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

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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.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Nationals 15, Brewers 2: What a bloodbath. As we noted yesterday, the Nats hit a lot of homers here. Five in the third inning alone, eight in all. Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman each hit two of them, with the former going 3-for-5 with four driven in and the latter going 2-for-5 with three RBI. Max Scherzer didn’t need all that run support — he allowed one run over six innings, striking out nine — but he’ll take it.

Indians 2, Angels 1: A lower scoring affair. Trevor Bauer pitched his best game of the season, allowing one run over eight, scattering seven hits and striking out six. Carlos Santana homered for the first Indians run, Francisco Lindor singled in the second. That’s seven straight wins for Cleveland. They’ve needed every one of them as second place Kansas City has won eight in a row.

Blue Jays 8, Athletics 4: We talked about the ump show in this one yesterday. Later it was the Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce show, with Morales hitting a solo homer in the ninth to tie it and Pearce hitting a grand slam in the tenth inning to give Toronto their second walkoff win in as many days. It was the first Blue Jays walkoff grand slam in nine years — Greg Zaun did it then — but the second walkoff grand slam in baseball this week, as Edwin Encarnacion did it on Tuesday.

Yankees 6, Rays 5: Brett Gardner was the catalyst and hero late in this one. He hit a triple in the ninth and then scored on a weird play in which the Rays infielders — Adeiny Hechavarria and Tim Beckham — let a grounder go through because they were shifted and didn’t know whose responsibility it was. Then in the 11th Gardner hit a walkoff homer for the win. The celebration was so intense Aaron Judge broke a tooth. Biggest hit he’s had in a while. That’s four wins in a row for the Yankees who are a half game behind Boston.

Marlins 4, Reds 1:  Chris O’Grady pitched seven scoreless innings for Miami as third baseman Derek Dietrich did most of the damage on offense. He homered, walked in a run and singled in a run. The Marlins have won five of seven, the Reds have lost seven of eight. This happened before the game:

I could find no followup suggesting that it was a real problem. I assume, however, that this will happen soon:

Cubs 6, White Sox 3: Kyle Schwarber has stunk up the joint all year, but maybe he’s coming around. Here he homered twice and drove in four runs as he Cubs won their third in a row and are now 11-2 since the All-Star break. Anthony Rizzo went deep too and Jon Lester allowed two runs and four hits in seven innings.

Diamondbacks 4, Cardinals 0Zack Godley — 65% of all pitchers in baseball are now named Zack, by the way — tossed seven shutout innings striking out seven and the relievers took it the rest of the way. J.D. Martinez continues to swing a hot bat since his acquisition by the Dbacks, hitting a fourth inning grand slam for all of the game’s scoring. He’s only 5-for-20 since the deal, but four of those five hits have been homers and he’s driven in 11 in his six games in the NL.

Padres 7, Mets 5Manuel Margot hit a homer, double and a single, driving in three and Dusty Coleman hit a three-run homer. There are not a lot of Manuel Margots in baseball, but about 65% of Impressionist painters had that name. About 47% of cowboys were named Dusty Coleman.

Francisco Rodriguez is being sued by his former landlord

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John Wisely of the Detroit Free Press reports that current free agent reliever Francisco Rodriguez is being sued by his former landlord for damage to the rented property as well as missing artwork. The landlord is asking for $80,000 after having kept Rodriguez’s $15,000 security deposit.

The lawsuit says that Rodriguez damaged a bedroom TV, a crystal floor lamp, glass shelves in the bar, glass tiles in the master bath, and a Moroccan mirror in the powder room. Additionally, the suit claims that the bedding is stained and paint has chipped, as well as other damages. And the piece of art that is allegedly missing, which depicts a tiger, is valued at more than $10,000.

Rodriguez has not yet been served with the suit, but the landlord has been speaking to his managers.

The Nationals released Rodriguez, 35, two weeks ago after having signed him to a minor league contract in late June. He started the season with the Tigers, but struggled to a 7.82 ERA over 25 1/3 innings before being released.