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Will a woman ever play in the majors? Don’t ask major league executives about it.

May 11, 2011, 11:40 AM EST

Japanese female knuckleballer makes debut against men

There’s a story up by Pat Borzi of espnW about the possibility of a woman making the major leagues.  The most interesting passage in the whole piece, however, has little to do with the chances of that actually occurring on the merits but which is quite telling about it happening in reality. After reviewing the views of Justine Siegal, Bill Mike Veeck and Dan Duquette, all of whom feel/felt that we will see a woman in the majors one day, Borzi notes:

It’s difficult to find anyone in MLB who agrees with Siegal, Veeck or Duquette. Of the nine MLB executives, scouts and players contacted by espnW, only three agreed to talk about the subject. None was willing to be quoted. One considered a woman playing in the majors unlikely, and the other two rejected it out of hand.

If people in front offices are so weirded out about the concept that they won’t even offer a speculative quote, how likely is it that anyone will go to the mat for a putative woman prospect if and when it comes time to consider advancing her in the system? Assuming someone would even go out on a limb to draft her? Bunch of cowards.

Anyway, this topic comes up every couple of years, and my take each time has remained more or less the same:

  • I’d love to see it, because you know that ballplayers would say all kinds of stupid things if it happened, and ballplayers saying stupid things makes for great blogging;
  • If we do see it, I agree with Duquette that it will most likely take the form of a knuckleballer with a deceptive motion like Eri Yoshida (though it should be noted that Yoshida didn’t fare well in Independent ball); but
  • We probably won’t see it outside of the independent leagues any time soon, if ever, because baseball is a really damn conservative institution that, at least in this day and age, isn’t all that willing to take chances.

None of this, it should be noted, represents my opinion on whether a woman could be successful in professional baseball. I don’t know nearly enough about scouting and player development and physiology to say with any kind of certainty if a woman could do it.

On a purely biological level there is no getting around the fact that human beings exhibit at least some degree of sexual dimorphism. At the same time, there are outliers, as any guy who has been totally killed during a pickup basketball game against a backup point guard from their high school girl’s team can attest.  Um, not that that happened to me. Repeatedly.

When I think about the subject, part of me looks at out-of-shape major leaguers and thinks “man, there HAS to be a dozen women who could do what that slob can do.” Then part of me looks at any given knuckleballer and thinks that, well, yeah, they still have to have a serviceable get-me-over pitch, and even most men can’t dial it up enough to get that done.

Maybe it happens someday. I hope it does because it would be an absolutely astounding achievement (and not just for dumb bloggy reasons as mentioned above).

But really, executives: you can’t even talk about it?

(thanks to Paperlions for the heads up)

158 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. BC - May 11, 2011 at 3:39 PM

    Wait a minute! There’s an ESPNW? When did that happen?

    • kopy - May 11, 2011 at 4:45 PM

      Pretty recently. I remember one of my buddies talking about it when it came out, and it couldn’t have been much more than a month ago.

      • The Common Man/www.platoonadvantage.com - May 11, 2011 at 4:59 PM

        It’s actually something like 4 months old.

      • The Common Man/www.platoonadvantage.com - May 11, 2011 at 5:00 PM

        Maybe even more, actually, now that I think of it. They debuted around the time the GM meetings were going on.

    • evanpenn - May 16, 2011 at 2:01 PM

      The executives refuse to talk about this because…they’re smart.

      Its a lose-lose proposition. They can tell the truth, say that a woman has no chance of ever playing in the majors, and have a bunch of women calling them sexist, writing letters and boycotting their team, and just generally looking like a jerk(because although this statement is true, its so obvious that there’s no reason to voice it).

      The other choice is to lie, say that maybe someday a woman could play in the majors, and look like a moron. Fellow execs would question their intelligence and future prospective employers would look at the quote and have serious doubts about this person as well.

  2. 5thbase - May 11, 2011 at 4:22 PM

    I think it’s funny that people might think it happen or they think that it’s just because it’s how kids are raised.

    Take a look at tennis. Girls play tennis from the earliest age, but match the best women’s tennis player in the world with #200 on the men’s side and it’s not even going to be close. Golf is the same thing, as is every other sport.

    As far as baseball, T-ball is one thing … none of the kids (boys or girls) have the impact of testosterone yet and they are physiologically very similar. Look at 15 year olds and it’s not the case anymore. It’s absurd to think that any woman could keep up physically with the most elite athletes in the world.

    Hypothetically one could come along and throw a great knuckleball, but there aren’t even very many men who can do that. With all the strength disadvantages I think it’s really unlikely we would ever see it. And if a woman was good enough to do it she would be dominating independent league baseball, which would jump at the chance to market a dominant female pitcher.

    • cur68 - May 11, 2011 at 4:49 PM

      I just explained this to IdahoMariner, but you might want to check out competitive rock climbing before you go all in about boys having it all their own way. I’m told by my daughter’s coaches that most of the girls are better than the boys in that sport. They cite more flexible, lower centre of gravity, calmer under long term stress, able to multitask better, better at route visualization, stronger in the legs than the arms so they climb with legs more than arms, higher pain tolerance, better endurance, and just terrific balance.

      Judging from my daughter’s rock climbing team; this is spot on. The girls out climb the boys in not only speed climbing but difficult route climbing as well. Its not even close unless the boy is small, flexible, and really determined; ie. like a girl.

      • IdahoMariner - May 11, 2011 at 11:26 PM

        I was thinking about that, too, actually, just as I was coming back to this site this evening (I actually had to stop and get some work done). My niece was awesome at rock climbing, my nephew, after a great start, stopped being so great after he grew up and filled out.

        I was also thinking about…Ichiro. And how the beauty of the sport is that it isn’t all brute strength, to a degree much more pronounced than in basketball, tennis, and golf. There is so much more. Base stealing…defense…pitching…singles and doubles (I like triples best, admittedly)….there is so much poetry and craziness, there is already room for pedroias and ra dickeys and ichiros and death to flying things, people who don’t fit the physical mold of brute strength, who offer offense and offer more than just offense. (I thought it was funny when someone said something to the effect of, sure there’s pedroia, but he’s an exceptional athlete. yes. exactly. it will take an exceptional athlete, and one who loves the game like he loves it (especially if she is going to make it past everything that is going to be thrown at her off the field). but “exceptional athletes” are not exclusively male)

        I think that it would take a long time, after replacing all of the high school and college softball teams with hardball teams, after pumping as much money into those programs as the mens, etc., before you would start to see the caliber of players emerge…but I think it could happen. it’s not just the different roles that are available. It’s that, while it’s fabulous to be able to crush it over the wall, not every man can do that, and it hasn’t stopped the ones who have something else to offer. Not every man can steal a base (in fact, some are mocked for their slowness, especially the ones that look like they should be quick), and quickness isn’t everything in stealing a base (just ask Nyjer Morgan — you need brains, too).

        Of course an all-female team is going to get beat by an all-male team. Especially without having been allowed to grow up in a culture of that sport, playing it all through their lives, learning from the same coaches, and being pushed, all through their sporting lives, to reach for that level of competition. But put the system in place, have girls regularly competing with boys (to push the level of competition), have there be similar emphasis and quality for both….you will likely come up with a few elite players that could fit into a team looking for a particular skillset — just like men who don’t fit the mold find a home on teams anyway.

      • IdahoMariner - May 11, 2011 at 11:40 PM

        now that I have had the chance to see your previous comment, cur68, I wanted to say thanks for the information about rock climbing. That’s encouraging, and, like I said a few minutes ago, I hadn’t remembered about my niece’s great experience with it. And I didn’t know you could do it competitively. That’s awesome. And it sounds like your daughter’s lucky to have you. and damn smart — wish I had thought, before it came time to pay law school loans and all that, to take my act to somewhere cool for a while. Because, yeah, why not go be a lawyer in Spain. Excellent plan.

        and I want to say how great it was to read the mostly thoughtful attempt to thrash out the ideas behind Craig’s post by most everyone. It got a little dicey a few times, but most of the commenters were respectful and thoughtful. I don’t have to agree with the conclusion that some made, that a woman could never make it under any circumstances, but most of the commenters that came to that conclusion got there by trying to actually consider the possibility and think of why or why it wouldn’t happen. Not shouldn’t happen, but wouldn’t, which is a profound difference to those of us who are often told we can’t do something “because that’s the way it is.”

      • cur68 - May 11, 2011 at 11:50 PM

        Ichiro is an excellent example. Frankly a lot of guys fit that physical bill, myself included. My daughter is certainly more graceful, flexible and has better balance than I. With the right amount of coordination that skill set has to offset the strength difference to some degree. Maybe even enough to play in the MLB.

        This debate reminds me of medicine and how for centuries women were barred from practicing. A lot of the physiologic reasons being cited here are identical to what was cited about female docs. Now there are often more female docs than male and, as a nurse, I prefer working with them. Especially the residents. The men all seem to be trying too hard to impress and be perceived as experts while the female residents seem happy to ask for help and make fewer mistakes as a result.

        Maybe in time it will be the same way in pro sports. There will have to be equal access to training and talent cultivation but I think its possible.

      • 5thbase - May 12, 2011 at 1:01 PM

        Just because you add the word “competitive” to it doesn’t mean it’s a sport. If I asked someone what their favorite sport is and they responded with “rock climbing” I would consider them pretty dim.

        I’m glad your daughter enjoys her hobby, but we’re talking about real sports here, not competitive eating, competitive dancing, competitive hiking, etc. In regards to real sports that people would actually get paid to play and other people (more than 2) would pay to watch, women will never be competitive with men for the reasons I listed.

        Also, fyi, the best climbers in the world are all men. At a kids level the best male athletes are playing real sports but at the highest levels of anything physical you’re going to find male domination. A lot of your points bear out the fact that the boys your daughter “competes” against aren’t very good athletes – girls do not have better endurance or balance than boys in general.

  3. paperlions - May 11, 2011 at 4:51 PM

    Steroids are powerful chemicals, we have all seen the effect on a physique that additional testosterone can have in only a few months. Well, men have that kind of physiological advantage over women, and starting about about age 12, have that advantage 24/7…and with every passing month for the next 15 years or so that advantage continues to grow….and the final physical competitive advantage is humongous….and manifests in terms of speed, strength, and mass…all of which are important in playing baseball.
    .
    Having watched men and women play the same games with the same rules, there is just no comparison between what the most gifted men can do playing soccer, hockey, basketball, or tennis and what the most gifted women can do in those sports.
    .
    I am all for women (and girls) having the chance to play baseball instead of softball (I’ve never understood why anyone would play softball before old enough to legally drink), but there is no reason to think that a woman could compete in MLB when it is so clear that one could not compete with men in the other sports that have the same rules but separate leagues.
    .
    I’m not trying to crush anyone’s spirit, just being realistic about the natural physical differences between the sexes. Men are already on anabolic steroids; women are not.

    • schlom - May 11, 2011 at 5:03 PM

      Good point. If you look at the world records in track and field, the women’s records are basically about 10% worse than the men’s records (it lines up almost perfect with the main exception being the marathon record but there has been some proof that women are superior endurance athletes). Then applying that to baseball or basketball that adds to be a huge disadvantage – they are 10% slower, 10% shorter, 10% lighter, 10% less quick and so on. Adding it all up and a woman is significantly worse.

      • The Common Man/www.platoonadvantage.com - May 11, 2011 at 5:16 PM

        There’s a big difference between, say, Olympic Sprinting, and baseball. There are more skill sets that are relevant to baseball than to each individual track and field event, or even to basketball. Plus, there are far more baseball players in more specialized roles in the Major Leagues. To suggest that there will never be a woman who is not a better player than at least a few of the 750 or so dudes who play at any given time seems like a stretch to me.

      • paperlions - May 11, 2011 at 7:49 PM

        Except that there are not very many specialized rolls, now you are severely shrinking the job pool, there are not 750 jobs for a specialty. There may be about 40-50 LOOGYs, but there really aren’t very many “specialty” positions, and each of them requires either an extreme skill or to be serviceable at many things (like end-of-the bench utility players). Could a woman be one of the best 50 LOOGYs in the world? One of the 50 best utility players? One of the best pinch hitters, which is doubtful as they likely will have little power do to strength/bat mass/bat speed issues.
        .
        What other true specialty jobs are there in MLB for which there is not already extreme competition and that a woman may have the skill set to perform?

  4. tigerprez - May 11, 2011 at 4:55 PM

    I’m surprised that there are all of these comments and not one mention of the Colorado Silver Bullets or Ila Borders. If you don’t recall, the Silver Bullets was a professional all-female baseball team that was supposed to be able to play at the Double A level in the mid-90s. Phil Niekro was their manager, and I remember watching them with great interest back in the day, only to be disappointed when they got blown out game after game playing against semi-pro men’s teams. By the end, I remember watching them get stomped on ESPN2 playing a team of male actors lead by Kevin Costner. That wasn’t even a team of serious baseball players — just famous actors. That’s when my dream of seeing a woman in the major leagues died.

    Then there’s Illa Borders, the lefty pitcher who became the first female to start a NCAA game and ended up kicking around the independent leagues from 97 to 2000, pitching for St. Paul Saints for awhile. As the favored proving ground for holdout draft picks and over-the-hill former stars who want a path back to the bigs, just competing in that league was no small accomplishment. She didn’t have much success, but she had her moments, once stringing together 12 consecutive scoreless innings if I remember correctly. But even Borders was a long way from the majors, and it’s hard to imagine another woman being so much better than she was to be able to carve out a career at the major league level. Hope I’m wrong, but it just seems unlikely.

    That said, if such a woman exists, a major league team would be foolish not to give her a chance. It would be the leading story on ESPN every night.

    • deathmonkey41 - May 11, 2011 at 6:11 PM

      I mentioned the Silver Bullets earlier. They were a joke.

  5. schlom - May 11, 2011 at 4:57 PM

    I think people are underestimating just how good anyone who makes it as a professional athlete is. They really are the best of the best and aren’t comparable to the average person in any way. Some people seem to think that because the best women basketball players are so much better than they are that they’d have a shot in the pros. Quite simply that is insane. There is no way any woman can play in the NBA, it’s just physically impossible. The men would be significantly stronger, quicker, faster, and taller. A woman would have no chance to guard anyone and would be useless on offense if guarded.

    I don’t see how baseball would be any different. People said that Jackie Joyner Kersee or Marion Jones could be pinch-runners but that simply isn’t true. She’s fast for a woman but she’s not fast compared to men. I’m sure there are plenty of men in organized baseball that are faster than she was and have little to no shot of making the majors. The same goes with batting and pitching – it’s just physically impossible for a woman to compete with men.

  6. 1historian - May 13, 2011 at 2:01 PM

    this is a joke, right?

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