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Could women play major league baseball? Sure. Right now, though, the deck is stacked against them.

Aug 28, 2014, 5:01 PM EST

Woman baseball

Jack Moore of Vice Sports has a column up today talking about the history of women in baseball. There are some stories in there that have been criminally underplayed and underexamined over the years. Specifically, the one about the woman who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. I’ll add to that the story of Toni Stone, who played in the Negro Leagues in the late 40s and early 50s. A great book about her (for which, full disclosure: I provided a blurb) was written a few years back called “Curveball.” 

As most writings, historical or otherwise, about women in baseball do, Moore’s ends with a question a lot of people ask:

The question, then, isn’t when women will earn a spot on the diamond next to men. They have been earning those spots for over 100 years. The question is when the men barring the gates will finally stand aside and let them in.

A bit of a controversy has bubbled up this afternoon about the specific way that question was put. The issue being whether there are/were people actively and with sharp purpose standing in the way of women in baseball to begin with, or is it more a matter of there simply not being women around today who actually could hack it if given the chance. My friend Rob Neyer is taking a lot of heat for his take on that, for example. I’m not going to wade into the specifics of his take vs. Moore’s take on that — you are smart and can go read them yourself — but I will offer some thoughts on the topic at large.

We’ll get to the ultimate question — could women play major league baseball? — last. Before we get there, let’s acknowledge a few things:

  • Baseball, given its history, is not entitled to the benefit of the doubt when it comes to barriers and controversial bright lines. It took sheer heroism to break the color barrier. It takes years of argument and cajoling to get it to adopt even the most basic and innocuous changes. It’s a conservative institution by nature that cannot, despite how far it has come, simply expect people to say “sure, baseball would totally do [X good thing] if the opportunity presented itself! It just hasn’t presented itself!” Baseball will, generally speaking, amble in the right direction. Occasionally it will do a good thing kind of quickly. But it almost always has to be pulled there. It does not lead on its own accord.
  • A couple of years ago when Pat Borzi of the now-defunct espnW wrote a story about women playing professional baseball, he spoke with nine current MLB scouts, executives and players and not one of them would go on record on the matter. Only three would offer comment at all. If we lived in a world where MLB would jump all over the chance to sign a woman to play professional baseball and would actually play her in a non-gimmicky way, you’d think someone would at least want to talk about it. But we don’t live in that world. At all. There is no evidence whatsoever that a major league organization has even broached the subject, let alone encouraged anyone to think about it internally. If it had, there would be talking points — even empty ones — rather than no-comments.
  • Anyone who simply says, out of hand, that there is no way a woman can play major league baseball competitively is just guessing. And, in all likelihood, voicing some level of prejudice, be it conscious or subconscious. Because the fact of the matter is we have no idea how women, in numbers, stack up. As Emma Span noted in her excellent New York Times piece back in June, girls and women are systematically steered away from playing baseball. The fact that a small handful play is neat, but it’s totally useless as a predictor for how they’d do if there was organized instruction and play for women that produced a critical mass of women baseball players from which the professional leagues could scout.

So, with that out of the way, here’s my take — or really, my guess — on whether women could play major league baseball: sure, probably.

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. I’m pretty sure some women could if they played the game a lot, which they’re not doing now. But it would be a harder slog in general for reasons other than prejudice. There is no escaping the fact that there is some degree of sexual dimorphism among human beings and that, for a lot of things in baseball, overall strength and speed does matter. That doesn’t mean that no woman could do it, of course — there are TONS of women stronger and faster than men who play sports — it’s just that there would be some natural funneling of the talent pool based on the basic competitive requirements of the sport, making it harder for women. Some percentage of women could do it that is less than the percentage of men who could do it even if there are lots of women who could do it.

I hope that point is clear and not controversial. It shouldn’t be a controversial point. It’s merely a physiological one.

That aside, I do not think it’s silly to think that a woman could pitch relatively soon, especially if they were throwing a lot of offspeed stuff or knucklers. We’ve seen knuckleballers throwing to major leaguers before and do just fine with it. No, batting practice is not a great predictor of professional success — Japanese knuckleballer Eri Yoshida struggled in independent ball– but it’s not at all unreasonable to say that, given the reps and the training and full-time dedication to it, a woman could do it. I’m sure many could eventually, even if it’d be hard to see a woman walk right in tomorrow and do it.

Beyond knuckleballers? That’s where the institutional barriers come in, I think. Could top woman athletes who now focus on, say, track and field, basketball, soccer, weightlifting or other sports where women can compete on elite levels make it to the bigs if they were able to play baseball against top competition from age 10 through age 18 and beyond? As of now, we can’t know, because that just doesn’t happen. At all. But even with those physiological differences mentioned above, I think it’s silly to say that no one would make it through and be able to compete. In some ways it’s like saying “no Indian people can play baseball” based on the example of Dinesh and Rinku. They were novelties in some way, sure, and they didn’t make the bigs. But does that say more about Indians or does it say more about their access to and development in a baseball culture that encourages them.

So, yes, I think women could play major league baseball. To the extent people say they couldn’t, I think that says more about the culture we have which doesn’t allow us, for various reasons, to picture it happening.

224 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. Ren - Aug 28, 2014 at 8:51 PM

    What’s needed here is acceptance, it’s possibly likely gender descrimination is the only thing that is blockin their path to play amongst big league players. The required skill is certainly there for women to play in it, their skill will gradually improve over the time just as long they’re committed to do something they want to do most. In Baseball it’s definitely a tough mental sport… Where to trust one’s own confidence is needed to achieve and gain good results.

    • rip24b - Aug 28, 2014 at 10:15 PM

      this is the stupidest thing ive ever read…professional sports is the ultimate meritocracy. if you have the skills and the desire you WILL get an opportunity.

      • Ren - Aug 28, 2014 at 10:23 PM

        You’re probably in the minority of that when it comes to women playin in the big leagues. What will a guy thinks when a woman plays against em? Did you even think about that? The skill is indeed there but the probable thing which is blockin their path is gender descrimination.

        Which is why acceptance is definitely needed when it comes to this situation.

      • historiophiliac - Aug 28, 2014 at 11:02 PM

        That is inaccurate. There is a rule that bars women from playing in MLB.

      • abaird2012 - Aug 29, 2014 at 2:17 PM

        You mean like Josh Gibson did?

  2. jinx21fan - Aug 28, 2014 at 9:01 PM

    “So, yes, I think women could play major league baseball. To the extent people say they couldn’t, I think that says more about the culture we have which doesn’t allow us, for various reasons, to picture it happening.”

    That statement really p*sses me off. It’s the new way of arguing anything … if you don’t agree with me you’re sexist, racist, homophobic …

    • senotonom205 - Aug 28, 2014 at 10:10 PM

      But, what if you really are sexist, racist or homophobic? I

      • jinx21fan - Aug 28, 2014 at 10:21 PM

        First I would ask who is defining the terms. There are some blatant examples I think a clear majority can classify, there are also some pretty thin claims. In my opinion of course.

        If a woman can develop a knuckleball and come up and out perform RA Dickey (which has been a fairly low bar in his Jays tenure) then bring her aboard I’m all for it. Aside from that, I see absolutely no way a woman can play at a MLB level. Maybe with generations of evolution changing the biology and genetics of humans the sexes will play at equal physical levels.

    • senotonom205 - Aug 28, 2014 at 10:50 PM

      Which is exactly what he said in the post. That kind of makes me think your little outburst was more politically charged than this article.

      • jinx21fan - Aug 28, 2014 at 11:36 PM

        No chit Sherlock, my post was meant to be politically charged. You are the Captain of the Captain Obvious club.

        “To the extent people say they couldn’t, I think that says more about the culture we have which doesn’t allow us, for various reasons, to picture it happening”

        I believe that statement false and to quite passively suggest anyone that doesn’t believe women couldn’t be in MLB as sexists. Change the word “couldn’t” in that sentence to “shouldn’t” and we might have something to go on.

    • senotonom205 - Aug 29, 2014 at 12:10 AM

      Well getting past your first little bit of nonsense. I absolutely think if someone says woman absolutely could not play as a product of the culture we have fostered. There are women in this world with all the physical tools to play Baseball, yet we have created a society that says girls don’t play baseball, they play softball, and that is inherently sexist.

      • jinx21fan - Aug 29, 2014 at 1:08 AM

        Well, I’ll get past all of your nonsense (feels good to hug it out eh).

        “I absolutely think if someone says woman absolutely could not play as a product of the culture we have fostered.”

        The article specifically is about women playing MLB. You seem to want to make it broader. Yes, women can play baseball. As far as I know there are no laws preventing them from playing. But “culture” did not “foster” science. The best women are not physically able to play to the same standards as the best men. Evolution may even things out someday.

        “There are women in this world with all the physical tools to play Baseball, yet we have created a society that says girls don’t play baseball, they play softball”

        There is nothing, created by society, stopping every female softball team from switching to baseball tomorrow. Of course, that depends on the actual amount of women with that desire.

        “and that is inherently sexist.”

        You are blatantly changing the parameters of the article and your posts looking to be able to label something/someone “sexist”. You arrived at your desired destination.

    • spc7ray - Dec 24, 2014 at 7:54 PM

      I played semipro 27 yrs–there were many women I played with who were good enough–Thos that argue didnt play the game or ARE sexist–Why do you think no scout gave his opinion?

  3. castaluccio - Aug 28, 2014 at 9:05 PM

    Women don’t, and probably won’t, play MLB because of size and bat and arm speed. Today’s game is all about size and ‘power.’ Power hitters, power pitchers, power arms in the outfield, infield, behind the plate, and speed on the bases. Players who appear to be ‘short’ likely are over 6 feet. They look short because their teammates are well over 6 feet. Keep in mind, Steve Garvey (5’10”) was the last first baseman under six feet to play the position in MLB. Now, how many 6′ + women do you know who have the athleticism to play the game at a world class level? I thought so.

    Also, do MLB teams even scout women’s teams. Most women play softball, a similar but different game; so, where would a team find a female Koufax or Gehrig, Mantle, Jeter, or Ruth or Clemente’?

    • Ren - Aug 28, 2014 at 9:15 PM

      “Women don’t, and probably won’t, play MLB because of size and bat and arm speed. Today’s game is all about size and ‘power’.”

      What’s the use of use of power when you can’t even show it? What’s the use of a Baseball bat when you can’t even hit? Does size really matter when you play the game especially in Baseball when there’s already a variety of different builds of players playin in the field together?

      • Ren - Aug 28, 2014 at 9:26 PM

        “use of use of”

        Damn this fingers of mine… *_*

      • jinx21fan - Aug 28, 2014 at 9:33 PM

        “Damn this fingers of mine… *_*”

        Double Fail: that as an excuse for the first post

      • Ren - Aug 28, 2014 at 9:42 PM

        Triple fail: For the failed emoticon.

      • Ren - Aug 28, 2014 at 9:44 PM

        1st post? I doubt it… Unless someones points out a valid reason why.

      • jinx21fan - Aug 28, 2014 at 9:54 PM

        Seriously!?! The first post as in, the post you quoted from in the second one explaining the first??

        And walk the bitter off, it was just a little amusing that’s all.

      • Ren - Aug 28, 2014 at 10:03 PM

        Argggggghhh!!!

        Sorry, just woke up today. Really overthinkin stuffs as of late.

      • jinx21fan - Aug 28, 2014 at 10:07 PM

        Cheers, no worries! We all have our moments.

    • DJ MC - Aug 28, 2014 at 10:09 PM

      You’ve pretty much condensed every single strawman argument into one post, so bravo for that accomplishment.

      “Today’s game is all about size and power…” As though there aren’t plenty of players playing currently who have neither. Or all teams play exactly the same way. Or that the game “today” is the way baseball will be played a decade from now. Or that that change isn’t already occurring, which has been well-documented and any knowledgeable baseball fan would know.

      “Players who appear to be ‘short’ likely are over six feet…” Well, I’ve been within arm’s reach of Jose Altuve before, and even after identifying himself as a baseball player it took me a while to realize who he was because he is even shorter than you think he is. Dustin Pedroia doesn’t “appear” short because he stands next to David Ortiz, but because he’s 5′ 8″.

      “How many 6’+ women do you know who have the athleticism to play the game at a world class level?” How many 6’+ men do you know who have the athleticism to play the game at a world class level? If you seriously mean “do you know”, I’m guessing the latter number is not much larger than the former, if any. If you mean “know of”, then currently it might be 500 or so, but we don’t know for sure.

      “Also, do MLB teams even scout women’s teams.” Do they scout rec-ball teams? There could be diamonds in the rough that due to lack of exposure or just lack of interest never received a shot, but it is far, far too inefficient to scout those teams. If there were a larger talent base of organized women’s players, I would bet that teams would scout them. Especially once a few players did force their way up and have success. Teams may do dumb things, but they aren’t stupid, and if there is a source of talent someone will try and tap into it.

    • spc7ray - Dec 24, 2014 at 7:56 PM

      I guess you never played any organized Baseball–I played with many who were very good players

  4. DJ MC - Aug 28, 2014 at 9:53 PM

    I think the biggest thing holding back female baseball players is the simple fact that there are very, very few. Especially in comparison to the numbers of women who play basketball and soccer and hockey and lacrosse and other sports. That’s due to almost every one who would want to play ends up playing softball instead.

    And softball is truly a different sport. It is like comparing basketball to netball, which evolved from basketball early on and became popular as an “equivalent” for women because of different rules which limit court movement. It became the “default” women’s sport in the same way as softball has alongside the male counterparts.

    I know my dad has talked about my aunt playing netball in high school while he played basketball, which means such views were in place at least as late as 1970. But because schools began replacing netball with actual basketball for women, it allowed for the development in proficiency in basketball, and is the entire reason we can even have a “Brittney Griner in the NBA” discussion.

    A similar push would need to happen, with women’s baseball replacing softball in schools and colleges, before enough of a talent base were established to make someone rising to the very top realistic. It is surely possible now, but the chances of sustained success by multiple players would be minimal.

    All I know for sure is that I would love to see it happen.

    • simon94022 - Aug 28, 2014 at 11:26 PM

      Yet women play soccer and basketball, along with golf and tennis, in huge numbers, and so far not one has been talented enough to compete at the highest men’s levels in any of those sports.

      Why would baseball be different?

      • DJ MC - Aug 28, 2014 at 11:36 PM

        Because “no one has been” is not the same as “no one ever will be”.

        In addition to the differences between baseball and other sports mentioned ad nauseam above.

  5. themagicfanguy - Aug 28, 2014 at 10:10 PM

    ‘track and field, basketball, soccer, weightlifting or other sports where women can compete on elite levels’ Except that those are only elite levels when compared to other women, men best them in every single one of those sports. It’s not prejudice to say they can’t compete on the same level when it’s been proven over and over, it’s not fair for women but it’s the truth.

    • wjarvis - Aug 29, 2014 at 1:44 AM

      Except none of those sports are really a very good comparison for baseball. Baseball players don’t have to physically match their opponent in many cases, unlike all of those sports. When a batter faces a pitcher, it doesn’t matter who the better athlete is, just like whether a 2B being able to throw out a batter is not dependent on whether they are a better athlete.

      Yes, the best male athletes are better than the best female athletes. However, baseball players are not the best male athletes in the world. They are all very athletic, but their specific skill sets are much more important. Pretty much every defensive end in the NFL is bigger, faster, stronger, and more agile than Miguel Cabrera by a significant margin, but since they can’t hit a baseball at an elite level all that athleticism is useless to a MLB team.

      There are plenty of women athletic enough to be professional baseball players, but none of them have enough experience to have developed the elite pitching or hitting skills necessary to make a team.

  6. schreibdave - Aug 28, 2014 at 11:28 PM

    Right now there isnt any pipeline for female baseball players. Even in little league, interested girls move to softball by about age 10. At least here in upstate NY.

    Before a woman can break the MLB gender barrier, girls will have to break the LL, school and college barriers. That’s a long time off.

  7. simon94022 - Aug 28, 2014 at 11:47 PM

    Baseball, given its history, is not entitled to the benefit of the doubt when it comes to barriers and controversial bright lines. It took sheer heroism to break the color barrier.

    This is unhistorical nonsense.

    1. The color barrier in baseball was broken nearly 70 years ago. What does that have to do with the culture of baseball today?

    2. The color barrier was in no way unique to baseball. It was a basic feature of every aspect of American life until the 1950s. What was unique about baseball was the fact that it was broken. When Jackie Robinson came up to the Dodgers the entire US military was segregated. So were virtually all offices, churches and public schools, as well as college athletic programs and other pro sports. Baseball led the way in breaking the color barrier in American society. It’s a story baseball should be proud of, rather than giving in to the cheap moralizing that makes it a source of eternal shame.

    3. Yes, it took “sheer heroism” to break the color barrier, but that heroism came from within Major League Baseball itself, beginning with Branch Rickey. Outside pressure contributed nothing, since most of it worked in favor of the color barrier.

    4. Finally, there is no comparing the situation of blacks in the 1940s with American women today. Aside from the most extreme minority of racists, everyone in that era knew that the best black players could ccompete and excel in the majors. It was strictly a question of whether confronting the societal taboo was bad for baseball as a business. Today there are very few societal taboos holding women back from competing against men in any walk of life, nobody worries that putting a woman on a major league roster will cause a fan boycott, and the only issue is whether any such woman has the necessary talent.

    • jinx21fan - Aug 28, 2014 at 11:53 PM

      Well said.

    • Ren - Aug 29, 2014 at 12:00 AM

      Very well put.

    • historiophiliac - Aug 29, 2014 at 12:15 AM

      What Craig said was the opposite of unhistorical. As for your points, so, so, so much wrong there, and if you think there are “very few societal taboos holding women back,” you didn’t read all the comments on this post.

  8. perryt200 - Aug 29, 2014 at 1:32 AM

    Perhaps not in the history of the internet, but in my lifetime Craig is the most successful troll I have ever seen.

  9. Wendy Parker - Aug 29, 2014 at 9:58 AM

    I generally like Craig Calcaterra’s work, but I’m disappointed to see him give Jack Moore’s piece any kind of serious credence here.

    While Moore tries to build an historical case for why women have proven they can play with men, I agree with Rob Neyer that he makes an “ahistorical” conclusion — that only if the veil of sexism in baseball were lifted, there might someday be a female major leaguer. There’s no historical reason to believe any of that, despite Moore’s protestations.

    This also ignores the best sports science that is available now and its some very dubious wishful thinking that doesn’t help the cause of females in baseball. Or any other sport.

    At the peak of her magnificent golfing career, Annika Sorenstam was very realistic as she played in the PGA Colonial event in 2003. If not for a few birdies — length wasn’t really the issue — she might have made the cut. Instead, what she saw was that men in a non-contact sport like golf can use their physical superiority to get themselves out of trouble — bunkers, fairway rough, getting up and down around the greens, etc., — in ways that most women, including her, cannot.

    There is nothing that’s preventing girls from playing baseball now; it’s just that there’s not enough interest to form all-girls teams in sufficient numbers. Mo’Ne Davis pitched in the Little League World Series, but the boys she’s been playing with, and against, are about to hit puberty. Having covered girls and women’s sports for years, I can tell you many of them tend to play what their female friends are playing.

    Davis is an anomaly whose exploits should be applauded, but even she is under no delusions about what the future holds for her. Her top sports goal is to play for UConn’s championship women’s basketball team, and that’s no small goal at all.

    I also disagree with Craig about Emma Span’s piece in the NYT — she channels the mournful conclusions of author Jennifer Ring about girls being “steered away” from baseball even today. It’s not as simple as that. Girls have been steered away, and also banished, from many sports that they are playing today in great numbers thanks to Title IX. Those sports include, but are not limited to, softball, which Span and others like her seem to disdain. If not for softball, goes the thinking, then perhaps many of those girls would be playing baseball.

    But the groundswell of interest in sports like soccer and lacrosse in more recent years among young girls, and their greater inclusion in high school and college programs, indicates that girls are choosing the sports they want to play, and baseball is not one of them.

    • jinx21fan - Aug 29, 2014 at 11:24 AM

      Articulate and informative, amazing what a real professional scribe can add to a story. The countdown commences on the inevitable character assassination levied in a future article.

    • frankschloegel - Sep 2, 2014 at 4:01 PM

      But should baseball do anything active to attract girls to play it? Will it help baseball to have an active avenue for girls to become the best baseball players they can? As a member of the culture I don’t care what sports are popular, but as a fan of one sport or another I feel like it makes them more popular to have more kids playing them.

  10. thebadguyswon - Aug 29, 2014 at 11:27 AM

    I came here just to read the comments.

  11. wpjohnson - Aug 29, 2014 at 1:26 PM

    This is undoubtedly one of the dumber articles to appear on Hardball Talk. No, women cannot play MLB.

  12. bigmeechy74 - Aug 29, 2014 at 2:41 PM

    Has anyone here ever heard of genetics? Women simply aren’t fast enough, strong enough, or athletic enough to compete with men. Period. Sorry to break the news to you. The worst mens college basketball team in division 1 ranked 300th would beat the #1 womens basketball team by 100. The #200 mens tennis player would beat serena williams 6-0, 6-0. It’s just simple science. Bigger, stronger, faster. do you think your house cat can out run a cheetah too?

  13. spc7ray - Dec 24, 2014 at 8:03 PM

    I dont understand this–Almost all of these post are against women–Did any of these guys ever play organized baseball?-I did and for 27yrs–1971 to 1998–I played with many many very good women players–there was a reason no scout would comment==they knew but wouldnt or couldnt say–I remember on a Johnny Carson show episode a woman who pitched FAST pitch softball struck out Mickey Mantle- Willie Mays and Hank Aaron all made excuses and all said she was fantastic–THAT was in the late 70s–A woman will be playing MLB someday count on it

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