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[Excerpt from: Baseball & Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter's Box, edited by Eric Bronson, Open Court Publishing, March, 2004.]

Women Playing Hardball


Leslie Heaphy


Does softball limit women’s potential to be equals on the baseball diamond?  To address this question we’ll look at contemporary feminist philosophy, and the history of women’s participation in our national pastime since the mid 19th century.  Though there have been quite a few women who have played the game, they have always struggled for acceptance, and struggled to get past the stereotype that baseball is for men and softball is for women.

            Given the physical differences, can women compete with men in sports?  Men are typically stronger and may be more physically fit than women, but in baseball that may not matter. Baseball requires timing, coordination, and knowledge of the game, control, competitiveness, and desire, assets that are not exclusively male.  In baseball the smart ball player or the one with more hustle often outplays the big slugger.  A 1982 study involving 87 men and 115 women, “Baseball and Softball:  Should Girls and Women have to Choose?”, concluded that “the impact of gender is rather small when one considers strength differences after allowing for body size and composition.”[1]  So, perhaps the more pertinent question is, will America accept women’s participation in a sport considered to be men’s domain?


Softball Stereotypes

In her article, “Woman is an Island,” philosopher Judith Williamson investigates how women are seen in mass culture.  Because baseball has been viewed historically as a male sport, women who play are considered too masculine and in danger of losing their femininity.  Newspaper stories and photographs suggest that the athletes are women first and ball players second, or they highlight their sexuality rather than their athleticism.[2]

            These images of female ball players are important for what they show and what they do not.  Williamson argues that women are often associated with home, love, and sex and not work, class, or politics.  Baseball, as a professional sport, is work.  Baseball is part of the public world and therefore not proper for women to play.  Women should be happy playing softball and other leisure activities designed for them.

The framework of feminist philosophy, confirms much of what Williamson argues.  Masculinity and femininity are culturally defined.  Masculinity has come to mean power, strength, and muscle; femininity tends to mean weakness, passivity, and grace.  In Western culture, women with “too much” muscle are often considered less feminine.[3] 

            It is ironic that softball is considered to be a sport for women, given that many of the early players were professional baseball players who wanted to stay in shape during the off-season.  Softball had a much later start than baseball, invented in 1887 by George Hancock a Chicago reporter.  It began as an indoor game and was not called softball until 1926 when the name was suggested by Walter Hakanson, a Denver YMCA official.  Before 1926, the game was most often called indoor baseball, or simply indoor-outdoor.  It did not become a popular sport for women until the 1930s when the Amateur Softball Association was created and tournaments and leagues began to spring up around the country.  Girls came to be, and still are, steered toward softball because of the bigger ball, the shorter dimensions of the field, and the perception that it is a game relying less on brute strength and more agility and thinking.

Baseball began as a men’s sport at a time in the 19th century when women were not encouraged to be physically active.  According to the experts of that time (doctors and ministers), women were physically inferior to men and so needed to be taken care of in the home.  Strenuous activity would be bad for women, particularly during child-bearing years.  This general view was held by much of American society throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though some women challenged it.  Many assumed that any woman playing baseball must be a lesbian; after all, she is playing a man’s sport.  This stereotyping is still rampant on the softball field, though in this sense, softball and baseball are no different from any other sport involving women.  Female soccer players in the United Kingdom, for example, defensively claim that they are tomboys, but not “butches” or lesbians.[4] 

            Baseball teams developed at women’s colleges, such as Vassar, shortly after the Civil War.  Women were allowed to play so long as they were not participating in mixed company, and not playing in view of others.  The women enjoyed the game, but the colleges worried about accidents and parents’ complaints.  In fact, games were nearly done away with at Vassar after one young lady broke a window at the school. Since some parents even thought baseball was corrupting their sons, explaining to parents that their young daughters were not being morally corrupted by the game was particularly difficult.

            In the late 1800s advertisements appeared in newspapers inviting young ladies to tryout for a ball club, but there were not many responses.  Owners and managers had to assure parents that their daughters would be taken care of and that no moral harm would come to them.  Even with those kinds of assurances, newspaper writers wondered about the morality of the young ladies who played for the early bloomer teams or worse yet, those who played with men’s ball clubs.  Descriptions of early women’s games focused more on who the young ladies were than on the actual action of the game, often covering what the uniforms looked like before giving the score.

            Even the names of many of the early women’s teams reflected the difficulty the players had getting people to take them seriously.  Today’s female players often have had a hand in choosing their team’s name.  Thus we have clubs such as the San Jose Spitfires and the Detroit Danger, as opposed to the earlier Dolly Vardens, New York Bloomer Girls, and Fort Wayne Daisies.  Those early names reinforced the belief that aggressive, competitive games are not for women.  Today’s names seem to overcompensate for the deficiencies of the past.

            At various times throughout the history of baseball, the women who did get the opportunity to play were seen as a curiosity, something to bring in the fans, not serious ball players.  After Major League Baseball had begun  integration in 1947, three women played in the Negro Leagues in the 1950’s with the Kansas City Monarchs and Indianapolis Clowns —Toni Stone, Connie Morgan, and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson. With integration, the Negro Leagues began to suffer in attendance, and perhaps that is why these women were signed, to bolster sagging attendance.  It is convenient to overlook the fact that the three ladies had played in their hometown areas before entering the Negro Leagues where they more than held their own.  Toni Stone even played in one Negro Leagues East-West Classic.

            Baseball is America’s national pastime, and consequently, it represents our public world, the world of men.  Historically women were expected to remain in the private world, the world of the home where they could take care of the family and raise children without being corrupted by the outside world.  The moral purity of women had been considered essential for the development of this country as a virtuous republic since its inception. Women were expected to raise their children and provide a safe haven for their husbands, a retreat from the corrupt and greedy public world.  Ball players like Toni Stone and Mamie Johnson broke the stereotype, and society did not quite know how to deal with them seriously.

            So why were they seen as novelties rather than as serious ballplayers?  And why are women still encouraged to play “soft”ball, rather than baseball?


Body Matters

The roots of softball and baseball discrimination are embedded in the story of Western philosophy.  In Ancient Greece, philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato argued that the body was a weak, temporary vessel for the immortal soul. During the Middle Ages, the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians of Europe argued that the human body was made of earthly stuff, while the soul was made in the image of God.  Still later, during Europe’s Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, philosophers such as Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant returned to the idea that the body must be set aside if one is to discover and participate in higher callings.  It is no surprise, then, that Western culture has tended to view the body with skepticism.  While later philosophers such as Nietzsche and Foucault reminded us that the body also matters, it is contemporary feminist philosophers who have done the most important work in “rehabilitating” our view of the body.

            Feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) argue that the body, woman’s body in particular, has been routinely left out of philosophical discussion.  As philosophical ideas filter down through mainstream culture, this notable absence of the opposite sex--the invisible, silent “other,”--is tolerated, if not outright encouraged.  Today, a new wave of feminist philosophers questions whether the “body” has any inherent meaning at all.  Obviously, a man’s body is different from a woman’s body, but the differences depend on who observes them. “The human body is always a signified body,” philosopher Moira Gatens observes.[5]   Understanding the differences between men and women “does not have to do with biological ‘facts’ so much as with the manner in which culture marks bodies and creates specific conditions in which they live and recreate themselves.”[6]  Or, as Denise Riley succinctly explains, “The body becomes visible as a female body, only under some particular gaze.”[7] Clearly, the way the female body is viewed from without and experienced from within contributes to the obstacles women have faced in playing baseball.


Throwing Like a Girl

Philosopher Iris Marion Young argues that the way men and women understand their bodies and the space around them may affect the way some approach a game like baseball.  Recent feminists have argued that the issue is not what the body is, but how it is understood.  For example, women and men often throw a baseball differently.  Hence the derogatory phrase, “throwing like a girl.”  Why do the sexes often throw so differently?  Citing earlier studies, Young rules out common beliefs that breast size, shoulder width, or muscle size is any impediment to throwing a baseball.  Instead, Young argues that many women “throw like a girl” because they are not as free as men in their body movements and do not put their whole body into an action.  Young writes:


Not only is there a typical style of throwing like a girl, but there is a more or less typical style or running like a girl, climbing like a girl, swinging like a girl, hitting like a girl. They have in common first that the whole body is not put into fluid and directed motion, but rather, in swinging and hitting, for example, the motion is concentrated into one body part. . . [8]



 This lack of fluidity may have a variety of different causes, including lack of confidence, fear of injury, or self-consciousness.  Many women perceive their bodies to be a burden, and act accordingly.  Instead of believing fully that they can accomplish a physical task such as throwing a baseball correctly, some women believe they are at a disadvantage, and set up a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. Too often others simply reinforce this negative belief.

            Women who think they will not be good at baseball have to work harder.  Women who already view physical activities as something they cannot do, become more self-conscious and shy away from any activity that draws attention to their lack of physical coordination.  When a woman is unsure of what her body can do, she cannot properly control its movements and actions.  Her body becomes the focus of attention, distracting her from the sport itself.[9]  Women often limit their participation not because of true physical differences, but because society has not encouraged them to be comfortable in their own skin.


Throwing Like an Athlete

Philip Wrigley proposed the idea for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) during the Second World War because he was worried about baseball being cancelled. As a temporary way to fill the void, he suggested a women’s baseball league that started out with softball rules and gradually developed into baseball.  The league was to be temporary and there was no question that these would be women who played baseball—women first and ballplayers second.  This understanding was reflected in the team names and uniforms.  The ladies played in short skirts, even though this was completely impractical for sliding into bases and resulted in many unnecessary injuries.  Image won out over practicality.  In addition, each team had a chaperone who was responsible for keeping the girls’ behavior in line—no drinking, no overnight guests, no breaking curfew, etc.  The league even hosted a charm school to teach the girls how to dress, apply their make-up, walk like ladies, and deal with the press.  Such reassurances helped many reluctant parents finally give in to daughters hoping to play in the league.

            Propriety was especially important.  In 1943, the Rockford Peaches had a souvenir booklet explaining that players stayed in only the best hotels on the road and in private residences at home.  The same brochure claimed the girls paid regular visits to beauty salons.  There could be no question about their femininity.  No tomboys in this league.  Clearly, the most important issue for the success of the league was image.  There was to be no doubt in anyone’s mind; baseball would not turn these nice girls into masculine “Amazons.”  They would learn proper etiquette and behave like ladies, or else be punished accordingly.  Newspapers helped reinforce the proper image of these young ladies with headlines such as “World’s Prettiest Ballplayers,” or “Belles of the Ball Game” and articles highlighting the girls’ charitable and patriotic work during the war.  When a young lady left a team to get married, she always made the headlines.

            Girls playing baseball made headlines in the 1970s when the issue became a heated one for little league teams across the country.  Actually this was not a new issue, since Margaret Gisolo had played American Legion Junior Baseball in 1928.  The following year the American Legion banned women from playing, and girls were increasingly discouraged from playing any form of organized baseball. Many gave up fighting to play; it became too difficult to fight the players, coaches, and fans just to get a chance to swing the bat.  When Jackie Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in a game, it quickly became just a publicity stunt and not a serious effort on the part of these professional athletes who were bested by a female pitcher. In 2001 Justine Warren, President of the Women’s Baseball League (WBL), explained that she learned her pitching was an attack on the masculinity of the batter she faced.  It called into question the accepted roles of men and women in society.[10] 

            The Colorado Silver Bullets enjoyed a bit of history as a traveling female baseball team in the 1990s, sponsored by Coors Brewing Company and coached by men.  There were no chaperones, though, and the Silver Bullets wore proper baseball uniforms.  Does this mean the image of women as ballplayers had finally become accepted?  Were all the issues and questions of the past behind us?  Of course not.  Newspaper articles still focused too often on the players’ lives rather than their athletic performance.  The Silver Bullets folded after four seasons because they could not generate enough money for the club’s sponsor.  While the uniforms changed, the problematic perceptions remained.  People did not see the women as serious baseball players even though they played primarily men’s teams and won their fair share of the games.  When the women won, their success was minimized as that of a professional team playing amateur and semi-pro men’s clubs, taking away from their success and talent.  Why?  And, what values are reinforced each time we portray a woman ballplayer as a bully, a curiosity, or an oddity?

            Today there are a number of women’s teams and leagues across the country, and overseas.  In 2001 a women’s World Series was played at the Skydome in Toronto.  The USA sent a national team of twenty-five female players who earned their spots based on their athletic ability, not their looks or charm.  How many people are aware of today’s women’s teams?  How much news coverage do they get?  What kind of coverage do they get?  Typically, a 2001 article from the St. Petersburg Times covering Christine Dennis and her experience playing in Toronto focused on why Dennis played baseball when it would be easier to find support to play softball.  Dennis spoke for many women who play baseball: she plays because it is more of a challenge; it is more fun to push herself.[11] 

Wanting to play baseball, women have often found that men’s teams were their only option.  They were often an unwelcome addition to the team, sometimes accused of taking a boy’s spot or simply trying to push an agenda.  Before women’s baseball can become a respected professional sport, “there are prejudices to overcome, opinions to change, perceptions to shatter and rumors to put to rest.”[12]  Veronica Geyer, who plays for the New Jersey Nemesis, says there is a long way to go but sees no reason why women’s baseball cannot stand alongside softball.  Aptly, the team name, Nemesis, recalls the Greek goddess of justice.


The Courageous Ila Borders

After seeing her first major league game, Ila Borders decided that she wanted to play baseball.  She made the junior high school and varsity teams at Whittier Christian as a pitcher and with the success she enjoyed at the high school level got a chance to pitch before college scouts. Ila was signed by Southern California College in 1994 and in her first game against Claremont made history, becoming the first female player to pitch a complete game on a men’s college team.  Encountering much resistance at SCC, Borders was forced to transfer to Whittier College for her senior year. 

            With a 4-5 record at Whittier, Borders got a chance to tryout for the minor league St. Paul Saints in 1996 and made the team.  Within a month the team traded her to the Duluth Dukes where she pitched in relief for the next two seasons. Though most of her appearances came when the outcome of the game was no longer in doubt, Borders made history again on July 9, 1998 when she became the first female starting pitcher in a regular season minor league game.  The Dukes lost 8-3 but through four innings Borders was in command of a 2-1 lead.  Borders followed that first start with another history making appearance, winning her first game on July 24.  Against the Canaries of Sioux Falls, Borders pitched six strong innings and came away with a 3-1 victory.

In 1999 Borders was traded to the Madison Black Wolf where she got a chance to start and pitch the first three innings of all her games.  Leading the team in ERA, she helped the Black Wolf turn around their season, finishing just one win away from the playoffs.  Even though Borders enjoyed some success on the field with her male teammates, she never gained full acceptance. She remained an oddity.

Borders never set out to prove anything about women’s abilities to play baseball with men.  She just loved the game and wanted the chance to play.


Softball: The Good is the Enemy of the Best

A persistent thorn in the side of women trying to play baseball is softball, which provides a seemingly viable alternative, making it seem unnecessary for women to play baseball.  This alternative is unlike basketball or volleyball--sports where men and women play the same game.[13]  When a woman wants to play baseball, she is asked why. Why not?  Baseball and softball are different games.  Unfortunately, individuals and companies do not want to risk their money sponsoring a team or league that has controversial issues to work through when there are plenty of other sports teams, both male and female, succeeding.

            The softball alternative thereby became a convenient means for American society to postpone answering some hard questions about perceived gender differences.  Women playing baseball instead of softball are seen as anomalies even though from the beginning of the game women have played hard ball.  They started their own teams and leagues when men did not welcome them and society questioned their presence on the diamond.  In the 19th century, the concern over the moral degradation of women playing this public sport led many parents to discourage or prohibit their daughters’ participation.  In the next century, their playing was accepted simply as a temporary measure geared toward entertainment, not talent.  Today, the issues are no less challenging. While we can not blame softball for its very existence, we should note that the good is often the enemy of the best. It is good for women to play softball.  But if playing softball perpetuates the prejudice that women cannot or should not play baseball, then softball is indeed the enemy of the best.

[1] “Baseball and Softball:  Should Girls and Women have to Choose?”

[2] Judith Williamson, “Woman is an Island: Femininity and Colonization,” in Theorizing Feminism by Anne Herrmann and Abigail Stewart, (Westview Press, 1994), p. 385.

[3] Susan L. Greendorfer, “Title IX, Gender Equity, Backlash and Ideology,” Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal, 7, 1998, pp. 77-78.

[4] Jayne Caudwell, “Football in the UK: Women, Tomboys, Butches, and Lesbians,” in Sport, Leisure Identities, and Gendered Spaces, Sheila Scraton and Beccy Watson, eds. (Leisure Studies Association, 2000), pp. 95-110.

[5] “Power, Bodies and Difference,” in Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader, Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick, eds. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), p. 230.

[6] Ibid., pp. 230-31.

[7] “Bodies, Identities, Feminisms,” in Ibid., p. 224.

[8] Iris Marion Young, “A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility, and Spatiality,” in Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 146.

[9] For a good discussion of the perils of thinking, see Gregory Bassham’s chapter in this volume.

[10] Justine Warren, “Baseball to Me,” June 17, 2001,

[11]Greg Auman, “Dennis Goes to Bat for Women’s Baseball,” St. Petersburg Times, July 3, 2001.

[12] Michael Gasparino, “Playing Hardball,”

[13] While women’s basketball uses a smaller ball, the size of the court and the height of the basket are not different from the men’s game.

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