up any scorecard program at your local major league ballpark and you’ll likely find a section devoted to the good works of the franchise’s foundations, youth academies, or affiliated “feel good” charities.
Frankly, I always thought charity began at home, and slashing the prices on tickets, concessions, and parking for the hometown fans would be welcome. That would undoubtedly benefit women as well as men, and fans of all races and ages. I can’t think of a better way to foster good PR, but it won’t garner you any brownie points from the numerous talking heads and bloggers who tilt left. To achieve that, you need get-togethers like the “you go, girl” fest at Dodgertown. The girls get a free trip, free room and board, and some exercise. And the suits in the front office get to offer up a plethora of platitudes about inclusivity and equality.
Well, for better or worse, we have a Women’s Baseball World Cup tournament to look forward to in 2020. The participants may represent the best female ballplayers in the world. Yet not one of them will ever play big league ball.
Nevertheless, one fine day, a major league team down on its luck in the waning days of the season may see fit to promote a female to the roster. When there’s nothing to play for, a team still has to pay the bills, and a female in uniform would certainly attract curiosity-seekers.
Should that ever happen, her number will be immediately retired by all major league teams, she will be all over the talk show circuit, her image will adorn the cover of Time magazine (if Time is still around then), she will get a book deal, Hollywood will do a biopic of her, and the talking heads at ESPN will rave for days.
If you work it right, inclusivity can be profitable.