The Women’s College World Series began yesterday in Oklahoma City.
The eight-team, double-elimination tournament—featuring top-ranked Cal, defending champion Arizona State, SEC power Alabama, and upstart South Florid—continues through June 6.
Unlike other World Series—such as the men’s College World Series, the Little League World Series, or the original Major League Baseball World Series—the Women’s College World Series isn’t a baseball event. It’s a softball tournament.
So why is it that girls play softball and boys play baseball anyway?
The Story of Paige Sultzbach
Last month the story of 15-year-old baseball player Paige Sultzbach made the rounds on the Internet.
Sultzbach, a freshman, plays second base for the Mesa Preparatory Academy baseball team. As Sultzbach’s first name suggests, she is a girl, the only girl on her team.
Mesa Prep advanced to the finals of the Arizona Charter Athletic Association baseball tournament, but their championship-game opponent—Our Lady of Sorrows, a school affiliated with the traditionalist Catholic offshoot Society of St. Pius X—refused to take the field, citing a policy against mixed-gender sports.
Mesa Prep and Our Lady of Sorrows had played twice during the season. Sultzbach sat out both games. But Mesa Prep wasn’t going to play the title game without its starting second baseman, so Our Lady of Sorrows—having learned nothing from Tatum O’Neal in Bad News Bears—decided to forfeit.
Sultzbach plays baseball for Mesa Prep because the school doesn’t have a softball team.
At the thousands of high schools that field both a baseball and softball team, boys (as a general rule) fill out the baseball roster and girls the softball roster. The same is true of youth leagues that offer both sports.
While Sultzbach isn’t alone—there are many other girls in the U.S. and around the world who play baseball—and while Little League Baseball sponsors boys softball, as a culture we have decided that baseball is for boys and softball is for girls.
“Girls Play Baseball”
Baseball and softball operate according to the same basic rules: three strikes is an out; each team gets three outs per inning; a player scores a run by returning to home plate; there are nine players per team, a pitcher, a catcher, four infielders, and three outfielders.
But beyond these foundational rules, baseball and softball are very different games.
Softball pitchers stand much closer to the batter than baseball pitchers and throw a larger (and often yellower) ball. While baseball pitchers have an arsenal of overhand pitches to choose from, softball pitcher throw the ball underhand, usually with a windmill motion. A softball infield is dirt rather than grass and the bases are closer together.
Jim Nemerovski, who runs the Girls Play Baseball website and has a daughter who has refused to give up baseball and switch to softball says, “Softball has been established as a different game despite the similarities: the mind and the body react differently [in baseball] than in softball.”
Why have we, as a culture, decided that boys should play one bat-and-ball sport and girls another?
We would find it strange if a school offered tennis for boys and squash for girls, so why is it accepted that they do the same thing with baseball and softball?
Where did this idea that boys play baseball and girls play softball come from?
Baseball’s History of Exclusion
The short answer is that girls play softball because, for more than a century, they have been excluded from baseball.
According to Rebecca Gularte’s excellent 2012 paper “No Girls in the Clubhouse” (her Scripps College senior thesis), while small numbers of girls and women have played baseball since the game’s creation, Victorian notions of gender and femininity kept many girls and women out of the sport in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In 1929 the American Legion officially barred girls from its baseball leagues. Little League Baseball, founded in 1939, excluded female players from the beginning.
Albert Spalding, a hall-of-fame pitcher for the Chicago White Stockings (who became the Cubs, not the White Sox) and Boston Red Stockings (who became the Braves, not the Red Sox) best known as the founder of the sporting goods company that bears his name, was invested in establishing baseball as the national game in the United States.
Spalding, who insisted that baseball was created from scratch in the U.S., and sportswriter and historian Henry Chadwick, who insisted (correctly) that baseball evolved from the English game rounders, appointed a commission—the Mills Commission—to uncover the origins of baseball. According to Jennifer Ring in Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball, Spalding wanted to demonstrate that “baseball was indigenous to America and inherently masculine.”
The Mills Commission put a call out to any American who had any knowledge of the origins of baseball. A 71-year-old man from Denver named Abner Graves wrote the commission a letter saying that he was present in 1839 when Abner Doubleday (later a general in the Union army) invented baseball at a school in Cooperstown, New York. The idea that a decorated military officer invented baseball in New York was too good for the commission to pass up, and they neglected to investigate Graves’s claims. The myth, which has since been debunked, stuck.
Spalding and his commission were successful in presenting baseball as a manly, American game.
Spalding himself had no use for women and girls on the playing field. He encouraged women to cheer from the grandstands but insisted that “neither our wives, our sisters, our daughters, nor our sweethearts” should step onto the diamond. In Spalding’s opinion, baseball was “too strenuous for womankind.” (Quotes like that will make you think twice about buying that Spalding NBA indoor-outdoor basketball from Target.)
The Legend of Jackie Mitchell
In 1931 the Chattanooga Lookouts, a AA team, signed a woman named Jackie Mitchell. During a famous exhibition game between the Lookouts and the New York Yankees on April 1 of that year, Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
A few days later baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided Mitchell’s contract and barred women from Major and minor league clubs.
Even though a woman had fanned two of the game’s greatest players, Landis, echoing Spalding, insisted that baseball was too strenuous for female players.
A Similar, but Distinct, Game
Softball originated in Chicago in late nineteenth century as an indoor alternative to baseball. Within a couple years of its creation, the game known as “indoor baseball” moved outdoors and established formal rules. While most early softball players were men, the cultural forces that excluded women from baseball decided that softball was an acceptable game for women to play.
In 1929 Gladys Palmer published Baseball for Girls and Women, a rulebook for a women’s version of outdoor baseball.
Palmer said that women needed a “less strenuous” version of the game because “the intricate technique of [baseball] is too difficult for the average girl to master.” The game Palmer described was more softball than baseball.
The playing field was smaller than in standard baseball and Palmer instructed pitchers to use an underhand throw. The name “softball” didn’t exist until 1926 and didn’t become commonplace until the 1930s. Up to that point the game had been known variously as indoor baseball, indoor-outdoor, diamond ball, kitten ball, and playground ball.
While baseball, at least according to conventional rules, was off limits to women and girls, female ballplayers populated thousands of softball teams around the country. During the 1930s and 1940s players developed a faster pitching style, giving birth to what we know today as fast-pitch softball.
Eventually the Amateur Softball Association formally recognized fast-pitch and slow-pitch softball as separate games.
Breaking the Sex Barrier
During World War II, when many top baseball players were serving overseas, Chicago Cubs owner and chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley established the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPL), a league that is familiar to my generation thanks to Penny Marshall’s 1992 film A League of Their Own.
Though the AAGPL marketed itself as a baseball league, its rules were a hybrid of baseball and softball. In the AAGPL’s first season the ball had a 12-inch circumference (the size of a softball) and pitchers threw the ball underhand from a distance of 40 feet.
Over the league’s 11 seasons the ball gradually got smaller and the base paths and pitching distances gradually got longer. After five seasons the AAGPL switched from underhand to overhand pitching.
By 1954 AAGPL teams were playing a version of baseball that was very similar to the game the men were playing. But the 1954 season was the league’s last.
In 1950 a girl named Kathryn Johnston disguised herself as a boy, took the nickname “Tubby,” and played for the King’s Dairy Little League Baseball team in Corning, New York. She eventually revealed to her coach that she was a girl. According to Johnston, her coach replied, “Well, if you’re good enough to make the team, you’re good enough to stay on the team.”
When Little League officials learned about Johnston, they passed the “Tubby Rule,” formally barring girls from Little League play. (The rule did not affect Johnston, who had aged out of Little League by the time the rule was put in place.)
The Tubby Rule excluded girls from Little League for more than two decades before 12-year-old Maria Pepe and the National Organization for Women sued Little League in 1972. In 1974 the New Jersey Supreme Court decided in favor of Pepe and Little League was forced to admit girls.
While many girls over the past 38 years have played Little League Baseball, Little League responded to the New Jersey Supreme Court decision by creating a softball program. Today Little League sanctions softball programs for both girls and boys.
Title IX and the Establishment of Women’s Softball
Around the time Maria Pepe was suing for the right to play, Congress passed Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
The purpose of Title IX was to end sex discrimination across all educational programs, but it is best known for its effect on interscholastic sports.
Title IX stipulates that any school that receives federal funds (which is just about all of them) must ensure equal opportunity for students regardless of sex. Where sports is concerned the Department of Education evaluates schools to make sure that they “provide equal opportunity in the selection of sports and levels of competition available to members of both sexes.”
Schools have no obligation to offer the same sports to men and women, boys and girls, so long as male and female athletes have equal access to financial aid and quality facilities and resources.
By the time Title IX had passed, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) had been established as a governing body for women’s college sports. At the time, the NCAA had no interest or involvement in women’s athletics.
The AIAW sanctioned fast-pitch softball, from 1973 until it discontinued operations in the early 1980s, but never women’s baseball. The NCAA, which began organizing women’s sports championships in 1982, likewise has always sanctioned women’s softball but not women’s baseball (or, for that matter, men’s softball).
Distinct Sports, Not Alternatives To One Another
While opportunities for girls to play baseball seem limited, Nemerovski says that it is important that girls and families realize that “Baseball is ALWAYS an option for girls; it is an equal opportunity. That a community does not invest in boy’s softball is their prerogative. However, that decision does not mean girls are prevented from playing baseball.” Any organization that receives public funds or uses public land, Nemerovski points out, cannot legally exclude girls from baseball teams.
Nemerovski launched his Girls Play Baseball website in 2005 to bring together information and resources related to baseball opportunities for women and girls.
“As there are only a few venues for girls and women to play baseball,” Nemerovski says, “bringing that information together in one place has proven inspiring for girls and women looking for opportunities; being recognized for their involvement and success; offering optimism and empowerment to parents supporting their daughters in their choice to play baseball.”
Though our culture sometimes views softball as a baseball alternative for women and girls, we should recognize it as a distinct sport with its own rules, techniques, quirks, and history.
While many girls have decided to play softball because they were under the impression that playing baseball was not an option, many others play because they love the game. And softball has developed into an exciting sport whose college tournament draws respectable ratings on the ESPN networks.
Still, as we watch the Women’s College World Series and (in a couple weeks) the men’s College World Series, we perpetuate this idea that softball is for girls and baseball is for boys.
We would do well to remember that this is not the case.
The truth is that baseball and softball are different games and that baseball is for baseball players and softball is for softball players.