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: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Red Sox 5, Mariners 0: Chris Sale dominated Seattle with seven shutout innings, allowing only four hits and striking out 13 damn dudes. I’m so old that I still remember people saying he was too lanky and slight to hold up in the big leagues. Hell, I probably even said it once or twice. I’m not necessarily a fan of his really, but his continued dominance in the big leagues makes me happy if, for no other reason, than it reminds us that none of us know anything and that cool stuff happens all the time.

Indians 12, Tigers 2: I was watching the England-Panama World Cup match yesterday morning and, once it got to 5-0, I asked people on Twitter who know more about soccer than I do (i.e. everyone) to characterize the level of blowout that was in baseball terms to help me understand what I was seeing. Most people described it as the sort of score that, while occurring with at least some regularity in league or international play, was not necessarily newsworthy. A good shellacking to be sure, the sort of which you do not see every day, but one which is not historic or anything. The point was, that while you may see an occasional comeback from, say, 3-0, you NEVER see it from 5-0 (or later 6-0). Which was to say, in baseball terms, it was like the Tigers getting beat 12-2 by Cleveland.  I didn’t watch this game, so I have no opinion if anyone’s heroics here — say, Edwin Encarnacion‘s five RBI or the homers from Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez — were as cheap as Harry Kane’s hat trick (two PKs and an accidental deflection), but like Kane’s hat trick, the numbers still count.

Reds 8, Cubs 6: The Reds sweep the Chicago Cubs and have won seven in a row overall. The Cincinnati Reds. That team with Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez and a bunch of guys you don’t think about all that often. This after they were down 5-0 early and 6-1 as late as the seventh inning. Jesse Winker — who on Friday I described as someone who “while not necessarily one of baseball’s future stars” — came off the bench to hit a rally-stoking three-run homer. Pitcher Mike Lorenzen, actually started the rally with a homer. This a week or so after my last time making a comment about how pitchers hitting is dumb and the DH should be universal. The Reds are surging too late to truly get back into the playoff picture, I suspect, but there are worse ways to spend the rest of the season than simply making everyone who thinks they know anything about baseball look silly.

Dodgers 8, Mets 7: The Dodgers hit seven — seven! — solo home runs. Kiké Hernandez and Cody Bellinger each hit two and Max Muncy, Joc Pederson and Justin Turner each smacked one. They needed all of them too, with Turner’s coming in the 11th inning to win the game. The Mets had a couple bombs themselves, with Kevin Plawecki hitting a three-run shot in the eighth to tie things up and force extras. The seven solo homers ties the record for the most in a big league game. The Dodgers win was their 12th straight victory over the Mets. L.A. has gone 25-9 since falling 10 games under .500 on May 16.

Rays 7, Yankees 6: Jake Bauers hit a walkoff homer in the bottom of the 12th to give the Rays a three-game sweep of the Yankees. In the ninth inning Clint Frazier of the Yankees hit a bomb that would’ve been a homer anyplace, but which hit a speaker hanging from a Tropicana Field catwalk which was caught on the ricochet for an out. That does sort of suck, but given how many homers that have flown out to the sort right field porch in Yankee Stadium would’ve been outs in other places, I think the amount of complaining Yankees fans can do about that one is somewhat limited. Everyone has a home park.

Braves 7, Orioles 3: The Braves win to avoid a four-game sweep at home at the hands of baseball’s worst team. Freddie Freeman hit a two-run single in the first, Dansby Swanson hit a pinch-hit, two-run homer late in the game and the Braves’ bullpen tossed four innings of one-hit ball against an O’s lineup that looked like it was happy to get out of town and back to their own beds in Baltimore having taken three of four.

Diamondbacks 3, Pirates 0: Clay Buchholz tossed five shutout innings but left with an injury. No worries, though, as the bullpen finished the job. David Peralta and John Ryan Murphy hit homers in the first and second innings, respectively, and there was nothing doing for anyone else for the rest of the game.

White Sox 10, Athletics 3: Yoan Moncada hit a three-run double and a three-run homer on his six-RBI day. Daniel Palka and Yolmer Sanchez also homered as the Sox broke a stretch in which they lost nine of ten. Or maybe they merely interrupted a stretch in which they lose eight of 11? I dunno, baseball has infinite end points and you can tell all kinds of stories about teams and players if you manipulate said end points.

Cardinals 8, Brewers 2Jose Martinez hit a three-run homer in the Cardinals’ five-run fourth, Harrison Bader reached four times and Luke Weaver was solid. The Cards salvage a split.

Twins 2, Rangers 0: Jose Berrios allowed only three hits in seven shutout innings, striking out 12 to help the Twins avoid a three-game sweep and to snap the Rangers’ seven-game winning streak.

Astros 11, Royals 3: Houston put up an eight-spot in the second inning with Yuli Gurriel hitting a grand slam. Jose Altuve drove in two runs and scored twice and Evan Gattis hit a pinch-hit homer. The Astros have won 15 of 17 and extend their AL West lead to 4.5 games.

Marlins 8, Rockies 5Derek Dietrich homered for this third straight game and also doubled and hit two singles. The Marlins starter, Caleb Smith, left with shoulder tightness early but the pen handled it form the second inning on, limiting the damage while Dietrich inflicted his. He’s hitting .410 in the month of June.

Giants 3, Padres 2: Hunter Pence hit a two-run double in the 11th to give the Giants the walkoff win. This after Cory Spangenberg had San Diego ahead in the top of the 11th with an RBI single. In other news, how many of you remembered that Hunter Pence was still playing?

Blue Jays 7, Angels 6: Another extra inning game, this one won by Kendrys Morales‘ homer in the top of the tenth. Curtis GrandersonAledmys Diaz and Devon Travis also homered for Toronto, who won on Saturday and Sunday to preserve a 2-2 split of the series.

Nationals 8, Phillies 6: Daniel Murphy hit a two-run single in the eighth — his third single of the night — which brought the Nats back from behind and put them ahead to stay. This after the Nats had flashed a message on the scoreboard — while they were behind — reminding fans that the last Metro train left the station in a few minutes. Nothing like the home town scoreboard encouraging fans to leave early. Anyway, Anthony Rendon homered and doubled, Bryce Harper hit three doubles. Michael A. Taylor had three singles himself as the Nats rattled off 17 safeties.